Arts Research Africa Dialogues

ARTS RESEARCH AFRICA  |  Podcast , ±50 min episodes every 6 weeks, 3 days  | 
These dialogues from the Wits School of Arts, Arts Research Africa project, are intended to stimulate practice, enable research, and inspire collective engagement around the question of Arts Research in Africa. Art lecturers and postgraduate students in the Wits School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, are grappling with the challenge of positioning arts research in an African context. These podcasts seek to develop a dialogue with both national and international practices and debates.

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The Arts Research Africa project after five years of Mellon funding

In this concluding podcast of the Mellon funding cycle, the ARA podcast's technical producer (and journalist) Elna Schutz hosts a discussion with the key members of the ARA project about what was achieved, what was learnt, and what opportunities were missed during the 5 + 1 years of the Mellon grant.
Prof Brett Pyper, the ARA principle investigator; Zanele Madiba, the project co-ordinator; and Prof Christo Doherty, the project director open up about the project which sought to develop artistic research in the Wits School of Arts and to advance the understanding of what this approach can mean in an African context.

From visual identities to bioart: Leora Farber and the VIAD Research Centre

In this dialogue Prof Christo Doherty of ARA speaks to Leora Farber Associate Professor and Director of the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg . Under Leora’s leadership the Centre has become a vibrant hub where an international community of visiting professors, research associates, and postdoctoral fellows have conducted interdisciplinary research over the last fifteen years around the theme of African and African diasporic histories and identities; with visual practice and questions of representation at the centre of their investigations. Recently Leora has opened up a new thematic current at the centre exploring the connections between art, design and the life sciences through a bio lab due to be launched in 2023. We explore both currents in this podcast.

In addition to directing the VIAD Centre, Leora is an artist, academic, editor, curator and post-graduate supervisor. She obtained a BA Fine Art at the University of the Witwatersrand, followed by an MA Fine Art (cum laude) also from Wits, and then DPhil in Visual Art at the University of Pretoria. She has exhibited both nationally and internationally, with interdisciplinary works that deal with the concerns of the body, embodiment, abjection, and activities historically associated with women’s work and domestic objects. A strongly feminist thematic which she has pursued since her first performance installation, entitled A Room of Her Own, as The Premises in Johannesburg in 2006.

In this discussion we explore Leora’s personal trajectory and education as an artist and her early practice as a lecturer in Fine Arts. We look the reasons for the establishment of The Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre at the University of Johannesburg in 2007, the vision that Leora had for the Centre and the ways in which the planned research was actualised. We then discuss the important colloquium "On Making: Integrating Approaches to Practice-Led Research in Art and Design" that Leora organised at VIAD in 2009. The colloquium was the first gathering to explicitly explore the impact and implications of practice-led research in the South African context but also brought a wide range of European perspectives into the conversation.

We then examine Leora’s move into an engagement with bioart, her initial collaborations with bioscientists at the University of Johannesburg, and her residency in 2019 on the SymbiotikA programme at the University of Western Australia. We explore whether bioart is a break with the concerns articulated by the work at VIAN or if it takes these concerns further into the ambit of post humanist and new materialism and we assess the implications of this work for the decolonial project.
Useful links:
The VIAD website:
The "On Making" conference proceedings. All papers available as downloadable PDFs:
The SymbiotikaA website with details of Leora's 2019 residency:

Creative Research & the artists' books of Schäpers, Silverberg & Chen

In this special episode in the ARA podcast series, Prof Christo Doherty of ARA speaks to three internationally acclaimed and award-winning artists about their creative research into the possibilities of the book as an artwork. Veronica Schapers, Robbin Amy Silverberg, and Julie Chen are showing a range of their artists books in a spell-binding new exhibition at the Jack Ginsberg Centre for the Book Arts housed in the Wits Arts Museum.

Entitled "Creative Research: The Artists’ Books of Schapers, Silverberg, and Chen", the exhibition runs till the 15th December. The reason I grabbed the opportunity to speak to these three artists, while they were in Johannesburg, is because creative research is central to their practice but in fascinatingly different ways. Through their diverse artists’ books they explore the complexities of personal and inter-cultural positions, language, and meaning-making through being.

Veronika Schäpers was born in Coesfeld, Germany. She was trained as a bookbinder for three years before she studying for a diploma in painting and books at the University of Art & Design in Halle, Germany. After a three months scholarship with the Centro del bel Libro, Ascona in Switzerland, followed by a nine months scholarship with Naoaki Sakamoto in Tokyo, she began her career in 1998 as a free-lance book artist and working from her own studio in Tokyo. In 2012, Schäpers moved back to Germany and now lives and works in Karlsruhe .
In her practice, Veronica explores a wide range of materials that offer visual and tactile solutions through the sensual medium of the book.
Robbin Amy Silverberg is the founder of both Dobbin Mill, a hand-papermaking studio, and Dobbin Books, an artists' book studio, both in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from Princeton University with a BA Cum Laude in Art History in 1980 and began making her own paper in 1980. Since then Robbin has created great number of artists' books—both on her own and in collaboration with other artists, all over the U.S., Canada, Europe, and South Africa.
Robin’s books embody her research into paper as her preferred material and as a vehicle for the multisensory experience of touch, reading and the transfer of ideas.
Julie Chen was born in Inglewood, California. She completed an undergraduate degree in printmaking at the University of California, Berkeley in 1984.[1] She subsequently became interested in book arts and got a degree in book arts from Mills College in 1989. She began teaching book arts at Mills College as an adjunct in 1996 and became an associate professor in 2010.
Julie has achieved prominence by creating conceptually sophisticated works that combine traditional techniques, such as letterpress printing and hand bookbinding, with more modern technologies such as photopolymer plates and laser cutting. She is known for pushing the structural boundaries of the artist's book with a range of architectural and sculptural approaches.

At one point you will also hear the voice of Jack Ginsberg himself, explaining the after-exhibition access that is possible for visitors to this unique collection of artists books, one of the most comprehensive in the world.
Please note that this recording was done by myself with a single microphone in the Jack Ginsberg Centre. As a result, the sound quality is not great, but I hope the content is of sufficient interest to make listening to this special ARA podcast worthwhile.
Follow these links for further information:
Website of The Jack Ginsberg Centre for the Book Arts
The artist's own websites with images and information about their book art practice:
Veronika Schäpers
Robbin Amy Silverberg
Julie Chen

Brett Pyper: From Jazz Cosmologies to the Cosmopolitan Collective

In this dialogue Prof Christo Doherty of ARA speaks to Prof Brett Pyper, the Principal Investigator on the ARA project and the leader of a major interdisciplinary research project based on popular manifestations of jazz culture in South Africa. Currently called the Cosmopolitan Collective, the project has evolved over the last 17 years from an initial study of township jazz appreciation societies in urban Gauteng, through a creative engagement with jazz cosmopolitanism in Accra in Ghana, to become a multi-facetted research project that is using a range of creative methodologies to explore and expand the status of jazz as heritage in South Africa.

Currently an Associate Professor in the History of Art department in the Wits School of Arts, Brett is a cultural practitioner, arts administrator, festival director, music researcher and academic. He grew up in Pretoria, now Tswane, and completed an interdisciplinary BA in music and cultural studies at the University of South Africa. He began his career as a facilitator of developmental music projects during the transition from apartheid, before taking up a Fulbright scholarship to study in the US, where he was based for six years. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Culture from Emory University in Atlanta, and a PhD in Ethnomusicology and Popular Music Studies from New York University. Between 2005 and 2007 he headed the Division of Heritage Studies and Cultural Management in the Wits School of Arts, incorporating the Centre for Cultural Policy and Management. From 2008 to 2013, he was CEO of the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (Absa KKNK), one of South Africa’s major festivals of art, popular and vernacular culture, which takes place annually at Easter time in the town of Oudtshoorn in the rural Western Cape. He returned to the Wits in 2014 to take up the headship of the School of Arts, which he led until 2021.

In this discussion we cover the influence of Prof Steven Feld’s "Jazz Cosmopolitanism" project in Accra, and the ways in which the South African project was a response to Feld’s work with Ghanian musicians. We look at the impact of the Covid-19 restrictions which scuppered the planned collaboration between Accra and the Johannesburg and the reasons for the choice of Cosmologies as the working title for the South African project. We examine the ways that the project managed the Covid restrictions for their ground-breaking 2020 live concert at Wits, involving creative contributions from staff and students together with South African jazz musicians. We discuss the contribution made to the concert by the local “diga” dance improvisors and significance of such embodied responses for the post-apartheid cultural project in South Africa. We then unpack the surprising motivation for renaming the project as the Cosmopolitan Collective and look more closely at the four distinct streams of practice that have come to be featured in the research collaboration of the Collective.
Useful links:
Prof Steven Feld's book -
Brett Pyper's paper, Jazz Festivals and the Post-Apartheid Public Sphere: Historical Precedents and the Contemporary Limits of Freedom
Gwenn Ansell's review of the historic 2020 Cosmologies concert at Wits University -
Wadee Ranoto's video clip of "diga" performance at the Cosmologies concert -

Ways-of-Remembering-Existing: donna Kukama rewrites history & writes performance

In this dialogue Prof Christo Doherty of ARA speaks to donna Kukama, a South African born interdisciplinary artist who works with performance, works on canvas, sculptural objects, video, and site-specific installation. The underlying topic of this conversation is how donna uses performance art and other practices as tools for artistic research, elaborating a challenging critique of the existing narratives of history and traditional modes of storytelling.

Donna currently has a solo exhibition at the Wits Art Museum, entitled "Ways-of-Remembering-Existing" which runs until the 5th of November.

Donna was born in Mafikeng, in the then South African homeland of Boputsawana in 1981. After completing a Fine Arts degree at the Tswana University of Technology, she studied for a Masters in Public Art in Switzerland. She was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Performance Art in 2014 and has gone on to exhibit and present performances at a range of prestigious national and international galleries and museums including the Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp, the nGbk in Berlin, the New Museum in New York, and the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. She is currently the Professor of Contemporary Art in the Global South at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany.

In this conversation, we explore donna’s personal trajectory as an artist, and her experience of different kinds of arts education in South Africa and Europe. We also discuss her Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Performance Art, the impact this had on her career and the significance of performance art in post-apartheid South Africa.
We then concentrate on the interrogation of history in donna’s work, and the collaborative research project, the Centre for Historical Re-enactments, which she initiated during her time as a lecturer at Wits together with Gabi Ngcobo and Kemang Wa Lehulere.
We also examine donna’s radical conception of written histories, which in her practice is not limited to the physical form of bound pages in book, but moves through rumour, memory, performance, drawing, sculptural objects, installations and sound.
Finally, we unpack the creative process behind her video/performance work “The Swing (After after Fragonard) from 2009. The Swing is one of the 4 video pieces featured at her WAM exhibition. I had understood that the work was a complex critical reconfiguration of two previous works, the 18th Century Rococo painting The Swing by Fragonard, and then Yinka Shonibare’s decolonial installation from 2001 called The Swing (after Fragonard), but I had no idea of what went into the creation of donna’s work or the dramatic personal consequences for her of the performance on a swing high above Mai-Mai market in downtown Johannesburg.

Important links:
donna's WAM exhibition info:
donna's video, The Swing (after after Fragonard):
Her gallery representation in SA:
Nontobeko Ntombela's essay on donna and Reshma Chhiba's performance art:
donna's Instagram with a wealth of images and videos of her work.

Shooting Down Babylon (The Art of War): The performance art of Tracey Rose

In this dialogue Prof Christo Doherty of ARA speaks to Tracey Rose, currently Senior Lecturer in the Fine Arts department in the Wits School of Arts, and internationally renowned as an artist who works across a range of practices, but most notably as a performance artist using her body.
Tracey’s work has recently been featured in a major retrospective exhibition at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town. Curated by the new Director of the Zeitz, Koyo Kouoh, the exhibition was called Shooting Down Babylon (The Art of War). The title references one of the works on the exhibition, an installation which reflects on exorcist and cleansing rituals from non-western communities.

In this discussion, we look at Tracey’s trajectory as a radical artist, activist and provocateur, from her upbringing and early schooling in Durban, and her arts education at Wits where she qualified for a BA in Fine Arts before studying for an MA at Goldsmiths College in London. We touch her on exhibition at the Zeitz Mocaa but go into greater depth into her use of photography and video, both significant aspects of her artistic practice overshadowed in the critical discourse by the dynamic physicality of her performance work.
We also discuss the way that she is recognised on the international scene as a black African artist, but how in South Africa that identity is burdened by the still active apartheid definition of “coloured”. We then go some way towards unpacking the paradoxes of hypervisibility and invisibility which afflict an artist such as Tracey who deploys own body as a site for protest, outrage, resistance and pertinent discourse.

Finally we explore Tracey’s growing interest in the connections between artistic practice, shamanism, and non-Western forms of spirituality as manifested in works such as Shooting Down Babylon.

I highly recommend Tracey’s audio walk through of her Zeitz exhibition which is available at
Also highly recommended is Tracey’s address to the Global Feminisms Exhibition in New York in 2007:
Articles worth consulting:
Kellie Jones, "Tracey Rose: Postapartheid Playground". Journal of Contemporary African Art. 29 Summer 2004.
Polly Savage, "Playing to the Gallery: Masks, Masquerade and Museums". African Arts 41,4 Winter 2008.
Emmanuel Balogum, "Tracey Rose: Shooting Down Babylon". Art Monthly 456 May 2022.

Art, Research, and Innovation: Hannelie Coetzee's ecological public art

In this dialogue Prof Christo Doherty of ARA speaks to Hannelie Coetzee, a Johannesburg-based ecological artist who has been working across the boundaries of art, science and activist engagement. Hannelie describes herself as a visual artist, researcher and innovator. Through her ecological art practice, she aims to grow audiences that appreciate art, contextualise the science behind the natural world, and improve environmental infrastructure development through functional artworks. She uses waste materials alongside unlikely transdisciplinary partnerships to build site specific artworks and interventions which are extensively documented on her website.
Hannelie has also just completed an MSc at Wits. We are familiar with artists who undertake MAFAs or MFAs in collaboration with scientists or science labs; but Hannelie was accepted to do an MSc in the Faculty of Science despite the fact that she had no undergraduate science training. The subject of her research was Art as Transformative Praxis interrogating transient ecologic patterns. This is an important breakthrough which we will explore in this podcast together with Hannelie’s work as a visual artist and, very importantly, as an innovator. We also discuss her collaborative engagements with scientists on a variety of projects including her large-scale "veld burns" and her engagements with urban greening and indigenous healers.
This podcast was recorded remotely with Hannelie in Denmark and myself in Johannesburg. We had some technical problems with the recording; but I think the subject matter is so fascinating that I ask you to bear with the occasional variations in sound quality.

Invisibility and hyper-visibility: Portia Malatjie and Nontobeko Ntombela on curating When Rain Clouds Gather

In this dialogue, Prof Christo Doherty of ARA speaks to Dr Portia Malatjie and Nontobeko Ntombela, the curators of When Rain Clouds Gather, an important new exhibition at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town. The exhibition is a reflection on the influential and often unacknowledged contribution of Black Women to South African art history in the 20th Century. Covering the the period from 1940 to the year 2000, the exhibition stages a cross generational communion of 40 Black women artists from early Modernism to the contemporary period.

Portia is a Senior Lecturer in Visual Cultures at the Michaelis School of Fine Arts, University of Cape Town. She is also adjunct curator of Africa and African diaspora at the Hyundai Tate Research Centre at the Tate Modern in London, and is adjunct curator at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town. Nontobeko is a lecturer and Head of the History of Art department in the Wits School of Arts at Wits. Previously she was curator of the Contemporary collection at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and before that was curator at the Durban Institute of Technology Art Gallery.

In this discussion, we explore the curatorial tools and strategies that Portia and Nontobeka deployed in this ambitious undertaking to disrupt existing categories of classification while creating a space to contest the erasure of work by Black women artists in South African art history. We examine the way in which they negotiated the negative effects of both invisibility and hyper-visibility on the understanding of Black women's art and the way in which Black feminism informed their curatorial approach. We also discuss the challenge of understanding curation as a form of creative practice in itself, and its importance as means of making previously suppressed work visible to new audiences.

Avril Joffe: Engaging Arts Policy with Creative Methodologies

In this dialogue, Prof Christo Doherty of ARA speaks to Avril Joffe, currently the postgraduate programme coordinator and previously the Head of the Department of Cultural Policy and Management in the Wits School of Arts.
Under Avril’s headship the department was renamed to focus on cultural policy and management, and has developed a range of productive relationships with institutions in both the Global north and south, including Kings College, London; the Centre for Cultural and Creative Industries at Peking University, China; and in South Africa with Business Arts South Africa, the National Arts Council, and the Goethe Institute.
We explore Avril’s own trajectory from an MPhil in Developmental Economics at Sussex University to a career as a researcher in labour relations and urban development before moving into the field of cultural policy. In this field Avril is an internationally recognised expert, advising on policy to the South African government and an appointment as an expert member of UNESCO’s Cultural Policy and Governance Facility. We look closely at Avril’s interest in Creative Methodologies as a tool for researchers collecting data, and the ground-breaking international conference on creative methodologies and urban research that Avril co-organised in 2021. We also discuss the function of cultural policy, and whether or not government policy in post-apartheid South Africa has fostered or hindered the creative arts. We weigh up the challenges of working with cultural institutions in authoritarian states such as China, and finally we discuss the ways in which creative artists can productively engage with questions of cultural policy.
Check out the following links:
Dept of Cultural Policy and Management webpage:
Dr Nancy Duxbury's website with key papers on creative methodologies:

Interlocutor/halfie: Dr George Mahashe on being a Molobedu, an artist and an academic

In this dialogue, Prof Christo Doherty of ARA speaks to Dr George Mahashe, a lecturer in Fine Arts at the University of Cape Town, who was recently based at the Geneva Observatory as part of the Swiss Artists-in-Labs programme. George talks about his work at the Observatory and his perspective on the experience as a black African who has a acute awareness of his “distributed sensibilities” as a member of a specific African sociality, the Balobedu, and as an academic and an artist.
George was born and raised in Bolobedu in the rural north eastern part of Limpopo Province in South Africa. He first practiced photography as an assistant to a local itinerant photographer before going on to study for a BTech degree in photography. After working as a lecturer and practitioner in commercial photography his awareness of the implications of photography as a colonial representational practice led him into studying the intersections between anthropology, photography and fine arts practice culminating in a PhD in Fine Arts at the University of Cape Town. George used the space offered by PhD research to imagine the concept of khelobedu, from his own point of view, as a member of an African community whose knowledge practices have been studied and marginalised by the colonial academy. Using a combination of unorthodox methods, notably travel and the practice of "ill-discipline", within more established methods such as fine arts play and the participant observation techniques of anthropology, his PhD research challenges the western representational emphasis in photography while employing the film essay and developments of the camera obscure to recognise the dream as a Balodedu technology that can foreground Balobedu subjectivity.
Useful links:
The text of George's UCT PhD, MaBareBare, a rumour of a dream:
AiL mini-documentary on George at Geneva Observatory:
Omenka interview:

Exploring the spaces between - Marcus Neustetter's playful interventions into art, science, and public engagement

In this dialogue Prof Christo Doherty of ARA speaks to Marcus Neustetter, the South African artist, cultural activist, and producer who has been working at the intersection of art, science, technology and public engagement for the last two decades since his graduation with an MAFA from Wits in 2001.

They discuss some of the collaborative projects that Marcus has undertaken across these intersections and will unpack key aspects of his critical and playful multi-disciplinary practice that has ranged from conventional drawing and painting to site-specific installations, mobile and virtual interventions, performance art, and socially engaged projects across South Africa and Africa, and internationally.

They focus on Marcus's work with the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in Sutherland in the Karoo; his explorations with light and how he has deployed the concept of the "vertical gaze" in his imaginative involvement with Sumbandila, the first South African space satellite. They also probe deeply into how his understanding of the interrelationship between artistic practice, public engagement and science has evolved, and his most recent participation in the Vienna-based transdisciplinary project, The Zone.

Links: See Marcus's artist's website:

The Zone project website:

Irène Hediger & Artists-in_Labs: exploring the unknown across diverse disciplines

In this dialogue, I speak to Irène Hediger, the director of the Artists-in -Labs programme based at the Zurich University of the Arts in Switzerland. The programme, which has now been running continuously for the last nineteen years, is one of the most successful Arts-Science initiatives in the world and has initiated and managed over 50 creative engagements between artists and research labs, ranging from CERN to Aquatic Research.
The programme is part of the Department of Cultural Analysis (DKV) at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) and it works to build sustainable collaboration between artists and scientists of all disciplines, not just in Switzerland but, under Irène’s leadership, has been expanding its field of engagement all around the world, including China, Saudi Arabia, and most recently South Africa. These long-term interdisciplinary and cross-border collaborations provide artists with an opportunity to critically engage with the sciences and their experimental and aesthetic dimensions. This includes explorations of the site of the laboratory, as well as a range of scientific topics, methods and technologies.
In this podcast, we discuss the personal path that brought Irène to join Dr Jill Scott as co-director of AiL; the lessons learnt from the first pilot projects; the way that the AiL project has evolved and the lessons that have been learnt about time and how to manage such residencies; the selection process; and the importance of unknowing and creative thinking on the part of both artists and scientists in such collaborative projects.
The AiL home page:
The project also has extensive documentation of all the residencies, with short documentary videos recording the artists and scientists experiences.
For details about their current collaborations and projects see the AiL Facebook page:

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