Between them their works have hung on gallery walls from Cape Town to London, Helsinki to New York, flown the flag for SA at the prestigious Venice Biennale, and picked up accolades across the globe. They may not have yet reached their forties, but artists Mary Sibande and Lawrence Lemaoana are showing just why they’re a power couple of the art world.
Sibande first caused a stir in 2009 with her exhibition Long Live the Dead Queen, her life-size avatar “Sophie” exploring issues of race, gender and labour. With a clutch of awards on the mantelpiece, her work is held in prestigious permanent collections including the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.
Working mostly in textiles and photography, Lemaoana challenges concepts of masculinity and the mass media, and his work is gracing galleries from Luanda to Paris. It's little surprise he is also a past winner of the Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto Prize.
Work or play … what usually takes you to the Cape?
Lawrence: Cape Town is usually a work destination for us. We always have a project on the go, an installation in a gallery, or perhaps a photo-shoot. Our last visit in February was for the Cape Town Art Fair, which is always a highlight of the year. It’s an intense cultural experience when all the art events happen. This year Mary was exhibiting with the SMAC Gallery, and I was part of a show called Matereality at the Iziko SA National Gallery.
Favourite home-from-home when you’re in town?
Lawrence: We’ve travelled a lot and one thing we’ve noticed is that South Africans really know how to do hospitality. A few years ago we stayed at the Fritz Hotel in the city, which was great. It’s a quaint little hotel just a street away from the Michaelis School of Fine Art.
On a past trip we were also invited to stay at Taj Cape Town, which was overwhelmingly fancy. One of the interesting things about being cultural producers is that you get these strange dualities: you’re just living your life, and then you get yanked out of that to stay in some luxury hotel.
After dropping your bags, what’s your first stop?
Mary: It depends on the time of day, but we really like La Perla in Sea Point, owned by Baylon Andri, who also owns SMAC Gallery. We usually have drinks there to settle in, to ease into Cape Town. It's a really nice space that faces the ocean, with a mix of Italian and seafood.
Lawrence: To get to know a place you have to go with the locals who will guide you to the authentic experiences. On our last visit our friends took us to Breaking Bread, which is a really cool eatery in Rugby. A lot of visual artists hang out there. It’s got a really cool vibe.The food’s really good and it's a great place to meet people.
Tell me about the art scene in Cape Town. How does it compare to Joburg, for instance?
Lawrence: Cape Town’s art scene has evolved dramatically in the past five years. With Zeitz MOCAA and Norval it has become a huge magnet for art collectors, and the city has really opened up to the world.
Mary: What is also great about Cape Town is that it’s a gateway to western markets. During the Cape Town Art Fair collectors actually come to the city to network and view. So right now the city is generating a lot of income for artists because people are buying art.
Lawrence: And because of that artists there are more explorative, people are more free to be expressive. Joburg is cool and things are happening, but Cape Town is really becoming a hub for the arts. There are landmarks for art lovers and the galleries are drawing in people. It’s becoming the arts centre of the country.
Aside from the big guns of Zeitz MOCAA and Norval Foundation, which city galleries are a must-visit?
Mary: SMAC has a really wide range of artists. A4 Arts Foundation is great in the formula they use, with a more diverse range of activities and workshops that make it interesting, and the Goodman Gallery is always great for a range of artists. Everard Read is the oldest gallery in SA, and good for more traditional fine art. But there’s a real sense of community between the galleries, so if you go to one space they’ll often lead you on to the next one.
Lawrence: Oh, and First Thursdays in the city is also great. On the first Thursday of each month, galleries in the city stay open late, and people can gallery-hop through the centre of town.
Who’s the coolest artist in the Mother City?
Mary: Dada Khanyisa, for sure. We’ve just bought some of their work. Their style is really different to a lot of people making art right now. While others are making painting, sculpture or photography, they combine all these elements into one. I’ve not seen that kind of style before. Their work also speaks to aspects of contemporary young culture, relationships and sexuality.