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Interview with Jonathan Garnham, Blank Projects

by Mathieu Loctin

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On the last 22nd of September opened in Cape Town the largest museum of contemporary art in Africa, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), an institution that aims to be the equivalent of the MoMA and the Tate Modern African art. In a more and more globalized art world, Africa is almost never included in an international conversation. It remains difficult to know if this opening will be a game-changer for a burgeoning but largely neglected scene. For those reasons, we decided to ask one of the representatives of the Cape Town art scene and its young generation, the gallerist Jonathan Garnham (Blank Projects), to describe the evolution and the actual situation of the South-African and African art world, its artists and institutions.

Mathieu Loctin: You opened Blank Projects as an artist run-space in 2005, two years after being back from Berlin. What was the primary idea ? Was it responding to the specific context of Cape Town and maybe some failings ?

Jonathan Garnham : I’d been away for a long time, I lived in Berlin for ten years but was away for even longer. When I came back after living in Berlin in the 90’s and experiencing many cultural spaces, I saw that there was very little here, in South Africa. Few spaces for artists to do things, do exhibit, to experiment. So I decided to open a space. A very small space, just eighteen square meters, became avalaible near where I lived. I renovated it and just opened it with a show. I thought it was good for the city and it was also fun to do. It was a simple idea back then : a space that is free, that does not cost the artist anything, which was unusual in South Africa at the time. So the artists were under no pressure to make a selling or commercially orientated exhibition. It was more about pushing the boundaries and creating new discourse. After just a few months, we started getting many artists proposing ideas and exhibitions. We saw that there was a real need in South Africa for such a space. Artists were hungry for it.

ML: Can you remember how was the artistic scene and its ecosystem in Cape Town at this period ?

JG: It is still not a big scene but it was a lot smaller then. I remember that there were two or three serious galleries. They weren’t really working internationally and the scene was mainly established white artists and graduates of the art schools coming out to make carreers. Very few black artists. Now we have several professional galleries in Cape Town and in South Africa that are working internationally. There are a lot more practicing artists obviously and a more diverse mix of artists, which is how obviously it should be in South Africa since 80% of the population is black.

ML: When did you decide to shift from a project-space to a commercial gallery ?

JG: As the space grew it started taking more and more of my time over the years. We ran it as a non-profit space for six or seven years. I was teaching on the side, this is how I was earning my money and we were getting some funding for the space but it’s really difficult to raise money for these kind of projects in South Africa. It was just very difficult to sustain the project because of the lack of funding available locally, the funding that I was getting was from Europe actually. I got a bit tired I must say running for money all the time. So at some stage I thought that if this is going to be a sustainable thing then we need to become self-sustainable, we needed to generate money ourselves and the only way I could really think of doing that was by becoming a more commercial space, representing a group of artists and selling their work. I didn’t know if it would work in the beginning, it was bit of a jump into the dark and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it did work, and is still working. We’re still quite young, we’re only five years old as a commercial gallery. We started making the transition during 2012 and from the begining of 2013, we became a registered business. It seems to have worked so far, and we are certainly growing, which is great.

ML: As a gallery director, is there a specific type of practice that you’re interested in and might promote more that others ?

JG: If you’re in a big city like Paris or New York I’d imagine it’s easier to focus on a specific kind of practice. Here in South Africa,  because there are few galleries, I think one needs to look at everything and we work with very different artists. Where I came from, there was a focus on a more formalistic approach, an approach around abstraction, and in the very begining we focused on this, which was not that common in South Africa at the time. Conceptually the works were quite rigourous in their formal exploration of materials. Materiality was also a really important aspect in the begining, and still is. Recently we started working with Billie Zangewa and Cinga Samson, artists who are working in a figurative way, which is a new development for the gallery, I like to conversations it kicks up with the rest of the programme. At the end of the day we’re interested by what we think is simply good art, good art backed up by solid practioners who are genuine in their endeavour if I can say that.

ML: Can you talk about the art scene in Cape Town, and more specifically about young generation ? How do South Africa’s political and social context inherited from its complicated and painful history intervene in the art sphere ?

JG: There are politically aware and politically active artists here but there are always have been in South Africa, now we have a new generation who are perhaps more informed and more articulate. It’s a really politicised place.

ML: It seems that there is now in Cape Town a come back of the politics with new forms of activism in the young art scene. I’m refering to groups like IQHIA or the events surrounding the University of Cape Town (UCT)1.

JG: It is difficult for me to say something about this. I’m a middle-age white man, I cannot speak for young black women, from IQHIA for example. I can’t speak for them. It’s for them to speak about themselves more. We have a very fraught history here. We have a history of colonialism and we have the history of Apartheid. This is still very present. Cape Town is still a very divided city. South Africa is divided now primaraly through class and access to ressources which are still mainly in the hands of the white minority. As a white male… I think we’ve spoken enough in the past. Now we must sit down, be quiet and listen.

ML: Are important and internationally recognized figures like William Kentridge, Marlène Dumas or David Goldblatt influential among the present generation of artists in South Africa or are they looking to younger local figures that we might less know in Europe ?

JG: I think anyone who walks into a William Kentridge exhibition would probably be inspired in some ways. As well as with the other artists you mentioned. For many of the young artists these very big names are a lot less influential than a younger generation who are in their 30’s, 40’s maybe. They are looking at black artists, people like Dineo Sheshee Bopape, Moshekwa Langa, Donna Kukama, Tracy Rose or Kemang wa Lehulere. These artists are now quite well known and working internationally. They are more a reference point for the younger generation. 

ML: From educational and referential points, are the South African artists looking back at the history of art of the country or is it more global ?

JG: They’re doing both. Of course they’re looking globally since with Internet everything is a few clicks away. They’re also looking at the history of art locally but they’re trying to look beyond what they’ve traditionally been taught because again we come from this background of colonialism and Apartheid. The art history that was taught was from a certain colonial perspective. There is a lot of necessary talk and action around decolonizing the education. I think this is really important to re-look at our own history.

ML: What is the relation of the Cape Town art scene, and in general South Africa’s, with the rest of the continent ?

JG: This is a thing we need to develop more. Artists, institutions, galleries, all the art scene is trying to connect more with the rest of the continent. It is not without its challenges. The logistics, the lack of infrastructures often make it a bit more difficult. There are certainly some great artists and cultures we can learn from. First in the neighboring countries of Southern Africa which perhaps makes more sense to me and then further in the continent. It’s quite difficult for me, I really need to know an artist personally, I need to be doing studio visits. If somebody is living in Burkina Faso for example, or any other country, it’s difficult to do these kind of thing. But there are links, and a kind of community that is spread all over the world, and when we do the fairs here in South Africa it’s a bit like a market place where everyone gathers and talks. This is something we obviously want to see even more.

ML: Do you think that South African artists are sufficiently integrated in the international scene ?

JG: I don’t know about « sufficiently », art from the continent has been neglected internationally. In the last several years, we’ve seen a lot more interest in what is happening in Africa and in South Africa. Artists are slowly being a bit more integrated but I can’t say they are « sufficiently » integrated. I guess we also need to ask the question, integrated into what?

ML: For you, what is missing to get more visibility and being fully integrated to the art world ?

JG: I think one thing is simply time. People in the traditional “art world” centers like Europe or North America need to be thinking more critically about themselves and their positions. They need to be talking and reflecting on their situations, perhaps it is this that need to integrate. I do see it happening, but very slowly, this is why my first answer is time. We need more time.

ML: Art and artists from Latin America and Asia have been the subjects of a critical and commercial reconsideration over the past years. Even if the journey is long, everything points that it is the time for occidental countries to pay attention to African art.

JG: Yes, it certainly does. I hope this is not a bubble, some kind of fashion. I hope this is a genuine interest, a genuine investigation into what is happening here, what can be learnt from Latin America, Asia and Africa and how that might lead to a reconsideration of the occident’s position in relationship to the rest of the world.

ML: In that sense, have you yet measure the effects of the opening of the Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town a few months ago ?

JG: It certainly has brought some attention to Cape Town. It is not just the Zeitz MOCAA however we also have other initiatives like the Cape Town art fair and other foundations, like A4, which opened recently. These, coupled with a thriving artistic community and quite a strong gallery scene could make Cape Town a small destination for contemporary art on the continent. We’ve noticed more people coming, more engagement, they already know something about the art here or at least they are really curious.

ML: Since South Africa is geographically isolated from the rest of the art centers, is it difficult for the artists to develop outside the country and be seen internationally ?

JG: Artists certainly have to work that much harder to be recognised, galleries too. It does sometimes feel a bit like a closed house when we go to other centers. Artist want to be working with other artists and institutions from other parts of the world. They want to be part of an international conversation. I think we have a lot to offer.


Mathieu loctin Jonathan Garnham
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