CityLife Arts

The Bag Factory Artist Studios celebrating 30 years of art making and building careers as it looks to the future

The current exhibition titled Bag Factory 30 Years: So Far, The Future, which is on at FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg, Auckland Park,  features an intergenerational mix of artists from South Africa and abroad.

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

I am five minutes late for this meeting, recalling what I had experienced the previous Saturday when I missed the opening of this exhibition of the Bag Factory Artist Studios, I panicked.  I almost sweated on a cold May day during the Winter season, as I remembered how I had missed the opening of Bag Factory 30 Years: So Far, The Future  exhibition, simply because I came to this very place, the Bag Factory in Fordsburg, instead of the Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design at the University of Johannesburg, where the exhibition was opening.

I am here to meet Candice Alison, the director of the Bag Factory Artist Studios, who is also the curator of this important exhibition in the history of the arts hub, which has since assumed the status of an institution, since it was started by the late art colossus, painter and art critic, David Koloane, philanthropist Robert Loder  and Sandra Burnett who set up the administration systems as the genesis  of this place took shape. These three founders were soon joined by artist and curator Bongi Dhlomo-Moutloa, and of course other big figures in  art also later contributed into building this arts hub, which is internationally renowned and respected for hosting some of the most prolific and talented artists from South Africa and from around the world.  

The other art figures who joined hands with the founders to develop this institution from the very beginning include Kagiso Patrick Mautloa, and  Sam Nhlengethwa, among others.

We will leave the politics of who else was a founder member and also contributed to the success the Bag Factory Artist Studios is today for now, as today there are probably a half a dozen more people who lay claim to have been founders of the place. That itself is not a bad thing because it simply demonstrates how the Bag Factory has become a jewel of the arts in South Africa, where rough ideas are polished into shape, dreams of many an artist realized and the artists are given an opportunity to cultivate the expression of inner-self with the aesthetic input  of other experienced artists. The place offers a safe environment for especially young artists to make mistakes and correct them, without the pressure of feeling judged by their peers. There is a sense of community among the artists here.

“Often when people speak about the founding of the Bag Factory Artist Studios, they often speak about David Koloane and British philanthropist Robert Loder, which is actually true and correct  and it is a good thing to give due credit where it is due, but then in doing so, it is equally important not to also forget other people who were instrumental in the establishment of the Bag Factory, for example, the contribution of women, such as Sandra Burnett and Bongi. These women played a very important role with regards to administration duties of the Bag Factory. As a feminist I sometimes find the erasure of these women in the founding of the Bag Factory annoying and unfair,” Alison told me. She herself joined the Bag Factory in 2018.

In this interview with CITYLIFE/ARTS,  Alison also revealed that since the Bag Factory now owns the building, after having bought it from its owner last year, plans are afoot to fundraise to cover some of the operations costs as not all the costs can be covered by income from studios rentals as the studios are subsidized.

“In fact we are looking at redesigning the building, including repairing the roof, which often is problematic. We are also planning to bring in art students from both Wits university and the University of Johannesburg to assist with research about the Bag factory’s  extensive collection, and actually establish a proper library. The redesign of the building and other repairs will now be possible since the way is now open to fund raise for the building maintenance since we now own the building” Alison explained.

She went on to explain that the current exhibition, celebrating the past 30 years of the Bag Factory, having been founded in 1991, covers a wide range of artists whose career trajectories are intertwined with that of the Bag factory, from the very old artists right up to the young ones, but crucially also propels back into the history of the bag factory the role of women whose contribution has been somehow erased in the popular narrative of the Bag Factory Artist Studios’ genesis.

Armed with this valuable information about the Bag Factory, the next day, I headed straight to the exhibition, and this time, believe me, I did not get lost on the way.  Upon arrival, I immersed myself not only into fascinating art works, that not only take the viewer into the mind and the heart of the artists who created these beautiful, and of course sometimes provocative art objects, but also substantially giving the viewer insights into an important part of South African art history.

The exhibition itself is easy to navigate as it is arranged into three distinct sections, one section featuring the works of the old generation artists, the second section hosting the works of young contemporary artists, and the last section featuring the works of women, who will not be erased in the history of the Bag Factory. All the 100 pieces are occupying two floors of the FADA Gallery on Bunting Road in Auckland Park.

Bag Factory 30 Years: So Far, The Future, is  presented in partnership with FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg.

Through this exhibition, the Bag Factory is celebrating three decades of its history and legacy as a non-profit contemporary visual arts organisation by looking through their archives and highlighting their unique, long-standing relationship with artists.

The Bag Factory is an inclusive and interactive studio space for a cross-generational community of practicing visual artists where the exchange of ideas is encouraged and stimulated. Through their creative programme, they make ambitious and innovative projects accessible to a wide audience by creating synergy between their exhibitions, residencies, and artist development activities.

More than 80 works dating from 1991 to the present are drawn from the Bag Factory’s collection of artworks bestowed to them over the years by previous studio artists, award recipients, and visiting artists who have participated in their internationally renowned artist in residence programme.

The Bag Factory’s crucial role for the arts in South Africa is confirmed by their long list of celebrated alumni who have gone on to develop international and prize-winning careers. They include their co-founder the late David Koloane,  Nhlengethwa,  Mautloa, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, Penny Siopis, Tracey Rose, Thenjiwe Nkosi, Lady Skollie, and Blessing Ngobeni to name a few.

The exhibition highlights the Bag Factory’s unique artistic programme which combines art making with cultural debate and art exhibitions, thereby creating a fertile international environment for experimentation, innovation, and critical dialogue between creatives in South Africa and the rest of the world.

And according to Alison the Bag Factory has its sights set on their vision for the future.

“As the new owners of the building at 10 Mahlathini Street, Newtown that we have called home since 1991, we now have the opportunity to revitalise our building and programme facilities to provide a space that will continue to encourage innovation and experimentation for the next generation of artists.

We are extremely grateful to the network of artists, patrons, and friends that have contributed generously to the Bag Factory throughout the years. We look forward to celebrating our story and the many alumni artists who actively continue to support our organisation and the work that we do.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the opening of the exhibition was a  scaled down opening event, but the curators have planed  a series of intimate engagements throughout the exhibition.

“We hope you can join us on one of these days for an open and informative conversation.,” Alison says.

Please RSVP to info@bagfactoryart.org.za to reserve your place. For the planned walk abouts.

Saturday walkabouts scheduled for the following dates:

15 May, 10:00-11:00
29 May, 10:00-11:00
05 June, 10:00-11:00
19 June, 10:00-11:00

There is a limited capacity of 15 people per walk about.

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