Musa Nxumalo
Musa Nxumalo
Image: Paako Magabane

Among the highlights of the forthcoming RMB Turbine Art Fair, a genial sales jamboree distinguished by its accessible prices, is a group exhibition organised by Musa Nxumalo. The exhibition, a selection of photography and painting produced by current and recent graduates, will introduce art audiences to one of the country’s few specialist photography curators.

Soweto-born Nxumalo earned his chops as a photographer, following a similar path to curator Paul Weinberg, He is a graduate of the Market Photo Workshop, a specialist art school in Johannesburg whose graduates include Zanele Muholi and Jodi Bieber. In 2008 he was awarded the school’s prestigious Edward Ruiz Mentorship, and — with the help of fellow photographer Michelle Loukidis — created the essay and exhibition Alternative Kidz.

Nxumalo’s photographs of black hipsters in skinny jeans jamming at Pimville’s Rock Therapy Sessions offer an insider’s account of Soweto’s burgeoning alternative youth culture, and propelled him into the limelight, if not the pound seats. After a decade of hustle, which included a stint as a mentee on Cameroonian curator Simon Njami’s roving photography masterclass, Nxumalo took a job co-ordinating last year’s Turbine Art Fair. Things moved quickly from there.

Nxumalo is now a staffer at Everard Read, Africa’s oldest commercial art gallery. He hasn’t entirely forsaken photography, though: he is simply approaching his passion from a different angle. In April he inaugurated the Mesh Photography Series at the Everard Read, and the plan is for it to become an annual event.

“I initially thought to find a photographer to represent but then realised, with all the talent out there, it would be better to develop a programme that every year shows different photographers,” Nxumalo says.

He repaid an old debt, so to speak, by inviting Loukidis, his former mentor, to be part of the launch exhibition, alongside Ilan Godfrey. Nxumalo’s confidence in his new role as curator partly stems from a longstanding interest in exhibition design.

His debut solo exhibition at the Market in 2009 upended convention by including large, poster-scale photos and wallpapers created from some of his photographs. “I wanted to change the gallery into my space,” Nxumalo said at the time. “I thought of what I would do if it were my personal room, which is where the idea of the posters came from.”

In 2014, while participating in Njami’s masterclass, Nxumalo co-curated an exhibition with the now-acclaimed photographers Thabiso Sekgala and Mimi Cherono Ng’ok from Kenya. Peregrinate: Field Notes On Time Travel And Space, presented at the FNB Joburg Art Fair, explored photography as a shared method of investigation, discovery, and representation among the three photographers.

I initially thought to find a photographer to represent but then realised, with all the talent out there, it would be better to develop a programme that every year shows different photographers

Nxumalo’s current ease with the marketing and logistics side of the art business belies an earlier apprehension. His first visit to the Joburg Art Fair — a kind of older, richer sister to the Turbine Art Fair — filled him with dread. “I was asked to present a talk about my work,” he says, but he went into shock when standing at the podium. “I had no idea about the people who attend this event, their social class and background. I was used to the community of students in Newtown where the Market Photo Workshop is based. I also had no idea about the commercial side.”

But that was then. Nxumalo’s skills as a co-ordinator prompted Turbine Art Fair’s founder, Glynis Hyslop, to invite him to curate the fifth iteration of its graduate show. Artists previously featured in this popular component of the show include Liberty Battson, Chemutai Ng’ok, Mongezi Ncaphayi, and Andrzej Urbanski.

Nxumalo has decided to inject a bit of activism, drawing on input from last year’s curator, painter Jessica Webster, Rather than only focus on painting, as was the case last year, Home/Land will feature paintings in conversation with photographs. Nxumalo’s themes of home and land gesture to contemporary politics but also draw on ideas expressed in his 2015 Joburg Art Fair show. Among the artists he is excited to be showcasing is Keneilwe Mokoena, a Tshwane University of Technology graduate whose portfolio includes photography, printmaking, and drawing. Mokoena won the 2015 Reinhold Cassirer Award.

Nxumalo says it is his mission to bring photography from the periphery of the art market to a place nearer the centre. It is a big mountain he’ll be climbing: photography is a notorious hard sell in South Africa.

“In 2007, when I joined the gallery, we had a very limited collector base for photography locally,” says Federica Angelucci, a director at Stevenson, which represents Muholi, Pieter Hugo, and Guy Tillim. “This has now changed, but I still have very few clients here.”

Most of Stevenson’s local clients collect broadly and include photography in their scope. “There is not a specific interest in the medium,” Angelucci says. “It is not associated with status, even though the prices are not what would appeal to an entry-level collector.”

Changing photography’s local status is a long game. Nxumalo is well positioned to prod the market, and his exhibition at the Turbine Art Fair is a small prompt towards an inevitable turnaround.

The RMB Turbine Art Fair will take place from Thursday 12 July to Sunday 15 July at Turbine Hall, Newtown, Johannesburg. 

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