VANSA (Visual Arts Network of South Africa) is a support and development agency for contemporary arts practice in South Africa. It operates as a network of artists with over 8000 members; membership costs the equivalent of one euro. The urgency of VANSA’s activities is outlined by its new director Kabelo Malatsie (who has worked as a curator in both independent and commercial contexts, and has explored alternative funding and institutional models that are rooted in their viability in the South-African context). There is a lack of independent, public institutions for the arts in South Africa; and where public infrastructure for the arts fails, she says, it fails the artists. Yes, there is a growing commercial arts scene, with galleries and private museums; and yes, a group of South-African artists features prominently on the world stage of biennials and fairs. But behind this story of success and glamour, hides a structure that is structurally not supportive and often exploitative, whether deliberately or not. VANSA aims to look beyond the few dominant players, and beyond discussions about which artists are good, which themes are popular, and which critical debates are given a symbolic stage, to advocate structures across the entire field of art that are more fair and safe.
An important tool is VANSA’s website, which is a resource for information about resources, funding and job opportunities, residencies, internships, and networks. VANSA also offers legal advice, about contracts, copyright issues, collectors who fail to pay for their acquisitions within reasonable time. VANSA also lobbies with governments and institutions, for example for artist’s fees and resale rights.
The kind of fair practice VANSA advocates, is an issue everywhere. But the predicament of the majority of South African and other African artists, Kabelo explains, is extra harsh because of the massive gaps between the international ‘scramble’ for African contemporary art, and the real material conditions behind the scene, which tend to remain unspoken. Discursive programming and supposed criticality are part of every biennial, exhibition, even commercial gallery show these days. But we don’t talk about the artists who did not make it to the selection because they could not afford to travel abroad. We don’t talk about the artists who did not manage to meet the international curator in their own town because they could not afford to front the taxi fare and fancy latte macchiato for a vague ‘get together’ with no clear purpose or intended outcome. Kabelo’s examples are confronting, because they are so very recognizable, and they also implicate all arts professionals engaging with (South)African artists, including ourselves.
In order to help build opportunities and equity across the country, one of VANSA’s focus is to support independent practice outside of the main city centres, fostering diverse local opportunities and networks, so artists are less pressured to relocate to the urban centres where their chances at a career and at a life are actually not necessarily better. At the same time, VANSA is part of an international network of independent arts organisations, like KUNCI Cultural Studies Center in Yogyakarta (Indonesia) and lugar a dudas in Cali (Colombia), which share knowledge and exchange strategies.
Johannesburg Art Gallery
Today we went to the Johannesburg Art Gallery, a beautiful building from 1915, surrounded by a sculpture park. If you search for JAG – Johannesburg Art Gallery on Wikipedia, you’ll read this: ”The Johannesburg Art Gallery is an art gallery in Joubert Park in the central business district of Johannesburg, South Africa. It is the largest gallery on the subcontinent with a collection that is larger than that of the Iziko South African National Art Gallery in Cape Town”.
Unfortunately it was not the experience we had (or I had). It seems that a large part of the museum was closed down. Only a very small selection of the collection was on display, almost hidden away in the lower floor. However, there were some very good works, e.g several photo series by David Goldblatt, one called “Going home” or “Going to work”, featuring the time the black working class spent every day on busses between home and work. And a painting by Mmakgabo Mapula Helen Sebidi, which we saw at the Noval Foundation, tiled “Modern Marriage” (1988-1989). In an additional exhibition space a small collection of heritage items from the KwaZulu-Natal region from 19th and early 20th century (a collection acquired in 2013) were shown. It didn’t catch my full attention, which may as well be because of my state of mind and the limited time.
But impressively, they had this very beautifully installed comprehensive solo presentation titled “Fragile” by Wolfgang Tillman on display. Even though you may have seen a lot of him during the last twenty years, it still works. The on-going concern with issues about intimacy, relations and minority community, seems as relevant as always. The well balanced shift from close-ups and small details to depictions of situations from everyday life and communities. The characteristic way to compose the layout of his works and the way you, as a viewer or recipient, have to shift position watching the images. Sometimes you have to go really close to see the motive and then step back to get the needed distance to capture the content of the big scale photos, and then again kneel down to get close enough to se the small snapshot-like photos.
We were supposed to meet with the director Khwezi Gule, but unfortunately he didn’t show up, being too busy with the JoburgArtFair and the Art Week. A pity because it could have been very interesting to hear something about future plans and hopes for the museum. We heard that he was newly appointed and therefore must have a lot of ideas of what’s to be done. It was clear that the whole building needed restoration. Already from the outside it looked dilapidated. Of course, to finance such a massive renovation project and to build up a sustainable economy must be the biggest challenge. I wish him all the best of luck. There really is a potential to create a great institution.
In Good Company
Our final night in Joburg is spent in good company. In Troyeville Hotel, located in one of the eldest suburbs on the eastern edge of Johannesburg, we are having an informal dinner with a few local artists and curators, some of whom we’ve met in the previous days.
Thato Mogotsi, who was instrumental in getting the whole crowd together, in the grey hoodie, is an independant curator and researcher, a teacher at the Market Photo Workshop and currently in the process of obtaining her masters’ at Wits University.
We also spoke to Molemo Moiloa, to Thato’s left, the founder of Vansa, and a member of the artist collective “MADEYOULOOK”.
Speaking to Anders Gaardboe Jensen is Rangoato Hlasane, an artist and scholar and a founding member of Keleketla! Library, a space that addresses issues of heritage and the danger of one story. Instead, it proposes to be a place where multiple stories and multiple narratives can exist parallel in order to challenge dominant narratives. Keleketla! Library was also part of the last Berlin Biennial.
We also spoke to Thenjiwe Nkosi (front left), a South African/Greek artist based in New York. In her work she deals with the questions second generation exiles face. Victoria Wigzell (back left) is an artist and researcher who recently started an artist run film production company called News From Home. Chlöe Hugo-Hamman, seated in the back right, is an actress and artist working in mixed media. She’s talking to Jamal Nxedlana whom we’ve met the day before at Bubblegum Club.
Seated between Rangoato Hlasane and Frederique Bergholtz is Minenkulu Ngoyi, an artist and founding member of the print collective Alphabet Zoo, affiliated with Danger Gevaar Ingozi. Anna Rubbens is seated on the right. We bumped into her at Stevenson gallery and it turned out she was a recent animation graduate from LUCA Ghent travelling in South Africa. So we invited her to join the program for two days.
Hugging Haco is Kwezi Gule, the director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.