Juliana Irene Smith and Molly Steven on bringing people together at their project space
Alma Martha has added a different dimension to Cape Town’s local art scene. Started over a year ago through Smith and Steven’s shared interest in the project space, Alma Martha has since taken on many guises; from residents at their iconic Mr Chips location on Albert Road, Woodstock, to an exhibition at McDonalds on Kloof Street, the Methodist Church on Greenmarket Square, and at the Supermarket Art Fair in Sweden. And, through all this one thing has remained the same: they haven’t been scared to tempt people out of their comfort zones. After exhibitions like Olde White Man, Some Jokes, Conjugal Visit and Motherless, one could be forgiven for feeling a mixture of discomfort, delight, annoyance, pleasure and intellect. Yet, this is precisely part of the beauty of Alma Martha. It is an invitation to play. To indulge, to reflect on and make sense of these conflicting emotions. And, most excitingly, it is done through a collaborative program of exchange between the multifarious artists and Smith and Steven, (ALMA and MARTHA).
As Alma Martha wanders the streets of Cape Town – allowing available space to dictate the exhibition and vice versa – I caught up with Smith and Steven to chat. Consequently, our conversation covers Alma Martha’s brief history, the importance of collaboration and just how/what got them to the Supermarket.
Houghton Kinsman: Let’s start by looking back in order to look forward. After a year of Alma Martha in Cape Town, how do you view its role now?
Molly Steven – Our role is constantly changing, I think when we had the physical space, our role was to provide a space for artists to work from and to show their work without any rules or commercial motives. And that is important because it offers the public a glimpse at a different kind of art – sometimes it’s harder to digest and sometimes it is difficult to call art but there is something fun in artist’s work that is simply made for it exist.
Now, I see our roles as mediators and as a locus/connector that brings people together in interesting ways but also that brings art to people in interesting ways.
HK: Juliana – how did you and Molly meet?
Juliana Irene Smith: Through Liza Grobler: I was visiting Cape Town and I always wanted to do this sort of project. I had created the platform Alma Mater; had a party for it in Switzerland and got the funding to start it then when I arrived in Cape Town. Upon arrival, Liza put me in touch with Molly. She had been talking about doing the same thing for some time. Molly’s collective was named Martha, so when we met it just seemed to work. Not Alma Mater but Alma Martha. The second time we met, we walked up and down Woodstock Main Road and three days later had a space on Albert Road. Everything just seemed to come together. Originally, we said we would give it a year to see how it unfolded, to see if we would get along. And, we did. Now, we are both really committed to the long haul and officially and NGO since April 12th!
HK: When working with artists and creating programs what are your particular aims?
MS: At the moment, I would say, our primary aim is accessibility. No longer having a project space is both a blessing and a curse; it has forced us to think outside the parameters of an art space and has lead us to curate shows in public spaces. I am hoping to get to work with more and more exciting artists.
JIS: Artists must want it, and that we also enjoy the process. We are not curators, but we have our interests and motivation and like to play, meet for pizza and beer to discuss and get motivated (our treat of course). We wish we had all the money in the world for the artists we work with, and we try to be as generous as we can. Hopefully now as an NPO more funding will come our way. That said, I am excited for every show! There needs to be a bit of a kick, playful punching and a challenge. This year in McDonald’s on Kloof, an empty lot in Woodstock, a church in town, plus Stockholm and Basel… and maybe a farm? It’s a great adventure!
HK: I think collaboration and bringing people together through art is pivotal. Art has the potential to be transformative; to change the way the public sees their everyday reality. That said, how important is the audience to what you do at AM?
MS: I don’t think you can say audience is not important at all, ever, especially in trying to open discussions and become as interactive as possible. But we also try not to let audience dictate how we do things – we can’t be everything to everyone but we can be everywhere!
JIS: Very. One of the reasons we decided not to look for a new space is that so in our transient nature we could see how to reach new audiences. We want to be in places, where people already are.
HK: Being that Alma Martha is still only a year old, the Cape Town art scene itself is also a new audience, how supportive have you found the local art community?
MS: I think the art community has been supportive of us. They not have understood us at times but they have always been eager to participate to be part of what we are trying to do. I think ensuring that they know that we are here to support them rather than become an exclusive institution is an important in gaining their support and understanding.
JIS: Like anything new and shiny – people are excited but skeptical. We got checked out – some more excited than others – hesitant at first but wanting to play / yet also with a guard up. And we were also like shy but also “hey – come play with us,” teeth grinning and nervous. Now – I think we are coming into our own more than ever and the response and recognition of that is quite great.
HK: I think the way you have publically worked through that process – of garnering trust amidst skepticism – has brought a degree of wit and originality to what is happening here…
JIS: Agreed, everything has reference. But, it is always important to keep pushing yourself. We do kind of understand the language (of the project space). However, at the same time we are pushing and that means we might fail. By pushing like we are, we are trying to see how far we can take this. And, this does mean that we have to be not scared of failing.
HK: True! I’m glad you brought that up. Are you scared of failing? That was gonna be my next question…
JIS: No, I don’t care if we fail. As long as I (we?) fail feeling like we tried. And, that’s not to say that we want to fail. Molly and I are determined not to fail. But, if an aspect – an exhibition, a public program, funding application etc – fails that is almost anticipated. Especially, because it’s not often that you find such a good, conducive and harmonious working relationship with someone. I am learning so much from Molly and she is learning from me. We are open to what the other says and the critiques, and knowing it is a collaboration. However, we want to turn this into a long term project, not a gallery but a project that promotes experimentation, installation and working outside of the box. Don’t forget – ALMA MARTHA (we love our mothers) but she IS not your mother!