Interviews

Bringing African Art History to the Rest of the World

by Claire Breukel on December 27, 2011

Kudzanai Chiurai, "Untitled V" (2011), Ultra chrome ink on Innova photo fiber paper. (Photo courtesy Goodman Gallery)

CAPE TOWN — Summertime in South Africa is not only a time for beach, sun and granadilla lollies (a locally-made fruit popsicle), with the influx of tourists it is also a time for survey exhibitions by galleries who want to showcase their stable of artists and give an overview of their wares.

Gallery director Liza Essers. (image via artthrob.co.za)

I walk in to Goodman Gallery on the third floor of a large warehouse space in the slowly gentrifying area of Woodstock. The exhibition is Summer Show and I grin at this simple and all-encompassing title in what I assume is an attempt at impartial curatorship.

The works on display are however more complex than the title denotes, and range from what is a glimpse in to a South African art textbook to a sexy sprinkling of hot-young-things in between. As a staple on the South African art landscape Goodman gallery in Johannesburg has for years shown established artists and with their new Cape Town gallery has increasingly begun to show younger artists, affording them global exposure and giving the gallery an edgier appeal.

I pop my head into the office of Liza Essers, the dynamo gallery director, who agrees to an interview (“right now, sure thing” is her reply).  I want to find out more about what it’s like to manage a diverse program at one of South Africa’s leading contemporary art galleries.

*   *   *

Claire Breukel: Why a group show now?

Liza Essers: In season it makes sense to have a group show and have our gallery artists represented, so we showcase everyone.

CB: Tell me about the gallery?

LE: We have been known to be the gallery on the African continent that has for the last forty six years brought the art history from the continent to the rest of the world.

In fact, the William Kentridge piece in this show relates to his Documenta 13 project “Refuse the Hour” that will happen in Kassel, Germany next year. We also work with David Goldblatt, who has a big exhibition at SFMOMA and another one at Huise Marseille in Amsterdam coming up.

William Kentridge, sketch for his upcoming 2012 project "Refuse the Hour". Photo courtesy the author.

CB: What’s it like working with a wide range of artists?

LE: For me it’s a privilege to be in William’s [Kentridge] or David’s [Goldblatt] studio with them. The same with the younger artists, but I would say they need more input and direction curatorially.

The more established artists already have their own sense of direction so it’s really more about managing their careers.

CB: Who should we watch?

LE: The other one of our artists in Documenta 13 is Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai who has only been with us for two years and is doing really well.

Other artists to watch are Stuart Bird, I love his work in this show, and Mikhael Subotzky who is only in his thirties and just won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art (think South Africa’s Turner Prize).

This year, Moshekwa Langa also just had a museum show in Bern, Switzerland.

CB: What is the driving force behind showing works globally and locally?

The South African art market is limited and South African collectors are just starting to focus on contemporary art. For a long time the focus has been on collecting very traditional-South African-type work like Maggie Laubscher. Now the market is growing and thankfully there seems to be a new market for contemporary art.

CB: Do curators find artists at the source?

Some international curators do come to South Africa to see work, but mostly artists get exposure to big international curators at fairs internationally. The more we show work at fairs and exhibitions oversees, the more curators can follow and recognize the work and become acquainted with the artists.

Stuart Bird, "The Position of the Artist Now, and Sculptors of Today" (2011), wood. (Photo courtesy Goodman Gallery)

CB: What fairs do you attend?

Art Basel, Art Basel Miami, FIAC, Paris Photo, Dubai and Hong Kong … wait there’s one more I’m forgetting … oh yeah, of course The Armory Show in New York (laughs) … and hopefully Frieze Fair in New York this year too.

CB: What’s your mantra for new artists coming to Goodman?

Long-term sustainability. It’s not about being a flash-in-the-pan and becoming known for having one great show, it’s about long term career. The important thing about being a gallerist is not to push and recognize when to give younger artists space for example, the Essop brothers are doing their Masters degrees at the moment so have taken two years to complete that. That’s important.

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  • Anonymous

    Claire, certain aspects of your article are misleading.

    “Bringing African Art History to the Rest of the World.” Does South Africa represent and speak for the rest of the continent?
    And, drawing comparisons between the Standard Bank Young Artist and the Turner Prize is nothing short of gross exaggeration.
    Lazy writing at best.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      The comparison of Standard Bank Young Artist and Turner was made by the person being interviewed and I think it’s interesting since both are regional prizes and I don’t really think the Turner is as important as some people seem to pretend it is. Perhaps you think the UK is far more important than South Africa. I don’t.

      Also, if you attended art fairs you may know that the Goodman gallery is one of the only African galleries that represents artists from the continent consistently to the world. Essers also mentioned that they represent non-South African artists. If you can name other African galleries on the same level as the Goodman gallery, more power to you but I doubt it.

  • claire breukel

    The Standard Bank Award is the oldest and most prestigious awards in South Africa and is based on the paradigm of the Turner prize. It does differ in that they award prizes in multiple disciplines. I agree with Hrag that its is an assumption that because the prize is lower financially and less known globally that it is any less important to its artist community. I was lucky enough to sit in on a judging a number of years back and I can attest that its impact is felt, and greatly publicized, throughout South Africa.

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