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Disturbing Views: Visual Culture and Nationalism in the 20th and 21st Centuries

November 2021

Speaking to Troubling Images: Visual Culture and the Politics of Afrikaner Nationalism (Wits University Press, 2020), a book of essays edited by Federico Freschi, Brenda Schmahmann and Lize van Robbroeck, this conference, like the new volume, is intended to raise debates that are especially timeous and urgent in a current context. The selected presenters will speak to one of two themes. How has art and visual culture been deployed to foster the interests of those who, in seeking to elicit support and power for only their own (perceived) nation or group, develop rhetoric and ideas underpinned by prejudice against groups conceptualized as outsiders? Alternatively, how has the visual domain served as a space for the critique and activist refusal of right-wing and exclusionary nationalist interests and discourse? The conference has been postponed from April 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and is intended to take place in November 2021 in a format yet to be confirmed. The programme and more information on the conference will be posted at a later date.


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Material Narratives: Public and Private Histories in Cloth
18 – 20 November 2019

Works of art made from or involving textiles or cloth (or works that are sewn or woven) often depict events and histories of significance. These may be occurrences with social and political import to communities, groups or countries, but they may also be incidents or experiences only of consequence to those who made the works concerned. While many works in cloth represent events directly, others allude to public or personal histories through their inclusion of motifs with symbolic or metaphoric associations. And while they may involve activism or offer socio-political commentary, often with feminist underpinnings, the act of narrating histories and representing events via cloth is also on many occasions a vehicle for self-reflection or the exploration of identities.

In this conference, the focus was on the multiple and varied ways in which textiles or fabric (or weaving or the use of embroidery, collage, printing and other techniques to work into cloth) have served as a way of representing events and histories with public or personal significance. Presenters focused on examples made by individual artists or those produced through collaboration or by collectives/community projects. They explored examples displayed in art galleries or those shown elsewhere in the public domain and focused on recent works or those from the second half of the twentieth century.

The conference took place at the offices of the NRF South African Research Chair in Art and Visual Culture. There was a post-conference trip to the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre. 
For a compilation of the first day: 
For an overview of the conference: 

Brenda Schmahmann is editing a special issue of Image & Text: A Journal for Design, of articles drawn from selected conference papers. Image & Text is published by The University of Pretoria, and will be forthcoming in 2020/21.

Click here to view the Material Narratives: Public and Private Histories in Cloth Programme

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Mistress-Pieces: Iconic Artworks by Feminists and Gender Activists
8 – 10 November 2018

In this conference, participants identified and explored a range of other works by feminists and gender activists that might be regarded as iconic in the sense that they have proved influential in particular contexts because of their relevance and distinctiveness. The topic was grounded in the understanding that the forms of art by feminists or LGBTI activists may have assumed, and their overall impact, differ from one geographical context to another. It was also underpinned by recognition that, given the momentous political and cultural shifts that have occurred since second-wave feminism began to exert impact on aesthetic practices in the United States, Britain and Western Europe, new works engaging with gender are necessarily inflected or shaped by different sets of concerns, whether these be related to the impact of the internet, social media and a digital age or new manifestations of violence, civil war and nationalism, threats to the environment or understandings of identity in the context of diasporas, for example.

"Mistress-Pieces" riffs on "Old Mistresses", the ironical term that Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock used within the title of their important volume first published in 1981. This conference did not seek to develop a history of women artists in the west, however, but rather focused specifically on artworks informed by feminist and gender discourses that have emerged since the 1970s in an international context. By offering this perspective, it is hoped that this conference, and the edited book that is to follow it, will enhance recognition of not only commonalities but also contrasts between different manifestations of gender politics in the visual arts.

The conference took place at the offices of the SARChI Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture. There was a post-conference trip to the Artists' Proof Studio.

Brenda Schmahmann is editing a book of essays derived from selected papers presented at the conference, to be published by Routledge in 2021/2. 

Click here for the Mistress-Pieces: Iconic Artworks by Feminists and Gender Activists Programme

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Troubling Histories:
Public Art and Prejudice

15 – 18 November 2017

Delegates gathered in the research space of the SARChI Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture to discuss and debate issues and questions in regard to public art. Presenters were from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil, Sweden, Germany as well as South Africa.



A selection of the papers have been developed into articles included in two special issues of the peer-reviewed journal, de arte.


Taking History to Task:Cultural Vandalism and Memorial Mania a keynote presentaion by Erika Doss


Erika Doss (above) was keynote speaker and Kim Miller (below) co-convened the conference with Brenda Schmahmann.

The presentations were
engaging and the discussion


The conference included a visit to Constitution Hill.​​


​Images that refer self-consciously to other works of art or to well-known visual discourses have become increasingly commonplace in art since the late twentieth century. Unsurprisingly, strategies such as quotation and parody have also been deployed in numerous works made from textiles – whether these are in needlework or are constructed via processes such as collage or screen-printing on textiles, for example. In this conference, a range of these different examples were explored. ​




Papers selected from "Intertextual Textiles"  were developed into articles for a special issue of Textile: Cloth and Culture  (volume 15, no. 4, 2017).
Click for link to the Introduction to the special issue