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Pro Helvetia Johannesburg celebrates 20 years

2018 represents the 20th anniversary year of Pro Helvetia’s presence in South/Southern Africa, alongside Cairo celebrating thirty years in the MENA region and New Delhi marking ten years in South Asia.

For the Johannesburg office the anniversary year provides an opportunity for us to initiate new and interesting joint programming possibilities among the three involved liaison offices and Zurich, informed by the interconnected histories and contemporary experiences of these world regions. We also look to make visible a distinguished track record of exchange and collaboration in our region. Finally, we seek to pause and reflect – with partners in Switzerland and the region – on the role and position of Pro Helvetia in the region in ways that would inform the general approach of the office going forward. On this last point, we also use the year to explore new relationships with partners in major urban centres on the subcontinent beyond the traditional confines of our region – in the first instance, in Lagos, Dakar, Bamako, Accra, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi.

In September we will convene Terms of Engagement, a gathering of the partners that we work with currently or in prospect from across the sub-continent. We look at an open and imaginative format for the gathering with invited orchestrators of conversations and inquiries, with the aim to think together about the questions and issues facing the cultural field in the region and the subcontinent in the coming years.

During the course of the year we have a number of projects planned with key partners in South Africa that would bring arts professionals from Switzerland and the regions of the three liaison offices together. We explore interesting formats for these encounters aimed at exchange, networking and collaborations towards the production of new work, as well as showcasing existing projects that have emerged from connections between the three liaison offices.

We also then look to develop a small publication marking this moment of ‘backward-forward’ looking, that would draw on the discussions and material generated out of the March gathering, for launch in November/December 2018.

See the “September Public Programme”  tab for more information about  events that happen in the frame of the anniversary year.

The Johannesburg office of the organisation was originally established in 1998 in Cape Town under the leadership of Mirjam Asmal. Working with a small, agile team, the organisation rapidly established a strong reputation in South Africa for unusual, bold and independent artistic programming, with the quality of work and exchanges being an over-riding criterion. Colin Miller was also instrumental in this period in nurturing a fertile ground for exchange and collaboration in the jazz field, which continues to yield rich returns under the current stewardship of music programme manager Germaine Gamiet.

From an early moment, cooperation with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has enabled our office to support the strengthening of transnational networks and collaborations among artists and practitioners working within Southern Africa. This has enabled us to develop a strong and meaningful regional network which has in turn benefited our core Swiss programming in profound ways.

From 2006, Jasper Walgrave continued to build on the foundation established by Asmal, bringing dynamic programming in the performing arts field into the repertoire of the office, a legacy that Rucera Seethal now takes forward as programme manager for the performing arts.  Walgrave also oversaw the launch of the SDC financed ANT micro grant funding programme for intra-regional mobility within Southern Africa, and the strengthening of networks in neighbouring Mozambique and Zimbabwe in particular. The office was relocated to Johannesburg in 2012 – a more strategic location relative to our ambitions within the wider region. Esther Malia also joined the team at this point as finance and office manager, anchoring the organisation during a period of substantial change.

Joseph Gaylard took over from Walgrave in late 2013, bringing an extensive network in the visual arts field and new continental linkages to bear on the work of the office. During this period, our activities have extended in significant ways beyond South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, with important emergent partnerships in the DRC, Madagascar, Tanzania, Namibia and Zambia. In 2016, Tiffany Mentoor and Sthembile Gasa joined the office, with Tiffany administering our SDC regional arts programme and Sthembile driving our on-line communications.

On the occasion of our 20th anniversary we hosted Terms of Engagement, a three-day programme of encounters and reflections in Johannesburg from 6-8 September 2018. The event offered a space for a cross-generational and interdisciplinary meeting of our continental, Swiss and global networks to meet and share experiences, practices and perspectives.

In an assemblage of artistic programming, curated discussions and networking sessions, participants had the opportunity to share with each other perceptions of the challenges, opportunities, ideas and resources that shape artistic practice and organisational, cultural and societal contexts in the coming years.



We invited 5 key thinkers and connectors from the cultural field on the continent, in the diaspora and in Switzerland to curate five conversational strands: the opportunity to use diverse materials and methods to explore, during the course of three days, questions that are a central part of their practice and which raise pertinent issues for the present and future of the cultural field on the subcontinent. The five ‘conversationalists’ were:

  • Folakunle Oshun (Nigeria), artist and curator, Lagos Biennale, Lagos
  • Patrick Mudekereza (Democratic Republic of the Congo), director, Waza Arts Centre, Lubumbashi
  • Mats Staub (Switzerland), artist, Berlin
  • Missla Libsekal (Ethiopia/Canada), writer and curator, Vancouver
  • Jihan El-Tahri (Egypt/France), documentary film-maker and visual artist


Adjacent to these curated conversational strands, we crowd-source content and presentations from the broader group of participants, so as to enable participants to quite organically find out more about each other, share thinking, argue positions and build new connections. In the lead up to the event, participants were invited to prepare 10-15 minute presentations, working within one of the following three frames:

  • marketplace: a short presentation on a current or planned project with a view to soliciting engagement, connection and feedback from other participants (normally a descriptive title).
  • playground: the open-ended exploration of a problem or issue which is felt to be important or central in the thinking and practice of the participant (normally articulated as a question)
  • battlefield: the articulation of a position on a particular question or issue facing arts practitioners/the cultural field on the continent, with a view to generating debate and critical exchange (normally articulated as an assertion/provocation)

A total of 42 sessions took place, each hosted by a different participant covering a wide range of topics.

Crowd-Sourced Session Hosts & Topics



Public Programme


We mark the moment of our 20th anniversary with a specially curated collection of new projects and programmes launching during the course of the first week of September with partners and venues across Johannesburg, our home city since our office moved from Cape Town in 2012.

This coincides with the three-day Terms of Engagement gathering of current and prospective partners and friends from more than twenty urban centres across the continent, running parallel to Joburg Art Week and the Fakugesi Digital Arts Festival.

Fittingly for the frame of an anniversary, four projects take archives and memory as a key resource and reference in their construction. Both Uriel Orlow’s Theatrum Botanicum and artist/historian Melanie Boehi’s Storytelling in the Language of Flowers explore the botanical world in South Africa as a prism through which social and political history is manifest and contemporary questions are expressed and ventilated.  Egyptian director Laila Soliman similarly mines the historical-political and psycho-social dimensions of disease in the world premiere of Museum of Lungs, as expressed through the body and person of South African writer Stacy Hardy and her puppet avatar, created by Basel-based Marius Kob. In her solo exhibition project (simultaneously mirrored at Alte Fabrik in Rapperswil, Switzerland), Neutrality as an Agent, Denise Bertschi delves into the archive of Swiss-South African relations during the apartheid period, and the contemporary echoes of this largely obscured history.

In the same vein as the Museum of Lungs collaboration, other projects work with and mine our global and continental network. We bring young digital artists from Switzerland, Egypt, India, Mali, Zimbabwe and South Africa together in a month long production residency managed by the Fakugesi digital arts festival, with leading Swiss digital artist Marc Lee as a workshop facilitator and special guest artist at the 2018 edition of the festival. Points of Engagement is a special presentation of two projects that provide new insights and points of entry into the complex contemporary experiences of artists globally, and on the continent in particular. In Artist (Working Title), Berlin-based Mats Staub examines the professional trajectories of artists from Switzerland, South Africa, Egypt and India who’ve been on Pro Helvetia Residencies. In Artists on Africa, Basel based Kadiatou Diallo examines the bifurcated experiences of African artists on the continent and in the diaspora.

Collectively, the projects brought together for the anniversary programme speak to our concern with facilitating considered and precise collaborations and exchanges that connect the Swiss artistic field with the multiple and fast changing geographies and currents that our international network of offices is embedded and invested in.  These initiatives exemplify our commitment to supporting a depth and quality of research and collaboration, and of the work that results from those relationships. This depth and quality is a function both of time and resources, but also of access to relevant networks and knowledge, and our role as funder and facilitator encompasses both of these aspects. Our anniversary year provides a juncture for us, for our partners and for our audiences to both reflect on and enjoy the fruits of these shared investments and labours.

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