‘Decentralisation is meant to give artists who are not in Johannesburg or Cape Town access to grants,” says Kabelo Malatsie, the recently appointed director of Visual Arts Network of South Africa (Vansa), of her key vision. “Government wants to give money to rural areas but they have no facilities and infrastructure for that to happen. We are trying to make networks with people in rural areas and then give structural advice, so they have the facilities to so whatever is done there is viable.”
Malatsie, a former gallery assistant and ex-associate director at the Stevenson (where she worked between 2011 and 2016), is reluctant to call herself a curator despite the fact that Sabelo Mlangeni’s uMlindelo Wamakholwa, currently on show at the Wits Arts Museum, bears her name under the curator heading.
“I have kind of rejected the idea of curatorship because, while working at Stevenson, I realised that I enjoyed conversations with artists more, like the everyday conversations and seeing works go from where they are not even interesting ideas until they become something that looks and says something.
“Working at Stevenson made me realise that I enjoyed that more than trying to put on a show with my name on it and inviting artists. Of course I did that but it wasn’t something that animated me. But I also knew that it was a springboard to the next best thing. If you say you are a curator, people respond.”
Malatsie got her start in the art world from shadowing Khwezi Gule, the chief curator at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), when they met around 2008 or 2009. She says it was a time when the likes of Gule, Thembinkosi Goniwe and others were visible and vocal.
Arriving at JAG one day, Gule gave her the once-over, mumbled something about the frequency of these requests and then gave her homework. Malatsie soaked it all up.
“I said [to Malatsie], ‘I can’t teach you to be a curator, the only thing I can do is just to let you hang around the gallery,’ ” says Gule. Although he hasn’t closely followed her trajectory since then, he has enough of a sense to tell that she has developed an acute awareness “of the fraught nature” of trying to be productive in the visual arts sector.
“I’m partly basing this on the MA study she did on independent spaces, which I think is an interesting thing where in South Africa a lot of art practice centres around the established art institutions, whereas in actual fact most of the artists have a tenuous relationship with that system,” says Gule. “The whole issue of independent spaces is quite important in terms of their sustainability and viability. If that kind of question could be pursued more robustly, it can enable a lot of artists who are currently seeing themselves as on the periphery to have a more sustained practice.”
Malatsie is seated at the short end of a rectangular wooden table that takes up most of the space in the room. We are in the Transwerke building that Vansa calls home. Situated at the lower end of Constitution Hill, the building’s paint job is dilapidated in that methodical way that suggests that it might be an intentional design aesthetic.
Not so, says Malatsie. The building is developing into something of a creative hub and, in that ungentrified liminal space, the rent is dirt cheap. It figures, for although I have come to interview Malatsie about her winding path to the directorship of Vansa (an organisation that sits somewhere between an advocacy group and an artist association), a large part of our discussion centres on the economics of art practice in South Africa.
The situation has forced Malatsie to search for an answer to the question: How do new artists emerge?
“When I think about the number of commercial galleries that are there and the number of artists that are at university level … I mean, luckily, South Africa has a lot of art degrees. But what happens when they are done?” she asks. “Even if these commercial galleries were absorbing one artist a year, which they don’t, it is still one artist a year. And let me be generous and say there are 15 good galleries. That’s 15 for the whole country, which is not even what’s happening now.”
Malatsie says that one of the most crucial tasks in her new seat is improving working conditions for artists. “It is urgent, but in between that dream, we must organise a bit better, and we must find funding for that organising,” she says.
Vansa has released an artist’s guide to art practice, to assist artists through various stages of the art production chain. “The industry has no good standards for anything and we are not organised enough as a community, so exploitation is still rife.
“That, for me, was a thing I found weird that an art installer, museum curator — or museum anything — has terms of working conditions but those are never transferrable to an independent curator or to an artist.”
Similarly, she says, a lot of artists, especially because they might be starting out and are trying to ingratiate themselves with their gallerists, end up falling into a trap where being unable to gain entry becomes cumbersome and thus begins the process of attrition.
“I think the disillusionment came when I was organising a show for one of the artists represented by Stevenson,” she says. “The museum [where the artist’s work was to be hung] wouldn’t pay for things. When you are doing a show for a biennale and the biennale is like, we can’t pay for shipping, who is going to pay for shipping? It happened with a museum and it also happened with a biennale. So if you are not represented by a gallery you are excluded because you do not have the backing to pay for your own shipping. But they will happily pay for you to go to press event.
“If the biennale is not paying for it and they are getting as much leverage out of your participation as you are, how is that fair? For me, it wasn’t enough to just complain,” she says.
On the exploitative nature of the visual arts industry, Gule says it is not so much that artists are locked into contracts in the same way musicians are, but “it’s just that you need to be administratively strong in order to take care of both the creative and the administrative side. Many artists can’t and they need a support structure — a gallery or some other kind of support structure”.
Gule characterises Vansa’s capacity to achieve its aims as being dictated by the funding environment. “Because of this environment, arts organisations have become much more project-oriented — not that they have stopped doing advocacy work and the work an artist association would do — but it is significantly less.”
As for Malatsie, she has stepped into a tall challenge, a key component being to marshall the 8 000 Vansa members into an organised unit that can promote and benefit from efforts to decentralise the visual arts in Southern Africa.
“I can’t speak for all of Vansa but I do hope for an industry that is safe. And by safe I am using contemporary language. In South Africa you have a commercial gallery environment that looks like it is thriving more than any other part of the sector. We now have art fairs, which are still commercially driven. Besides that, it is not a dynamic and balanced sector that makes it all the way to Dutywa, where an artist can do their work without having to leave [home].”