A bright pioneering light in the fine art world

Ernestine White speaks on race, privilege and opportunity

Ernestine White is a beam of bright pioneering light in the fine art world. Spurting from humble beginnings, with her formative childhood memories developed in Langa Township; she has climbed the ranks to become one of the top black female figures in the industry as curator of Contemporary Art at Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town. She speaks to JILL HONEYBUSH about student protests, Dean Hutton’s ‘Fuck white people’ and power as a curator.

White (41) knew that she wanted to be an artist from a young age. She grew up in Cape Town, her mother was a domestic worker and they moved around constantly from Langa to Woodstock, Athlone and Sea Point, wherever there was work.

“I was very fortunate that my mother even though she was a domestic worker, encouraged my creativity throughout my childhood.” Her father, a Ghanaian sailor was mostly out of the country and at sea, so she never had a good opportunity to get know him. “By the time I finished high school I was very clear about the career path I wanted, I knew that I wanted to stay in the arts. I am immensely appreciative of the sacrifices that my mother made in order for me to be where I am today,” she said.

At the age of 11 she and her family move to the United States, where she completed her studies at the State University of New York. She returned to South Africa after a decade in the US and read towards her Masters at UCT’s ‘Michaelis School of Fine Art’. Later she was part of the first batch of students accepted into the honours programme in curatorship. She decided that she wanted ‘that piece of paper’ and studied while working as an exhibitions and project coordinator in Parliament. The high-pressure position was very fulfiling.

“I got an opportunity to work with a very dynamic boss who was extremely demanding in terms of the desire to always produce products of excellence. To stretch my ability, to put me in spaces that were definitely not in my comfort-zone.”

She reflects on that period of her life as working with a variety of people. From meeting with stakeholders and working with production houses to explaining artwork face to face with a variety of audiences from adults to kids.

“Each day [in Parliament] was different, it could be school groups, diplomats, members of parliament, former presidents; taking them on this journey which included artwork, rare objects and giving them an understanding of the importance of these artifacts to their own sense of identity as Africans or their sense of identity as descendants of colonisers and the impact of their ancestral history on our space. Completely different than being an artist in a studio,” she said.

She was only meant to work in Parliament for three months, but ended up staying eight years.

“That journey was so well worth it because it prepared me for what I am doing now…I’ve been very fortunate in my journey because it’s not been this traditional journey of ‘go to art school and then all of a sudden decide I want to become a curator’. It was all these different things and experiences,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s very uncomfortable”

The South Africa she grew up in during the 70s and the country that she left behind in the 80s for the shores of America was very different when she returned. On the waves of student protests which hit the institution, “I commend the students for speaking up for what they believe in,” said White, who believes that the art gallery as an institution plays an essential role in national debates.

The most recent artwork to cause a stir at the Cape Town gallery is Dean Hutton’s piece ‘Fuck white people’, which was reportedly defaced in January. According to Huffington Post, two of the gallery’s staff members were physically assaulted while the work was being defaced. White says that the artwork, as well as the reaction to the piece speaks to racism and decolonisation as much as it speaks to issues around privilege in the art world.

“What’s interesting is that people assume that [the artist is], referred to as ‘they’ upon request is a black person…there is at times this inability to move beyond that first dimension of the work to say ‘wait this is making me angry why, who is this person, what are they talking about let me go and read what’s on the wall that gives more information, let me engage with this person’… it’s a knee-jerk reaction that is instantly a negative one. And it’s based on a previous work by [a black student] who wrote similar phrases but the results were very different, the person was expelled from university. The result of this individual is that the [artist] at the end of this is getting a Masters and increased profile, so again there are issues of privilege,” she said.

White does not take her role lightly, and says that her team has rigorous engagement before making decisions on gallery exhibitions in order to challenge national narratives and provide South Africans with opportunities previously denied to them in formal gallery spaces.

“For future generations when they come to the door it’s about getting a better understanding that there are artists who look like me or who experience what I experience or who are speaking about an experience I have experienced, that I can relate to. There is a history that has come before me which gives me an understanding of where I come from. My generation, history, my ethnicity, my sexuality.”

“As a curator my actions have a direct effect on people and how they engage with people’s own sense of identity, history and community,” she said.

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