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.