The year 2007 was pivotal for the South African art scene; in fact, it was an important year for contemporary African art in general and gaining it the recognition it has today. But there is still much work to be done.
A key moment of 2007 was the first African art pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which was soon followed by country-specific pavilions, such as the South African, Zimbabwean, Angolan and Egyptian pavilions.
Also significant that year was curator Simon Njami’s presentation of the Africa Remix exhibition, which saw the Johannesburg Art Gallery receive a record number of visitors: 28,000 guests were registered during the three months of the exhibition, which featured 80 artists from 25 different countries.
And it was the year the FNB Joburg Art Fair was founded, followed in late-2012 by the Cape Town Art Fair. Both cities also saw the evolution of “art weeks”, built around the fairs, with other art-related events and parties popping up and maximising the opportunity for collectors and art enthusiasts to engage.
The period since 2007 has also seen growth in the number of South African art galleries, as well as international interest in South African and African art in general. This is reflected not only by the enthusiasm of individual collectors, but also major international institutions such as the UK’s Tate, which established an African acquisition committee in 2011.
Twelve years on from the first Joburg Art Fair, there are major changes to the city’s now-established early-spring art week. Mandla Sibeko, director of the FNB Joburg Art Fair since 2015, when it was still owned by Artlogic, is now the sole owner of the fair – which has been renamed to FNB Art Joburg.
“First and foremost, we’re looking at being more relevant here at home,” says Sibeko. “The focus is on building a fair that is reflective of the taste and feel of Johannesburg. Secondary to that, we want the international collector to be able to say, ‘Hey, that fair, down there in South Africa, is so different to all the other fairs that I go to around the world’, which will help create even more interest in collecting the work, as well as visiting and experiencing the city.”
Perhaps the biggest change is a reduction in the number of galleries invited to exhibit at the fair. Only nine galleries will be in the main space, while a further nine are listed for the Gallery Lab, which will be “an incubator, a space for emerging galleries and programmes, as well as a space for exploration; to present and test new artists, ideas and business models relevant to the contemporary African arts landscape”, says Sibeko.
“Our focus is no longer quantity; it’s about quality and that means we have to elevate the standards, re-imagine ourselves. And to do that we have to start back at the basics. So, it will be fewer galleries for this first one. We will grow, but we’re not trying to be a large fair with 50 participating galleries. That’s not our goal,” explains Sibeko.
“In previous editions of the fair, collaborations with the galleries got less and less over the years. With Art Joburg, we focused on getting everybody back to the table to collaborate, to put differences aside for the sake of the industry and find ways to improve the art ecosystem in Johannesburg and in South Africa.”
This change to the structure meant a lot of the galleries that usually exhibited were left out. Enter Latitudes Art Fair, another new platform hosted at nearby Nelson Mandela Square.
Now preparing for its inaugural edition during the upcoming Joburg Art Week, Latitudes was co-founded by the former curator of the FNB Joburg Art Fair and curator of the South African Pavilion in Venice Lucy MacGarry and art advisor, curator and business development director Makgati Molebatsi.
“We saw an opportunity to give those galleries another platform and we decided to do it on the same weekend because we don’t believe that Joburg needs another art fair at a different time,” explains MacGarry.
“If you look at how it works around the world, there are 13 art fairs in Miami during Miami Basel in December. And I think there are seven different art fairs in New York at the same time as Armory. So you capture the interest in the market during one particular time.
“Considering we only started working on this effectively three months ago, it has been insane how much uptake and positive response we’ve had in such a short space of time; we’ve managed to get so many great sponsors and partners involved.”
Latitudes will feature 24 galleries from 13 different countries, representing emerging to mid-career artists, says MacGarry.
Alongside these, will be a section dedicated to early-career artists with no gallery representation. MacGarry is quick to emphasise the importance of challenging the traditional art model to make it more relevant for local audiences, highlighting the advantages of hosting it at Nelson Mandela Square, rather than the Sandton Convention Centre, the venue of FNB Art Joburg.
“We’re trying to introduce different ways for people to access the fair, hence we’re placing ourselves in a very publicly accessible space like the square. We hope to attract visitors that aren’t necessarily art industry people. Our focus is on diversifying the art market,” she explains.
Further south, about 16km from the mirrored facades of Sandton, another group of curators will be hosting their inaugural show in the Maboneng Precinct, promising a different take on the traditional art model.
This show, simply named Underline, is the brainchild of three independent curators, whose combined experiences include writing, research, art advisory services, participation in major international art fairs like Frieze and Art Basel, and start-up projects. All three, Natasha Becker, Londi Modiko, and Lara Koseff, have also worked at the Goodman Gallery.
While the other two shows in Sandton have a strong focus on gallery representation, Underline puts its focus on curators.
“A lot of people don’t know the fact that (behind) all the ideas that you see in museums, galleries and commercial galleries, there is a curator; we are trying to highlight that,” explains Modiko.
Instead of inviting galleries, they put out an open call for curators, who would then propose a show. Accepted applications get a booth to show the work of artists who are either independent artists or represented by a gallery.
Says Modiko: “An overwhelming majority of art fairs worldwide only cater for commercial galleries. That becomes a problem for artists that don’t want to be affiliated to galleries, or that can’t get into galleries. A gallery can only represent so many artists. What happens to the rest of the talent?
“There are also not a lot of institutions that are well-funded, that can cater for independent creators and artists. And that’s why we decided to create this model. We certainly don’t expect existing institutions to fill this gap.”
Modiko stresses that the organisers do not see Underline as an art fair as such. Indeed, it is only one arm of Underline, which she refers to as an art consultancy.
“We’re currently designing merchandise for the new Goodman Gallery in London, and we’re co-authoring an article for The Times that is going to coincide with art week,” she says.
Another point of difference is the funding model. Unlike traditional art fairs, where galleries rent space, curators at Underline will not be paying for booths.
Much of the support to make the show possible has come in kind from various institutions, organisations and artists. The venue, the Museum of African Design (MOAD), was donated by the University of Johannesburg’s architectural department, which has a lease on the property until the end of the year. Security was donated by a property organisation, drinks by a local beer brand, and equipment by established artists – who also gave work to be sold to raise funds.
Underline has applied for funding from the government.
“We’ve applied for every grant under the sun but, as we speak, we’ve not heard back from the government. And our exhibition is in three weeks. So, we’re at a point where we’re actually upfronting R100,000 from our own pockets to help make this happen. You cannot expect an installer or a cleaner to work in kind, that kind of service needs hard cash,” says Modiko, adding, “It’s been such an amazing and challenging journey. You don’t realise how supportive and keen people are until you try.”
Sibeko, Modiko, and MacGarry all agree on one key objective: growing the local collector base.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the time, it’s the West that is more appreciative of our talent when it comes to actually buying it,” says Modiko. “It’s going to take a while; we’re now at a stage where we are appreciating the art and are wanting to engage with it, which is amazing. The next step is to actually understand that, yes, it’s great to love it and to pose next to it on Instagram, but if you can afford it, you should actually go all the way and buy it.”
She is heartened by the fact that more than 90% of her clientele is local.
Sibeko also sees building an art fair reflective of Johannesburg as an opportunity to grow the local collector base: “Johannesburg has always been a pioneering city. A lot of things that have shifted the country have taken place from Johannesburg. The audiences here are able to take conversations that you can’t have anywhere else around the country. It is an economic hub, with more people from the continent than anywhere else in South Africa. There is certainly still a lot of work to do to make sure that we can get those people to buy local art.”
These three events in Joburg Art Week, proposing different art fair approaches, are a potentially seminal moment for the local art scene. Time will tell, but at the very least, art enthusiasts, collectors, and the curious are in for a feast of creativity.
Says Sibeko: “From where I sit, I’m able to engage with institutions across the globe, and I’m able to see that these people are now very interested and quite serious about updating their collections to reflect work from Africa. Institutions like the MoMA in New York have shut down so they can put up a whole new wing for African art, for the first time.
“I think it’s the early stages of people being interested. For a long time, contemporary African art wasn’t really a subject in the global art world ecosystem. And now we are finally having the conversation”. ML
"The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end." ~ Leon Trotsky