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​The opening of the exhibition WAM! Seeing Stars was as much a celebration of the unveiling of the new Wits Art Museum (WAM) as a tribute to the artists and architects.
THERE were a lot of starry-eyed people at the WAM! Seeing Stars exhibition opening last night, there to witness the unveiling of the Wits Art Museum (WAM), the city’s newest and perhaps most spectacular art museum yet.

The basement gallery, defined by its columns and spacious feelingThe basement gallery, defined by its columns and spacious feelingAnd with the opening, Wits University has stepped into the city, inviting citizens to come and see wonderful art right on their doorstep.

Opened by dean of humanities, Professor Tawana Kupe, he smiled and said: “The Wits Art Museum is a work of art.”

He praised both the artists and the architects. “Here we have artists masquerading as architects, and architects who produced a work of art.”

WAM is the result of the conversion of the previously shabby University Corner, on the corner of Bertha Avenue and Jorissen Street in Braamfontein, which for many years was a petrol garage. It has been transformed into a space of vast white walls, columns, voluptuous curves and gleaming floors.

Last night those walls were smiling – they were hung with splendid examples from WAM’s priceless collection of 9 000 pieces, a collection that encompasses objects of classical and contemporary South African and African art spanning more than seven decades.

The collection includes bronze sculptures by Sydney Kumalo, oil paintings by Irma Stern, pencil drawings by JH Pierneef, contemporary charcoal drawings by William Kentridge, oil paintings by Robert Hodgins and wooden sculptures by Nelson Mukhuba, as well as carved wooden headrests from Limpopo, beadwork from the Eastern Cape and masks from Nigeria.

Curator Julia Charlton and special projects curator Fiona Rankin-Smith carefully selected works for the opening exhibition – Ndebele beadwork, wooden carvings, basketwork, photographs, drawings and paintings representing Africa over a range of cultures and eras. “The collection reflects the wealth of diversity which makes up our own country,” says Charlton in the press statement.

Some of the highlights are Jackson Hlungwane’s emotive Women’s Altar to God, a multi-part installation of wood, rock and metal; Willem Boshoff’s expansive Abamfusa Lawula (The Purple Shall Govern), that captures the artist’s concern with the need to archive endangered languages; Sam Nhlengethwa’s moving It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko; and Robert Hodgins’ A Beast Slouches. Unknown artists from as far back as 1900 are also represented.

Reach out
The museum reaches out to Braamfontein residents through its wide glass facade, inviting them into the gallery and its coffee shop. Its dark trapezium-shaped bricks and sparkling dark blue tiles studded with brass discs give a new face to the corner, at once protecting the valuable stores and arousing the curiosity. 

“The architecture of the building makes a major contribution to the renaissance of the Braamfontein area, with the dark brick ‘skin’ forming the container that houses the priceless collection, experienced from the street and from the museum interior,” explains Charlton.

Architects Nina Cohen, Fiona Garson and William Martinson took on the challenge of converting the garage, sections of two other buildings and two basements with enthusiasm, creating a space of 5 000m² of exhibition areas, research, teaching and administrative facilities, as well as state-of-the-art, climate-controlled storage amenities built to international standards.

The project, from the first stages of conducting a space analysis, through to years of fundraising, started in 2005. Construction started in April 2010, and budgetary constraints were turned into positive design choices, with Charlton saying that they had “fallen in love with what we have”. The design won the Absolut VISI Designer of the Year Award in March.

“WAM will be a forum for all South Africans, tourists, artists, teachers, local visitors and students to connect and share in the feeling of national pride and respect for our rich legacy,” concludes Charlton.

The exhibition will open on 19 May and run until 19 August. The museum will be open from 10am to 4pm from Wednesdays to Sundays. Entrance is R50.

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