/ 6 December 2023

Spaces and minds in progress

Occupy2 (1)
Preoccupation: Work from the first Occupying the Gallery. (Mosa Anita Kaiser)

Johannesburg’s SMAC Gallery, usually a place of finished, curated works, has become a space of generative trial and error — of work in the process of being made. 

Handwritten texts and photocopies jostle up against sketches and test prints, while notes and reference books line the tables. 

Upstairs, a fabric sculpture installation emerges, while at the gallery’s entrance, a mural has started taking shape. 

This is the second iteration of a roving, experimental open-studio project called Occupying the Gallery, led by artists Mary Sibande and Lawrence Lemaoana. Since July, Occupying the Gallery has been opening itself to the world, centring collaborative and interdisciplinary processes as an essential part of art-making.

The project emerged after Sibande and Lemaoana received an invitation to present a joint exhibition at Keyes Art Mile’s Gallery 1. 

Interested, as they were to embark on a joint exhibition, the artists found themselves gravitating towards another idea — the gallery as the site for a process-based occupation.

Mentorship is essential

But Occupying the Gallery is also Sibande and Lemaoana’s response to a lack of studio space for emerging artists and a general lack of access to established systems of incubating, exhibiting and selling work. 

Sitting in her Maboneng studio, Sibande explains that mentorship in the arts has been an important part of both her and Lemaoana’s practice over the years.

Lemaoana, who also works as a lecturer, regularly finds himself in the position of mentoring young artists, while Sibande recalls the guidance of Gordon Froud and Thembinkosi Goniwe in her early art career as being hugely instructional.

“They were important mentors in my early years. I don’t think I would be at this level or be the artist that I am now if there was no one to hold me by the hand and push me to see exhibitions. 

“You need that when you’re a student,” says Sibande.

Later, she’d meet Lebogang Kganye at the Market Photo Workshop and take on the role of mentor herself. 

It’s quiet in Sibande’s studio when we meet but a typical day sees many young artists and unofficial mentees making use of the space.

“We thought, ‘Let’s open up the gallery to them.’ 

“So, we invited them into the space to make work and it grew, organically, into this process-based occupation,” says Sibande.

The first iteration, which took place at Keyes Art Mile’s Gallery 1, featured a collaboration with local printmaking studio Danger Gevaar Ingozi (DGI), composed of Nathaniel Sheppard III and Minenkhulu Ngoyi. 

A group of artists — among them Sibande, Lemaoana, Lusanda Ndita, Ngoma KaMphahlele, Bongani Ndlovu, Hoek Swaratlhe and Mosa Anita Kaiser — was then invited to work across the disciplines of photography, printmaking, sculpture, installation and more.

Others found their way into the space, too. 

“We had friends of the artists coming in to use the space, we had film and graphic design students coming to work, and we had people coming in to sit and work there who we’d never see again,” explains Sibande. 

“Eventually, we put the wi-fi password up and just embraced the flow of people. And maybe that’s what occupation is — it’s just opening the door and inviting people in; opening the space to whoever wants to use it.”

The model of the open studio is not a new one. 

In Johannesburg, artists’ studios and organisations such as August House, Bag Factory and Ellis House have been opening their doors to the public for some time. 

What makes Occupying the Gallery unique is its situational context in conventional white-cube galleries.

The project’s manager Mosa Kaiser, a practising artist herself, explains that it gives artists the opportunity of working towards a professional exhibition in a commercial gallery from inside the space itself.

“It also has the aspect of monetising the work and selling it from somewhere like Keyes, which has access to a commercial audience. 

“So, open studios and artist communities exist but the way in which we’re doing it is unique. 

“It’s a mobile community that keeps opening itself up to new audiences,” Kaiser says.

Work from the first Occupying the Gallery where the artists worked with printmaking studio Danger Gevaar Ingozi.

Connections and new ways 

Outside of providing a platform and the opportunity to sell to different audiences, what has this way of working done for the artists and their work? 

The discussions, observations, and creative methodologies that emerged through the act of opening up the studio process to the public have ultimately influenced the work itself.

The first iteration of Occupying the Gallery proved to be hugely generative. In addition to a group exhibition of new work, a project between Lemaoana and the occupying artists titled Bazobuya (they will come back) emerged from the collaboration and has gone on to have a life of its own outside Occupying the Gallery

The project references the Soul Brothers’ 1990 song of the same title, echoing the lament of children, mothers and of wives of husbands who left home due to the migrant-labour system in South Africa, while also calling for the freedom of political prisoners at the time. 

Bazobuya continues to develop and is already lining up projects and similar occupation-style residencies for early next year. 

In addition to leading the Bazobuya initiative, Lemaoana assumed an essential role during the first iteration — that of animating the space and linking artists and audiences. 

“I think that, because of that artist-curator position I hold, I was able to recognise the links between the artists, the material and the audience, and make those connections,” explains Lemaoana. 

“The practice of making is also involved with entrepreneurship and creating links and networks for that practice and that’s what I wanted to emphasise for the artists.” 

For the second iteration of Occupying the Gallery, print studio LL Editions has joined as partners, working with the occupying artists to translate their work into lithographs. 

This interdisciplinary partnership plays an essential role in the project. In addition to providing an original, cohesive body of work that can be exhibited and sold, it allows the artists to push the boundaries of their practice and to play with the possibilities of their work, translated through printmaking.

DGI’s silkscreen process in the first iteration is a good example. Here, a group of photographers were able to reproduce their images through the discipline of printmaking and explore new ways of working. 

Ndita, who works primarily with domestic photographic archives in a collage-like manner, branched out into more gestural, painterly methods of mark-making, while Swaratlhe, whose photographic work focuses on the disappearing houses and architecture of Soweto, engaged with architects in the space and focused on merging the languages of architectural drawing and photography. 

For KaMphahlele, the silkscreen method added a new texture and therefore a new way of reading his series of documentary-style images centring South African jazz, fashion and community in Katlehong. 

“We knew we needed a host; Someone who could turn the ideas into physical art objects,” says Sibande. “DGI came in and they worked in the space, they helped produce silkscreen prints. These artists now have a new visual language from that silkscreen process and now they want to experiment more. 

“For the occupation at SMAC, LL Editions will be the ones to help with that experimentation.”

Lawrence Lemaoana, Mavuso and Mosa Anita Kaiser hang Mavuso’s work at SMAC gallery. Photos: Mosa Anita Kaiser

What lies ahead

The occupation at SMAC sees Londiwe Mtshali, Lungile Ngcobo, Tatenda Magaisa, Sphatho Mzantsi, Mlondi Magubane and Pamela “Sana King” Mavuso joining Sibande, Lemaoana and Kaiser. 

The artists involved work across the disciplines of photography, collage, sculpture, writing and more. 

With their works in process having debuted to the public early last month, their individual projects and collective, collaborative ways of working will continue to develop into early next year. 

Until then, SMAC remains a space that’s open to artists, visitors, thoughts, opinions and ideas. 

“There is a need to excite the art world. All the images we’ve seen are so exciting because they’re different — they come out of a different process,” concludes Sibande. “That’s what we’re continuing to explore for now.”

The second iteration of Occupying the Gallery, which opened this November, is at SMAC Gallery until the end of January 2024.