A view of Shepstone Gardens Home to the RMB Latitudes Art Fair
A view of Shepstone Gardens Home to the RMB Latitudes Art Fair
Image: Alexander Smith

RMB Latitudes Art Fair breaks with the norm of similar events in SA that require artists to be represented by a gallery in order to exhibit. Independent artists, curators and organisations present their works alongside new and established galleries at this fair. This made for an interesting mix of ideas and a richer sensory experience for fairgoers the first time around. This year’s fair promises the same if not better. 

Taking the fair experience geographically away from the convention and shopping centre has helped Latitudes attract audiences that might not ordinarily attend traditional visual arts spaces and events. The Fair is held at Shepstone Gardens, a venue-for-hire property in northeastern Johannesburg, with lawns, sloped gardens, majestic views and quaint buildings spread across three acres.

The venue’s size and location on a south-facing slope creates the appropriate sense of occasion that viewing some of the most interesting and innovative visual art on the African continent requires. But, importantly, the mood is lighter, the faces friendlier and the children more boisterous at this fair than at other major ones in SA. Maybe it’s the trees. 

Outdoor eateries, cafes, bars and children’s activities create the feeling of having a welcome surprise or something you’ve been looking for just around the next corner; this without feeling overwhelmed by the artworks and other offerings. 

Visual Art

The over 200 featured artists at the 2024 Fair include multidisciplinary Nelson Makamo, Nandipha Mntambo and Atang Tshikare among others. The featured artists’ respective works will occupy difficult-to-miss spaces at the Fair. But one hopes for some conversation to be had between the artists and their works. A dialogue across medium, space and time adds to the appeal of art fairs that have drawcard featured artists.

Other visual art programme elements to look forward to are the Everard Read Gallery Outdoor Sculpture Garden featuring twenty artworks curated by Stephanie Le Roy. The Design offering, new at this year’s event, is also a highlight. It features fashion from ethical clothing brand Guillotine and luxury knitwear brand Romaria, jewels and adornments from Pichulik and The Herd, as well as quirky mythical ceramics from Kevin Collins. 

What makes the RMB Latitudes Art Fair novel is building and growing a platform that accommodates galleries and established artists as fairly as it does independent artists, curators and arts organisations. Bent on creating egalitarian platforms and commerce spaces for art, broadening the visual arts audience, facilitating direct artist/buyer relationships, and herding waist-high snotnoses about some very expensive artworks, RMB Latitudes Art Fair is making a name for itself as an alternative to the art fair establishment. 

Abdus Salaam, Our Last Stone is among the featured works for the Everard Read Gallery Outdoor Sculpture Garden
Abdus Salaam, Our Last Stone is among the featured works for the Everard Read Gallery Outdoor Sculpture Garden
Image: Supplied by THK Gallery

Index, a portmanteau of independent exhibition, is the vehicle with which the Fair’s founders, Lucy MacGarry and Roberta Coci, are delivering on this founding ethos they share.

Index will be curated in 2024 by Denzo Nyathi who is an alumni of the 2023 RMB CuratorLab programme. Under the theme The Orchid and The Wasp: Thin Lines of Becoming, Nyathi has curated a selection of painted, photographed, sculpted, collaged works by artists in SA and elsewhere on the continent. 

From their individual practices using different artistic mediums, it is clear that 2024’s Index artists represent a broad and deep engagement with the theme. Some of the most striking of these are Ayanfe Olarinde (Nigeria), Chloë Shain (SA), Lorraine Kalassa’s (SA/Congo) works.

Olarinde’s The Floater Man Story is a paint and collage work that depicts a walking hawker who is up to the elbows with swimming pool floaties. This alludes to a question about the place of hawkers in the economy and society, where they might serve a swathe of society but often cannot point to particular places as their primary or only places of work. 

Shain’s work at this exhibition is part of her ongoing Touchscreen Finger Gestrues project, which traces and makes art from the finger gestures people make on their mobile phones. These works tease out unexpected beauty from the mundane, but also point at the increasingly digital communities and feelings of belonging in the modern era.

Kalassa’s personal struggles with belonging as a person with a migration background from Congo and living in SA, have been a big influence on her work. She uses her family photographic archive, printed on textiles to elicit a nostalgic sense of familial history with her submission for this year’s Index.

Ayanfe-Olarinde, The Floater Man Story
Ayanfe-Olarinde, The Floater Man Story
Image: Supplied

In discussion 

RMB Latitudes Art Fair’s talks programme brings together leading thinkers and makers on the continent in conversation about issues pertinent to the visual arts in Africa. Topics include the place of galleries and museums, and how these might be designed differently in future, investing in art and knowledge making. The highlight talk, however, is the discussion on 15 centuries of African sculpture which features Ashraf Jamal and Hlonipha Mokoena as speakers.

Ensuring the sustainable growth of the visual art sector in SA requires bringing younger audiences into art spaces early on in their lives. Latitudes Art Fair fertilises the minds of 5-12 year-olds with its Children’s Programme in partnership with IMBALI Visual Literacy Projects and Akasha School: Children's Literacy Project. The programme runs from 10am-5pm daily, with a new guided trail beginning every hour on the hour between those times. The guide is divided into three sections: exploring the plants and surroundings at Shepstone Gardens, adventuring into sculpture, and unlocking the secrets of art appreciation.

Visual art in SA is still considered the play area of the wealthiest and well-to-do of our society. The RMB Latitudes Art Fair has created a more inclusive space for participation and enjoyment of the thriving art ecosystem in SA by putting independent artists on as equal a footing as their platform can sustain. They have also targeted audiences that might not have any art affinity to a space that is not as intimidating as others in the SA’s art world. These strides go a long way towards ultimately realising an art ecosystem that can sustain more livelihoods. But without structural changes to the fundaments of the art establishment, the class divide between those who appreciate visual art and those who cannot will remain.

The RMB Latitudes Art Fair happens at Shepstone Gardens, Johannesburg from May 24-26.

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