The University of Pretoria’s art archives – a remarkable assemblage of South African art heritage

Posted on July 29, 2022

The UP Archives is the proud custodian of the University of Pretoria’s Art Archives – a remarkable assemblage of South African art heritage. Dating back to the 1930s, the Art Archives is a collection of records related to South African art and artists. During this era, the University began to regularly host exhibitions by South African artists and arts students of the University were tasked to gather information and documents related to these visiting artists.

Rare photograph of the Kumalo sculpture “Girl with dove”

This practice of collecting information from artists who exhibited in the University’s Macfadyen Hall continued in the following decades and was expanded in the 1950s under the direction of Professor HM van der Westhuysen, when third year art history students were given a project to compile a record of a South African artist’s career and work.

First-year art history students were also required to document artworks in their own home towns and, in this way, by 1969 the collection had grown to six filing cabinets full of documents, clippings, records, photographs and letters.

Photograph of sculptor Sydney Kumalo from a catalogue in the collection

In 1971 the Art Archives was officially established, a lasting legacy to Prof FGE Nilant who was then Head of the Department of Art History and Fine Art. As part of its official establishment, a dedicated archivist was appointed to oversee the purposeful expansion of the collection. It was systematically arranged and expanded over the remaining decades of the twentieth century, making it the largest such archival collection related to South African art.

According to Prof Karen Harris, Director of the UP Archives, “The Art Archives collection is a unique collection which showcases and preserves South Africa’s art heritage. It is a wonderful research resource covering many aspects of the South African art world in the twentieth century in particular.”

The collection comprises thousands of photographs of artworks, catalogues, invitations, clippings and articles for approximately 6 000 artists and sculptors. A number of prominent artists, among others Erich Mayer, Coert Steynberg and Bettie Cilliers-Barnard, also donated their private papers and records to the collection.

Original drawing by artist Irma Stern in a letter to fellow artist Enslin du Plessis

The Art Archives also includes series of files related to public and private collections, galleries and museums and South African art historians, as well as a substantial collection of records originating from the South African Association of Arts. The collection has been used over the years in the publishing of catalogues and research publications regarding the work of a good number of South African artists.

Recently the collection has been used in the compiling of a catalogue raisonné for sculptors Ezrom Legae and Sydney Kumalo, bringing to light rare and unique photographs of some of these artists’ work. The collection was also used this year in preparation for a reunion art exhibition of UP alumni. It is also consulted quite regularly to assist in verifying the authenticity of South African artworks as the catalogues and records of artworks are useful in reconstructing the history and provenance of artworks. In the early 2000s it was transferred to the UP Archives for safe keeping and is now housed in the pristine archival holdings in the Letlotlo Building of the Groenkloof Campus of the University.

- Author Dr Bronwyn Strydom, UP Archives
Published by Lelani van den Berg

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