Conversing the Land

Landscape is the work of the mind, British historian and writer Simon Schama argues in Landscape and Memory (1995). Landscape exists as a cultural construct, a mirror of our memories and myths encoded with meanings, which can be read and interpreted.

Conversing the Land, the latest collaboration between the University of Johannesburg and the MTN SA Foundation in the UJ Gallery from 22 October to 27 November, offers as the title indicates an exploration of the South African landscape as shaped by the memories, myths and meanings artists have attached to place. Any physical place has the potential to embody multiple landscapes, each of which is grounded in the cultural definitions of those who encounter the place.

Large-scale urban development at the height of capitalism stimulated development and welfare, but also overcrowding, insufficient housing and utilities, a division between upper class and township communities as well as unequal distribution of land resulting in forced removals and displacement.

Within this dichotomy of have and have-not, the issue of land reform and restitution comes to the fore, but also brings with it the deeper yearning of the urbanite for the rural, the memory of a time and place that is no more and the re-imagining of a mythical landscape.

As such, the landscape as a form of artistic expression becomes a site of hopes and aspirations, of memory, trauma, identity, history, heritage, migrations and a yearning to reconnect with land. Land issues, land ownership, identity, belonging and place of connection are constantly being reimagined in this country we call home.

As in Shifting Conversations (engaging colonial and post-colonial narratives) in 2017 and Continuing Conversations (focusing on various forms of identity in portraiture) in 2018, the previous iterations of this current collaboration between UJ and MTN, the underlying principle of this exhibition is more to stimulate conversation than to address – hence the exhibition title.

In presenting an exhibition based more on temporally fluid meaning, curators Annali Dempsey (UJ) and Katlego Lefine (MTN) included artworks from the permanent collections of MTN and the University of Johannesburg as well as selected artworks derived from an Emerging Artists Portrait Development Programme.

In order to extend the reach and scope of this exhibition, the two curators facilitated three programmes aimed at developing participation in the conversation on land issues.

The Mentorship Programme under the guidance of the project manager Rika Nortje and two curators offered three B Tech students at the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA) at UJ a first-hand experience of curatorial practice with master classes on collection management, safe handling of artworks, practical in-house label making and marketing. The mentees assisted with the content and the running of the Educational Programme, administrative tasks pertaining to the emerging artist programme as well as the setting up of the exhibition.

The Emerging Artists Development Programme invited artists through public advertising to submit an artwork in response to, or in conversation with, modern and contemporary South African landscapes, thereby offering a platform to showcase talents and interpretations of contemporary South African land issues. Ten works were selected from the entries received and forms part of the Conversing the Land exhibition, alongside the works sourced from both UJ’s and MTN’s art collections. The winner will be announced at the opening of the exhibition on 22 October.

The Educational Programme was designed for this particular exhibition aimed at learners and students accompanied by a full colour catalogue and learner material.

Divided in broad themes Conversing the Land explores the idyllic depiction of pastoral and rural life, the effect of industrialisation, the devastating influence of mining on the physical landscape as well as the consequence of the lack of social cohesion within migrant families.

On so many levels Conversing the Land continues to solidify the MTN/UJ partnership and the mutual aim to make their respective collections visible to a wider public. However, more than showing a fine collection of artworks “the collaborative projects between the UJ Art Gallery and the MTN SA Foundation afford both parties the opportunity to promote emerging artists and to provide opportunities for personal growth through educational programmes, walkabouts and master classes,” Dempsey added.

“MTN is fortunate to be involved in a creative programme which gives tangible support and opportunity to emerging artists and simultaneously contributes to relevant contemporary discussions about our collective experience,” Lefine said. “The tradition of depicting the landscape is intimately connected to the colonial experience and is thus rendered pertinent in conversations relating to history, ownership and agency.”

Conversing the Land is at the UJ Art Gallery, Auckland Park, Johannesburg, from 22 October to 27 November 2019.


UJ Arts & Culture, a division of the Faculty of Art, Design & Architecture (FADA) produces and presents world-class student and professional arts programmes aligned to the UJ vision of an international university of choice, anchored in Africa, dynamically shaping the future. A robust range of arts platforms are offered on all four UJ campuses for students, staff, alumni and the general public to experience and engage with emerging and established Pan-African and international artists drawn from the full spectrum of the arts.

In addition to UJ Arts & Culture, FADA ( offers programmes in eight creative disciplines, in Art, Design and Architecture, as well as playing home to the NRF SARChI Chair in South African Art & Visual Culture, and the Visual Identities in Art & Design Research Centre. The Faculty has a strong focus on sustainability and relevance, and engages actively with the dynamism, creativity and diversity of Johannesburg in imagining new approaches to art and design education.