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A beginner’s guide to Art Fair Week



A lot is happening in Johannesburg’s contemporary art scene this week. So I went around the newsroom answering questions that can help guide you through taking part in this week’s festivities. 

Why should I bother?

It’s an opportunity to demystify the art world by talking to or simply being around the people who make it go round. If you can make it at a fair, you can make it anywhere from biennales, talks, festivals, first Thursdays and show openings. Perhaps it can ease your mind into buying work.

So then how does an art fair differ from a Biennale?

Think of fairs as a pop-up mall for contemporary art. Artworks from a variety of galleries, museums, and project spaces are brought together under one roof for patrons to either look at or buy.

Much like the mall, this elevated shopping experience is a watering hole for gallerists, curators, artists, art dealers, art buyers, collectors, content creators and art enthusiasts to mingle, sell work, set up collaborations, take aspirational pictures or just congregate in the name of complaining about the state of the contemporary art world over flutes of champagne. The only difference is, unlike the mall, patrons have to pay a fee to get in.

Biennales on the other hand are international, curated art exhibitions that happen every two years. In the spirit of promoting artistic experimentation, art works at biennales are not on sale, although collectors may use the platform to see what’s on the market.

So that’s happening in Joburg this weekend?

Yes. There are three key events happening from Thursday to Sunday: the Underline Projects art show, FNB Art Joburg and Latitudes Art Fair.

Why are there three of them and how are they different from one another?

All three platforms offer something unique to Johannesburg’s contemporary art scene. Together they attract international attention to the city. It matters because this gathering gets a variety of conversations started and people buy into the local industry. Here are some basics to get you started about this week’s key players.

Underline Projects Art show:

This is not a fair. It is a show that has granted independent, emerging curators a platform to exhibit the work of overlooked and unknown artists. Why? The short answer is to afford these curators and artists the opportunity to participate in the market.

Latitudes Art Fair:

Much like Underline, this fair looks to open up the market and give space to peripheral or emerging galleries. Their focus is on broadening the world’s understanding of art from the continent and the diaspora.

FNB Art Joburg:

Twelve years in the game, this is Africa’s oldest art fair. However 2019 marks change with new ownership and a new name. This is where the more established and highly visible galleries will be featured.

Can I go to all three of them?

The answer depends on your pocket and your schedule. Below are the respective locations, dates, times and prices for the three events.

Underline Projects:

Location: Museum Of African Design (MOAD)

281 Commissioner Street, Jeppestown

Johannesburg, Gauteng 2094

Dates: September 12 to 15

Operating hours: to

Weekend pass: R35 for adults

(The event is free for students and pensioners)

Latitudes Art Fair:

Location: Nelson Mandela Square

Corner Maude & 5th Streets, Sandton

Johannesburg, South Africa.

Dates: September 13 to 15

Operating hours: to (Friday) to 6pm (Saturday) to (Sunday)

Day pass: R120 online and R150 at the door

Three day pass: R250 online and R300 at the door

(Children under 12 enter for free, students and pensioners get 25% discount)

FNB Art Joburg

Location: Sandton Convention Centre

161 Maude Street, Sandown

Sandton, 2196

Dates: 13 to 15 September

Operating hours: to (Friday) to (Saturday) to (Sunday)

Day pass: R120 (Adults), R80 (Pensioners), R60 (Students)

Weekend pass: R200 (Adults), R120 (pensioners and students)

What about VIP?

This affords you an exclusive preview before the rest of the public, a chance to watch the affluent spend racks like its nothing, and free champagne, darling. And as far as I know VIP isn’t a thing at Underline.

Okay I’m about to book a ticket. But when do I go?

If you’re not about the crowds then be there as soon as the doors open. But if you’re looking to be within the groove of this, rubbing shoulders with the who’s who, then try Friday and Saturday afternoon.

Let me get this right. There are a bunch of booths featuring a bunch of artworks, tons of people to meet, countless photo-ops, an eating area and crowds that I have to manoeuvre through all of this. How do I make my way through everything I want to see?

If you want to plan before hand then go ahead and check out their websites to see if there’s an artist or booth that you want to check out. As soon as you touch down, you will have access to a map. Don’t be afraid to open it, no one will know its your first time. If reading that proves to be an issue, look for the people who have staff lanyards or t-shirts on and hit them with a simple ‘excuse me do you know where x is?’.

Do art dealers and artists even want to talk to someone who isn’t buying?

This is a strong, but not all the way, yes. Whoever is staffing the booth you’re in will probably offer to answer whatever questions you have if they’re free. If they’re talking to someone, make sure you’re not interrupting a potential sale. But I also encourage you to remember that if whoever you approach seems disinterested, they may have had that same chat with 12 other people before you.

Did you say I can take selfies with the artwork?

Yes. Take your pictures, people stare everywhere. It’s not different in such spaces. Just try your best not to block the art work. And always, always credit the artist. You can find the name of the art work and the artist close to the piece, mostly on the left hand-side.

Is there food?

Yes. There is food and alcohol but it isn’t free. So have a snack if you’re not willing to break the bank.

What should I wear?

While there is seating you’ll spend most of your time on your feet so wear comfortable shoes. It’s also an opportunity to dress up your everyday casual look with ridiculous statement brooches, earrings, hairstyles, the works. Express yourself. But remember to think mall-dress up, not award ceremony get-up.

I think I’ll pass, is there anything else art related and free that I can do, to avoid fomo?

Of course there is.

FNB Art Joburg has the Gallery Weekend, an addition to the fair that allows you to explore the Joburg through its artistic potential by watching films, visiting galleries and restuarants or partying in the city.

BKhz in Braamfontein has solo shows, by Lunga Ntila and Tatenda Chidora, opening on September 11.

Latitudes Art Fair has the Latitudes Live which is a free film screening and talk programme that has topics like “How to change the art world in 2 hours”.

Is there a single directory for everything relating to the art fairs? If not, where should one look not to miss a beat?

You can follow the events on Instagram and Twitter. If that’s too much, check out the Mail & Guardian’s Weekend Guide and download the Art Meets app. Developed in 2016 this app has information on events and spaces to visit. It lets you know more about the place or event, how to get there in addition to providing you with contact details.

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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