Danger to white cube galleries

Nathaniel Sheppard and Chad Cordeiro with international visitors in their space. (Tahlia Govender)

Nathaniel Sheppard and Chad Cordeiro with international visitors in their space. (Tahlia Govender)

On the fringe of Johannesburg’s tentacular gentrification, Danger Gevaar Ingozi Studio is home to those with critical imaginations and no qualms about dress codes. Run by artists Chad Cordeiro, Sbongiseni Khulu and Nathaniel Sheppard III, the studio and a growing collective of people taking ownership of their art, are redistributing access, and peeling back layers of institutional privilege that plaster the walls of white cube galleries.

They describe it as a redistraction. We welcome it as a relief.

“In some ways it’s complete bullshit,” says Cordeiro, to laughing nods from Khulu and Sheppard.

We’re gathered around a large desk in their studio, which is part-workshop, part-gallery, part-Gryffindor common room.

“We recently hosted second-year Wits students and one kid – with this look of complete awe – asked, ‘What do I have to do to get into the space?’ We said: ‘Use your feet, walk over here and come hang out with us.’  ”

For these three artists, all under 30, a little awe would not be misplaced.
It takes no ordinary friendship to open a studio centred on printmaking as a medium and as a movement; to have that space become a second home to filmmakers, poets, entrepreneurs, visiting artists, nursery school children and more; and to produce shows that extend beyond the studio’s inner-city walls into bastions such as Houghton.

The studio is just revving up. Cordeiro said the opening of a studio dedicated to printmaking and its relationship to other mediums followed years of entertaining the thought as a student with Sheppard. “Which is ridiculously ambitious and arrogant,” he notes. “But that was our way of putting into motion what we wanted to get done.”

On the back of their first international show in Frankfurt in 2015, Sheppard and Cordeiro returned to South Africa eager to get their own space going.

Lawyer-entrepreneur Anaz Mia, Sheppard’s cousin, bought into the vision and the printmakers’ ambition – literally. Mia and Sheppard found a ground floor space on Sivewright Avenue, Johannesburg, knocked down a wall or two, noted the “Danger Gevaar Ingozi” sign outside the entrance as they were doing so, and early last year Danger Gevaar Ingozi Studio was opened.

“I will never forget the day,” said Khulu. “January, late at night, I get a call from Nathaniel saying: ‘We have a space. When are you leaving your job?’ ”

Cordeiro, Khulu and Sheppard are the best of friends. The enviable kind. They give each other endless grief and they finish each other’s sentences. Each one builds on the thoughts of the other – poking holes only to expand the scope of the idea or challenge at hand. “We will go off in tangents” is their disclaimer. But self-indulge, they do not.

It isn’t difficult to see how their friendship is embedded in their work, which is an expanding body of self-aware, ambitious, yet accessible collaborations. This, as Khulu explains, is incidental and deliberate.

Incidental, because the odds of them becoming friends in the first place were low. Cordeiro, a Johannesburg local, fell in love with printmaking as a student through Colbert Mashile’s The Wheelbarrow. United States-born Sheppard left architecture school, missed a flight back home and took himself to art school at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he met Cordeiro. Khulu was drawn to printmaking through a love-hate relationship with sculpture at Tshwane University of Technology.

The three came together at David Krut Projects where Khulu and Cordeiro work – printmaking for artists. With shared experiences as outsiders with working-class roots in former Model C schools and a deep appreciation for hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, a collaborative friendship was inevitable.

Deliberate, because Danger Gevaar Ingozi intentionally grows through the meeting of similar minds in a way that Cordeiro refers to as “an emotional connection”.

Why printmaking? Why a space of their own? Why now?

The three discuss their drive to printmaking in a black-owned space in a gentrifying city over a generous spread of Nik Naks, Lemon Creams and Dairymilk.

“Printmaking has a history in social movements in SA, South America and the former USSR,” says Cordeiro. “It’s a very politicised medium, and a quick way to disseminate information.”

Khulu adds: “Which is also why it’s not thought of as high-art. It’s easily accessible.”

Cordeiro says: “We feel that, in South Africa, printmaking is completely missing the point of what that medium is supposed to be about: understanding that the layers behind the white walls – distractions like power, exclusion, extraction – are what are important when doing the work.”

They all agree that what is not accessible to everyone is the white cube gallery. These, Sheppard explains, are so-named for being spaces that “make the valiant attempt at being void of all culture and influence … represented by the democratic shape of a white-painted box. But in reality, behind that paint are walls rich with histories of privilege.”

“There are certain spaces trying hard to subvert those norms,” says Cordeiro. “But they end up falling flat because people see through it. They can have as many black artists perform and exhibit as they want to, but it doesn’t change the fact that people still engage with black artists in those spaces in the same way that the space dictates – in an exercise of vetting. Nothing really changes.”

As long as “high art” is inaccessible art and white cube galleries are seen to be curating what is socially fashionable, Danger Gevaar Ingozi will be carving a different path. The studio, like the artists, represents a vehicle through which to negate the exclusivity that those galleries represent.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have our own facility that allows us to produce our own work,” says Sheppard. “If a white cube wants to do a show, we welcome the opportunity, but we’re not dependent on that gallery to create cultural capital for us. We’re here trying to open the space to our people, trying to educate our people and we are doing just that.”

“It’s a beautiful thing!” Cordeiro, Sheppard and Khulu say of their moment in South African art. And also necessary.

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