FNB Art Joburg
Sandton Convention
Centre, Johannesburg,
South Africa

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A reverse archaeology reconciling the inseparable parts of history

with Nolan Oswald Dennis


In this week’s Re:View we consider the addition to Nolan Oswald Dennis’ ongoing investigation. Currently presented at the Javett Art Centre and titled Specifications for a Reverse Archaeology, the findings demonstrate their refusal to treat the past as a resource that we can extract from.

Archaeology is a practice relying on material remains to study living, inherited and affecting history. Extractive, in a bid to learn from the past and apply those lessons to the present, the field of study relies on material cues from tools, clothing, architectural and cultural landscapes to inform contemporary understandings of historical societies. “I reaslied that Mapungubwe is not the hill, the gold, or the ceramics alone but that these are in fact inseparable from the lived and living memories, hauntings and practices that surround them,” shares Nolan Oswald Dennis. “Archaeology has, however, already separated those inseparable aspects.” An investigation challenging this approach, Specifications for a Reverse Archaeology by Nolan Oswald Dennis uses the Mapungubwe National Park as its case study. 

A para-disciplinary artist, Oswald Dennis investigates the material and metaphysical terms and conditions of decolonialisation. Informed by mythologies, theologies, indigenous knowledge systems, ancient technologies, and psychologies their practice builds tenuous bridges between the ancestral, extraterrestrial, political, divine and physical. Perceiving space from a black consciousness, their work challenges taught systems of time and space. An alternative syllabus in progress, their diagram, drawing, model and film work documents their findings about the political sub-terrain. 

Multidisciplinary, Specifications for a Reverse Archaeology takes on multiple mediums that centre around a film. Best seen on one’s back, blood rushing to the crown, forehead on the floor with one’s chin to the sky, the film’s absorbing nature requests a considered level of interaction.

Upon entering the space dedicated to the film, it is uncertain where in the plot we meet its characters. Perhaps the beginning, middle, end, or the bits that come after the credits, the only option Specifications for a Reverse Archaeology offers is relinquishing control for a keen curiosity. An instruction on unearthing, without extracting, the film imagines an all-knowing and telling ethereal engagement visualised by the presence of a glowing, imperfect and silver orb. Shrinking, growing and floating the orb observes Mapungubwe, an abyss, the characters and all other contexts in the film without intervening. 

Describing the film, the arts centre’s curatorial director Gabi Ngcobo speaks on the way Specifications for a Reverse Archaeology engages with current discussions around remediating the contentious colonial heritage of museums. “For Nolan, the film is about reaching out to meet the land, and grasping something else altogether,” she says. Acknowledging Hartwig Art Foundation, Ngcobo then goes on to commend the foundation for their role in how, “commissions and collections can be re-imagined”.

A question, Specifications for a Reverse Archaeology asks whether non-imperial and decolonial approaches to museum collections can unearth other dispositions and lines of possibilities. 



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Ruth Ige. Don't hide your glory, 2022.
Acrylic on canvas. 122 x 122cm. (© Copyright 2022, STEVENSON. All rights reserved)

Friday, 8th September

Collection tour of Anglo American

144 Oxford Rd, Rosebank

8 September 2023

Event details

The Anglo American art and object collection is a combination of art collected over several decades through four different companies: Anglo American, de Beers Group, Anglo American Platinum and Kumba Iron Ore.

The collection comprises of 3600 works, with around 1000 pieces in the collection on display at the newly commissioned Rosebank offices. Although vast, the collection experienced an acquisition hiatus from the early 2000s until 2021 creating a significant gap in the collection’s representation of contemporary art. The collection now has a dedicated curator, Megan Scott, tasked with its cataloguing and digitisation, opening an exciting new chapter which will see the gradual procurement of significant works that reflect our contemporary South African and African art world.

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