Mandla Sibeko.
Mandla Sibeko.
Image: Darryn Gwyn

Often, the death of a visionary opens our eyes, creating a halo effect of sorts — an opportunity to closely examine that person’s legacy, to find ways to ensure it enjoys the longevity it deserves. That’s what I’ve been experiencing since late June upon hearing the tragic news that local art legend David Koloane had passed away. Koloane’s contribution to our artistic landscape is undisputed. A tireless campaigner for greater inclusion and recognition, he was as much a creator as he was an enabler of black artists, giving them a space to explore in his Bag Factory and a platform to be heard at the many exhibitions he curated across the African continent.

In the wake of a loss as great as this, we need to be honest about the gains that must still be made. Even with the recent rise in exposure, black representation in the arts is nowhere close to what it should be. Systematic structures have inevitably created ivory towers. Koloane was painfully aware of being perceived as an outsider to the mainstream, conveniently labelled a “township artist”, as if his birthplace was the only contributing factor to his oeuvre. But this stranger status, still being dished out today, extends beyond simple labelling and impacts the lived experiences of far too many black artists, preventing them from owning and enjoying their successes.

By operating on the periphery, they concede control of their own destinies, conveniently at arm’s length from the centre, seated away from the main table. While in artistic terms this often results in an incisive perspective and richer commentary, in real terms, black artists are not enjoying the fruits of their labour. They are denied the opportunity to be celebrated while still alive. Koloane barely lived long enough to experience his own retrospective — A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane, curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe — which opened four weeks prior to his death. And artists like Peter Clarke, Dumile Feni, Ernest Mancoba, and Fikile Magadlela died without recognition, unable to cement their legacies before they passed on. Will the likes of Kay Hassan, Helen Sebidi, Louis Maqhubela, and Charles Nkosi suffer the same fate as we once again commemorate our legends in hindsight?

I intend for FNB Art Joburg to be a platform that celebrates and champions local artists, from their formation and expansion phases to consolidation phases. I am heartened every time I see black talent making an impact on the world stage, and fairs help create further channels to this end. Right now though, this success is intensely complex. Art is subjective and, more than that, connected to whether it is lucrative. Being recognised and awarded is not enough. Having a seat at the table is about contributing to the narrative, setting the tone, and making decisions. I believe that this is what David Koloane lived for, and it is what I will strive for at every turn.

Part of this drive has been to introduce the new Gallery Lab, where Banele Khoza of BKhz studio and gallery will be given a greater voice to foster a new culture in the art market and help change the fair model. Khoza is a young disruptor and enabler of other black artists (much like Koloane was) and is a co-curator of the incubator.

Sibeko is an entrepreneur and founder of FNB Art Joburg.

From the September edition of Wanted 2019.

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