John Coltrane, Sam Nhlengethwa, Artists’ Press.
John Coltrane, Sam Nhlengethwa, Artists’ Press.
Image: Supplied

2021 is a milestone year in South Africa’s art history. It’s never been a great country for supporting the fine arts in any official capacity, and its history has been too fractured and fractious for art to help create a coherent national identity, or to innovate and extend cultural boundaries in consistent and challenging ways. Instead, as in many other walks of South African life, an interesting thing has happened, especially in recent decades. Turning away from official versions of public arts and culture, the people, once again, have been doing it for themselves.

Several of South Africa’s most prominent private art galleries and studio organisations celebrate significant birthdays this year, demonstrating that there is a discerning and consistent audience for fine art in a country that has been hard done by in terms of a public culture of galleries and museums. The fine art private sector has in many ways become the archive of the country’s visual culture — often balancing the need to make money with the responsibility of providing South Africa with a cultural memory of itself, and a vibrant means to imagine possible futures.

Among those heading for the year’s big art birthday party is one of the most recognisable gallery names in the country, the Goodman Gallery, which turns 55 and mounted a significant exhibition, Lasting Influences, in June and July to mark the occasion. The gallery’s history straddles the last decades of apartheid-style repression and the first decades of the South African fine-art industry’s more cosmopolitan participation in world markets.

Another well-known gallery, turning 20 next year and so “born free”, has quite a different story to tell, as one of the longest-lived wholly Black-owned galleries in the country. Gallery MOMO has carved a niche in a field where white privilege is taken more for granted than most, and having access to networks is a key business strategy. Elsewhere, one of the best-known print studios in the country turns 30. The Artists’ Press in White River has had collaborations with a roll call of the country’s finest artists for as long as it has existed, and has been self-sustaining from day one. Two artists’ studio organisations celebrate the same milestone. The Artist Proof Studio (APS) in Joburg has always combined grassroots arts education with the production of quality fine art and artists, overcoming the tragic loss of its co-founder, artist Nhlanhla Xaba, in the fire that also destroyed its original studio buildings.

The Bag Factory marked its anniversary with a commemorative exhibition. This landmark artists’ studio complex was co-founded by the hugely influential David Koloane, and has provided studio space to and facilitated the careers of dozens of the country’s best contemporary artists. The Goodman Gallery opened its doors in 1966, founded and directed by the legendary Linda Givon. It quickly established itself as a home for edgy contemporary art in the decades of the mid- to late-twentieth century that were marked by deep cultural conservatism and draconian censorship. The platform that the Goodman was able to give Black artists from the 1960s to the 1990s, in defiance of apartheid laws, is one example of the commercial gallery’s role as a facilitator and custodian of art history and visual culture in the country, in the absence of viable public institutions. 

Irises, Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, William Kentridge, Artists’ Press.
Irises, Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, William Kentridge, Artists’ Press.
Image: Supplied

Givon’s judgement was usually sound, and over the years her championing of particular artists such as Walter Battiss, William Kentridge, Ezrom Legae, and many others saw the gallery’s commercial and artistic reputation grow. The extent and artistic depth of the gallery’s historical roster — as captured by long-time senior curator Neil Dundas in the Lasting Influences exhibition — is evidence of its central place in South African art history, with works by most of the central figures in contemporary South African art on show, including Battiss, Sydney Kumalo, Legae, Judith Mason, and contemporary doyen Kentridge. As Dundas recounts, more than art happened — artists Kagiso Mautloa and Bongi Dhlomo showed Combination, a combined screen print they had done together, which in turn sowed the seed of a budding romance that has become a long-term marriage. Goodman continues to innovate and move with the times. Now under the directorship of Liza Essers, it has internationalised, with a gallery presence in the UK and the US, and has been at the forefront of a new Global South art collective under the banner SOUTH SOUTH, which incorporates galleries and collectors from markets outside the dominant Western ones, organising and exhibiting programmes together online.Another long-term feature of the gallery landscape in contemporary South African art is Gallery MOMO.

Owner Monna Mokoena attributes its longevity to his continuing quest to nurture and support artists. “The ultimate reward for this commitment,” he says, “is the enormous intellectual contribution and critical observation of our society by our artists, which stimulates our imagination.” Among many highlights, Gallery MOMO was the host and organiser of the first permanent South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, and has been in the vanguard of embracing and exhibiting contemporary African art from the rest of the continent and the diaspora — something the rest of the post-apartheid South African art establishment was tardy in doing.

Mokoena is justifiably proud of the legacy of his gallery. “We have had the opportunity to represent artists such as Mary Sibande, Santu Mofokeng, Ayana V Jackson, Andrew Tshabangu, Pamela Sunstrum, Blessing Ngobeni, Johannes Phokela, and Joël Mpah Dooh, to name but a few. And it is an honour for us to be part of reviving and repositioning the legacies of legendary artists such as Malangatana Valente Ngwenya, Roger Botembe, and Jackson Hlungwani. Looking forward, I’m also excited by new ideas being explored by artists like Vivien Kohler and Kimathi Donkor.” Pressed for moments or images that stand out for him so far, Mokoena picks Santu Mofokeng’s photograph Eyes Wide Shut. “It is such a captivating image. Even though the subject’s eyes are shut to the world, the mystery of the emotions draws you in.”

Combination, Kagiso Mautloa and Bongi Dhlomo, Goodman Gallery.
Combination, Kagiso Mautloa and Bongi Dhlomo, Goodman Gallery.
Image: Supplied

Three legendary names in the field — printmaking studio The Artists’ Press in White River, and educational and artists’ studio organisations Artist Proof Studio in Joburg and the Bag Factory in Fordsburg — turn 30 this year. That they all started in 1991 tells us something about the heady optimism of those early days at the end of apartheid, when the bonds felt like they were finally being loosened. These organisations share some history, naturally enough. The Artists’ Press started life with a studio space at the Bag Factory in 1991, before relocating to Mpumalanga in 2003. Under the co-directorship of (married couple) master printer Mark Attwood and marketing director Tamar Mason, the studio has expanded from lithography to letterpress, mono, and relief printing, and collaborates on bespoke projects not only with local artists but also with international printers and artists. Attwood and Mason are proud of the fact that they run the oldest printmaking studio in the country, and have only ever received external funding for two projects — The Ultimate Safari, an artists’ book with Nadine Gordimer, and a suite of prints done by the !Xun and Khwe Art Project in 1994. Mason recalls the early days: “When we opened our doors at the Bag Factory in 1991, being able to share studio space with people like Durant Sihlali, Ezrom Legae, and David Koloane was a privilege. We planted the indigenous trees on the pavement that now provide shade and bird habitat in the street, which is a good way to keep the studio present in Mahlathini Street. From those days we are also grateful to be able to continue collaborating with Sam Nhlengethwa, the artist with whom we have worked the most and just about the longest. We have 172 editions completed so far with Sam, with a new series busy being worked on at the moment.”

“It’s an honour for us to be part of reviving and repositioning the legacies of legendary artists”

This sense of continuity and harmony is sadly not shared by one of the longest-running educational artists’ studio spaces in the country, APS. This year also marks the founding of APS’s new dedicated space in Houghton, its first since the fire that destroyed the original Newtown studio in 2003 and took the life of co-founder Xaba. When APS was founded by Xaba and artist and lecturer Kim Berman, the Joburg art world featured only a handful of stalwart Black artists, figures such as Koloane and Nhlengethwa. Today, APS alumni are a driving force: “It’s inspirational,” says marketing director Nathi Simelane. “When students arrive here they want to follow the journey already travelled by people like Nelson Makamo and Phillemon Hlungwani, and in many ways just by making it to the studio they’ve already gone far along the path. The studio has become its own self-reinforcing creative ecosystem, and we try to nurture and cultivate that as much as possible.” New alumni ensuring the future is bright for APS include Lebohang Motaung, Jan Tshikhuthula, Zwelethu Machepha, and Lindo Zwane.

The legendary Joburg studio by artists, for artists, the Bag Factory, celebrated its 30th anniversary with an exhibition at the University of Johannesburg. Founded in 1991 by Koloane, British philanthropist Robert Loder, and arts administrator Sandra Burnett, with support from artists such as Kagiso Patrick Mautloa, Nhlengethwa, and many others, the Bag Factory remains an inclusive and interactive studio space for a cross-generational community of visual artists. The exhibition showed the extent of the Bag Factory’s influence and reach, with works by previous studio artists, award recipients, and visiting artists who had participated in its internationally renowned artist-in-residence programme.

The role of studios in the South African art ecosystem is demonstrated by its list of alumni, which includes Nhlengethwa, Mautloa, Ngobeni, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, Penny Siopis, Tracey Rose, Thenjiwe Nkosi, and Lady Skollie. The anniversary is a double cause for celebration for the studio complex, since it has this year become the owner of the building where it has been based since 1991, leaving the Bag Factory’s future in its own hands. 

 From the September edition of Wanted, 2021.

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