Professor Pippa Skotnes retires

06 Jul 2021
06 Jul 2021

The 30th of April 2021 marked the last formal day of employment for Professor Pippa Skotnes, our director at the Centre for Curating the Archive. Since being an undergrad in the mid-1970s, Pippa has offered an astonishing 46 years of dedication to the school and university, influencing the lives of its staff, students, and researchers in myriad ways. In his letter to the school sent out on this day, the current director of the school, Associate Professor Kurt Campbell (together with long-time staff and colleagues of Pippa), attempted to list all that she achieved during this period.

He wrote: “During her eight years as Director (of Michaelis) she transformed the gender profile of the department entirely. As a retired female staff member writes, “the peripheral position women had occupied at the Art school, as far back as I can remember in the 1950s, changed dramatically. Pippa’s leadership was a generous and collegial one. She drew us into her wake, we were given the opportunity to advance for the first time, to challenge ourselves, spurred, encouraged and inspired to realise our potential.

Prof Skotnes repositioned Fine Art within the university, not only through years of work with the NRF, but also at University and Faculty level, where the value of creative work as research was finally acknowledged, not least of all by the example of her own multi-disciplinary research, exhibitions and book productions. At university and faculty level, she has sat on almost all significant committees at one point or another, and thereby increased the visibility our department.

She introduced many new innovations to the programme, which include the development of Michaelis Gallery, 4th year student catalogue, the Foundation course, Discourse of Art at the school, the Fine Art PhD, and the Honours in Curatorship programme. She co-founded the Katrine Harries Print Cabinet with Prof Stephen Inggs, was the initial director of GIPCA (that became the ICA) and founded Llarec and the CCA, attracting interesting academics and projects from across the world and drawing attention to the role of exhibition making in restorative justice and reimagining the archive. She has a remarkable ability to fundraise and thereby support staff projects and also bring interesting people to the school.

She has won the UCT book award twice, shared the Alan Pifer Social responsiveness award, and shared the stage with Stephen Greenblatt and Homi Bhabha - a testament to her international standing. Her energy has always been daunting and she continues to produce groundbreaking exhibitions, conferences, installations and publications.

The list is exhausting and astonishing in its scope. We at the CCA, who have had privilege of working with Pippa intimately in the many years since the centre’s establishment, can attest to even more contributions, however…

Working with her closely has afforded us the daily, unique opportunity to see her mind at work and experience how she manifests ideas in ways that constantly break new ground on multiple fronts and challenge our understanding of the past and its reverberations in the present. In addition to engaging with her unique methodologies, we have experienced her immense generosity over the years. One of its many manifestations has been the projects she entrusted to each of us, at different times in our careers, that were uncannily in tune with each of our individual research interests. These allowed us the freedom to test our own ideas within an environment in which she was always on hand to support and offer advice, whenever we needed her.

In the week following her retirement, we celebrated this remarkable individual on two separate occasions – one during a more intimate CCA-only evening at the Mount Nelson, and another, at Simon’s at Groot Constantia, with fellow staff members of the school.

During the Simon’s lunch, Associate Professor Fritha Langerman, who will aptly occupy the role as the new director of the CCA following her long line of engagement with the centre (from her first role as student research assistant to Pippa’s Miscast of 1996, right up to her many multi-faceted and rich research projects that form part of the CCA’s current research profile), presented Pippa with her own personal dictionary based on the Bleek and Lloyd Ixam entries of the letter ‘P’. In a custom-made drawer, packed with an extensive collection of 12.5 x 7.6cm cards mimicking her beloved Bleek and Lloyd archive, colleagues, and collaborators from all over the world sang Pippa’s praises using words like ‘Pain’, ‘Pupil’, ‘Pedetes’, ‘Patch’ and ‘Pillow’ (to name a few) as inspiration for their entries. The dictionary manifested how she has changed people’s lives in profound ways, and it is a resource that she will hopefully consult, as she does the official one, again and again.

It has been an overwhelming privilege to work under and alongside Pippa, and the experience of it is one each CCA staff member will no doubt cherish and return to, for sustenance and inspiration, in the years to come.