In mid 2019, the news broke that FNB Joburg Art Fair had been purchased by its director Mandla Sibeko, and would be undergoing a significant restructuring for its 12th instalment, re-emerging as FNB Art Joburg. At the same time, a number of new projects including LATITUDES Art Fair (headed by former FNB Joburg Art Fair curator Lucy MacGarry) and curatorial platform UNDERLINE arrived on the scene, taking place in the same week in Johannesburg in September.
Sibeko and MacGarry kindly sat down with ArtThrob to give us the inside scoop on how this all came about.
ArtThrob: Thank you Mandla and Lucy for chatting to us, let’s dive straight in with the elephant in the room! This year we have two art fairs in Sandton in September. How did this come about?
Mandla Sibeko: The FNB Joburg Art Fair was around for 11 years. It was the first art fair in Africa, very pioneering, and a lot of good work was done there to create a platform to market and sell African contemporary art. I think, after 11 years, what has happened is that there are now over 250 art fairs around the world. With that, it gave us an opportunity to reposition the fair based on a number of factors.
What we decided to do was to create a completely new platform, taking in what worked and eliminating what didn’t. That process gave birth to FNB Art Joburg. On the basis of that, we needed to redefine and reimagine ourselves as an art fair, given that there are so many art fairs around the world, and the landscape has changed so much. What does it mean for Johannesburg now? What does it mean for South Africa now? That whole change.
So I think with our repositioning to becoming a much smaller fair centred around elevating the content platform for artists and the community in Johannesburg, gave birth to other opportunities such as Lucy’s platform. And it’s only natural in big cities around the world, when you go to one art fair, there are always several other art fairs surrounding it. There’s Basel, and then there’s the fringe fairs around the city. I think the birth of LATITUDES and UNDERLINE – the curatorial fair that’s in the city – is a really a good thing.
Lucy MacGarry: Our art economy in this country is relatively young, so we really are still growing and developing. But it feels like this year that growth has reached a kind of maturity, with the larger galleries that comprise FNB Art Joburg participating in major international fairs like Art Basel and Frieze. Their expectations for what a fair needs to be have developed over the years. So I feel like it’s the natural evolution that FNB Art Joburg moves towards a curated, carefully selected and more considered platform.
But then what you have is a full range of emerging to mid-tier and established galleries that have strong programmes and artists to exhibit. So that’s why we have initiated LATITUDES. I think that it can only be beneficial to all parties. As a tourist city it’s somewhat difficult to compete with the likes of Cape Town. But where Joburg certainly has a competitive edge is with our dynamic cultural offering. If we come together as an arts community over the month of September we have the potential to create something powerful and enticing to both domestic and international cultural tourists. Programming our activities collaboratively makes more sense than to disperse and fragment them over the year. That’s why it makes sense to hold LATITUDES on the very same weekend as FNB Art Joburg. Looking at international models, it is worth noting that there are 13 fairs in Miami during Miami Basil and seven fringe fairs during Armory week in New York.
AT: Very briefly, what would you both consider to be the particular character of each of your fairs?
MS: Obviously Art Joburg comes with a particular history. Eleven years ago not a lot of people were focusing on African art and I’ve seen that change dramatically over the last four years or so. There’s been more of an interest looking at the economic side of markets in Africa, where suddenly the world was more interested in calling us ‘rising’ and whatever. Our fair is very much tied-in with that, based on the experience of seeing galleries that are participating in our fair really rise up to the occasion to meet that narrative. When people say “Where is the best African art?” these galleries are the ones who stand out anywhere else in the world.
In a way, our fair is ideally positioned to be much smaller, much more focused. A big thing was that we had a group of different voices at the table who looked at what worked and what was no longer working, looking at the core art industry in South Africa. So it was no longer about filling up spaces, because that was what drove the old model: always stressing around how many more exhibitors we could get each year.
But Joburg remains an important city. With this reimagining and really being more focused around making the fair about content and really looking at our strengths and having sponsorships subsidising the spaces, we remain a fair comprised of pioneering, leading galleries. At the same time we opened the fair to small galleries, medium galleries or any other content that fit the criteria that we have set for ourselves. We hope that our model will be quite evolving and won’t be stuck. We didn’t want a model that keeps us in a box, we wanted one that evolves with time.
LM: I don’t think it’s necessarily about finding differences between the two experiences, it’s about increasing the number of events and opportunities for artists to find exposure. As a growing art economy we should encourage new initiatives that are positive and contributory.
Audiences can look forward to LATITUDES taking place in a beautifully designed marquee on Nelson Mandela Square. While we’re starting small at 1000 m2, we have plans to grow in the coming editions. In trying to find ways to ways to challenge the traditional art fair model, we have initiated a number of curated sections. For example, Spotlight caters to galleries from the continent who may find it risky or costly to exhibit in South Africa. So it’s a much more palatable way to just put your toe in.
AT: Both fairs represent quite significant developments in South Africa. Art Joburg is the first entirely black-owned art fair in the country, and LATITUDES is founded by an all-female team. These are exciting changes, do you think they’re a reflection of shifts in the broader South African art climate or would it be fair to say that there are trails being blazed here?
MS: I think South Africa is forever evolving. If you look beyond the art world, you can see the changes; well sometimes at least. I think it was just a natural progression for myself as an entrepreneur, I was already a director of the fair in the past and it just made sense. This kind of model was discussed in the past, and I do think that the only way that I would have participated and lead such an effort, for me personally, was in this model, because I know the constraints of trying to fill-up a whole convention centre space and not getting the content that you are looking for.
I think it’s a good moment, a lot of the top artists in the country are black and I think that it is an important moment that not only are black people involved as artists but they should be involved in the ecosystem of the art world in its administration, so that we can charter a new way forward.
LM: Absolutely, I agree. It’s very exciting that FNB Art Joburg is now under the leadership of Mandla Sibeko, and I think that in terms of women coming together, we’re of course not the only fair, there’s Underline which has a similar structure.
MS: And Turbine, which has been around for a while!
LM: Exactly, so there’s definitely evidence of that happening more and more. The landscape is certainly shifting.
AT: Given that you’ve had the opportunity to recontextualize or reconfigure these new fairs, why was it important to retain the vicinity of the Sandton Convention Centre as the central hub for both fairs?
MS: We did look at a lot of venues. With a new fair comes the branding exercise, the repositioning, the new narrative and message, the new leadership and the management of this fair, and the design which is very different from the previous one. With that came looking at venues, unfortunately we were not able to find another venue that met our requirements to build the kind of fair that we’re trying to build in terms of the wall infrastructure and the kind of artworks that we need to be exhibited. The Sandton Convention Centre remained the most viable choice within the spaces in Johannesburg, so we remained there on the basis of that.
LM: From our side it’s really about bringing everything together and making it as convenient and holistic as possible for visitors. We’re also working with Sandton Tourism, Nelson Mandela Square and Sandton City who collectively have been the most amazing and supportive partners. Our location has in fact been one of our best decisions and I am confident that the fairs will complement one another.
MS: Our new model really gave birth to an extension of Art Week by creating our own curated experience of what we call Gallery Weekend, which is curated by Zanele Kumalo. So again, the model is not centered so much around trying to keep people at the Convention Centre, it’s also to let them flow into other spaces. The galleries have come to the table with different content during the weekend. They have agreed to come with something very unique which can be articulated at the time of the art fair, so that the audience experiences are much richer beyond the conventional model of attending the art fair, flowing between the spaces, from LATITUDES to UNDERLINE, and to the spaces where we have specifically put together content. We are also part of the greater Johannesburg Arts Alive, we are in partnership with the city directly, who has recognized and accepted the efforts around our repositioning.
AT: How do you develop discussions and visibility around Contemporary African Art without being seen to be trying to claim the continent’s narratives?
MS: That’s such an important question, and it’s a difficult one to answer. We’ve had to be very careful about that, which is why we have repositioned and reimagined ourselves so that we can be a lot more realistic around what it is that we actually send out to the world. You have to look at the content itself. At the end of the day, in worlds other than the art world, content is king. It’s very clear. So we have to look at who the participants are that are driving this narrative.
We’re very clear, we are a Joburg art fair, we are a fair for Johannesburg first, because there are still a lot of people that are not buying art. Fairs like LATITUDES and Turbine will encourage people to support the local art economy, there are still a lot of people who are not as engaged with the art ecosystem. Secondly, we say that we are South African, and then the rest is that we also take the flag of contributing towards the African narrative, but we don’t say that we are the African narrative.
LM: When you start any business, you have to give it an identity and think about what is going to appeal to the market place. That’s what a fair like 1:54 did very well in London, New York, and Marrakech. Touria El Glaoui who started that fair is to be commended. But she has had the benefit of a European buying audience whereas its a little trickier for us being all the way down South. We have to work at enticing international visitors to our event. In creating our fair we decided to make it a fair for contemporary African work, because we would like to tour the fair internationally and we also want to be able to have various exhibitions and activations throughout the year. So while that gives our fair an identity, we don’t want to be dictatorial in the sense that you have to be of African descent or from the diaspora to exhibit, participate or collaborate with our fair.
One of our our core objectives is to initiative dialogue and conversation. For example, we have a project called Longitudes which explores new contexts for north-south relations predicated on connections other than colonial heritage. Having access to artists from abroad is exciting for a Joburg audience. We are looking forward to need to experimenting with the fair model each year and not being too fixed in our thinking.
AT: There’s something very exciting about having all of these new things which are still in the process of defining themselves. Has there been a good international response to these developments so far?
MS: On our side, we have a mandate to work within the international scene because of the galleries we represent. We have been getting quite a lot of interest around “Why the change?” and why we are not afraid of creating a much smaller fair. Those are some of the questions that have come through.
Ultimately, the kind of work that will be seen at our fair is work that will be seen at Basel or any other major fair. In fact, most of the artists are represented by galleries in other parts of the world already. So collectors who are starting to buy African art are buying those artists. We have been getting quite a lot of feedback in the past from collectors who have told us what has really worked for them and what hasn’t. The consensus is that smaller fairs are actually more enjoyable, they go to so many fairs around the world, and that is what will make ours so different. People are interested and their feedback has been very positive.
LM: To be honest we’ve hit the ground running this year, and haven’t engaged as much as we had hoped with our international collector base. But that will be a major focus for our 2020 edition. This year, I imagine that FNB Art Joburg will probably have the lion’s share of an international audience and hopefully they’ll walk across and see what we’re doing! That being said, the Square is so well located, and it’s really great that we will have audiences who aren’t necessarily from the art industry. Thousands of people move through Sandton City each day and we hope to entice them into the fair. We are excited to host people who perhaps haven’t attended an art fair before. Expanding and diversifying our our audience is the key to our success.
FNB Art Joburg
13 – 15 September 2019
Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg
LATITUDES Art Fair
13 – 15 September 2019
Nelson Mandela Square, cnr Maude & 5th Streets, Sandton