Opening night at Sandton’s two new art fairs

(Pictured: Artist Lady Skollie at the opening of FNB Art Joburg)

Ever since we launched In Your Pocket City Guides in South Africa five years ago we have been determined to put Joburg’s art scene front and centre in our coverage of this city. Joburg is an African city, and Joburg is an art city. And in case you still haven’t noticed, Africa’s Time Is Now!

September is always an exciting month at Johannesburg In Your Pocket as this is art month, the time of year when one of Africa’s biggest annual art fairs comes to Sandton and the city celebrates Art Week Joburg. This year the massive FNB Joburg Art Fair got a new name – now simply known as FNB Art Joburg – new owners (this is now the first 100% black-owned art fair) and a new look and we couldn’t wait to check it out.

Super-sized artworks and a ‘gallery incubator hub’ at the new FNB Art Joburg

Having dramatically changed shape and format earlier this year, Joburg’s art lovers (us included) have been very curious to find out what the new FNB Art Joburg art fair would look like. It was promised that the event would have a ‘less is more approach’ with fewer galleries exhibiting and larger, equal-sized booths assigned to each of the major big name South African galleries who are the anchors of the event.

A new MAX pavilion was to provide space for large-scale artworks and installations, while local young artist and gallerist Banele Khoza was announced as a leader of the ‘Gallery Lab’ team, an ‘incubator’ space providing a platform for galleries and hybrid art spaces from around the continent to participate in the fair.

If you had somehow imagined that the fair was going to be dramatically smaller, you can think again. While there are fewer exhibitors, the fact that galleries have been afforded more room to showcase their artists has added a certain extra depth and sense of coherence that was perhaps lacking in previous ‘busier’ iterations of the fair.

Regular visitors to major Joburg galleries such as Stevenson , SMAC or Everard Read will no doubt find themselves drawn to the many exciting new works by artists who have recently been displayed in the city (we certainly were), while the prominent spaces offered to major Cape Town galleries who don’t have a Joburg presence completes the picture of a robust and vibrant South African contemporary art scene.

Over at the new Gallery Lab section of the fair there were lots of exciting new names waiting to be discovered from countries including Angola, Swaziland and Zambia. At the empty 16|16 and hfactor stand representing artists based in Lagos, a scrawled message on a blank wall reading ‘Thanks, Xenophobia’ was a powerful statement on the barriers that continue to prevent the free exchange of ideas on our continent. After a spate of attacks on “foreigners” in Joburg over the past two weeks and an ensuing backlash against South African businesses and institutions elsewhere in Africa, the South African Embassy in Nigeria had remained closed, leaving the exhibitors unable to get their visas in time.

Enlightening and engrossing discussions also await in this new incubator space. Youth dominates, a passion for the new and an excitement to ‘be part of it’ was palpable, especially once you get the understanding that for a lot of the artists being represented in this area they are almost more ‘known’ in Europe or the US than they are here on their own continent.

Our conversations here with gallerists and artists left us feeling with a renewed and reinforced sense of contemporary Joburg, with all its problems and difficulties, as being an essential and vital space to be in at this critical time of growing interest in admiring, collecting and supporting contemporary African art. An artist residency and guest exhibition in Joburg can now very much hold as equal weight as a Paris or New York residency or showcase for a young African artist from beyond South Africa’s borders.

FNB Art Joburg is always also a social event, an opportunity to spend a day mixing and mingling with artists, curators, gallerists, collectors, friends, family and anybody else who is an art admirer over great coffee, food, wine and art. And this year you get plenty of bang for your buck. The food and beverage offerings have been given an upgrade with a massive pop-up bar by our favourite Joburg wine Bar (it’s in Rosebank and so is our office, but that’s not the only reason we love it!) Publik.

In essence we have now been there four times in just two days, and we are still planning to be back again at the weekend too. That should tell you enough. This fair, its new direction and presentation, its position in this city as a major must-see art event and its wider perception across the continent as a leading, and also genuinely exciting, platform has so much to tell us. About who we are as South Africans and how we treat our broader connection to the bigger African context, and about where we are as Joburgers, right now, in this exciting, but ever-shifting, moment in our city’s wild history. Go there. 

The art of Africa at Latitudes Art Fair

One block over on Nelson Mandela Square another new art fair opened on September 12 and there was no way we were going to miss out on that one! Occupying a purpose-built pavilion in the middle of Nelson Mandela Square, Latitudes Art Fair is a much more ’boutique’ sized fair, what many are referring to as one of the ‘fringe’ fairs that have blossomed around the new direction of FNB Art Joburg.

With a mass protest against gender-based violence, the #SandtonShutdown, scheduled to take place on Friday in Sandton, it felt especially uplifting to see the first 100% black-owned art fair joined on the block by the first 100% woman-owned art fair.

At Latitudes, co-founders Nokwazi Zimu, Makgati Molebatse, Lucy McGary and Anthea Buys have strived to bring together an art fair ‘for African art in international times’. The exhibitors are a mix of local galleries, galleries from the continent, individual artists and international galleries from countries including Germany, Spain and USA who represent African and African diaspora artists.

In spite of its relatively small size the fair really packs a punch. We were overwhelmed by the number of fresh work by artists who are largely unknown in Joburg on display. Names like Zimbabwe’s Wycliffe Mundopa, Uganda-based Sungi Mlengeya, Djive from Mozambique and Raphael Adjetey Mayne are all artists who were new to us and we are certainly hoping to see more of!

The fair’s small size and prominent location in the middle of Sandton’s tourist heartland give Latitudes a certain intimacy and friendliness that we are sure will be very appealing to anybody who thinks that they are ‘not an art fair person’.

The added bonus of a Champagne bar adjoining Strauss & Co auction house’s inviting art lounge (the works on show can currently be bought at their latest online sale) and a gin garden outside will no doubt leave visitors with even more reason to stay and hang out.

How to combine a visit to both fairs

Although the two fairs are not officially linked (so you can’t for example buy a combo ticket), Latitudes and FNB Art Joburg complement each other perfectly and it’s well worth buying a ticket for both and spending a day wandering between the two spaces, perhaps with a stop for lunch at one of Sandton’s restaurants in between.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any signs pointing from one venue to the other although if you know where you are going it is straight forward enough. From Mandela Square follow straight behind the Mandela statue until you reach the lifts at the back and get out at P3, the Convention Centre is just on the other side of the road.

And if you are still struggling to find your way around pick up a copy of our brand new Sandton In Your Pocket mini-guide at Latitudes Art Fair or ask for it at any of Sandton’s major hotels.

Latitudes is open Friday 11am-9pm, Saturday 10am-6pm and Sunday 10am-5pm. A day pass costs R120 online (R150 on the door), three-day pass R250 online (R300 at the door). Children under 12 free.

FNB Art Joburg is open Friday 11am-8pm, Saturday 11am-7pm, Sunday 11am-5pm. A day pass costs R120, a weekend pass costs R200.

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