Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
05.06 – 21.07.2018
Stevenson have recently opened ‘Both, and’, an expansive group exhibition split between both of their spaces that reflects on 15 years of the gallery. ArtThrob sat down with curators Sisipho Ngodwana and Alexander Richards, as well as gallery director Joost Bosland, to learn more about how the exhibition came about, and to look back on Stevenson’s history.
ArtThrob: In many ways, ‘Both, and’ is a portrait of the gallery at 15. The wall texts are very much about the relationships between the artists and the gallery over the years, and even the use of the space acknowledges the operations of the gallery. How do you feel the exhibition best represents what is distinctive about Stevenson in 2018?
Sisipho Ngodwana: For me it’s about relationships, the fact that we’re able to include works like Wim Botha’s Mieliepap Pietà, Berni Searle’s Still and Jane Alexander’s installation Frontier with church, as well as artists like Glenn Ligon, Wangechi Mutu, Njideka Akunyili Crosby … The gallery established relationships with some of these artists 10 to 15 years ago, and many of those relationships are still going. I think that’s very important. It’s such a fast-paced world and industry, so the fact that we’re able to maintain those relationships for this long is something special.
Joost Bosland: For me what was interesting was the many ways in which we’re no longer unique and distinctive. There is some poetry to there being a Wolfgang Tillmans show opening at JAG at the same time that this show was opening here at the gallery. When we started out, local institutions weren’t showing people like Tillmans, and local galleries were not representing artists from other countries in the region.
We were part of shifting the conversation to the point where we are now just another South African gallery showing artists from all over this part of the world and international artists. At the risk of sounding vain, I think that much of our environment has shifted and matched some of the things that we’ve been trying to do for quite a long time.
AT: Sisipho and Alex, as relative newcomers to the gallery and the curators of the show, did you feel pressure to be as comprehensive as possible with the works in the show? How did you go about researching and planning for something like this?
Alexander Richards: It has to be quite personal because of what speaks to you. Throughout my high school and early varsity education, the Songezile Madikida work with the pap was what we studied. There was this moment of realisation that the gallery that I’m now a part of showed works like that and now it’s up to us to choose what we show and what we don’t. There’s work by artists who we don’t represent any more, artists who we have never represented. It’s a tricky thing because the world is your oyster in a sense. There’s a lot to pick from.
SN: It was important to show artists who we do work with, but also to look at the history of the gallery: which artists helped to shape the gallery, to make it what it is today. That was basically our starting point.
AT: Could I ask about the curious title of the exhibition ‘Both, and’?
JB: It’s an existing phrase! We started talking about how the show could acknowledge the seeming paradox of a commercial gallery. Depending on how you look at it, there is no paradox at all, but on the one hand some people perceive the gallery as just a beast that’s out there to make money, and on the other hand, we certainly think of ourselves as really committed to what our artists are doing and realizing creative ambitions and the discourse surrounding those ambitions. So we just started talking about how we could acknowledge that dual role of the gallery within the exhibition, and then through conversations that became more and more the focus of the show.
It also works in that the show is curated both by Sisipho and by Alex, it’s both about our history and our present, so it’s quite a nice open-ended way of putting two words together that signal something without making it too didactic.
AT: It’s a very inclusive combination, certainly more so than either/or. Another way of reading the title might be as an acknowledgment of the two parts to this exhibition: Cape Town and Joburg. How did you approach splitting the exhibition between those two spaces?
AR: Joburg and Cape Town are different cities, and the spaces are structurally very different, so it needed to be an opportunity to use both of those spaces in different ways. What we did for most of the works was think of which had been shown in which city. If we know that Meschac Gaba’s work was originally shown in Cape Town, then here’s an opportunity to show Joburg something that they might have missed.
SN: Obviously the Joburg gallery is a big part of Stevenson, and the two spaces function slightly differently. With Joburg, we wanted to talk more about the idea of movement, migration and time. The artists that were selected for that space deal with those themes in some way. So on the outside of the gallery there’s three wallpaper diptychs from Guy Tillim, which are from the series called Museum of the Revolution, and the Serge Alain Nitegeka installation. So all of those artists are having these conversations within their own art practices and we’ve basically just extended their ideas.
AR: We also had to make sure that there wasn’t an intense lopsidedness, because the Cape Town space is so big and you can do so much, and the Joburg space is smaller in comparison, and maybe could be overlooked. There really needed to be as much attention given to both as possible. Obviously here in Cape Town we have a lot of spatial interventions, but we have a similar feeling in Joburg, it just looks a bit different. Joburg has a playful feel, more playful than Cape Town. There are elements here that are quite heavy if you look at Steven Cohen’s room, things like that.
AT: With Zanele Muholi and Pieter Hugo’s selections, you’ve got a sort of mini-overview of their entire practice while showing with the gallery. It’s so interesting to trace that artistic journey, with Muholi’s work, there are quite a few bodies of work that I’d never seen before.
AR: That was always something we wanted to do with the Muholi room. As you walk in, you’re confronted by all of these eyes looking at you. Which is what Muholi is trying to do anyway with returning the gaze, but then I think what is interesting is that once you’ve seen the recognisable images, you’re forced to see the other smaller ones, and you realise the scope of their work. Artists often get pigeonholed into a certain style or something that’s often the more commercially viable route and Muholi’s not that kind of artist at all. As they are fundamentally an activist first, I think it would be wrong to only do a Somnyama Ngonyama fest.
SN: You also need to be true to their practice, which is about creating LGBTIA+ inclusivity and visibility. In the middle of installing we took pictures and sent them to Muholi, and they said “This is too much art!” and we replied “But Muholi, this is what you’ve been doing! And we want to be able to look at that in retrospect, and also for your fans and the people who support your practice to be able to look at some of the moments that you’ve captured within a community that is almost always sidelined in the media”.
AT: A retrospective situation like this offers a chance to revisit past works with a fresh perspective. Were there any artworks which stood out for you when looked at in the context of ‘Both, and’?
SN: Those photographs by Rotimi Fani-Kayodé. Looking at the time that the works were made, and the conversations in art that followed around gender, sexuality and homosexuality within the continent. It’s very important work and few people talk about him as a pioneering artist in the continent, so it was really great to be able to look at these artworks that were made before I was even born.
AR: Francis Alÿs’ The Art of Working and the Work of Art. The choice of work came through a conversation with him about the show, the paradox of art versus art history. The first time he made it was in Mexico, and now we have a 2018 Stevenson version. The work involves folding origami bank notes and then selling them for the exact amount of the bank note. That question, “What is the value of the artist’s hand”?, I think speaks to a lot of things in the show.
JB: One of the works which really struck me with how important it was within the show was Berni Searle’s Still prints. Partly because when I joined the gallery in 2005, Berni was the most well-known artist that we represented. Over the years as she’s been focusing on her role at Michaelis where she’s now the director, I think that some of the spotlight has moved elsewhere. But I think if you look at what’s happening creatively in Cape Town and South Africa, what’s being shown at the fairs and the museum at the Waterfront, the staged photography that deals with history, memory, and identity is an incredibly prominent line of inquiry and all of those lines lead back to Berni. There’s a whole generation now that isn’t aware of that. Tony Gum, Mohau Modisakeng, Athi-Patra Ruga are now all much more in the front of people’s minds than Berni is, which is really an historical injustice in my view. So it feels particularly important that we are highlighting the starting point of that practice, and how Berni did it 15 years before everyone else.
AT: It’s fascinating to see artists from fairly recent exhibitions at the gallery, whose careers have blown-up subsequently.
AR: I think it’s cool to see artists who we’ve shown five years ago, that are now becoming whatever they’re becoming. Not because of us of course, but just to remember the moment that they were originally here. So this Njideka was shown here four years ago, and has now been scaled-up and shown at the Whitney Museum in New York as a high-line billboard. It’s great to have this point of reference to say “Stevenson brought these things to the country”. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye showed in 2009. At the moment she’s on a massive show at the Tate about painting the body.
AT: Wangechi Mutu is another example of someone who’s had a long-standing relationship with the gallery. It’s easy to forget that the gallery first showed her work in 2006. Are there artists in this show who you think people will similarly look back on?
AR: Showing Simphiwe Ndzube is a celebratory thing and a nod to the next 15 years, perhaps. Jordan Casteel is a young painter from the States who we have admired for a long time as a gallery. This seemed like a good moment to ask them for a work. In the same way that we showed work by Njideka and Lynette, to me this is a similar moment, where you see Jordan Casteel’s work for the first time.
SN: Another artist who I’m very excited about is Paulo Nazareth, who is a Brazilian artist. They’ve showed a few times in the country, but this is the first time that they’re showing with us and the work is very interesting in the way that it makes things that aren’t things into things, if that makes sense. It forces you to rethink what this art thing is and all these institutions, so it’s very exciting to see something with a different take and visual approach to the work.
AT: Besides Stevenson’s relationship with artists, works like the Barthélémy Toguo installation seem to highlight the gallery’s relationships with its staff. How did that feed into ‘Both, and’?
JB: The fact that the three of us are sitting here points to the one way we are distinctive from almost any other gallery – not just locally but internationally as well – which is that we are owned by a collective of 11. This is obviously an unusual setup for a business where most galleries are under the name of the proprietor, internationally at least. It’s a deeply personal business attached to individuals and over the years we’ve moved away from that to really working as a collective. I think in a way, this show has fine-tuned how that collective operates as well.
AR: The clarification is important, because we all do feel like we’re part of something moving forward, as opposed to someone being at the head of the ship and we’re the fuel. Having so many voices in a decision-making process makes it hard at times, but it actually makes it more enriching and most often the right decision is made through the hashing out of the different possibilities.
SN: I don’t know what it’s like to be in an environment where only one person makes a decision and that’s the final call! Even when I was an intern, I was so shocked that while there’s a person who has to deal with shipping, and a person who has to deal with sales, press releases, etc, there was no curator. It’s more like everyone makes a final decision. I think that we have an amazing team of people who really understand what you’re doing and are always ready to help. With the Mawande Ka Zenzile stones in this show, literally everyone in the gallery was picking up stones and it was quite fun to see everyone participating in bringing the show together.
JB: I have to say, I try to stay out of installations a little bit, hiding in this office. But on Tuesday, Wednesday even after installation, to see the group of people who work here, all at full speed, working towards a common goal, was really quite humbling. I joked to Alex that if the gallery ever goes out of business, we can always hire ourselves out as a production team.