When Covid struck in 2020, and again in 2021, the international conference I had planned to host to celebrate three years of Biography-project research had to be canceled. Instead of ‘moving online’, I decided to do something entirely different: to host an art exhibition.
The plan was simple enough: let’s pair fourteen scholars (ranging from Master’s students to professors) with leading South African artists. Ask each artist to interpret the research in a creative way. And then organise an exhibition.
How difficult could it be?
The surprising thing is that it worked. The unsurprising thing is, I now realise, is that it requires much more effort than I could have imagined. I was fortunate to make a few smart moves along the way. The first, and probably most important, was to get the creative and resolute Clara Babette on board as curator. I had originally thought I would just curate it myself. What a silly thought! Without Clara, this idea was born dead. I was also fortunate enough to get substantial financial support from Naspers. A big thank you to Rachel Jafta for making this happen. The exhibition was initially part of the Social Impact Expo of the Department of Economics in October 2021. Without that support, allowing us to pay a (small) stipend to each artist, this would not have been possible.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the entire exercise was pairing students to artists. The research – part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded Biography of an Uncharted People project at Stellenbosch University – covered topics ranging from school feeding programmes, runaway slaves, domestic workers, race reclassification, Spanish flu deaths, and much more. We hand-picked the artists whose previous work we thought would match the research. Marlene Steyn, for example, was selected to work on bridal pregnancy. Lady Skollie produced work on Khoe wealth. Nelson Makamo on voter disenfranchisement. The artists were asked to meet with the students, read their work, and interpret it into a visual artwork. The artworks include paintings, digital prints, lithographs, a quilt and a sculpture. It is on display from 11 February to 27 March at GUS (Gallery Stellenbosch University). It’s free and, if I have to say so myself, certainly worth the visit.
Too little attention, I believe, is given to research dissemination. Academics are incentivised to publish their research, not to make it accessible. (The research itself is often behind a paywall.) The Biography project – dedicated to the histories of ordinary people – needed to do more. An art exhibition is one way to do that.
It has the added benefit that it challenges both the researchers and the artists. Several questions from the artists forced the researchers to rethink what they did and how they did it. The artists also exposed areas for further work – or highlighted facts that initially seemed unimportant.
I hope to see more of these collaborations in future. There is no reason why researchers and artists could not collaborate more to disseminate their work. Imagine if Stellenbosch University (or any university for that matter) would host an annual art exhibit, showcasing the best research of the university in creative ways. Not only would that attract a much wider audience, but it would force researchers – who are often happy in their silos – to report their research findings – to tell their stories – in new and interesting ways.