Open City: The art of invading Jo’burg

Open City implies inclusivity: How far do you think this year’s programme lives up to this?

We’ve always had a good partnership with the City of Johannesburg. When we rebranded the fair and relaunched as FNB Art Joburg, the City also came aboard.

The idea of Open City was based on having been around the world and seeing what other cities were doing in terms of galvanising the community into something culturally oriented. Jo’burg was starting to lose that. 

There’s a lot happening culturally, but Jo’burg people don’t know that. So the idea of Open City helped us to move past the contemporary art world into partnering with people practising other artforms. The music scene, the jazz scene, the dance scene — there were all these things that were supported in the city that were disappearing. So I thought: let’s bring that back. But it has to be done in a different way and in a different format. 

I often felt that, when we say, ‘Oh come to gallery weekend’, we were talking over people, and only a certain segment of the population would understand, because they were already going to galleries. The rest don’t really know how this world functions. Open City allows people to experience and navigate in their normal world. And then we created this idea of nodes.

So we chose a node, like Rosebank, but then we chose a space that you wouldn’t think would be turned into an exhibition space, like the photography exhibition at the old Puma store that closed down (since Covid-19, there have been a lot of empty spaces, so they allowed us to collaborate). 

The show on Black Portraiture, for example, goes beyond one gallery, bringing together interesting artists from around South Africa and the rest of the continent.

The art space continues to change, with artists trying out various ways of presenting their work. How have you supported artists who are seeking to be independent, opening up their own spaces and the like?

My experience of the art ecosystem is that it requires different voices and interventions. I’ve been waiting for a moment where some of those interventions will not be what we know already, which is galleries and some few museums (we don’t even have much of a museum culture in Jo’burg). 

People learn from different spaces, but it requires investment and ownership and it does help to grow new audiences. It’s really great when Nelson Makamo creates his own space and it fits his agenda and the narrative he is pushing. 

And then there’s the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation, where you can book and there can be a few of you guys in that space and you can view the art on your own. I’m really for all of that because I’ve seen it working in other cities. What will make Jo’burg a really strong art city is more of those spaces that are independent. 

And we should have one for photography. There really isn’t a space, of which you can say, “Oh let me go look at South African photographers.” In Brazil I saw a platform where it was just all the Brazilian photographers being profiled in one space. The old ones, the young ones and the future ones all had access to the space. 

What does it mean for FNB Art Joburg to be black-owned and how does that trickle down?

It was an important milestone for me, personally, given the context of our journey in South Africa. When it comes to culture, we’ve been left out. South Africa’s history is pretty much about alienation and isolation, and the art space was just as affected by apartheid as other areas. 

My coming into this world was a big wake-up call. We have enough artists across the landscape, but there were not enough black people on the management side. It was important to raise my hand to say that although we have brilliant black artists, there must also be great black administrators. I think that’s where I fit in, because these kinds of spaces tend to be led by white South Africans and white foreigners. 

FNB Art Joburg’s Open City runs from October 28 to 31. For more information, go to opencity.artjoburg.com

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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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