Fitting Wildly Different World Views into a Single Cube – Annali Cabano-Dempsey

Annali Cabano-Dempsey has been curator of the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery for over two decades. Her role as leader and inspiration was celebrated last month with the ’21 Years of Curating the Cube’ exhibition.

Annali has used her time as curator to express certain political, cultural and social topics, and this incentive to give artists a voice has become one of her most well-known qualities. However, there is a deeper truth behind her role as “Curator of the Cube”.

The multi-faceted individual behind University of Johannesburg Art Centre, Annali Cabano-Dempsey.

How did your journey as curator for the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery start? 

I believe whenever we channel our energies in the right direction, the universe replies. I trained as a journalist, and my natural inclination was to combine my artistic impulses with that of writing.  As a practising artist I hosted art exhibitions for fellow artists: first on a small scale and later more extensively, whilst publicising such events. In the process I built up an extensive network of contacts and started understanding the local arts scene. After two exhibitions of my work at the University of Johannesburg Arts Gallery I applied for the vacant position of curator and was appointed in 1998.  To me it was the right move at the right time – a natural confluence of circumstances.  I never imagined that I would still be around 21 years later.

“Bohlale-bja-mathome” by Colbert Mashile

And yet, here you still are today. Has there been any specific instances where you felt this same directive energy from the universe during your time as curator?

I believe artists are latter day prophets.  They have the ability to subliminally tune into fluctuations within the social construct and to react to it through their art production.  Sometimes the universe gives me a huge kick in the solar plexus when I realise how accurate artists can read developing situations.

“Panorama of Franschhoek” by Titus Matiyane

How has “the cube” changed throughout your time as curator? Did the move to the University of Johannesburg Arts Centre in 2005 impact the style of the exhibitions and your approach to them?

The cube has become less exclusive, less of an ivory tower of high art during my tenure. I purposefully included a variety of art forms, collaborated with corporates and collectives and became increasingly aware of  how often art reflects on reality.  The building of new audiences has been a priority and we find that the students of today are rapidly becoming the art lovers of tomorrow.  
The new arts centre opening in 2005 was like a new injection of energy and this space was the new kid on the block for quite a while.  The magnificent art gallery offered so many diverse possibilities for showing contemporary visual art.  But the long game can only rely on novelty value of any cube for a while, then it is what happens on the inside that becomes important. I think we have broken down many barriers by addressing issues of the day such as gender politics, xenophobia, imminent ecological disasters, inequality  and debates around colonialism and the postcolonial amongst others.  Audiences consist of  well informed citizens of a global village with more information literally at their finger tips than ever before – and any curator must respect and understand this in order to stay ahead of the game.

“Conduit Series – Sit (Red Jasper)” by Angus Taylor

Would you say you have created your own rules inside the cube? Has it become a space where you have created a world view that looks at life and art from a unique perspective?

Any gallery has a specific focus. Mine is on contemporary South African art addressing the here and now in all its exciting manifestations. A cube is a practical operational space offering not only material safety to precious artworks, but also a safe space from where artists can have the freedom to voice opinions.  It must never be a fort used to restrict information to a select few, neither must it be a place of ferocious attack – unless it is thoroughly thought through and based on research.    

My style of curatorship is collaborative, not authoritative or free for all.  I interact with artists on a regular basis for between 12 and 18 months before an exhibition, advise and shape a bit – and then I allow the artists to project their own voices.   I also hand over the reigns to guest curators from time to time.

That said – professionalism is my first and foremost criteria – from both the gallery as well as the exhibiting artist/s:  in conduct and in the presentation of the final production.  And there must be mutual warmth, acceptance of clashing worldviews and respect.

Conevirus by Gordon Froud

What is, the reason you call the gallery the cube?

A gallery is a space where art is displayed  – be it between four walls or in the Karoo where land artists often work.  I work from a specific space within a institutional environment – thus a dedicated building of bricks and mortar.  The way to break down the walls is more metaphorical than physical – by bringing in work that will fascinate, entice and inform. Without judgement and censorship, but always with forethought of what is important in the present, with understanding and respect of current issues.  

“The Keiskamma Guernica” by members of the Keiskamma Art Project

Where would you like to see the cube travel during the rest of your time as curator? Are there any specific issues you would like to expose in the future?

– To make the gallery increasingly accessible to wider audiences. 

– To create an informal atmosphere and to invite a younger generation to interact with the gallery programme on an interdisciplinary level.

– To recognise established and revered artists, but also bring younger promising artists into the fold.  I found that collaborations with guest curators, corporate partners, artist collectives and joint exhibitions (the established with the emerging) allows for this approach.

Between 10 and 5