As an anti-apartheid artist in the Resistance Art Movement of South Africa and a conscientious objector to conscription in the whites-only military engaged in oppression, I went into exile in Zimbabwe, where I had citizenship by birth. There, I continued to study African Art History by correspondence with UNISA, for mental stimulation. I needed more. I sneaked back into South Africa to co-organize an exhibition documenting mural arts—one of the first art exhibits to take a cross-cultural, non-racial view, it was hailed in the press as a “cultural event of the decade.”
It seemed then, in the repressive late 1980s, that democracy would never come to South Africa, and I felt stuck in Zimbabwe, which offered limited opportunities. I needed to do more. My father-in-law, the architect Dr. Philip Brittan, suggested that I apply for a Fulbright. It would never have occurred to me; I thought it was a long shot…
I recall vividly when I heard the news. I was again in South Africa, working underground in a pro-democracy organization in Cape Town. I had been traced (or betrayed), and I was receiving threatening phone calls—on one occasion I had fled my room clutching my passport, convinced that the “security forces” were about to pounce. The Fulbright award was a breath of fresh air, full of promise, an escape, and a new beginning.
I was accepted into the renowned art history graduate program at Columbia University, whose strong African program was headed by Suzanne Blier. My wife, Lisa Brittan, and I arrived in New York with a stipend of around $850, of which about $750 was owed to Columbia in rent for a tiny apartment with two windows onto a brick wall. We lived mainly on egg mayonnaise for a while, occasionally garnished with a pinch of caviar from a tiny $2.99 jar. We could not afford Paul Newman’s lemonade: whenever I see it on shelves today I remember that time.
In 1990, we danced up and down in our tiny apartment as we watched Nelson Mandela walk free on the fuzzy black-and-white TV we had picked up from the street.
The next year, thanks to a Rockefeller Dissertation Award, we returned to South Africa to research and photograph Basotho mural arts—a topic never studied before, and stayed long enough to vote for the first time ever—for Nelson Mandela. I returned to New York in 1994 to produce an exhibition of my photographs at Columbia, critically acclaimed by the New York Times’ writer Holland Cotter, and this later became a NY Times Architecture Book of the Year.
I was asked to become the editor of a 56-volume series of books on African cultures, and remained in New York to do so. I was awarded my Green Card on the basis of extraordinary achievement, and we became American citizens.
In 1997, we founded Axis Gallery, which the NY Times remarked “made New York history by putting African art—old and new—on the map” in Chelsea, and produced many “museum-like” exhibitions over the years. We work closely with many leading American museums on exhibitions and display issues, collection identification and building, and education and outreach.
In 2013, I curated “Shangaa: Art of Tanzania” at CUNY’s QCC Art Gallery (which also traveled to Portland Museum of Art, Maine), the first exhibition and scholarly volume in English devoted to the traditional arts of Tanzania—the product of several years’ work. I also published last year a general-audience book on Pop Art, including many neglected artists, particularly women.
I am Executive Director of Alma On Dobbin, a not-for-profit that promotes cultural exchanges among and between the US, Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe, and am helping to found an institute for Central and Eastern European art under the aegis of the CUNY system. I am currently preparing a retrospective on Jakob Jakovits, a Hungarian artist exiled in New York until the fall of the Soviet Union.
I spent a few weeks this year in Guinea, working on the next exhibition for QCC Art Gallery (CUNY), which will focus on the African provenance and oral histories surrounding art objects of the Baga, Nalu, and Mandori people.
As Program Chair of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association Triennial Symposium, held at the Brooklyn Museum in March 2014, I was honored to shape this international conference of African-art scholars, and look forward to playing a similar role for the next Triennial, in Ghana.
I do not need more to do! This full program is what I needed, and what the Fulbright helped me to reach.
Gary van Wyk
from Zimbabwe to United States
Student at Columbia University (1989)