The first major exhibition of papers and artefacts from the JM Coetzee archives opened on the evening of 9 February to honour Coetzee on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
The exhibition includes items from the JM Coetzee archives at both the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature in Makhanda (Grahamstown) and the Harry Ransom Centre (HRC) at the University of Texas in Austin. Two years in the planning, the exhibition and celebrations were a joint effort involving Amazwi, the HRC, The University of York and SOAS at the University of London.
For Coetzee’s birthday, the newly branded Amazwi had invited the writer’s family, friends, ex-students and colleagues from around the world. They came from the USA, the UK, Australia and South Africa, and were joined by numbers of younger “Coetzee people”.
The programme for three days of “warm and friendly” celebration included music performances, readings, talks and screenings. Coetzee himself was present throughout, visibly enjoying the proceedings.
Two new books were launched: Eva Cossee’s Boyhood (in Dutch, English and Italian) and Dorothy Driver’s A book of friends, which she had edited as a birthday gift for Coetzee (they have been partners for four decades). A number of the people who had contributed essays, poems, fragments of fiction and images to the book were present.
The main exhibition (“Scenes from the South”) graphically maps Coetzee’s current project: stimulating conversations and literary activities across the Southern Hemisphere. This “South-South” installation encircles the stage of the art exhibition hall. The central area is like a metropolis of glass boxes containing papers and memorabilia which create a physical biography dating back to Coetzee’s childhood.
A side installation, “The roads of France”, presents work-in-progress for a collaborative documentary on Coetzee’s “poetics of cycling”. GoPro photographer and Coetzee’s cycling pal, Rick Barney from New York, was on hand to talk through the language of the proposed film.
The exhibition is supported by a 72-page catalogue, and tablet flipbooks are available for those who wish to leaf through images from the more fragile documents on display (like Coetzee’s junior school notebooks).
A companion installation features black-and-white prints from Coetzee’s early forays into photography.
- JM Coetzee event photographs: Lara Salomon
Kai Easton (SOAS, University of London), co-curator of “Scenes from the South”, will lead several walkabouts of the exhibition during the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (Grahamstown), 25 June to 5 July.
The exhibition remains open at Amazwi until 6 July, when it will be taken to the HRC in Texas for a second run (15 August 2020 to 3 January 2021).