DM168 DISRUPTOR

Roberta Coci: Democratising the art of collecting

By Keith Bain 22 March 2021

Roberta Coci, the director of Latitudes.Online. (Photo: Mike Turner)

Online auctions, connections and global collaboration are creating a new universe for art from Africa.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Mention the upcoming Open Call Collection online art auction and Roberta Coci’s face lights up. “It’s one hell of an exciting event. There’s the thrill of the chase. Drama. Excitement. The fact that it’s timed – a definitive beginning and end – adds to the tension.”

The auction is a collaboration between Latitudes.Online, the art platform of which Coci is the director, and The Lockdown Collection (TLC), an initiative established to support artists during the initial 21 days of lockdown last year. The event’s proceeds will go to the artists and to artist causes.

The auction will run for three days on Latitude’s website, starting on Sunday, 21 March. The ticking clock will be half the fun. Even if you’re a virgin bidder, a newbie collector, there’s every chance your competitive compulsions will kick in.

“We’ve thousands of works online,” Coci says, “but an auction brings a different energy. From the minute you make your bid, you’re on high alert; when you get an email saying you’ve been outbid, that competitive instinct comes out… It’s very addictive.”

It’s faintly ironic hearing Coci, whose convoluted career has included magazine journalism and event production, beat the drum for the art fraternity. Until 2019, when she partnered with Makgati Molebatsi, Lucy MacGarry, Nokwazi Nzimu and Anthea Buys to found Latitudes, she’d always experienced the artworld as standoffish. “Whenever I’d worked at art fairs, there were arguments, condescending behaviour. I saw it as quite a difficult industry. Very intimidating.”

She’s no Trojan horse, though; rather, Coci is driven by Latitudes’ revolutionary zeal. From the start they’ve sought to shake up the scene, create space for emerging artists from the continent. Their aim has been to do away with the traditional inaccessibility of physical art fairs. “There were so many rules, barriers to participation. But we thought, why not let everyone participate? If you’ve got good art, let’s help you sell it.”

Latitudes differentiated itself by welcoming independent artists and curators, studios and non-profit organisations. That set them apart from the art fair tradition of only accepting established galleries.

They managed just one live event before Covid-19 scuppered plans for their second, larger iteration, due to have happened on Sandton City’s rooftop last year.

Rather than lose momentum, they took Latitudes online and have since discovered all sorts of ways in which technology is fast-tracking their art revolution.

“Covid has, in a weird way, helped us on our crusade because now you can build an auction house into your website. So suddenly we’re doing our first auction.”

Coci is all for breaking the art world’s elitist image. “Our mission is to make art accessible. To bring new collectors on board.”

And she wants to narrow the gap between top-drawer artists whose works attract fantastical prices and those who go unnoticed. Artists shouldn’t have to struggle or starve, she says.

An artist who has exploded on Latitudes.Online is Cinthia Sifa Mulanga.

“She’s from the Congo, seeking asylum since she was 14. Working closely with her has given me an acute understanding of what it means to struggle as an artist in South Africa,” says Coci. “We started working with her nine months ago. She sold her first work through our website for R1,400 and now she’s selling at international art fairs. She has a waiting list of international buyers and her works sell for R25,000. A lot of money for a 23-year-old.” Coci says that by lowering the barrier to participation for artists and small galleries, the internet is giving agency to young independents like Mulanga. “There are just no rules any more.”

Last year, Latitudes.Online collaborated on an Instagram auction. Coci says almost none of the collectors had ever bought art before. “The platform eliminated all those traditional barriers to entry.”

Despite her upbeat energy and her optimism, Coci says she has always been quite anxious. “I can lie awake stressing about the smallest thing.”

She’s been working to mitigate against this. “I’m trying to balance my life, be more in control, less stressed.”

Covid-19, she says, has made her more disciplined and she’s working very hard to kick her habitual fearfulness. “I’m having to unlearn it. Quickly. Because we’re doing so many new things that can feel hectic and scary if you overthink them.”

Paradoxically, it’s another streak – her impulsiveness – that often short-circuits the fear factor. “If I just do it, then I can do brave things. Maybe.”

So, yes, she’s skydived, walked on coals, squeezed through narrow spaces in dark caves. “Spelunking really freaked the s**t out of me. It’s terrifying … you just have to trust that the ground is going to be there. One of the scariest things I’ve ever done.”

But trust is crucial.

As is her ability to “move on” – “I don’t linger on stuff.”

That ability to move on “really quickly” and adapt under pressure has been a powerful ally. “Especially with the way business is changing in response to Covid,” she says.

“Latitudes is very agile. We can, one day, decide we want to do X and we just look for the technology that enables us to do it and – boom! – the next thing it’s there. I look at big corporations and at how long it takes for decisions to get made, and I’m very grateful we’re in a very different space. If an artist gives us an idea we can make it happen the very next day. There’s always a new challenge in that. Which, like chasing an artwork in an online auction, is thrilling.” DM168

FIVE QUESTIONS

What’s the image on your phone’s home screen?

A photo of Robberg Beach in Plettenberg Bay. My parents live there and I usually spend three months a year there. Jo’burg’s my home and I love it, but after a few months you need a break, and Plett is my happy place for that. No matter how stressful it’s been, if you walk 5km on Robberg Beach, it all just melts away.

What would you spend your last R100 on?

Bitcoin and hope for the best. What else will R100 buy me? At least with Bitcoin I might get lucky.

Worst piece of advice you’ve ever taken?

None that I can think of, but I recently went off Instagram, and – jeez – my life’s different. While I was on Instagram, I made a lot of decisions for the wrong reasons. You see what others are doing and base your decisions on their posts. So much FOMO and societal pressure. I quit because I was scrolling too much.

I am actually seeing the world differently. Previously, when I arrived somewhere beautiful, I’d spend 10 minutes taking photos. I have this endless gallery of beautiful landscapes — no people, no real moments. Now, my brain doesn’t go there. Taking pictures isn’t the first thing I want to do when I arrive in a new place. That’s a great advantage of quitting.

What’s the thing you most wish you’d learnt earlier in your life?

To not stress about things that are out of my control. Learning to meditate over the last few years has shifted that for me — there is so much to stress about, but stressing about stuff that’s beyond our control is only going to make us sick.

What three books have changed your life?

JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. I just loved that book and it made me want to be a writer. I studied literature and journalism and ended up working in magazines, which explains the very curved path to where I am now.

Colm Tóibin’s Homage to Barcelona. So beautiful I ended up living in Barcelona, learning Spanish and meeting some of my closest friends.

My third answer’s a cheat: I don’t love reading non-fiction. So podcasts have changed my life because I consume so much content on podcasts — psychology, philosophy, news, deep interviews, true crime. And humour. A favourite is QI’s No Such Thing as a Fish; I walk around listening to it on the streets, killing myself laughing like a crazy person. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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