In a new series of interviews, we’re focusing on South African art world professionals. Our second interview is with SOSESAME Gallery, new on the scene in Johannesburg.
ArtThrob: Let’s start with the where, why, and when this idea came about. I know from your site that Mauritz had the space, and that Same, Naomi and Johannes were already looking for a space… How did the three of you join forces, and then get your idea past the theory phase to the point that you met Mauritz (so many great ideas don’t manage to make that hurdle).
SOSESAME Gallery: Sosesame has been the collective brain child of art historian Dr Same Mdluli and well-renowned artist Johannes Phokela, who later were later joined by Naomi Menyoko. It came to fruition after a chance meeting between now fellow director Mauritz Cloete, Johannes Phokela and Naomi Menyoko. All four directors met and subsequently established that they all share a common vision and set of ideals for a contemporary art gallery.
AT: You opened in Melville last month. Melville is described as one of the few suburbs in north Joburg with cafes and bars on the street, it’s ‘bohemian’, it’s tied in with the koppies and Sophiatown… You had Selaelo Selota and Yusuf Makongela Project at your opening, Eric Myeni gave the welcome speech. What does this neighbourhood mean to you? Tell us how you’re reinforcing / redefining the culture of the area through your gallery, and using your personal passions and network.
SG: Melville is indeed one of the oldest cultural precincts in Johannesburg, and is one the few places that has maintained both the historical and bohemian/creative impulse, yet it has never had a gallery solely dedicated to showcasing contemporary South African art in the manner in which we are. We have consciously linked the cultural heritage of the place with the emergence of a new space, not just in the naming of the gallery (which literally means ‘this is my thing’) but also in how we would like the artists we have showcased and the audiences to engage with the space.
AT: You made an open call for your first show. It’s unusual. But it makes sense with your emphasis on providing a space which is inclusive, which encourages recognition of practicing artists, and the growth of each artist individually. Your gallery model is unusual for South Africa. If you’re following a precedent, who are you looking to? Or rather – what galleries/organisations do you draw inspiration from?
SG: From the onset we decided to model the gallery around the concept of a co-operative. That means that there is no hierarchy and that each member contributes through their skills and expertise. We also wanted to reform the traditional format of the gallery in that we are not only representing the artists… they are part of the co-operative… the artists are in a sense our colleagues.
AT: This cop-operative is a potential game-changer, it’s clear that what you’re doing is a considered attempt to fill some of the gaps in our industry. We need mentorship, we need art education, we need the visual arts to become a part of ordinary people’s everyday life, as you propose. Tell us how it’s going so far…
SG: The reception and response of the launch was extremely positive and we don’t know how many people attended, but yes, you could say ‘the game changed that evening’. The exclusivity of the gallery system in South Africa is a cause for concern in that if you think about the idea that you have 1000 art students graduating every year from art institutions across the country, all with an arts degree, where do they go from there? The response of the artists and the general public has been encouraging, but mostly we have appreciated the responses from the artists (most of whom are young artists) who are excited to have a platform and opportunity to express themselves and contribute to a dynamic contemporary art scene.
AT: What role will art fairs play in your business? Are you planning on getting into local and international fairs as soon as possible?
SG: Our participation in art fairs will depend on a number of things, such as funding and sponsorship. At the moment that is our primary focus because it will allow the continuity of the mentorship programme. We are therefore focusing on the space and programming for now.
AT: What kind of relationship exists between you and your artists? Will you acquire a stable?
SG: It’s too early to start acquiring a stable, however this does not mean we are not engaging and developing ideas around more concentrated shows – like solos for artists we think have the potential to grow with us.
AT: What other art-related business would you like to see develop or grow in South Africa?
SG: There are many art-related businesses out there, the issue is that they do not always have the funds and support to remain sustainable. It would be good to start seeing more initiatives directed towards this from the government and private sector.
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