Our first stop of the day is blank projects
The gallery was founded in 2005 by Jonathan Garnham after his return from Berlin where he had resided for ten years as a practicing sculptor. A few years later in 2008 the gallery moved to its current location in Woodstock near Cape Town’s harbor district. The area has been experiencing progress in recent years and is also home to the cluster of art galleries formed around Stevenson (referred to in an accommodating way as “Big Brother”), including Goodman Gallery and SMAC Gallery all of which we had a chance to visit later during the day. The Woodstock galleries are maintaining good relations and a sense of synergy. In terms of partnerships blank projects also enjoys the loyal patronage and professional exchange with e.g. A4 Arts Foundation, whom we visited yesterday.
The group met up with Catherine Humphries, who gave a tour around the current solo exhibition by the Capetonian multidisciplinary artist Kyle Morland, his fifth with the gallery but first in the new space. Morland has responded to its greater dimensions with three large sculptural works of segmented rhomboid elements. Meticulously designed, the works demonstrate the artist’s preoccupation with industrial aesthetics and modes of production. However, the smooth, white enamel surfaces as well as their curvature and suggestion of movement at the same time assigns them with a sense of playfulness and lightness.
In the adjacent room, Morland has exhibited diptychs consisting of flat templates of mild steel and powdered matte and a series of wall-based sculptures that also hint at the laborious processes and investigations – both material and conceptual – that gave rise to the larger works.
After the tour we had a pleasant conversation with Catherine and other members of the gallery’s staff, who gave us an update on its profile.
Initially, blank was thought of as a non-profit project space, which aimed at offering a platform for emerging artists to develop their work and exhibit; something which was uncommon in Cape Town at the time. Today, the gallery is dealing in African and international contemporary art and while still operating on a relatively small level with a limited number of employees, blank is currently representing 14 artists. It remains their ambition to collaborate closely with a young and energetic group of artists in the effort to build and nurture their careers. A few of these artists were presented in the gallery’s backroom including Turiya Magadlela and Jared Ginsburg.
Rather than considering itself an African gallery as such, blank projects has been expanding its international network of artists, collectors and institutions and is also participating in a greater number of international fairs (Liste, The Armory Show, Frieze London, Art Basel Miami Beach etc.). Nevertheless, they do consider it part of their mission to work for the greater good of art from the African continent.
Since the time of blank´s opening, Cape Town has seen significant changes not only in the gallery scene, where the numbers have increased, but in the entire infrastructure of artists and institutions. The issue of working in the intersections between local and global art worlds seems to be presenting enormous challenges as well as opportunities. And the same could be said about the pressure of presenting artists who make work that is critical of the political situation in South Africa and land appropriation.
Anders Gaardboe Jensen
STEVENSON Gallery in Woodstock
It begins with a mark, the first line, and the immediate. The twisted shape of bacon on the breakfast plate, the smoky acrid Jo’burg morning air, the rushed and chaotic commute from home to studio – everything and nothing goes into that line.
These are the words of Burundi-born artist Serge Alain Nitegeka (*1983), who is currently presenting his solo show Innate Black at the STEVENSON gallery in Cape Town. Next to his paintings – abstract works, reduced to color and geometry – his site-specific installation has transformed the gallery spaces into an architectural structure that contains narrow passages one has to step through sideways or duck under. Based on his own migrant experience, the artist questions in his work the effects of spatial structures on our physical behavior and mental frameworks. A reoccurring theme that, as early as day two of our trip, has been brought up by various art protagonists of Cape Town – a city whose segregating infrastructure remains deeply woven into the social fabric of post-Apartheid society. Also on display at Stevenson Gallery: photographs by Zanele Muholi, hung densely to create a small but powerful visual archive of the LGBTQI community; photographic self-representation as an activist counternarrative.
STEVENSON gallery has been around in Cape Town for 15 years, playing a pivotal role in the South African arts scene. As one of the directors Joost Bosland tells us, due to the long lack of art institutions in Cape Town, commercial spaces took over the role of the institution, often providing the only space where art could be exhibited (also during the Apartheid era, where i.e. the Goodman Gallery just next to STEVENSON supported and exhibited resistance art). STEVENSON gallery, who call themselves a “nerdy gallery”, has been dedicated to promoting South African artists and artists from Africa and its diaspora within the field of contemporary art, further providing contextualization through publishing and granting access to research material on the artists they promote. For a long time, their appearance at international art fairs presented the only place where the works of African artists could be accessed by – and have access to – the rest of the world.
With the major institutions such as Zeitz MOCAA currently transforming the art scene of Cape Town, the mark that stands at the beginning of Serge Alain Nitegeka’s quote turns into a powerful metaphor for the legacy of the country (or continent, even): what first marks have these institutions made in the landscape of (South) Africa; how do they envision their cultural and social responsibilities – and what mark will they leave for the future?
“To curate our own experiences and write our own narratives”
Cape Town is right now facing the context of a brand new art scene to consider. Two major institutions just opened in less than a year: Zeitz MOCAA and Norval Foundation. Whereas the first focuses on African contemporary art, the second is situated in between modern and contemporary. Beside this, the Iziko National Gallery (covering the wide history of the country) is also providing a necessary documentation and valorization of South African artworks and is the public institution of the town.
We had the chance to join the directors and founders of several of these institutions in the city to present some of our institutions as well (including Fotomuseum Winterthur, Tent Rotterdam, Mondriaan Fonds, Holstebro Art Museum, Beursschouwburg). Iziko, Zeitz MOCAA and Norval Foundation were also present, plus the AVA (Association for Visual Arts) and its director Mirjam Asmal; as well as Robyn-Leigh Cedras, director of the Rupert Art Museum. Ashraf Jamal, author of the edition “In the World. Essays on Contemporary South African Art” (Skira) was moderating the panel at the end of the presentations. Giving the general tone of the afternoon, Rooksana Omar, CEO of the Iziko Museums of South Africa declared that the discussion would be orientated on the way South Africa is now thinking and proceeding “to curate [their] own experiences and write [their] own narratives”.
For three days, we have been visiting many of the art spaces (museums, galleries, non-profit organizations or collections both private and public) in Cape Town. Since “Iziko” is an isiXhosa word which is translated by “hearth”, the name of the museum both symbolizes “a hub cultural activity, and a central place for gathering South Africa’s diverse heritage”. In this specific frame, the way one can understand this will to organize Africa’s or at least South Africa’s own experiences of curating and narratives, can refer to the complex context the country is facing. Whilst there is a huge interest in African art from the market and the institutions simultaneously, and many African artists living abroad and building their international careers, this really diverse heritage of the country can be seen in different ways. But probably the most appropriate line coming to our mind would be “context is everything”. No matter what are the narratives we will read around African art, or the displays used in those brand new as well as very historical exhibitions spaces we will see, we should pay a really strong attention to the context, rather than trying to refer – even if just in our minds – to the socio-historical and pretty much hierarchical way history of art has been built as a field in the Western countries. “The future is present”, claimed the magazine Art Africa of March 2018, and definitely, South Africa is now building the future of the visual context in the country, if not on the continent.