Looking at the Past to Understand the Present | Q&A with João Ferreira

Q&A with art dealer and art advisor, João Ferreira.

Today is Heritage Day in South Africa, a day in which we celebrate the unique and diverse history of our country and its people. South Africa has had an important relationship with the visual arts in the re-telling and representation of events from the past and presenting them to a present day audience. We recently sat down to discuss these themes with João Ferreira, an art dealer, art advisor and the curator of the Past/Modern section for the 2020 edition of Investec Cape Town Art Fair.

1. As the curator of the Past/Modern section at Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2020, how important was it to connect the rich history of South Africa to the contemporary art that is seen at the fair?

The Past/Modern section represents the foundation of what we see in contemporary art today. It underlies the production and itself comes from a diverse, rich history.

It represents artists from a variety of backgrounds, whether they are formally educated, self-taught, or come from community centres or cultural tradition.

In Past/Modern, the galleries show us leading examples of these artists, and one can easily enter a discourse between a time-honoured work and a contemporary work.

This section sets out to create a dialogue about the work, questioning the importance and collectability of the artists, their origin, style and impact on contemporary art.

2. What role has art played in the collective memory of South African history?

Art has played a vital role! From the understanding of tribal expression, to the community projects and art initiatives like Polly Street, to the influence of international culture on artists, to the vital expression seen in the resistance art period and the post-apartheid years. Art tells a valuable story of our South African history. We have a collective identity.

3. What themes do you see coming out of South Africa’s contemporary art scene influenced by the historical events? Do you see a need for younger artists to connect with their heritage through their art practices?

I am seeing a lot of use of traditional craft and materials to make a contemporary expression. Artists are making a more universal statement and the new abstraction I am seeing is very exciting. I believe the artists’ heritage comes through in their practice, yet they are looking for, and using, a more universal language. I am seeing younger artists drawing from their heritage and cultural history to express themselves.

4. In your previous experience at the fair, what has been the response to the juxtaposition of works from the past with the contemporary works on display? What kind of discussions have you experienced from the visitors?

The juxtaposition is very good. The discourse is strong and Past/Modern attracts collectors due to the establishment and endorsement of masters. It acts as an important reference. We talk connoisseurship and collector motivation, which is a vital entry point for contemporary art. This inspires more sales in both sections. One also has more context as a reference point when engaging with new and interesting work.

5. Looking at Heritage week in South Africa, and working in the arts, what does heritage mean to you?

I am fortunate to have been born and raised in South Africa. My South African heritage is strong.

I practice Ubuntu - inspired by Mandela. I am a Portuguese too, so I have a rich Portuguese heritage from Madeira. Moving to Portugal now has given me the opportunity to fully embrace and celebrate it.

Our deep inner strength comes from our heritage. We must embrace that and allow it to enrich us culturally, and celebrate it in a spirit of universal connection.

6. How do spaces like museums create a collective sense of memory through visual representations of the past?

They narrate, and hold the artifacts of, the past. Artistic expression has always been an accurate social barometer. Drawing from South Africa’s late colonial and apartheid history, as well as its post-apartheid years, artists have reached a consensus as to their vital contribution to the evolution of South African art history.

7. How do we continue to preserve our rich visual culture going forward?

By inspiring more collecting. It is the collectors who form the museums. We should introduce children to the power and value of expression from an early age, as well as teach and support more craft initiatives. It would be great to see more public sculpture, and visibility of important works to the public. We should encourage more spending by government institutions on collecting, because, sadly, as I have seen over the last 20 years, most major works by South African artists go to foreign collections. These works are then lost from our cultural heritage.