Face-to-face negotiations: Portraits of leaders at three South African universities

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Through a focus on Rhodes University, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Pretoria, the author explores the priorities that are normally at play when institutions commission portraits of chancellors, vice chancellors and chairs of council, and the ways in which artists have responded to these priorities. An emphasis on mimesis amongst those commissioning portraits of this type posed a challenge to artists operating in modernist paradigms, i.e. frameworks in which it was believed that ‘truth’ is to be found by reworking rather than replicating perceived reality. Also, the emphasis on ‘mirroring’ reality was complicated through the making of posthumous portraits—ones in which painters sought to convey a sense of their encounters with sitters when no sittings had, in fact, taken place. Even greater challenges have been presented in a contemporary context, however. Postmodernist and poststructuralist theories about representation challenge traditionalist understandings of the kinds of insights about individual identity that representations are able to yield. If a conception that the portrait might reflect hidden ‘truths’ about the individual implies that, in addition to being unified and coherent, the self is knowable, discourses with contemporary currency invariably question the notion that there is an essential identity within the individual subject. The author explores works by Tanya Poole, Reshada Crouse and Frikkie Eksteen in light of such questioning, revealing ways in which they undertake a critical engagement with histories of portraiture and unpack conventions that have been deployed. While originally acquired to enable institutions to suggest that they have distinguished pedigrees, portrait collections at universities in post-apartheid South Africa have in fact begun to read as testaments to histories of exclusion or inequality on the grounds of gender and race. As indicated in the final part of the article, institutions have endeavoured to negotiate this difficulty by seeking new contexts in which to display their portraits.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14-36
Number of pages23
JournalDe Arte
Issue number80
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies


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