Dear Thulisiwe Mseleku,
You have recently been gifted with the extraordinary privilege, and weighty responsibility, of taking over as manager of the Tatham Art Gallery, one of the most respected art galleries in this country. A jewel of excellence at the heart of our city.
Housed initially in the city hall, a collection of artworks assembled by Ada Tatham from 1903 onwards, in 1990 it was moved across the road to the old Supreme Court heritage building, constructed in 1875, and brilliantly altered by local architect Gordon Small.
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A priceless collection of world art — perhaps the best in South Africa —French Impressionists, Victorian Art, South African art of those of such calibre as Walter Battiss, J.H.Pierneef, Irma Stern, Maggie Laubser, Diamond Bozas, Andrew Verster, Aiden Walsh, Gerard Bhengu, Kobie Venter, John Muafangejo, Azaria Mbatha, Kudzanai Chiurai, Vulindlela Nyoni, the Magwaza family. The museum also houses much excellent sculpture and ceramic work.
This position requires huge shoes to fill the footsteps of previous directors such as Lorraine Raab, Valerie Leigh, Lorna Ferguson, and since 1992, Brendan Bell, who retired in 2018.
At Brendan’s funeral in July his staff paid tribute to his legacy: “His emphasis on professional museum practice and developing the gallery’s collection of art works to reflect the society around us has placed the gallery as one of the best in the country.”
Brendan’s intention was to create conversations between art works across cultures, geographic origin and time — constantly updating in order to navigate the choppy waters of a democratic society.
Fellow artist Ian Calder said: “Brendan brought his extraordinary aesthetic insight and visionary belief about conserving and showing the works of contemporary Pietermaritzburg and KZN artists and crafts persons for the enjoyment, creative inspiration and cultural education of our local communities.”
It was Brendan, most ably assisted by senior museum officer Bryony Clark, who for almost 30 years, greatly expanded the outreach of the gallery, mounting regular new exhibitions and openings — joyful, celebratory affairs, drawing crowds of enthusiastic attendees to participate in sharing food, wine and discussion around the art display.
Other very popular events were frequent Music Revival concerts arranged by Christopher Duigan, often featuring world-renowned musicians to enrich our Pietermaritzburg cultural experience; the weekly Film Club organised by Anton van der Hoven and Jill Arnott introducing internationally-acclaimed films.
Other valuable activities include Artists’ Forum where artists confer to offer advice and constructive criticism about the work of their colleagues; art classes for young adults, and workshops in conjunction with the Centre for Visual Art at UKZN.
And many illustrated talks in the comfortable lecture theatre have introduced audiences to a variety of topics related to appreciating the rich variety of the PMB community — social, cultural and religious.
“Annually, the Matric-class artworks are showcased, encouraging remarkable young talent to express their excitement, and trepidation, about the world into which they are entering, supported by numerous dedicated teachers.”
Such activities contribute to a sense of community; a safe place providing the space to experiment, and learn from the experience of others, and become acquainted with the heritage of our area.
Renowned local artists and teachers such as Juliet Armstrong, Jinny Heath, Ian Calder, Louise Hall, Heather Gourley-Conynham, Sue and Henry Davies, Terence King, Clive Sithole, Siyabonga Sikosana, Hussein Salim, Juliette Leeb-du Toit, Thami Jali, Beauty Sekete, Tsholofelo Moche, Jaap and Shan Jacobs, Mary-Ann Hartley; have willingly offered their support.
Annually, the Matric-class artworks are showcased, encouraging remarkable young talent to express their excitement, and trepidation, about the world into which they are entering, supported by numerous dedicated teachers.
My association with the Tatham stems mainly through many years of being a member of Friends of Tatham Gallery (Fotag) — a group of volunteers and friends who support the gallery mainly through fund-raising events.
And my being involved with one of the highlights in recent times — the annual year-end Fabulous Picture Show — where local artists donate works, and crowds of eager bidders jostle to outbid one another; the money flowing into the coffers helping with new purchases for the gallery.
The Craft Shop, renowned nationwide, has encouraged gifted local crafters to offer high-quality work for sale to an enthusiastic public. And Café Tatham provides yet another space for casual conversation and interaction while enjoying coffee and cake.
Today, the value of art museums world-wide is regarded as more relevant than ever — recognised as far more than merely a building displaying a collection of paintings and sculpture; but having power to transform how we value and re-shape our lives and societies.
Art, especially visual images, has the ability to spotlight society’s weaknesses and viciousness, frequently shocking us out of our complacency in a manner that verbal portrayals of suffering fellow humans are unable to do.
Art can stimulate uncomfortable, provocative social comment and dialogue about injustice and censorship, attempting to smother creativity.
Art also records the story of humankind, endlessly life-enhancing, bearing witness to the eternally restless, creative human spirit searching for beauty, meaning and identity.
The National Art Gallery, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Louvre, Paris; the Archeological Museum of Athens; Cairo’s new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) opening in November of 2022 — all performing the invaluable function of preserving, displaying and educating us about our potential for lifting the spirit above the material and mundane; celebrating the vitality, energy, creativity, the foundation of all the world’s great civilisations.
The recent Tatham exhibition “Insurrection-Resurrection” remembering the rampage of theft and destruction of July 2021, painfully records how in a very short period — in this case five days — the beauty and architecture of years can be destroyed. The flames licking perilously close to this exquisite building and its priceless, irreplaceable treasures.
Reminders of the fragility of our treasured heritage, and our responsibility to preserve all that enriches our existence.
You have inherited the complex, controversial past of this city and country, epitomised in the huge companion portraits of Queen Victoria and King Cetshwayo staring down at you as you ascend and descend the main staircase daily — displayed together to suggest our ability to co-exist into the future.
So, I wish you all the very best as you stand poised in the footsteps of those inspirational role models who have gone before you, supported by your staff who have learnt from them, on the threshold of your own great journey of discovery — jealously guarding and developing this inheritance belonging to all citizens of this city.