Art Perspective: The need to grow a black fine art market in South Africa

By Edward Tsumele

The representation of black visual artists in the creative sector is huge, and yet there is very little black representation in the visual art trade itself as the business of art is dominated by white businesses. For example the gallery space is predominantly white and so is the secondary market such as fine art auction houses.

One of the reasons for this state of affairs of the lack of black representation is a general lack of understanding the value of art and its role in society, particularly among the growing black middle class with disposable income.

For example, the country has around three independently owned black art galleries out of around 80 galleries in the country, the most prominent of them being Gallery Momo in Parktown, owned by Mona Mokoena. Out of around five fine art auction entities in the country, all of them are white owned.

Though there is a small but growing number of black art collectors, the reality is the sector remains the preserve of white collectors, and a lot of this state of affairs seems to be the low levels of visual literacy among the black communities, and the fact that none of the galleries or museums are located where mainly black people can easily access such institutions does not make it easy for a potential black art market to grow as accessibility remains elusive to many a potential black collector.

This issue of inaccessibility, and the idea that is currently obtaining in the industry, and that is that, acquiring an artwork is the indulgence of a privileged few remains a huge hindrance to the growth of the art market within  black community.

“The problem we experience as young professionals wanting to collect art is the fact that art spaces, such as galleries, remain privileged spaces accessible to a few privileged people,” complained a young black professional recently at a fund raising event held at Aspire Fine Art Auctions held at their offices in Illovo. The event was a discussion on art moderated by art historian and artist Same Mdluli, featuring a panel comprising fine artists Blessing Ngobeni, Nicholas Hlobo, Nandipha Mtambo and Ladie Skolie during at the launch of the Blessing Ngobeni Art prize exhibition launch.

Hlobo agreed that the commercial gallery space is for an elite.

“Yes art itself is elitist, and it is a good thing that it is. Maybe what should happen for black professionals wanting to get into art spaces, is to start off by being involved first in none commercial art spaces, such as the Johannesburg Art Gallery in town, a place which is lamentably neglected by authorities. Get involved there and try to save that public art space, and then grow into the commercial art space as you go along on this art journey,” advised Hlobo.

The lady might be having a point when it comes to the popular perception that art spaces are often intimidating, especially for new would be collectors, who are not made to feel that they are welcome, and need not need to be experts in debating the fine points of art to visit and view works, or even buy some of the art at these exhibition openings.

For example, for the past seven years, I have closely observed the art trade at both primary market level (the galleries) and the secondary art market (fine auction houses), and the main players remain white girls and boys, with the exception of  an odd black girl or black boy randomly emerging to compete with their white counter parts in buying art in art galleries and fine art auctions.

This is despite the fact that the art market has held steadily over the years in South Africa and globally compared to the performance of other asset classes.

The situation is changing though, even though the pace of change is slow.

For example well known celebrities such as singer Thandiswa Mazwai, model and TV personality Maps Maponyane and filmmaker-turned advertising video director Dumisani Phakati, among others are known to be collecting art.

Elias Rapule and Justice Molotsi. Picture By Edward Tsumele

Recently I met with two visionary artists from the township of Mohlakeng in Randfontein, West of Johannesburg,  Elias Rapule and Justice Molotsi. The two visual artists, Rapule a fine art photographer  and Molotsi a painter  who also delves in pencil work, have not only come up with a plan to popularize and market theatre works within their township, but are also working with other township based visual artists to promote their works through organizing exhibitions within their local community.

They do this through a visual arts collective they formed called Escape Arts Society.

“Justice and I have known each other for years, but in recent years decided to work together to promote works by township based artists through exhibitions that we organize and run ourselves within the township. Last year we organized our first group exhibitions, and the response was huge as people came in big numbers, and their was genuine interest from the public to engage with the works and connect with the artists as well. Some of the works on exhibitions were even bought,” Rapule said.

“What we have discovered through that exhibition is that people are really interested in wanting to know more about art and possibly even collect, but the problem remains that art galleries are just too far away from where people live and therefore that curtails their appreciation of art as it remains inaccessible in far away galleries spaces that are often situated in the suburbs,” Molotsi reasoned.

Both these two-self-taught artists told CITYLIFE/ARTs that they would like to expand their horizon and work with curators that have access to art galleries elsewhere.

.Edward Tsumele is editor of CITYLIFE/ARTS

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