This year marks the 61st anniversary of the Women’s March to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956.
Led by Lilian Ngoyi - a trade unionist and political activist, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu, and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, 20 000 women of all races, classes and religious persuasions protested against Pass Law legislation, bringing about a turning point in the struggle for freedom and South African society at large. Today Women’s Month is observed to promote the important role that women of all races, religions and walks of life have played, and continue to play, in our society.
Women are central to the history of JAG. It was one woman’s labour of love and tenacity that saw the Johannesburg Art Gallery established in the early 20th century. Lady Florence Phillips (1863 – 1940), an avid art collector, established the first gallery collection with funds procured from her husband, Lionel Phillips, and a number of his fellow Randlords.
Women have, and continue to occupy a central position in the the history of JAG. The gallery’s collection benefitted greatly from the shrewd acquisitions made by Nel Erasmus (b. 1928), the gallery’s first woman curator. Erasmus’s curatorial contribution to JAG’s international modern and contemporary collection is a crowning achievement in her 20-year tenure (1957 – 1977) at the helm. Her notorious acquisition of Pablo Picasso’s Tête d’Arlequin (1971) in the year the he died (1973) was met with fervent resistance from conservative apartheid society and the rear-guard of the South African art world. Her deviant response to critics cemented Nel’s reputation as visionary curator.
Following in Nel’s footsteps, JAG has over the decades appointed three other women curators, Pat Senior who followed Nel as JAG Director 1977-1983, Rochelle Keene (1991-2003) and Antoinette Murdoch, who was JAG Senior Curator from 2009 to 2016.
Currently at the helm is acting Senior Curator Musha Neluheni (b. 1983), who was also appointed assistant curator of the South African pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale earlier this year. The South African pavilion, which centred on video works by Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng, was voted one of the ten best at the Biennale.