Colour in the Lines - an Honours in Curatorship exhibition
10 Jun 2019 - 11:15
As part of the core Honours in Curatorship course, Working with Museum Collections, each of the twelve members of the class had to choose an object from one of the University of Cape Town’s collections (be it the archaeology collection, the Bolus Herbarium, the Pathology Learning Centre or the oology collection, to name but a few). After choosing their object they researched them as far as possible, putting them under intense scrutiny, and producing an object study. These studies can be found on our Object Ecologies website. From there they had to choose a secondary object from their everyday lives to pair with their original object and, as a class, find a way of curating these twenty-four, very different, objects into one curated project. The exhibition, and accompanying catalogue, titled “Colour in the lines” is what they came up with.
Colour in the Lines brings together objects collected from a wide range of epistemic fields; from the natural, medical and cultural, to the personal, political and educational. The curatorial locus is formed around a diversity of themes centred on the institutional apparatus as used in social discipline and control. These themes are problematized in the Foucauldian response to the ideas of Discipline and Punish:
“Discipline worked by coercing and arranging the individual’s movements and his experience of space and time. This is achieved by devices such as timetables and military drills, and the process of exercise. Through discipline, individuals are created out of a mass … observation and gaze are key instruments of power,” (Foucault in Sheridan et al, 1975: 1).
The individual in contemporary society must constantly negotiate issues of coercion and arrangement. The learning institution, in particular, seeks to enforce its gaze and observation of the perceived discourse in universal normativity. Here the minds of the taught are under the authority of educators who pursue a concerted effort at moulding a ‘model student’. By extension, the doctor, the lawyer, the social worker and the parent, are all actors in this performance of a repertory of activities designed to set the standard for the learning of morals, ethics, traits and skills deemed to be acceptable in society. Foucault again asserts that,
“ ...norms are concepts that are constantly used to evaluate and control us: they exclude those who cannot conform to ‘normal’ categories. As such, they are an unavoidable but somehow harmful feature of modern society,” (Foucault in Sheridan et al, 1975: 3).
The preoccupation of this exhibition rests on exposing and exploring the many hidden connotations which speak to the state of childhood and lived experiences in the context of the urban social strata. These stories are told through objects.
The purity of the milk is a vivid reminder of the promise and hope that often surrounds the birth of a new life, while at the same time it’s symbolic of the influence of motherhood in the shaping of childhoods. The gloves, again, represent another trope for the handling and regulation of education.
An object which could be a symbol for the lighter side of childhood is the watercolour set. This object, with its array of colours, imitates the creative possibilities that abound in childhood. But even this, creative and childlike allowance, is subject to the social construct of the times. The brain will develop into the institutionally desired standard, and if these standards are the object of political bureaucracy and its sinister projects, then all the good possibilities of childhood are distorted to suit the institution. The phytobezoar, the heart, the playdough, and the oologist’s journal all hint at an overarching theme of anxiety and the state of mental well-being. These objects raise deeper questions about the extent of trauma resulting from forms of political and social unrest.
There are suggestions of femininity, religion and the intimate. The jabot and the Hijab are imbued with personal and cultural symbolism, yet even these are, somehow, navigated through the frameworks of larger institutions such as organised religion. Undertones of violence are another current in the exhibition, seen through the tear-gas and the bullet pouch. Both these objects may be viewed as relics from a past of systemic violence aimed at the control of the majority population by a minority government.
These narratives and other arising subjects inform the curatorial aspirations pursued in the gathering of the objects into one space. The aesthetic becomes one assembled from a network of complexities that would have otherwise been antagonistic to each other in grappling with questions of what shapes the contemporary child.
In the end, it may be appropriate to recall the apt assertion by Jess Lair, “Children are not things to be moulded, but are people to be unfolded” (Nicol, 2007: 1).