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Getting to grips with Art Joburg's insularity

Blank Project's stand at Art Joburg. Image by Karabo Mooki

Why did the Joburg Art Fair, now Art Joburg lose its pan-African, international persona?

When the Joburg Art Fair (JAF) was established in 2008 it was advanced by Artlogic as a pan-African platform. At the time, this guiding ethos was difficult to achieve, given there were so few commercial galleries on the continent and those with the resources to participate. Yet over the years, the commercial art circuit grew in art capitals in Africa. From 2007 approximately (we are still collating this figure) 47 new commercial galleries (excluding South Africa) have opened on the African continent. More and more African galleries, particularly those geographically close to Johannesburg, from Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique – where there are less evolved art ecosystems - came to rely on JAF to reach new buyers. As the graphs in our Snap Report: Joburg Art Fairs 2019 show in the years 2017 and 2018, participation by African galleries was at its highest, though South African galleries dominated.

JAF was the first art fair on the continent and was seen as the most influential in South Africa (Art X Lagos and 1:54 Marrakech are the two other important fairs on the continent), until the Cape Town Art Fair (CTAF) began gaining strength. This manifested not only in the increase of international visitors to Cape Town’s art fair but in the number of galleries from outside Africa participating in it. This climaxed in the 2019 Investec CTAF with 38% of participating galleries being European-based. This is linked to the Italian ownership – Fiera Milano - of that fair. The establishment of two art foundations – Norval and Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art - being established in that city coupled with its natural beauty made it the more attractive option for international visitors. These developments, as well as many other weaknesses in the format of the JAF, saw CTAF become viewed as more important in terms of its apparent attractiveness to international visitors.

Interestingly, the restructuring of Art Joburg was done without the 'international' collector or gallerist in mind, which is pertinent if you consider that the drive to change the format of the fair and ownership of it originated with three leading Cape Town based galleries – Stevenson, Blank Projects and Smac. In other words, the 'internationalism' of CTAF might not be a welcomed development for South African galleries.

As the graph shows, the dominant (the only) nationality of galleries in the main section of Art Joburg was South African. Unfortunately, this affirmed what Achille Mbembe, the Joburg-based public intellectual, dubs a form of ‘national chauvinism’ which he claims runs deep in South Africa. In this way this annual art event in 2019 became even more parochial than ever before – and less pan-African. There are a number of reasons this might have occurred;

1) The Cape Town galleries driving the change don’t need to meet international collectors in Joburg. They can reach this audience in Europe. Goodman, Stevenson and Everard Read all have spaces established in art capitals on that continent and the former two participate in the most ‘important’ fairs – Art Basel, Frieze London. As such the Joburg art fair, no longer functions as the platform to engage with international collectors – or least for those larger galleries with the means to participate in several fairs in Europe.

2) Limited resources spent on luring international collectors who were now being tempted by art fairs elsewhere in the world - think 1:54, which offered a wider more diverse selection of art from Africa and better opportunities for African galleries - were never that successful.

“Joburg has a bad reputation from a tourism perspective; it is thought of as the crime capital. (Tourists) Go straight to Cape Town. Joburg has been difficult to market. We had to think about how do we position ourselves in the world, how do we compete in the world because there is a bigger (art fair) calendar than there was before,” Mandla Sibeko, director Art Joburg.

3) The focus on “quality content” embraced by Art Joburg apparently would preclude galleries from elsewhere in Africa participating in the main section. The LAB section - earmarked for 'emerging' galleries was where galleries from outside South Africa's borders were confined.

“We wanted to elevate the content of the fair. The African content at the fair was completely inconsistent before,” Mandla Sibeko, director Art Joburg.

4) In our interviews with Liza Essers of Goodman Gallery and Mark Read of the Everard Read group, it was clear that the short time frame – 2/3 months – in which Sibeko and the founding group of galleries driving the change – had to “reset” (Essers’s wording) the fair was such that they were forced to work with ‘known quantities’ – being themselves, South African galleries.

“We now have to get together rapidly, the whole founding group, needs to meet and say it can’t be the same next year… an elitist bunch of people who want to keep it for themselves.,” observed Read.

Naturally, though Latitudes, was not configured in opposition to Art Joburg, in seeking to distinguish it from Art Joburg the organisers tailored to the needs left unaddressed by this new ‘exclusive’ fair. Their response was to offer spaces for African galleries. This made it a more inclusive and 'international event''.

“Latitudes and Art Joburg contacted me so I could have done either. I decided on Latitudes because it had an inclusive atmosphere. A contemporary art fair must involve African galleries not only South Africans. An ideal art fair is one from different countries,” Daudi Kauringi, Afriart, Uganda.

Did the pricing patterns at the fairs reflect the differing status of the fairs? We address this question in our Snap Report: Joburg Art Fairs 2019. We also look in more detail what each fair organiser set out to achieve in these first iterations, what the fairs were like at ground level and whether the buyers turned up and bought lots of art.


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