Man on the move: Federico Freschi

‘The most you can ask of art,” Federico Freschi says with a glint in his eye, “is for it to alter your perceptions, even if for a nanosecond.”

We are at his home, perched high on the ridge of a koppie in Kensington, Johannesburg, and it is raining outside. Having been born in Springs, he has “always been aware of Jo’burg as a mythic place”.

Now Freschi is migrating to Cape Town for the second time in his life to head the Goodman Gallery’s branch there.

After completing his undergraduate degree in fine arts at the University of the Witwatersrand, Freschi moved to Cape Town to study art ­history. “I wasn’t really happy during my postgraduate years,” he says.

Yet it was during this period that he developed the overriding research topic that gained him an associate professorship at Wits University.

Perhaps coming from Springs, which has one of the largest concentrations of Art Deco architecture in South Africa, gives some clue about why he has dedicated much of his research to 1930s architecture—the decorative structure of the Old Mutual Building in Cape Town was the topic of his post-graduate degree.

There is also a multifaceted side to Freschi that is not immediately apparent.

“To give myself some joy, and maybe a sense of self,” Freschi says of his time on the upper campus at the University of Cape Town, where he “walked down to the music school just for kicks”.

Man for all seasons
It was there that Sarita Stern encouraged him to apply to the opera school, once he had finished his studies. This double existence—art historian-cum-opera singer—is one he still maintains today. During his three years at the music ­college he would trek off to the University of Stellenbosch to teach art history.

Afterwards he joined the studio ­programme of the then Cape Performing Arts Board.

“I’ve travelled the length and breadth of this country,” he says. “We used to schlep around with a trailer of costumes performing opera in various one-horse towns.”

In 1996 he got his first full-time job, teaching history of design at the then Cape Technikon, which was a “natural sidestep”. But in 1998 he starting feeling unsettled: “The county was going through massive social change and I needed a challenge.”

He spent three years working in human resource development, a time Freschi describes as “a bizarre excursion into the corporate world”, and it brought him back to Johannesburg.

Back to his roots
Returning to Wits University was then a natural option. “It’s been a great 10 years,” he says, adding that “the weight of bureaucracy and the attendant administration” helped to prompt his move to the Goodman Gallery.

However, Freschi is not leaving the university entirely—he will still be a visiting associate professor.

“The Goodman holds an enormous amount of brand equity in this country,” says Freschi, who is excited to be joining the gallery’s Cape Town team. “The market of contemporary art has changed dramatically in the past 10 years and the stakes are higher; there is more of a global reach.

“Cape Town is a very different market; it’s a lot smaller,” Freschi says, reflecting on the challenges that await him.

“Jo’burg is really my city and it’s very hard for me to leave,” he says, glancing at his two Burmese cats, Ernest and Gabriella, who seem aware of the imminent change, given that the art on the walls has been packed into boxes.

Asked about the academic contribution he will make in his new post, Freschi says he will bring a historical and theoretical understanding as well as an awareness of the art market as a ­discursive construct.

“The three years I spent in the ­corporate world will also obviously come into play.”

Coupled with the commercial ­mandate of contemporary galleries, Freschi identifies the changing role of such institutions in purchasing ­contemporary South African art—something our public galleries and museums are not doing because of funding cuts and budgetary restraints—as important.

Asked about the specialist nature of such galleries and the separation between market and audience, ­Freschi is quick to point out that people are inventive and creative and do not necessarily only buy with their wallets, but with their intellects and insights as well.

“I’m under no illusions—there are a lot of energies that come together in a contemporary gallery, but these can enable new kinds of research and writing. Some people can buy it, some can’t, but everyone can access it,” he says with a confident smile.