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Artists daring to go it alone

It is a hard to pinpoint exactly when works by artist Nelson Makamo became so hotly coveted. If you study auction records, his art was fetching handsome sums before Oprah Winfrey posted an image on Instagram of herself virtually hugging a newly acquired artwork by the Joburg-based artist. Then there was the artwork he made for the cover of Time magazine and the Trevor Noah interview in 2019. He has over 180 000 followers on Instagram. Yet despite his celebrity status and the rising value of his art, he is not represented by an art gallery. He has staged exhibitions at galleries – often the Everard Read - but has maintained his independence. This may be due to the perceived lack of institutional appeal (from museums and curators) his art presents, which may have been a barrier to him landing a spot at Goodman or Stevenson – two of the country’s most powerful art galleries and art marketing machines.

Whether Makamo was waiting to be courted by a powerful gallery or had no interest in this is a moot point for he has now completely taken control of his destiny and set up his own gallery. Botho Project Space is adjoining his studio in Selby and it is here that in November last year he opened possibly the largest exhibition of his works to date.

The gallery is unconventional in a number of ways. They sold tickets - R450 for two - to attend the opening nights (due to Covid-19). This idea was surprisingly well received; they sold out (over 300 tickets) three days before the opening. The opening show, naturally was a Makamo solo – a mass of new paintings filled the capacious destination, which includes one large gallery, a corridor and another smaller gallery space.

Adding conceptual weight to the opening night was a keynote address on the role of artists in postcolonial Africa. A comprehensive catalogue on Makamo’s art was published.

“It made sense to open with Nelson; he had not shown a solo show in South Africa in a long time. We won’t only do solos but group shows, where we invite writers, curators to curate or contribute. We are also working on an international strategy to promote our shows. We don’t have one format,” says French-born Anne Reverdy, the director of Botho Project Space (pictured above).

Makamo isn’t the only South African artist who has chosen to set up his own gallery – Banele Khoza beat him to it when he opened BKhz in Braamfontein in 2018. At the time Khoza’s establishment puzzled the local art community – not only was the purpose of the new space unclear but why would he opt out of the gallery system when he was such a promising talent? From a young age when his ambitions lay in fashion, he dreamt of his own atelier and it remained a steadfast goal even when his passion for art became clear. As such BKhz was modelled on an atelier of sorts.

“My initial plan was to have a studio and a home for my work where people could view it in a setting where they could experience it. Then the landlord gave me more space, I moved my art to the back and decided to put on curatorial projects at the front,” said Khoza. Little did he know then that he would find himself a gallerist, putting on a string of exhibitions, and participating in art fairs. BKhz’s new space on the ground floor of the Trumpet building in Rosebank, which opened in January this year, marks an evolution into more of a conventional gallery. Yet it remains a space for Khoza to promote his art too – his solo exhibition, 27 opened last month.

Khoza and Makamo are part of a shift that is occurring in the local and international art worlds. Instagram, social media, is directly connecting a new generation of artists to collectors. They hire a manager who deals with sales, collectors and exhibitions. Even young graduates with a hot following – such as Zandile Tshabalala – has a manager. In this way Tshabala sets the prices for her art. Of course, many say those prices grow too fast and the artist should follow gallery conventions.

“The gallery format worked ten years ago, when it was difficult for collectors to reach artists. Now they can go directly to the artist so it doesn’t make sense to share 40% of your profits, “says Musa Nxumalo, a Joburg-based artist who was involved in the setting up of Botho Project Space.

Instagram might bring in sales but it is a virtual medium. Nothing can quite replace the solo exhibition – a format that allows collectors to really get a feel for an artist’s aesthetic and ideas.

“Galleries are important because of exhibitions, but artists also want to be free to collaborate with other artists who may be aligned to different galleries or show in different spaces. The current gallery system hasn’t allowed for this,” says Nxumalo. Artist run galleries appear to offer the artists the best of both worlds – complete control over their practice but also the ability to sell at art fairs and stage solo exhibitions.

Like Botho Project Space, The Fourth, which opened late last year by artist Rodan Kane-Hart also doesn’t represent artists. This Cape Town based gallery, located on the titular fourth floor of an old building off St Georges Mall is a venue for exhibitions with works by many artists who may or may not be represented by galleries. The Fourth grew out of a smaller ‘gallery’ in Kane-Hart’s loft apartment. When the apartment a floor below became vacant due to Covid-19 pressures, the landlord offered to him. With more space to play, Kane-Hart pushed new boundaries but curating exhibitions where works of art and design – such as pieces of furniture - are shown alongside each other. As such a walk through The Fourth’s latest show, The Spectacle, feels a little like entering an interior magazine spread. A textile work by Unathi Mkonto is displayed alongside a side table by Ben Kennedy and an Artemide lamp. This set-up – suits the setting an expansive flat with a myriad of adjoining rooms. Each is dedicated to a different thread of the larger Spectacle theme, allowing relationships between the art and design objects to connect in particular ways.



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