50 years ago today, Linda Givon (then Goodman) first opened the doors to the Goodman Gallery in Hyde Park, Johannesburg on 25 November 1966. Located between the 1948 rise of the National Party – and its implementation of Apartheid – and the surge of resistance art which followed the 1976 Soweto uprisings, the gallery opened at a time which, for many art historians, represents a “vapid, also-ran period in terms of political consciousness and artistic assertiveness”in South African art. [i]
“Most of the galleries in Johannesburg lauded artists who made pretty scenes of life in the townships,” Linda Givon recalled in an interview with the New York Times in 2003, ”so that the white elite who bought these works could believe they were doing their bit for the blacks but were just living with pretty pictures. I decided to go for the artists, when I could, who were confrontational and who were addressing socially important issues.”
Opting for a ‘black cube’ look (which should totally make a comeback), the walls were painted completely black and could be swivelled to control the flow of light. The launch exhibition featured 30 artists, mostly international, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, René Magritte and Joan Miró. It was followed in early 1967 with a joint exhibition between Brian Robins and Trevor Coleman. “The whole point of the shows we will be presenting is not so much to show the art of the Sixties but to show Johannesburg 1967 the art of 1967,” suggested Givon in Artlook, December 1966.
Under Givon’s guidance, the Goodman remained at the forefront of the South African gallery world for the next 42 years, racking up a number of iconic moments in the process. These include Givon being arrested in 1969 for immorality (Dumile Feni may or may not have kissed her on the cheek at a memorial exhibition arranged for Julian Motau following his death) and a police raid in 1978 of an exhibition of Ezrom Legae’s chicken drawings which metaphorically dealt with Steve Biko’s murder (“I don’t know what you are talking about. We only have drawings of chickens”).
Following a surprise announcement of the gallery’s closure in 1995, Goodman sprung back in 1997 with a move to the Parkwood gallery space (where it still resides) and a relaunch show entitled ‘Lift Off.’ 10 years later and ‘Lift Off II’ in 2007 heralded the arrival of the gallery’s Cape Town space. Incidentally, when our ‘Editions for ArtThrob’ print series first launched in late 2002, it was initially as a ‘distinctive partnership’ with Goodman Gallery.
When Liza Essers took over the reins as director in 2008, her goal was to build on the existing legacy with a dual vision of developing the gallery’s conversations with international artists and expanding the audience for contemporary art in South Africa. “The idea of transformation, perpetual change, radical ideas and shifting perceptions and histories became central within what I viewed as the Goodman Gallery’s 21st Century mission– still linked to a formidable history, but amenable to new possibilities and unprecedented metamorphosis,” Essers asserts in her forward to Goodman’s commemorative New Revolutions catalogue.
In 2012, the gallery certainly became the focal point for a vastly expanded national audience with that incident (which, let’s face it, is probably the only time that South African art has ever been front in centre in the public eye post-1994). In a joint settlement signed by Essers and ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu both parties agreed that “the case involved the balancing between two competing constitutional rights, to human dignity and freedom of artistic expression, both of which have a crucial place in our democracy.” Worth noting too is that both parties “[recognised] the legacy of the Goodman Gallery in promoting art as a tool of protest throughout our history and in encouraging social dialogue in our country and beyond.”
Often leading the curatorial charge, Essers has put in place a number of initiatives and exhibition programmes at the gallery which continue to progress these goals. These include the annual ‘Working Title’ group exhibitions (aimed at supporting young and independent artists and curators), ‘South-South’ (exploring the connections and disconnections between Africa and South America from an artistic perspective) and ‘In Context’ (a sort of mini-biennale which launched in 2010 and included peripheral presentations at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the Apartheid Museum).The most recent instalments of ‘In Context’ are currently on display, split between the gallery’s Cape Town and Johannesburg spaces. In a sense, the latter incarnation – subtitled ‘Africans in America’ and curated by Essers and Hank Willis Thomas – is an apt consolidation of the goals of Goodman Mk2. That is to say that it balances a core of local and international stable artists (such as Mikhael Subotzky, ruby onyinyechi amanze, Ghada Amer and Alfredo Jaar) with leading international figures (Odili Donald Odita, Wangechi Mutu, Kehinde Wiley) in an exhibition which appeals to an expanded audience by forming part of a citywide initiative split between Goodman and the Johannesburg Art Gallery and tied to the Black Portraiture[s] III conference.
50 years in, and significant legacy secured, Goodman Gallery shows no signs of slowing down. Here’s to you Goodman, happy golden anniversary from all at ArtThrob!
[i] Friedman, H. ‘Beauty, Duty and Dissonance’ in Robbroeck, L (ed.) 2011. Visual Century: South African Art in Context. (Vol II). Johannesburg: Wits University Press.27