Blaxperimentation and the Art of Survival in a Time of Change
One year into the mass human stasis, forced spatial, physical confinement and loss that the COVID-19 pandemic brought about in our lives and businesses and remarkably we’re still standing. We are however irrevocably altered in a myriad of ways, everything has changed.
This collective moment of change has brought us to a place where nothing is certain and can remain unchanged, including our notions of and planning for the future. We all lost something or someone. What we’re confronting now is how we dealt with that loss and the coercive pressure to shift and change in our outlook personally, creatively and professionally or in business. Which beliefs and practices no longer serve us and were we able to leap forward to embrace the uncertainty of a post-COVID art world with courage having learnt some valuable lessons?
As a gallery and cultural development space, we have had to ask the same tough questions in the past year. Madlozi Art Gallery faced the same pressures as many other practitioners and challenged ourselves to think more expansively to survive.
We chose to participate in exciting initiatives springing up all over the world, led by people motivated to survive and change the face of the global art world and its ability to represent us culturally and racially. What we’ve come away convinced of is that fundamentally, a digitally enabled art world works. The global pandemic has accelerated the use of online solutions, tools, and services while exposing more artists and spaces on the African continent to curious and abundant new global audiences.
Building Networks and Bridges
The dismantling of old approaches and rapid migration of businesses online including exhibitions, auctions and sales was a revelation and more of an opportunity than a setback for the gallery. We discovered we were early adopters of the digi-verse as a primary place of business, and employing digital platforms was already a critical part of our focus to solidly and establish our online presence pre-COVID. The investment was a major but important expense to support our growth and future.
We knew both collectors and decision-makers would also be online, watching and speculating so when the industry as a whole made the shift, we intensified our efforts.
The newly released 2021 art market report by Art Basel shows that “many gallerists see online sales as a path forward, especially as younger generations become comfortable making major purchases via the Internet.” Research reveals that art sales increased incrementally despite forecasts and the report shows, it may be time to not only rethink our role as galleries but to ask, `what is a gallery?’
Black Art Matters
The past year was also important for us as a gallery in terms of supporting and participating in the worldwide protest action and calls for change by social and racial justice movements. This was done by supporting the work of artists who articulated the movements through their work, and by investing in the development of the careers of emerging artists on the African continent. Remaining true to our values and promoting with greater emphasis the work and ideas of Black and other minority artists could have turned out to be a risk in business terms, but in the end, it turned out to be a critical success factor for the gallery.
We reached out to larger groups and networks with greater access, means and visibility in the international art world to open their doors and platforms to enable artists and other creatives all along the value chain. We witnessed how this strategic approach to sharing resources led to exciting possibilities for larger platforms and access to new audiences, collectors and exposure in new territories via online partnerships for artists on the African continent and throughout the diaspora.
Our experience as a small business within the artworld eco-system economically made us aware that building alliances and solidarity was critical because choosing to isolate or forge a path to survival or the future on our own would be disastrous. We reached out to our community and networks, assessing, talking, collaborating and creating approaches to lift the morale and increase the possibility of earning income and selling artwork for artists and small cultural groups.
Often, what was needed was a willingness to disregard past lines of privilege and the demarcations of real and perceived wealth and access in the art world. Our experience is that confidence, sincerity and approaching partners with a sound and mutually beneficial strategy to create visibility, impact or new reach worked best and could benefit everyone. And even the more economically powerful platforms, galleries and artists in the hierarchy of the art world wanted to participate in something positive, impactful and potentially lucrative financially. In acknowledgement of our work, the gallery was recently named by Artsy as one of the top ten Black-owned galleries featuring exhibitions responding to the time – https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-10-must-see-black-owned-galleries-view-online.
Full article published in Omenka digital issue.
Opening image: Chinwe Chigbu, Muse Untitled, 2020
June 21, 2021