Emma Bedford remembers Bruce Arnott

With Bruce Arnott’s passing South Africa has lost a major public intellectual who was both an acclaimed artist and a consummate museum professional.

Arnott joined the South African National Gallery in a temporary capacity in 1962 before being promoted in 1969 to Chief Professional Officer – a curator, in today’s parlance – and Assistant Director in 1970. Gerard Sekoto’s Street Scene, the first purchase of a work by a black artist, was acquired in 1964. Arnott’s research interest in Central and West Africa for his Masters at UCT in 1961, furthered at London’s Courtauld Institute from 1964 to 1965, provided a deepening understanding and appreciation of African art. He edited the catalogue of Irma Stern‘s collections of Central and West African artefacts for the Irma Stern Museum which opened in 1971.

His far-sighted vision for art on and of the African continent affirm him as an advocate of change, ahead of his time.

With artist, Lippy Lipshitz, who served on the SANG board from 1964, Arnott steered the Gallery’s collecting strategy towards focusing on art beyond the Western canon. He was instrumental in acquiring sculpture, not only by black South African artists, but from further afield on the continent. Supervising the Department of Prints and Drawings, he drove the acquisition of works by black South African artists, including three outstanding Dumile Feni drawings and a group of linocuts by Azaria Mbatha that have proved to be significant and far-sighted acquisitions.

Vision for art

In the 1960s he curated ground-breaking exhibitions such as Rock Art in Southern Africa and African Weaving. In the 1970s he curated Ceramic African Heads from Lydenburg and African Art in Metal as well as acquiring for SANG a collection of African sculptures including fine Ashanti bronze and gold artefacts.

He will be sorely missed but his extraordinary legacy remains. His far-sighted vision for art on and of the African continent affirm him as an advocate of change, ahead of his time.

We send our sincere condolences to his family and friends as well as the many artists whose lives he impacted.

Emma Bedford

Former Senior Curator and Head of the Art Division of Iziko South African National Gallery

Factual information above was drawn from Anna Tietze (2017) A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on art and national identity. Cape Town: UCT Press.