Quake brings 'refugees' together on walls of Cape Town gallery
How a 400-year-old Italian painting and a contemporary African artwork ended up in 'conversation'
A 400-year-old baroque painting has found refuge in Cape Town after its home town in Italy was struck by a massive earthquake, making the museum it once called home uninhabitable for the priceless piece.
But now the Madonna con bambino benedicente, which was painted by Guercino in 1629, stands “in conversation” with a piece by another refugee to SA, Kudzanai Chiurai, a rising star in the world of art.
In 2012, the city of Cento found itself near the epicentre of a magnitude 7 earthquake that left 27 people dead and destroyed buildings across several cities.
The birthplace of Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), museums in Cento housed many of his paintings, including his most important work Madonna con bambino benedicente, which is worth R45-million.When the museum it hung in was damaged by the quake it found temporary refuge in a church before the Italian Consulate in Cape Town found out that it needed a temporary home.
Alfonso Tagliaferri, Consul of Italy in SA, knew it would be well suited to “possibly the most important museum space in Africa”, the newly opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.
He said that although the Zeitz museum immediately liked the idea, the gallery is still a space for contemporary African art, so they decided to place it in dialogue with a painting by Chiurai, a Zimbabwean.
“We are proud to showcase a masterpiece of Italian cultural heritage in what is possibly the most important museum space on the African continent. I believe that this exhibition will create new stimulating bridges between our cultures,” said Tagliaferri.“At the same time, I hope it will entice South Africans to travel to Italy and experience how every corner of it can hold something unique, like this beautiful Madonna that is kept in a church in the medieval town of Cento, in the Emilia-Romagna region,” he said.
“The city of Cento is the birthplace of one of the Italian masters of the baroque period called Guercino. It is also a really good example of secondary cultural tourism in the sense that he’s not super-well known to the broad masses. He’s not Raphael or Leonardo or Michelangelo, but he’s still a very important one,” he said.
The two works in Now & Then: Guercino & Kudzanai Chiurai deal with similar themes, with Guercini depicting the “benediction of madonna and child”, referring to the birth of Jesus Christ.According to the museum, Chiurai's piece depicts a maternal figure nursing a wounded woman – this refers to Michelangelo’s sculpture Pietá 1499, which portrays the lifeless body of Christ over the Virgin Mary’s knees after the crucifixion.
The organisers of the exhibition, Gcotyelwa Mashiqa and Julia Kabat, said the juxtaposition creates an interesting conversation about how artworks interact over time, space and culture.
“It has been an interesting process to conceptualise the juxtaposition of an almost 400-year-old painting with a contemporary African artwork,” said Kabat.
“To reconsider the significance of Guercino’s Baroque painting in a contemporary setting suggests the refusal of dominant histories in favour of a multitude of perspectives in which a story has many sides and many potential meanings,” she said.Mashiqa added; “Working on this exhibition has made me consider how the narrative of history is not fixed, is more complex than we are taught, and has gaps. The conversation between Guercino and Chiurai is an attempt to fill in the gaps and relook at the dominant nature of this narrative.”
The painting cost about R1-million to bring to SA, including insurance and transport.
The exhibition will run until September 24 when the painting will return to Italy for a retrospective exhibition of Guercino’s art.