Art appreciation at the RMB Latitudes Art Fair at Shepstone Gardens, Johannesburg
Art appreciation at the RMB Latitudes Art Fair at Shepstone Gardens, Johannesburg
Image: Supplied

South Africa, it seems, has not been affected by the decline in the global art market. On the contrary, the local market is strong — and growing stronger, if the recent RMB Latitudes Art Fair, held at Joburg’s Shepstone Gardens, is anything to go by. With its array of extraordinarily versatile interior and exterior exhibition settings, the fair attracted more than 9,000 paying visitors.

Emerging and established art collectors, artists and art lovers disembarked from Ubers or walked several blocks to join the throng in the weekend before South Africans went to the polls. An ambience of hope and joie de vivre permeated the hugely successful event.

“Everyone benefited from everyone’s network,” says Amé Bell from David Krut Projects. “We had a variety of collectors, including quite a few new buyers aged 35-50, and it went really well for us.”

In recent years the tradition of visiting art galleries, where the prices of artworks are hidden and engagement is awkward and alienating, has been supplanted by an inclusive, sociable approach of forming groups of art collectors.  

The RMB Latitudes Art Fair is run alongside an online marketplace, Latitudes Online, with a full editorial team generating articles and newsletters, complemented by social media. “When you produce rich content about artists it is amazing how it generates interest, and ultimately sales,” says festival cofounder and director Lucy MacGarry. “We want to bring in new audiences and we want them to feel understood and included. That is very important to us.”

Latitudes is involved in a number of community groups such as RMB Latitudes Collectors’ Circle, developed in partnership with RMB Private Wealth. “We are fostering an inclusive community of like-minded collectors. Placing a focus on approachability, accessibility, connection and collaboration, we hope to nurture intentional relationships within the African arts ecosystem, ultimately promoting equity in arts through a culture of care,” says Camilla van Hoogstraten, head of sales  and artist network for Latitudes Online and head of RMB Latitudes Collectors’ Circle.

Digital art platforms, which took off during Covid, have enabled new buyers to enter the market, and online interaction has translated into physical events such as the RMB Latitudes Art Fair.

Placing a focus on approachability, accessibility, connection and collaboration, we hope to nurture intentional relationships within the African arts ecosystem
Camilla van Hoogstraten

RMB Latitudes is intent on fostering sustainability for the art industry as a whole. Galleries selling African art in other parts of the world are invited to ship their works to the fair, and the Latitudes organisers take full responsibility for installing, curating and selling it for a small commission. This enables prospective exhibitors to display work at the fair with minimal risks and costs, Roberta Coci, cofounder and director of Latitudes Online, explains. Once they have had this exposure and feel that it works for them, they can take their own booth.

In the first year, nine galleries took up the offer, and of those, four (from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Namibia and Botswana) took their own booth this year.

The offer is not restricted to galleries on the continent. Exhibitors from Spain, Germany, the UK and other countries selling African art have taken up the offer, and the project is growing.

A community-orientated approach to fostering African art collectors has found expression in several initiatives in recent years. In 2023, Annicia Manyaapelo launched Women Who Collect during the Cape Town Art Fair. Previously head of communications at Zeitz Mocaa, she noticed that despite all the museum’s efforts, most visitors were foreign white males. “I realised that museums and galleries are still not easily accessible and if we are going to grow this industry we need to bring new people into the space: young people, black people, and more women”, she says.

Karoo Landscape, Wendy Vincent, 1996
Karoo Landscape, Wendy Vincent, 1996
Image: Supplied

Manyaapelo’s background in the corporate world gave her access to women over 40 who could afford to enter the art-collecting world. “We travel and we live well. We can afford to buy Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel. I realised that there are women who are open to becoming art collectors but find it easier to spend R40,000 on a bag than to walk into an art gallery and buy art,” she says.   

She now organises events to expose women to the art world, often at the same time as, and connected to, art fairs. In 2023, Women Who Collect hosted a dinner with local artist Zanele Muholi as the special guest. In 2024, a second, larger event was held at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. The guest speakers were Brooklyn Museum curator Ernestine White-Mifetu and artist Athi-Patra Ruga. Manyaapelo organised a fringe event at the RMB Latitudes Art Fair. The network is expanding, not only in South Africa but on the continent and globally. Research by online marketplace Artsy indicates that the purchasing power of women is increasing, Manyaapelo says.

Women who Collect: Art lunch at the Belmond Mount Nelson
Women who Collect: Art lunch at the Belmond Mount Nelson
Image: Supplied

Tshepo Hlongwane, who has a background in banking and financial marketing, started an art curating/art advisory business 10 years ago called Browneyedboy. His intention was to help artists professionalise their work by pricing their pieces appropriately and developing sustainable careers.

He and Lazarus Serobe, manager of operations for the Dramatic Artistic & Literary Rights Organisation, are founder members of the Chickpeas and Champagne Art Stovel, for people who love art, or want to love art but are not familiar with it. The stokvel started off with four members; it now has 10. Members have fun socialising while also engaging in the more serious business of collectively purchasing art and supporting artists. Lunch meetings take place once a quarter and the group visits art fairs, auctions, artists and galleries together. Funds are collected for 10 months before a purchase is made, which can either be a large artwork that members cannot afford to buy individually or a collection of artworks that is jointly owned. The stokvel invests in contemporary African art or African diaspora art. The work rotates from one member to another so that everyone has an opportunity to enjoy it in their home. The stokvel is a legal entity with a constitution and a bank account.

While art fairs typically cater for the primary market (galleries, dealers and artists selling directly from their studios), RMB Latitudes sees secondary markets as part of the art ecosystem in South Africa and on the continent.  

Image: Supplied

Wilhelm van Rensburg from Strauss & Co says: “The whole wide world is waking up to this notion of black modernist artists. So we capitalised on that with our stand at the RMB Latitudes Art Fair. We had 15 works on display and we sold all of them.”

Strauss & Co’s focus on modern African art sets it apart from exhibitors at Latitudes, who focus primarily on contemporary African art. New black collectors collect works by black artists, Van Rensburg explains. “We have been trying very hard to cultivate that market and I think we have made a breakthrough.”

The historical turning point for African modern artists coincided with major historical events in 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of communism, Tiananmen Square, and the world wide web. This was the year in which African artists who had been excluded from biennales, art fairs and museums were finally given exposure at an exhibition titled Magicians of the Earth (Magiciens de la Terre) in Paris. The curator, Jean-Hubert Martin, made a point of including non-Western artists alongside Western ones. It was a huge success.

Subsequently there has been strong interest in the antecedents of contemporary African art both locally and internationally. Strauss & Co sold works by Irma Stern and JH Pierneef for R10m and R1m respectively at the Latitudes Fair.

The company regularly holds educational nonselling “legacy exhibitions”, drawing from private collections and public museums and galleries, as well as successful social art experiences for groups of potential buyers such as black women accountants or the ANC Women’s League.

Museums and galleries are still not easily accessible and if we are going to grow this industry we need to bring new people into the space: young people, black people, and more women 
Annicia Manyaapelo

In 2019, McGarry initiated the Essay Project, which typically involves a visual exchange or dialogue between an established artist and a developing one. This year was a departure from the norm. It was a dialogue between the works of artists Wendy Vincent and Geoffrey Armstrong and their rock garden. The couple have spent the past 25 years living a reclusive existence while creating a spectacular home and garden on their Magaliesburg property — a work of art in its own right — and simultaneously producing prolific individual works. 

Experience designer Vincent Truter, a devoted friend of the artists, worked on the exhibition with McGarry. Overflowing with enthusiasm about the experience, he says: “There was such integrity and commitment in the way individual artists and curators facilitated their spaces. I have been in contexts that have felt like a fanfare for the rich. This wasn’t like that at all. I honestly felt I was at the heart of a dynamic intercultural city with people from all walks of life sharing a love of art.”

The Essay Project resonated with a broad spectrum of art lovers. Sales were exceptionally good. Collectors ranged from a world-famous artist to a new buyer who didn’t understand the technique behind Vincent’s prints but was moved by and drawn to the art. 

For Van Rensburg, who is negotiating a follow-up exhibition of the artists’ work, Vincent’s paintings are “beyond phenomenal”.

© Wanted 2024 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.