A refreshed Art Joburg fetes the city’s booming creative scene

A refreshed Art Joburg fetes the city’s booming creative scene

Johannesburg entrepreneur Mandla Sibeko has breathed new life into the South African art fair

It takes a particularly daring investor to cut the roster of a long-established enterprise by 60 per cent. But, a reboot of Africa’s oldest art fair recently proved that great things can come in small, if perfectly formed, packages. The newly rechristened FNB Art Joburg (formerly FNB Joburg Art Fair) was considerably leaner with 18 galleries from the continent in the main section and a ‘first-of-its-kind’ Gallery Lab focused on nine younger, hybrid spaces.

Entrepreneur and former director Mandla Sibeko acquired the fair from embattled owners ArtLogic, in response to an exodus of main exhibitors after last year’s event. The pilot edition of FNB Art Joburg adopted an invitation-only model, with the selection committee comprising local heavyweights Jonathan Garnham (Blank Projects); Mark Read (Everard Read); Monna Mokoena (Gallery MOMO); Liza Essers (Goodman Gallery); Baylon Sandri (SMAC Gallery); and Joost Bosland (Stevenson).

The fair’s laser-focus was an invigorating antidote to the cluttered cultural calendar. In lieu of sterile, labyrinthine booths, swathes of colour punctuated the normally innocuous Sandton Convention Centre, while dynamic sight lines lured fairgoers in. Stevenson impressed with Johannesburg-born Steven Cohen’s latest works, a series of delicate prints of the Lille-based artist’s face made by removing make-up with tape. Goodman Gallery brought William Kentridge and Wallpaper* favourite Mikhael Subotzky, and Smith gallery had evocative photographic collages by Sitaara Stodel.

New to the fair this year was the MAX programme – a first in Africa – which saw galleries break free from the confines of their booths with a series of monumental installations. Everard Read gallery staged a solo presentation by Lady Skollie as well as a large sculptural work by Brett Murray as part of the programme. Cape Town’s Blank Projects tasked Igshaan Adams with creating work on-site, while Jody Paulsen (SMAC Gallery) dazzled with a sensational felt collage.

Of course, converation around Johannesburg’s social turmoil was inescapable. As the protest over rising gender-based violence and femicide reached fever pitch outside in Sandton, another one quietly brewed inside the fair, where the absence of Nigerian galleries due to participate was noticeably felt. Scrawled across the back wall of 16/16’s vacant booth, a compelling message from Nigerian artist Sheila Chukwulozie: ‘Thanks, xenophobia’.

16/16’s empty stand, with a message from artist Sheila Chukwulozie created in absentia

Along with Revolving Arts Incubator, the Lagos-based gallery was unable to secure visas ahead of the fair. South Africa temporarily closed its embassies in Abuja and the Nigerian capital after a spate of deadly xenophobic attacks against foreign-owned businesses in Johannesburg. A third Nigerian exhibitor, Rele Gallery, was only able to hang its booth once the fair was already underway.

Still, there was plenty to explore at Gallery Lab, the incubator curated by FNB Art Joburg fair manager Nicole Siegenthaler and BKhz founding director Banele Khoza. Eswatini gallery Yebo Contemporary devoted its stand to artists Khulekani Msweli and Mbongeni Dlamini, among others; Angolan art space Espaço Luanda Arte brought powerful portraits by René Tavares and No Martins; and Stary Mwaba’s labour-intensive newsprint canvases charmed visitors at Modzi Arts.

Cape Town has long been hailed as South Africa’s art capital, but Johannesburg is poised for a breakthrough. Latitudes art fair, helmed by an all-female collective, opened its first edition concurrently down the road at Nelson Mandela Square (several former FNB Joburg Art Fair exhibitors participated in the offshoot). Elsewhere, at the Museum of African Design in Maboneng, the curator-led Underline Projects was established to support independent voices and eschewed the traditional fair model by forgoing booth fees.

But it’s not just locally that South African galleries are making their voices heard. Goodman Gallery opened its inaugural international outpost in London last month, while SMAC artist Mary Sibande’s first solo exhibition in UK, ‘I Came Apart at the Seams’, is now open at Somerset House (until 20 January 2020). Then there’s 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which in seven years has established editions in London, New York and Marrakech. It seems the appetite for Africa’s contemporary art scene is only growing. §

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