Dust-filled shelves of forgotten memories. The paperwork of people and places half-remembered in the recesses of a long-lived experience. The allure of the archive beckons. It draws you in; through the rustling of paper and hushed tones. Three postgraduate students from the University of the Witwatersrand heard and answered the call. Exhibitionary Feels: Re-membering the FUBA Archive is the culmination of a durational engagement by curators Christa Dee, Matshelane Xhakaza and Rabia Abba Omar as part of the ‘Curating Exhibitions’ course. The online exhibition is a partial translation and digital exploration of affect and the archive. Despite the absence of a conventional exhibition opening, Abba Omar says that, “when we pressed ‘publish’ and it went live it felt like we were releasing this project into the unknown”.
The Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA) operated as a multidisciplinary Art Centre, Academy, Collection, Gallery, and subsequent Archive. As an important part of South African history, these young curators explored the physical archive housed at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Christa Dee reflects on an initial sense of overwhelm in the archive because of the vast amount of information it contains. “I’d always thought of archives as static and old as well as inaccessible…[but] the more that we started connecting people and institutions together the more the archive started to come alive”. However, this process was cut short by the disruption of the global pandemic, COVID-19. Access to the physical files was halted by the national lockdown and the project was re-imagined in digital space. Dee describes how this transition allowed them to approach the archive from a more fluid position – thinking through the notion of living memory as well as contemplating what is archive-able and who can contribute to its contents.
In an attempt to democratise this process, ‘Become an Archiver’ offers the audience an opportunity to contribute and respond to the archive. In order to make sense of the intricate connections between artists and institutions during FUBA’s lifetime, the curators engaged a process of relational mapping. Rabia Abba Omar describes how there are many more artists who need to be included through an extension of their research. However, this also points to an imbalance of information within the archive. Some files are densely populated with documents while others are fairly scant. Dee reflects that, “it’s interesting to think about how much information was available at the time but it also opened up the opportunity for us to think about how to kind of use the awareness of those gaps in our curatorial project and invite other people to engage with our project and respond to this”. For Matshelane Xhakaza the archive is an important mode of storytelling and source of information, particularly in the context of South Africa. Where historical erasure is rife—remembering is crucial.
An exploration of exhibitionary affect has been central to the project. “I [initially] thought of curating as a conceptual thing that you bring to life, but the injection of feeling is really important” remarks Dee. An interesting feature of the show exists through the use of sonic elements. Interviews and casual conversations between the curators pepper the site to elicit a multi-sensory experience. The exhibition strikes a careful balance between theoretically rooted inquiry and interactive enjoyment. The ‘Make & Play’ section is devoted to a refreshing sense of fun. Dee notes that, “Our focus on participatory practice in the show has also been interested in pushing ideas around how co-authorship or co-development of knowledge or even the show itself has been quite interesting and helped me expand my thinking around what it means to be a curator”. As part of the public programming the curators hosted a live drawing party to engage with an online audience. During which, participants were posed with prompts and provocations to visually respond to. This proved for an entertaining engagement, however, it also opened the floor for more serious dialogue around what the archives of the future ought to look like. Seeing people’s recognition of the value of FUBA and reaction to Exhibitionary Feels as an interpretation of the archive has been particularly gratifying for the curators. The process has been one marked by collaboration, a strategy and approach that these three practitioners hope to continue.