Curatorial Statement

Of Smoke and Ash: The Jagger Library Memorial Exhibition

On 18 April 2021 a wild fire swept down from the slopes of Devil’s Peak and set the University of Cape Town’s Jagger Library ablaze. Of Smoke and Ash: The Jagger Library Memorial Exhibition–a collaborative project between the Centre for Curating the Archive, Michaelis Galleries and the University of Cape Town Libraries–reflects on events in the immediate aftermath. The exhibition memorialises the loss of the UCT Jagger Library building and its archive and celebrates UCT librarians and volunteers who participated in the salvage operations that followed. 

The disaster deeply affected UCT librarians, students and academics and the wider intellectual community. We pay homage to the grief by creating a curatorial space evocative of the smoky, chaotic textures of the disaster. The exhibition is itself a salvage project. We gathered Jagger Library burnt matter, such as books, drawings and equipment, but also packing crates, images and texts shared by salvage volunteers, UCT Michaelis School of Fine Art students’ graduate work, and material from UCT Libraries’ official public record of the salvage and recovery operation. 

Together it is used to give insight, from the perspective of those most closely involved. Photos by UCT Librarians, staff and volunteers show the frenzied, yet methodical communal work of retrieving, moving and conserving archival matter from the Jagger Library site and basement stores, and the camaraderie it fostered. In between, art installations by UCT Michaelis graduates creatively engage with different aspects of the salvage process, Jagger Library collections, the serendipity of archival discovery, issues of memory and loss, land and climate change and the politics of knowledge. 

More than loss, we also draw attention to how unusual and significant the Jagger Library was and is, how UCT Libraries Special Collections continues online and how its collections are being reconstituted and conserved at Maitland House.

UCT Libraries African Studies collections were acutely affected by the fire. The loss is especially tragic since these gained new significance in the context of the transformation process UCT embarked upon since 2015, which was accompanied by its own fires, such as the Shackville protest of 2016.  

Much still remains unrecovered. Questions about Jagger Library’s colonial heritage, the histories and politics that inform its collections and historic rights of access to the archive remain unresolved. After the fire, Jagger Library remains a site of vigorous, unfinished debate. Working with the debris, this exhibition aims to provide a way of sitting with the grief, celebrating the spirit of the salvage, exploring Jagger Library’s complexity, and for now, helping our institution heal.

Duane Jethro and Jade Nair, April 2022

The physical exhibition is now closed.

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