A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Bell-Roberts south africa gallery
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The South African art market may only now be unravelling itself to the outside world, but that’s exactly what this special contemporary art initiative, sponsored by South African Tourism India, wants to hasten. Titled “Possibilities”, it aims to engage the ever-growing breed of Indian art patrons with the best of emerging South African art. This first exhibition — a brief visit to Mumbai by 10 cutting edge South African artists — is just a teaser.
Later this year, a much larger body of work (estimated at 45), alongside work by emerging Indian artists (selected by Sangita Jindal), will travel between both countries. The art will be exposed to collectors and corporates in both countries who will be encouraged to commission works. Those commissioned works will then form the content in a special coffee table book, as a badge of cultural reciprocity.
The curators, Suzette and Brendon Bell-Roberts, are respected South African gallerists. Bell-Roberts is also one of South Africa’s leading bespoke publishing houses. In fact, currently in production under their aegis is another tale of South African and Indian affiliation.
The Indian in Drum is a photographic publication that presents the “prominent and sometimes notorious” Indian influence on the early years of Drum magazine that from the 1950s on, illustrated, with courage and good humour, the tragic paradoxes of apartheid life.
For most participating artists, who’ve all at some point or others been associated with Bell-Roberts, their curatorial finesse is unrivalled. “They’re the best in the country,” says Brand. They’ve certainly pulled together some very diverse forms of expression at this show.
Meet Horny, Cameron Platter’s wood and enamel painted rhinocerous that far from looking ferocious seems to have fallen prey to exuberant street fashion. Shirley Fintz’s patterned sculptures are not so irreverent, and are instead inspired by the country’s textiles and colours.
Tanya Poole works with a labour-intensive animation technique with oil painting, which simply means she captures painted images on video, animates them and projects them onto a surface. “Drift” — part of this exhibition — projects images of a man’s and woman’s heads on to two pillows. One can’t really tell if they’re life partners or it’s a one-night stand, but the woman looks searchingly for clues on the sleeping man’s face. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch him blink.
Any links with promoting tourism are tenuous, save perhaps for Karl Gietl’s oil on canvas depicting the Western Cape’s beaches, where bikinis and penguins share sun and sand. “The intention was not for the visual link to tourism to be obvious. We wanted there to be clues to the cultural ethos of the country, but off-beat clues,” says Lance Littlefield, country head, SA Tourism India.
Littlefield can take complete credit for the conception of the show — “We’ve always positioned South African tourism alongside lifestyle components, and lifestyle means food, drink, fashion, and now art.”
Poole’s husband Nigel Mullin’s work takes the form of stills on a television screen in the corner. The actual work is stuck in customs and won’t make the show. Naturally, he’s not best pleased. He was hoping to make some gallery contacts here so he could perhaps show in India in the future.
He talks of the role of the gallerist in advancing the career of an artist. “In South Africa, the main problem is that there is no continuity of association with any one gallery,” he says. It does surprise many in the global art fraternity that bar a few, virtually no work by contemporary South African artists has appeared on prominent international auctions. Artists present at the show do seem to hint at the “holding back” among several gallery owners in exposing the artist internationally. The other thing that doesn’t help create an open playing field is the lack of a strong secondary market.
“There’s not too many of us that can make our living from art, so most of us teach,” says Brand who suggests he sometimes has to size down his installations so they’re “intimate” enough to sell.
“In South Africa, there’s plenty of talent but in India the reason the art market is thriving is because industry has caught up with talent,” says Littlefield. While the artists themselves are wide-eyed with the promise of a new market, they’re also excited to be just tourists. Littlefield will be hoping they will also work as fitting cultural emissaries.
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