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Ricky Burnett was born in Birmingham, England, in 1949, and moved to South Africa at the age of six. He attended Wits University, where he studied Medicine before switching to a BA degree in the Humanities. It was after discovering the work of Cezanne that he decided to become an artist: he was struck by the merging of thought and feeling in Cezanne’s work, the capacity to order experience while remaining emotionally connected to the world.
In 1972, he met Bill Ainslee and within a year he was making art objects. Almost simultaneously, he started to teach – and found an aptitude and passion for teaching that remains with him today. His remarkable talent for curating also emerged soon afterwards: he curated two exhibitions for the Foundation, one at Gallery 101 and the second at the Market Theatre Gallery. These were followed by two solo exhibitions of his own work at the Market Theatre Gallery and the Enthoven Gallery. Gail Behrmann described the metal sculptures as ‘extraordinary abstract drawings in space that caught the eye of Anthony Caro’.
For several years, Burnett would remain associated with the Art Foundation and write reviews for the Rand Daily Mail. A major turn occurred when he started the BMW Tributaries project, which involved collecting artworks throughout southern Africa. Andrew Vester wrote:
‘Ricky Burnett has put together the most exciting collection of South African art ever seen. The show is unique for it brings together works from so many different sources … His journey took him to art schools and teaching studios … to community centre workshops, to museums, to opulent collections, grass woven beehive huts, city centres, barren settlements, and some very pretty villages.’
Following the success of Tributaries, Burnett moved to London in 1985. There he worked on what would eventually become the famous Brenthurst Collection, now on permanent loan at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
In 1989, Burnett returned to South Africa to curate a ground-breaking exhibition of Jackson Hlungwane’s work. The following year, Burnett and Mary Slack set up Newtown Galleries. This gallery was the first in the country to exhibit new work from the rest of continental Africa. Burnett curated around thirty exhibitions during this period.
Ricky Burnett moved to the United States in 2001, near Seattle, where he continued to teach and make art before returning to South Africa in 2007. He soon re-established himself as a teacher and curator – and curated the celebrated ‘Horse’ at the Everard Read (Johannesburg) and CIRCA. A series of ground-breaking exhibitions also followed: ‘Margins’ (Everard Read Johannesburg, 2008), ‘Resurrection Cycles & On Skin’ (smac, 2009), ‘Damascus Gate’ (Gallery 2, 2014), ‘Troubled with Goya’ (Everard Read Johannesburg, 2015) and ‘Goya Adaptations’ (Everard Read, Johannesburg, 2016).
In 2016, Palimpsest Press published a book about Ricky Burnett’s recent work. Titled Troubled with Goya, it features photographs by Liz Whitter and contains Ricky Burnett in conversation with Tracey Hawthorne. The book is available for sale at: https://www.palimpsestinternational.com/troubled-with-goya
RESURRECTION CYCLES & ON SKIN (2009)
DAMASCUS GATE (2014)
TROUBLED WITH GOYA (2015) and GOYA ADAPTATIONS (2016)
Ricky Burnett has worked extensively as a curator locally and abroad. Important exhibitions include Tributaries, Jackson Hlungwane, Horse, as well as around thirty exhibitions when he ran Newtown Galleries with Mary Slack.
Jackson Hlungwane was first featured in Tributaries, and his solo exhibition with Burnett was a fitting sequel. It established Hlungwane is one of the most significant and exciting South African artists of his generation.
At Newtown Galleries, Burnett was the first curator in the country to bring in art from all over continental Africa, while artists such as Vyakul from India and Basil Beatty from the UK were also included. Memorable exhibitions included Urban Artifacts, an exhibition of Geoffrey Armstrong’s sculptures, as well as work by Kay Hassan, David Koloane and Pat Mautloa for Africus ’95.
Burnett’s exhibition ‘Horse’ at the Everard Read and CIRCA also brought together a collection of contemporary South African artists who were not traditionally associated with one another. It became one of the most memorable exhibitions in the gallery’s history.
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