Seduction, renunciation, heroism: RIP Antoinette Murdoch



CURATOR with fire in her belly: Antoinette Murdoch at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Photograph courtesy facebook.

AN ARTIST WITH passion, a gallerist who didn’t shy from difficulty and an individual who held so much together with skill, until she couldn’t any more, Antoinette Murdoch, the former curator-in-chief of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) succumbed to Covid-19 on 10 July 2020. She was 47.

Like many white South African artists with Afrikaans heritage, Murdoch struggled in a post-apartheid context with her Calvinist upbringing. She wove the religious and ethnically chauvinist values she was raised with, into her art, using sewing as a sidestep from traditional approaches to sculpture. Art critic Okwui Enwezor wrote in a review of Murdoch’s first solo exhibition in 1996 that she “manages simultaneously to reveal exactly what feminism and Nationalism smell like when brought together.”

She first emerged onto the art scene with a series of wedding dresses, named Rokke made out of Kleenex tissues meticulously sewn together and embroidered. These simple yet complex, delicate works, were designed to fit her, but would crumble into nothing if she wore them. Conceptually, they threw the then fashionable feminist rhetoric in the air, with many other potent associations.

“Weddings … when there is so much fluff and lace and whites and virginity and everything … are just actually a joke,” she retorted in an interview in 2004. Rokke evolved after her own very traditional wedding in 1994. Commenting, after her divorce, ten years later, on the self-fulfilling prophecy of the dresses, because they were so fragile, she added: “At the time I was making them, I was following a hectic religious structure and never ever thought I would get divorced.”

The second of four daughters, Murdoch was born on 8 September 1972. She was raised in a household characterised by domestic skills and tightly specific gender roles. Her mother, Nicolene was a housewife who regularly clothed all four girls with the same patterned fabric. For her own creative growth, when she was in her early teens, Murdoch started making her own clothes.

Murdoch criticised ideologically imposed values through her art. “I was taught,” she said, “not with words but with gestures. The emotion invested by my parents in living their lives was a very powerful influence for me. My dad – a project manager at the SABC – never showed emotion and within a very tight religious structure, things like lust or jealousy or passion were unacceptable and suppressed. This was something I was compelled, for my emotional health, to bring to my work.”

Graduating top of her class at the then Witwatersrand Technikon, Murdoch pushed parameters hard. In 1999, she won the Ampersand Fellowship which took her to New York to hone her focus. She rediscovered paper dolls, which manifested in a collaborative exhibition with Doreen Southwood at Spark! gallery in the Johannesburg suburb of Orchards in 2002. Hers was a trajectory about body awareness; tape measures became another important medium in her work, commenting on how women in society police their bodies.

Savvy throughout her career to the imperative that artists must teeter between making work and earning a living, Murdoch was employed in 1996 by the Civic Gallery, in the then Civic Theatre complex in Braamfontein, as curator/gallery manager. It was a small, but curious space, balancing the bling of a state-supported theatre with a sense of improvisation. Murdoch pushed the boundaries with this gallery, fighting for its existence when the theatre repurposed the space. Sadly, she lost this battle; it offered a taste of things to come in her professional brushes with bureaucracy.

Woven with art making, solo exhibitions and many changes of money-earning sources, Murdoch’s career was diverse. Skilled, intelligent and competent, in 2004, she was teaching drawing and textiles at the upmarket Johannesburg-based London International School of Fashion.

Two years later, she was Chief Executive Officer of the Art Bank for the City of Joburg which she had developed with Vishnu Singh. The project offered the possibility of allowing art to generate money from repeated paid-for loans in public collections; it yielded success but was canned by the city.

In 2009 Murdoch was appointed curator-in-chief of JAG. It was a respected position, but had a tough reputation. The grande dame of visual art in the city, built over 100 years earlier on the bleeding edge of Joubert Park, JAG was in a state of urban decay. The area lacked appropriate security. The public was no longer willing to travel there for art’s sake. Basic building maintenance was shunted often from City of Johannesburg budgets. Corrupt contractors added to the mix. Murdoch had come on board with her acumen flashing: she knew the artworld from the inside out. She had the intellectual wherewithal to turn it around; during her tenure, she mounted important exhibitions including JAG’s critically successful and well-attended centenary show in November 2015. But without the support of staff or management, she was stretched beyond her capacities.

While battling the behemoth of officialdom, Murdoch managed to graduate with her masters degree in fine arts from Wits University in 2010, and could look back on a career littered with such accolades as a finalist of the “Most Influential Woman in Business and Government” for CEO Magazine in 2007 and being named among the top 50 “Movers and Shakers of the South African Art World” award for ArtTimes in 2013.

In October 2016, she resigned from JAG. In an apologetic but direct open letter to SA Art Times, she described the indignities of being assaulted, verbally abused and having her life threatened in a context where there was no recourse. But reading between the lines, these comparatively smaller incidents were the last straw: Murdoch felt that she was fighting a one-woman battle against a system which would not hear her.

Murdoch leaves her parents Nicolene and John, her former husband Alex Trapani, her daughters, Zoey and Mia and her sisters, Dalene, Nicolene and Carina and their families. She also leaves her best friend, the puppeteer Johan ‘Swannie’ Swanevelder, and countless fans in the visual arts community.

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