Uncharted Territory

It Is risky business setting up a gallery In Soweto but a necessary step for the
promulgation of the vsual arts, writes Mary Corrigall.

View of Soweto’s famous Vilakazi Street, once home to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, as seen from Hector Pieterson Museum

“Soweto isn’t just a place you come from it’s a place you go to,” is the slogan that is being touted by the City’s developers to sum up the impetus behind the plethora of regeneration projects engineered to transform this Gauteng locale into a conventional neighbourhood replete with all the trappings of modern existence.

The R500m Maponya Mall is just the tip of the ice berg; a R40m golf course near Pimville is in planning stages, and the R1bn Orlando Ekhaya project still under way will see swanky loft apartments, performance/ festival, residential and business facilities all erected. With all this heightened economic activity in the area it was only going to be a matter of time before murmurings about the advent of contemporary art galleries would surface. However, while retailers are eager to set up shop in Soweto and cash in on the estimated R10.5bn buying power attributed to its residents, by and large gallerists remain reserved.

“Setting up an art gallery is not as easy as starting up a coffee-shop,” dryly remarked Mary-Jane Darroll, a director at the Everard Read Gallery, Johannesburg.

The Everard Read is one of the galleries rumoured to be vying for a slice of the Sowetan pie, however, Darroll confirms that her gallery has yet to make any firm commitments. Melissa Mboweni, an ex-Goodman Gallery staffer who now heads Akani, a creative consulting firm centred on producing visual art initiatives in Soweto, is also considering initiating a permanent contemporary gallery for the township. But, like Darroll she says nothing has been set in stone as yet. The Goodman Gallery’s plan to expand the franchise into the township has ground to a halt, according to owner Linda Givon.

The Goodman had counted on teaming up with Mboweni to establish a venue until those plans fell through and Mboweni chose to team up with an influential Sowetan instead, according to Givon. Her initial interest in the Sowetan market was mainly impulsive, sparked by news that Soweto “is becoming like the northern suburbs”.

The Everard Read has applied a more considered approach to setting up shop in what is as yet uncharted territory.”There is a huge element of risk involved in setting up a gallery in an area where it has not been done before,” says Darroll.

The viability of setting up a gallery depends on a complex set of criteria with its setting and the financial stature of its prospective clientele heading the list. Soweto may boast a huge population that wields big spending power, but Darroll suggests that initially it would make better fiscal sense to cater for international visitors to the suburb. “Although the black middle class are a growing market with a taste for the finer things in life, in terms of art they remain an unstable market.”

Despite everyone’s hesitancy, the indications are that major players in the South African art world are keen to explore the Sowetan market. There is no holding back Oupa Morare, an avid art collector who has amassed a significant collection of contemporary South African art and has always dreamt of turning his passion into a business. He is due to open a contemporary art gallery in Walter Sisulu Square, in Kliptown, in February next year. Morare says his venture was inspired by Monna Mokoena’s Gallery Momo in Parktown, Johannesburg. Morare’s new gallery, situated near a tourist information kiosk and hotel, will predominantly target foreign visitors.”I think that day-to-day bread-and-butter sales will be down to tourists. However, in the long term we will target black professionals with a disposable income.”

Tailoring art for international clientele who frequent Soweto would presumably have a significant impact on the genus of art being exhibited.Though Darroll desisted from employing the pejorative label “township art”, she inferred that foreigners would expect to see art that reflects the township milieu.

“We would consider showing the best of emerging South African art that is relevant to the environment as well as top end artists.”

However, for Darroll the question remains: “Will a tourist market who are used to paying nominal amounts for African art already on sale in Soweto be willing to spend a significantly larger amount on serious art?”

Driven by a reverence for South African artists, Morare is determined to show the best of contemporary South African art. The first exhibition planned for Morare’s gallery will explore the politics of space, a motif that has universal appeal while resonating with Sowetans.

The arrival of contemporary art galleries in Soweto could perceivably alter the fate of many artists toiling in that suburb.

“There is a lot of talent in the townships but many emerging artists are being forced to give up because of a lack of support,” says David Koloane, artist and co-founder of the Bag Factory.

Though artists would benefit from commercial galleries in Soweto, Koloane believes that a museum of contemporary art would better serve the population as a whole, functioning as an introduction to the visual arts. Koloane suggests that commercial spaces would only attract a select group of art aficionados.

The majority of art produced in Soweto has until now been sold to independent private art dealers who sell the work onto international buyers who are looking for so- called township art, concludes Koloane.

Under these conditions artists have historically been forced to create their own platforms. However, with no available art gallery space to stage exhibitions, artists have had to make use of community halls such as Uncle Toms and Diepkloof Hall. Because these are multi-functional spaces, art exhibitions only run for two days at a time over weekends.

“These are the same spaces that church singing groups are performing. Artists in Soweto need a dedicated, permanent space to show their art in a professional manner,” says Mboweni, who curated Jive Soweto, an exhibition of contemporary art held in Soweto in September. With no conventional art venue available Mboweni was forced to stage her exhibition at the Hector Pieterson Museum — not exactly the ideal destination for art engineered to engage with present- day preoccupations.

Large attendance figures at many of these makeshift art exhibitions have demonstrated that Sowetans are keen on the visual arts. However, Mboweni is sceptical that larger galleries, such as the Goodman would find much success in Soweto, primarily because the high price tags would scare off prospective first-time collectors.

Soweto isn’t short on high-flyer professionals who have for a long time patronised the arts, according to Koloane. Morare is one of those professionals and he is set on convincing those of his ilk to follow suit.

“Successful black professionals tend to collect exotic cars, I am going to invite them into my gallery and convince them to buy art instead. It seems a shame that their lovely homes are decorated with crap from the flea market or expensive pieces from Paris,” he says.

Morare isn’t just determined to develop interest in the visual arts, he would like to create a distinctive art venue. “I don’t want it to be a little Goodman or little Everard Read, I want us to find our own niche.”

Mary Corrigall is the art critic and feature writer for the Sunday Independant.