By artist Blessing Ngobeni.
Vehicle of Failed State By artist Blessing Ngobeni.
Image: Supplied / Everard Read

The dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp once said that “Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” At this point, I think we can all testify to the accuracy of this maxim: human beings are so deeply reliant on art, especially when the contingencies of day-to-day life become unbearable. Visual media, literature, music: all have the capacity either to lay bare the marrow of a crisis, or to transport us away from it altogether, if only for a moment or a few moments at a time. Of course, our investment in art is also one of the first things to flounder whenever the economy does: there is truth in the educator’s lament that art and drama programmes are always the first forfeits to budget cuts.

It stands to reason, then, that the Covid-19 crisis currently remaking the world as we know it does not bode well for South African creatives. Galleries are closed, remote studios are inaccessible to the artists who ordinarily rely on them, and many people are surviving on their savings or on a fragment of their former pay cheques.

Contrary to this dire augury, however, the South African art world has been remarkably quick to adapt, and both individual creatives and the businesses that bolster and support them are finding novel ways to market and sell their wares, even in the thick of isolation. Indeed, as Johannesburg-based artist Robyn Penn notes in relation to her own practice, many artistic disciplines are intrinsically solitary to begin with.

Penn, a fine artist and printmaker, is perhaps best known for her highly evocative cloudscapes. Her work will be included in the second round of The Lockdown Collection, a collaborative venture by Sirdar Group, Mrs Woolf, and Artist Proof Studio. The Lockdown Collection comprises a virtual auction, the proceeds of which are being divided between individual artists and the Solidarity Fund. The first iteration raised an estimated R2-million — and this reaction to the impact of the coronavirus appears to be consistent with what’s happening in the South African art world as a whole.

Everard Read, the gallery empire with branches in Cape Town, Franschhoek, Joburg and London, launched its first digital exhibition in April. Staring Straight To The Future featured almost 50 prominent South African artists, and raised a total of R1.8-million, half of which has been set aside for the Solidarity Fund. Charles Shields, the director of Everard Read, was delighted and surprised by the public’s response to the exhibition. “We had a little bit of anxiety to begin with, given the current climate — some trepidation, given the state of the economy,” he recalls. “A week before the [digital] exhibition, the galleries had been all but empty, the phone wasn’t ringing… then, as soon as the exhibition was online, in about 15 minutes flat, we had requests for about 300 portfolios from the four galleries.”

By artist Brett Murray.
Solace By artist Brett Murray.
Image: Supplied / Everard Read
By artist Beth Diane Armstrong.
Surge By artist Beth Diane Armstrong.
Image: Supplied / Everard Read
By artist Bambo Sibiya.
Staring to the Future By artist Bambo Sibiya.
Image: Supplied / Everard Read

Shields suggests that old artworks have accrued new significance under the present circumstances: “It became a very interesting exercise, to revisit the best of what we had in stock under a wholly new context. And we had a better result from the digital exhibition than I think we would have had under ordinary circumstances.” Everard Read is clearly committed to sustaining its momentum, as its next digital exhibition, Us, is already well underway. Its namesake is a Brett Murray sculpture featured in the collection: two nagapies locked in an embrace, a piece that Shields describes as “iconic, and which triggered the show”. Us features works from a broad selection of local heavyweights, including Deborah Bell and Michael MacGarry. Each of the pieces that comprise the collection as a whole speak, after their own fashion, to a sense of distress; to our appetite for interpersonal solace, and to the general bewilderment associated with adjusting to a new world order. “Earnest art is often lost in times of excess,” says Shields.

South African auction house Strauss & Co’s induction into the world of digital retailing has been less abrupt than that of many of its counterparts — its first online auction was in 2013. But, as executive director Susie Goodman recalls, prior to the lockdown, the digital facet was “sort of just ticking along. This is different, and exciting — we’ve used this opportunity to really endorse the digital process and its reach.” Its most recent “Lockdown” sale brought in a total of R6-million, with a record-breaking 499 lots sold online. The auction included a glorious-sounding miscellany: paintings, Republican-era snuff bottles, Chinese objets d’art, and — in what was apparently something of a coup — a collection of wines, curated in collaboration with sommelier Higgo Jacobs and Wine Cellar’s Roland Peens. Again, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Solidarity Fund. “We feel a real sense of responsibility, as an auction house, both to keep educating, and to put buyers and sellers together,” says Goodman.

By artist Walter Voigt.
Timbavati With Elephant, Kruger By artist Walter Voigt.
Image: Supplied / Everard Read
By artist Setlamorago Mashilo.
Modumo Kgole By artist Setlamorago Mashilo.
Image: Supplied / Everard Read

Over the course of the lockdown, Strauss & Co has adapted itself masterfully to the new market, expanding its catalogue of artists’ bios, refining online visualisation and measurement tools, and staging “Talkabouts” over Zoom. The latter happened on a daily basis leading up to the auction, with experts such as photographic legend Greg Marinovich dialing in from the United States to expound on his area of expertise. “People like to hear stories and anecdotes — it’s been a privilege,” Goodman reflects. “The art market can be so intimidating, and this has also given us a chance to empower people to ask questions, to get comfortable with sourcing things online and expanding their reference points — to become more au fait with how easy it is to bid. There have been some incredible bargains and [the lockdown] has allowed us all to engage with the creative arts differently.”

FNB Art Joburg has also been quick to respond to the holistic transition from studio to cyberspace. “Although it feels like ages ago now, you’ll remember that in the weeks before the lockdown, there was a very noticeable [decrease] in foot traffic at local businesses,” recalls founding director Mandla Sibeko. “We were concerned our galleries’ shows, often planned with the artists months in advance, weren’t going to be seen by their audiences.” As a solution, they launched #ArtJoburg365 — a series of short videos on each exhibition, which is available online. “We got a great response and continue to receive strong viewership,” says Sibeko. “At the same time, we are conscious that there is quite a lot of digital content being put out into the world right now. Currently we’re releasing one #ArtJoburg365 video a week, and will continue to be mindful of what we are posting. We hope this keeps the series special, for our audience and galleries.”

By artist Deborah Bell.
Sentinels By artist Deborah Bell.
Image: Supplied / Everard Read

The digital platforms upon which we have all come to rely so heavily have made it possible for working artists to keep plying their trade against the odds. Cape Town-based Fanie Buys, a multi-media artist with a genius for converting the stuff of tabloid fodder into rich, romantic, intertextual pieces, describes Instagram as his “bread and butter”, but has also been reflecting on how he might expand his virtual reach. “I am up at night thinking of how I can make TikTok an effective platform, and I’ve been enjoying Twitter as well, both personally and professionally. The thing I like about this point in my career is that I can straddle personal and professional relationships. A lot of people who like my art, like me, and I like them. Taking the time to engage [with your clients] is the most effective strategy I can recommend.” Indeed, as Buys portends, the media interfaces most artists are using at this juncture in the lockdown blur the distinction between their gallery and domestic personas, endowing most of the art on display with an additional dimension, especially valuable now, when we are all craving connection. “My core group of supporters are people who take time out of their lives to remind me that I give them joy,” remarks Buys. “This is probably the one time I will be sincere to the press.”

TRAILBLAZERS

Aspire Art Auctions has been at the forefront of online auctioneering since 2016, but its new Private Sales Online Viewing Room takes it a step further by allowing members exclusive preview access before auctions. Visit Aspire Art, where Aspire’s knowledgeable art consultants are on the other end of your screen to assist you. There’s even an app available for download to take online bidding to the next level.

 From the May issue of Wanted 2020.

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