The art world is a particularly social one. Exhibition openings, viewings, talks and walkabouts are all social events, where relationships and conversations are important currencies. This is particularly true of art fairs, where all the usual hanging out also goes along with the serious business of buying and selling art.
The pandemic has hit the industry hard, and despite a shift to online viewing and dealing, there has been a general sigh of relief at the return of live and in-person art fairs over the past few months.
Art Joburg a tentative comeback in September last year, with a reduced programme that offered its participating galleries an increased collector presence and brought in more of Joburg’s interesting public spaces to collaborate in an ‘Open City’ art concept that worked well.
But the recent Investec Cape Town Art Fair (Ictaf) 2022 was always going to be the acid test of the return of the art world to something like normal. While Ictaf had pre-emptively launched an online collaborative sales platform for its galleries, this year’s return after missing the 2021 edition entirely was in the usual format of galleries hiring booths at the Cape Town International Convention Centre and welcoming in-real-life visitors.
The news then that the total number of visitors this year was over 23,000, the largest for Ictaf to date, comes as some relief to the organisers and the SA art market at large.
The fair offered a number of specially curated exhibitions this year, all of which proved popular with visitors as well as serious collectors. One of these showcases ‘Tomorrows/Today’ ’was open to those working in Africa and beyond, with the ongoing theme of transformation and experimentation. This year it was curated by Nkule Mabaso and Luigi Fassi, artistic director of MAN-Contemporary Art Museum, Italy, and included artists such as Aldo Salucci of A.MORE Gallery (Italy), Feni Chulumanco of Ebony Curated (SA), Mavis Tauzeni of First Floor Gallery (Zimbabwe), Philiswa Lila of Melrose Gallery (SA), Abdus Salaam of THK (SA) and Bev Butkow of Guns & Rain Gallery (SA). There was a prize attached to this curated show, awarded to Michaela Younge of Smac Gallery, who won R50,000. The other major award handed out at the fair, a R50,000 prize offered by RDC Property Group under the rubric of ‘Art for Space and Space for Art’ went to Cape Town-based gallery blank projects. This was a juried prize, with judges Philippa Tumubweinee, Sean O’Toole, Renee and Robert Drake awarding it to blank on the basis of the creativity, originality, quality and cohesiveness of the booth, which they found both spatially inviting and visually engaging.
Most of the major galleries at the fair who have a presence in Cape Town doubled up their booths with ongoing parallel gallery shows. Goodman Gallery and Smac were among these, with the latter showcasing a stunning comeback solo exhibition of sculpture by Mary Sibande, called ‘A Red Flight of Fancy’. Southern Guild, whose high-end design space is at the V&A Waterfront, made a bold foray into focusing on fine art with a new show of predominantly sculptural work by Nandipha Mntambo. Her previous show ‘Agoodjie’, which debuted at Everard Read in Johannesburg earlier this year, was also showing at Read in Cape Town.
Of the local galleries that exhibited at the fair, most had positive feedback. Marc Stanes, director of Ebony Curated, called this the gallery’s best year ever at Ictaf, with good interest from local and international collectors, and, importantly, interest from institutions. “We saw a similar phenomenon at Ictaf as we saw at 1:54 fair this year, that international collectors, despite being down on numbers due to the pandemic, are nevertheless showing continued appetite for pan-African art.”
Whatiftheworld Gallery manager Eleonora Marforio agreed that the previous iteration of the fair in 2020 featured far more international collector presence and interest, but they still had a lot of international buyers. Both local and international buyers, she says, were purchasing across different mediums.
While the re-emergence of the Ictaf 2022 is perhaps a tentative one as the art world finds its feet again, the cautious optimism and muted success of this edition bodes well for a return to better things for the local art market.