​​​SARChI Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture ​

​Prof Brenda Schmahmann is the SARChI Research Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture. Hosted by the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture and integrated with the work of the faculty, this prestigious position is funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and administered by the National Research Foundation (NRF). The SARChI Research Chair serves as a forum for initiatives in research by not only Prof Schmahmann but also postdoctoral fellows, postgraduate students and others working with her.

Social purpose 

Research falling under the ambit of the SARChI Research Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture is in art history as well as disciplines and fields which are cognate to it, such as design history and fashion theory. Such work has become increasingly important in South Africa. In a context where there is an imperative to re-write histories and develop a richer understanding of South African identities, and where art museums are redefining their collecting policies as well as seeking curatorial methods for visualising the past and present, there is a high demand for the research and capacities of qualified visual theorists. Qualified art historians and visual theorists are also vital to the art gallery sector, where they play an immediate role in enabling markets for artists, as well as in aspects of arts management. Programmes in art and design at South African tertiary institutions depend on appropriately qualified and capable theorists who are able to offer instruction in histories about art, design and visual culture, and the ways in which these potentially inform contemporary art and design practices. Relatedly, teachers of art and design (and their histories) at secondary schools become effective educators only when they themselves have been taught by art historians and theorists with postgraduate qualifications and capacities. Capacities in art history are necessary to develop discourses crucial to art practitioners – not only those who work in mainstream frameworks but also members of the many art projects that have been established to address poverty and unemployment in communities (including rural ones) marginalized by apartheid.

In summary, then, the SARChI Research Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture provides a forum for producing significant research with immediate social relevance and impact for the heritage, museum, gallery and education sectors, for example, as well as providing essential support to art practitioners. It is also developing a new generation of postgraduates with qualifications and capacities to continue and expand this work.


Research under the ambit of the SARChI Research Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture is organised around three rubrics:


Research on gender and visual culture has, on one level, an intention to provide new readings and understandings about art and imagery in South Africa that has been informed by gender activism. On another, it is predicated on an understanding that, by exploring art and visual culture in light of relations of power between men and women, constructs about 'masculinity' and 'femininity', attitudes towards same-sex relationships, or ways in which gendered constructs complicate those of race or class, for example, one can acquire important new insights and understandings about the contexts in which images were produced as well as the roles they may have played culturally and historically.


Providing a mechanism for facilitating new understandings of history, public art also prompts engagement with questions and issues that are particularly pressing in a country which is just two decades into a new political dispensation. How successfully has the public art landscape been transformed through new commissions? How might one prevent older works and sites from simply being perceived as tired remnants of the iniquities of the past and instead make them relevant to the present? In what kinds of instances does retention of an object produced under the influence of ideologies that are out of favour become untenable? Debates such as these warrant sustained engagement.


Community projects assume many purposes in South Africa. Some enable income generation for economically marginalised groups. Others use the visual domain to produce new historical narratives or for education purposes. Still others, working in the tradition of organisations deploying art for resistance during the apartheid years, are motivated by social or political causes. And there are also projects which are not in fact orientated around art but nevertheless benefit from input from designers - whether in the arenas of graphic design, industrial design or interior design, for example. Research under this rubric encompasses theoretical analysis of art and design, and the role visual images or objects may assume and questions they may prompt, in any of these varied kinds of community projects.


E-mail: brendas@uj.ac.za

Telephone: 011 559 1705/1111

Prof Brenda Schmahmann
University of Johannesburg
P.O. Box 524
Auckland Park
South Africa