The Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre (VIAD) is a nationally and internationally respected research facility, dedicated to deepening research and critical commentary around the overarching thematic of identity construction in visual representation. All research generated, whether in written form, or otherwise, addresses identity construction and its readings, across both contemporary and historical contexts. These constructions are identified, read and analysed in relation to visual practice, visual representation and visual culture. While emphasis is placed on the construction of visual identities in a contemporary South African context, this context is considered in relation to its positioning as part of the African continent and the global south.

VIAD currently comprises Associate Professor Leora Farber (Director), Professor Brenda Schmahmann, 28 Research Associates and one Post-Doctoral Fellow.

VIAD’s core aim is to continue to grow as a financially sustainable, nationally and internationally renowned locus for art and design research focused on visual expressions of identity. This is realised through the following secondary aims:

• to further develop a strong research ethos and culture around the core thematic of visual identities in representation, on national and international levels
• to build on VIAD’s standing as a critical locus of research development in relation to the broader South African, African and international academic communities
• to guide, facilitate and support the development of Practice-Led Research (PLR) in art and design around the thematic of visual identities within the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA), as well as within the South African academy.
• to develop a substantive body of knowledge in the area of visual identities in art and design through the research of its Research Associates (RAs), Post-Doctoral Research Fellows (PDRFs), as well as FADA staff and post-graduate students.

Research produced in VIAD may take the form of written outputs (solo or co-authored scholarly books, academic journal articles, chapters in edited volumes, guest-edited special editions of journals); creative production (solo or curated exhibitions, installations, public art, collaborative projects, design and other visual products); curatorial practices (exhibitions curated around particular conceptual thematics); and multiple platforms for knowledge dissemination and exchange (conferences, panel discussions, colloquia) that have broad audience reach.

VIAD was established in June 2007 and is housed within the FADA building on the Bunting Road Campus. The campus is situated at the creative juncture of Milpark and Braamfontein. VIAD’s location within the urban metropolis of Johannesburg — the economic capital of Africa — is strategic. Its relation to Johannesburg is reiterated in UJ’s positioning of itself as a “modern African city University” (University of Johannesburg:2013) and research conducted in VIAD reflects UJ’s engagement with the powerful cultural diversities of the contemporary Johannesburg metropolis. VIAD’s conceptual positioning is in direct relation to its immediate and broader context: first, as based in the city of Johannesburg; second, in relation to South Africa; and third, to South Africa’s positionality as part of the African continent and the global south.

Given its commitment to Practice-Led Research (PLR) in visual practice, -representation and -culture, and its purposeful interlinking of textual and practical outputs, VIAD has little precedent in the South African academy; a strong point of differentiation is that it fosters critical and dialogical relationships between theory and practice, advancing a theoretically discursive research practice in combination with a strongly PLR-based approach. Although there is an emphasis on textual outputs, creative and curatorial research are recognised as occupying a central position in academic research processes within art and design discourses. By way of nurturing this intrinsic link between theory and practice in the work of visual practitioners, VIAD actively develops and acknowledges spaces and projects wherein knowledge bases may be deepened beyond the theoretical, into the visual and/or tangible.

Research undertaken under VIAD’s auspices is aligned with the expanded socio-cultural-theoretical parameters of art, design and visual culture, and actively engages with and reflects these visual disciplines as they span the broader spectrum of visual representation. Although readings of identity constructs from a range of interdisciplinary theoretical fields across the Humanities are encouraged and actively sought, emphasis is placed on how these fields can be drawn on in application to visual practice and representation.

VIAD is dedicated to:

    •  identifying fresh, dynamic, and/or under-developed areas of relevant research relating to identity construction in all/any of the visual- art, design and culture disciplines
    • crossing traditional boundaries with regard to how we think about and engage these disciplines, by promoting engagement that is both trans- and interdisciplinary
    • generating trans-disciplinary production through textual, creative and/or curatorial outputs by artists, designers, theorists, thinkers and creative practitioners
    • producing gutsy, cutting-edge, high-level research that significantly contributes to knowledge generation in the domain of visual identities
    • developing and broadening a culture of critical enquiry and creativity in the city, the country and the continent
    • fostering dynamic research that comes out of and speaks to the continent with relevance and urgency
    • expanding dynamic, constructive and innovative links with other cultural producers and theorists on the continent
    • promoting PLR i.e. research that consciously links theory and practice, as a source of creative and generative potential in knowledge development
    • working with partners who share and add value to our vision and who can assist in its realisation.

Source cited

University of Johannesburg. 2013. Strategic Thrusts 2011-2020. [O]. Available:

While VIAD’s overarching thematic of identity construction in visual representation remains important and timely, over the period 2014-2016, it is being honed in ways that help to sustain its currency. This entails moving beyond broad or, conversely, limited/limiting understandings of identities into other possible areas of investigation that, while they may directly speak to the construction of identity, also critically point to how other social processes and imaginaries inform subjectivities, particularly in South Africa, as well as more broadly across the continent and the global south.


In light of the above, VIAD is consolidating, extending, and deepening nuanced areas of research already located within its three focus areas (Cultural Identities; Bodily/Embodied Identities; Designing/Designed Identities). While not excluding the multiple possible explorations into the construction of visual identities outlined in the VIAD conceptual framework, attention is paid to the construction of identities and subjectivities in visual representation with particular emphasis on the socio-politics of the everyday — how and why the ‘everyday’ is captured, represented, engaged with, read, interpreted, promoted, marketed, and archived.

The term ‘everyday’ is acknowledged to be, and include, a range of diverse, non-uniform personal and/or group experience/s, and as such, has the possibility to be read both in relation to the personal and the political. However, although ‘the everyday’ or the ‘ordinary’ are ostensibly neutral terms, they are often used to describe a range of disparate manifestations of language (visual, creatively practiced, or spoken) and/or the ‘common’ style of a particular place or group. It’s meaning has accrued multiple historical references, inferences and assumptions via the many disciplinary definitions attributed to it. It is these problematics — both of the term ‘the everyday’ and of what it references — that VIAD is considering through its research focus for 2014-2016. The everyday carries strong implications for how emergent visual identities may be articulated, read and understood, and as such, bears significant cultural currency in a contemporary South African, and broader African, context.
Considering what the everyday might encompass raises questions around what the everyday is/may be/is not; to whom or what does the everyday refer; whether the everyday — in a South African or broader African context — necessarily equates to ‘the popular’, ‘popular culture’ and/or ‘the marginal’; whether the everyday constitutes the (ongoing, ever-shifting) ‘new’; whether the everyday may be linked to the ‘non-official’ (as opposed to marginal); what creative possibilities for resistance, transformation and change the everyday carries; how the everyday may give rise to the production of identities that are alternative to the mainstream; whether the everyday is necessarily subversive, or whether it can include that which consciously challenges the status quo, or exist in conscious agency of its separation from it; the everyday’s potential for oppositionality and dissidence; ways in which the everyday may offer agency and voice to that which is (or those who are) silenced, overlooked or deemed unimportant; the currency and contemporaneity of articulations of the everyday; the spatial specificity of the everyday from both rural and urban contexts; the nature of the everyday as inferring group rituals, activities, or cultural phenomena at a particular time; the everyday’s potential to articulate currency, adaptation and shift; and ways in which the everyday has the potential to inform the articulation, readings and understandings of visual identities in a contemporary South African and broader African context. These questions around the everyday and broader areas of research are explored through a particular thematic focus that is developed over each year.

2014: Photographies, identities, positionalities, subjectivities.
Research produced under this thematic focus engages the complexities inherent in photographic images as they pertain to identity construction and representation. The focus is designed to raise questions around the ways in which identities and subjectivities are constructed in relation to ‘photographies’ (a reference to all lens-based, digital imaging and/or new media), and how the interplay of those subjectivities have a bearing on the ways in which photographic images are received, read, and represented (curated, spoken of, written about). Further to this, VIAD’s 2014 thematic focus explores the multiple shifts and possibilities in the contemporary domain pertaining to photographic archives and the expansion and diversity of image-based archival practices.

2015: Performativities, identities positionalities and subjectivities.
Research produced under this thematic focus deals with ways in which singular and collective identities are performed, and expressed through means of representation such as fashion, dress, bodily adornment, embodiment, and interdisciplinary performance.

2016: Constructing identities: objects, remnants, traces, and archives.
Objects, remnants, traces, and/or archives as carriers of meaning in relation to subjectivities and identities.

VIAD hosts a dynamic Public Programme of talks, exhibitions, installations, performances, interventions, presentations, panel discussions, and conversations, featuring high profile academics, international guests, PDRFs, artists, designers, RAs, media personae and public figures from within and external to UJ.

The Public Programme is constructed around a series of small, yet strategic interventions. Each intervention is conceptualised to raise questions and address issues that build upon, and work in dialogue with each other, and are related to VIAD’s annual thematic focus. The conversations that emerge from these interventions are consolidated through dedicated textual outputs that record and develop arguments put forward, via VIAD’s textual and visual archive on its website, and in more broadly scoped events such as the annual VIADUCT platform.


The VIADUCT platform marks the culmination of VIAD’s research focus for the year. It provides a critical forum in which the conceptual strands and trajectories of discussions that took place over the course of the previous year’s Public Programme can be drawn together and reflected upon, and for the discursive possibilities of those discussions to be extended, deepened and intensified. Like a conceptual viaduct, each event that forms part of VIAD’s Public Programme is conceived of as a discursive support structure that directs a path towards the conceptual territory to be explored in the annual platform. This discursive concentrate becomes the point of transition into the next phase of VIAD’s research focus.

Source cited

University of Johannesburg. 2013. About UJ. (O). Available:
Accessed 11 December.

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