Life–Line–Knot: Six Object Biographies
July 20, 2015

Life-Line-Knot is both an exhibition and a book.

The exhibition is centred on six objects from the Wits Art Museum (WAM) collection and the Standard Bank African Art Collection. These were selected and researched by postgraduate History of Art and Heritage students, in the context of a course on Object Biographies.

Accompanying the exhibition is a well-illustrated book that contains an introductory essay contextualising the aims and processes of this research project and six essays - one on each of the objects investigated.

Underpinning the project is the desire to know more, and to know more specific details about objects in the WAM collection. In a sense, the students were tasked to recover, as far as possible, the complex biographical trajectories across time and place of the object they had selected.

Following these trajectories was by no means a straight line of investigation - rather, each recovered piece of biographical information revealed, in Igor Kopytoff's words, "a tangled mass of aesthetic, historical and even political judgments, and of convictions and values that shape our attitudes to objects".

Following faint leads points to the detective-like nature of object-based research, and echoes Detective Mike Hoolihan, Martin Amis's fictional character, who described the process of solving a challenging homicide case: "I have taken a good firm knot and reduced it to a mess of loose ends". This troubled statement suggests that while knottedness is a stable condition, its internal structure is complex and obscure, and it calls out to be undone - but that this undoing, instead of leading to a neat linear narrative, reveals multiple possible stories, and multiple possible endings. A knot is a prompt to unravel a more complex account.

Each of the objects to be displayed is accompanied by an extraordinary story captured in the book - though each essay or research journey yielded different kinds of information, each one offers fascinating insights into the processes of research, and the recovery and construction of knowledge and histories.

The objects researched are:

-  a clay pot

- a painting

- a wire and fur sculpture of a

- a pair of charms

- two political photographs.

The new biographies are intriguing, and the "before and after" exhibition labels for the pot distills the results of one student's research.

Of course, the project (both the exhibition and the book) is far richer and more complex than a simple "filling in" of missing information regarding the objects under discussion - and indeed some biographies remained stubbornly opaque. It is a project that has enabled young researchers and writers to explore, to investigate, to experience primary research processes, to think and hope and imagine and obsess about objects, their lives, their impact on us here and now; it is a project that brings research alive. This is a lifeline to the future of the discipline.

Life-Line-Knot is the sequel to Lifelines: Object biographies from the Standard Bank African Art Collection, a book and exhibition that Wits History of Art and WAM presented in 2014 at the Standard Bank Gallery.

The editors and curators are Joni Brenner, Laura De Becker, Stacey Vorster and Justine Wintjes.

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