Black doctor, white cube: ​Same Mdluli

Manager, Standard Bank Gallery

Same Mdluli (35), who joined the Standard Bank Gallery as a manager in January 2018, believes people have to become the change they want to see. This is why she applied for the job.

From as far back as she can remember, she has been inclined towards artistic expression but only took it seriously when her parents took her to the National School of the Arts (NSA) in Johannesburg.

“As a teenager, I was quite miserable and moody,” she says. “Being at that school helped me grow into myself. When I finished at NSA I wanted to study architecture but there were too many rules. You had to do foundation courses that were really strict, so I opted for fine art because I could learn the same critical skills but with less restrictions.”

Because garnering practical skills was paramount to Mdluli, she enrolled at what was then called the Wits Technikon, learning printmaking, photography and painting. “Like how to stretch a canvas. I can still do that right now,” she says.

Mdluli eventually did her master’s in arts and culture management before doing a stint at the Goodman Gallery.

“I did two stints at the Goodman Gallery,” Mdluli says. “The first was when Linda Goodman was the owner and the other was when Liza Essers took it over. This was when the gallery was reshaping its programme, opening up to artists in the diaspora. It was an interesting period.

“I learnt a lot about the business of selling art, where money and art intersect. I definitely wanted to be in a space of curating as a tool to tell visual stories but I also felt like I needed a lot more theoretical backing.”

Work and meaning

In 2011, Mdluli enrolled at Wits University for a PhD, focusing on the way black artists, particularly rural artists, were exhibited from the 1980s to beyond 1994. Some of her subjects were Jackson Hlungwani, Noria Mabasa and Johannes Segogela.

“It was a way of looking at ways in which they had been included, bearing in mind that primitivism being in conversation with modernism was something that was happening internationally. The likes of Hlungwani had been written about in a particular way, as ‘the untainted artists’,” says Mdluli.

“So I was looking at how they had been framed and how that had an impact on contemporary art, which tends to see African art as a mirror of Western art and not as something with its own agency.”

Mdluli says her studies led her to be more sensitive to curating, to what it means to put objects together in a gallery.

“It’s not a neutral space. It has a lot of meaning for artists and the public that go there.

“It has the power to shape how we see images and the narratives surrounding them.”

Future plans

With her appointment at the Standard Bank Gallery, Mdluli’s priority is to create a space for shows that have more of an African emphasis.

“What I’ve realised is that all of that content is there. If you look at the corporate collection, for instance, if you look at the African art collection that we share with the Wits Art Museum: that in itself is a substantial archive of not just contemporary but [also] classical African art.”

For Mdluli to showcase her curatorial voice fully, she has to wait for the already planned shows of 2018 to go by.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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