Gallery Profile: Afronova Gallery
Afronova Gallery was established in 2005 by Emilie Demon and Henri Vergon and since its inception, it has held numerous exhibitions by various artists from different locations, including Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean.
With activities such as performances, book launches and readings, fashion shows, film screenings, and artist residencies, the gallery has stayed true to its purpose of being a polyphonic platform for contemporary African expression. While exploring new insights, Afronova’s collection embraces the visionary moderns and focuses on young contemporaries. In this interview with Omenka, founders Demon and Vergon discuss the gallery’s journey and evolution, as well as plans for the future.
You embarked on your South African adventure in 1995, one year after the first democratic election and the official end of the apartheid regime. Kindly tell us about that experience, and how it led to the founding of Afronova Gallery in 2005.
Arriving in Johannesburg from Paris in the mid-90s was an electrifying and life-changing experience. The structure of things was so extremely different. The city was abandoned by corporates and residents migrating to sprawling new suburbs, leaving behind a mind-boggling urban jungle. The apartheid edifice and its oppressive arsenal had crumbled, but the scars were still evident. Physical spaces were highly contested and exclusive, while intellectual boundaries remained mostly in place. After so many years of containment and heavy propaganda on all sides, the wall had finally fallen, but South Africans were left staring at each other with many unanswered questions. Fascinating times!
This translated into an unstoppable artistic and intellectual effervescence. The city became the playground of an art community starving for total engagement and eager to find a new language together. To be part of this seminal moment on the continent was an epiphany and a calling, a unique chance to actively contribute to a historical shift.
Initiatives like Space Invaders and the introduction of artists’ collectives like Street Life helped to formulate the concept of Afronova as a Pan-African artistic and urban laboratory and incubator. Playtime, an international multi-disciplinary platform launched in 1998 in Johannesburg and Soweto, further highlighted the schism between South Africa and the rest of the continent’s discourse and dialogue.
In 2005, Afronova Gallery opened its doors in downtown Johannesburg with a strong mandate to support a progressive and plural conversation within the African continent and the global South.
Afronova was established in Newtown, a most prominent region in the heart and soul of the artistic struggle during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, which birthed a liberal, multi-racial, and gay-friendly environment. What challenges and opportunities does a city like this pose for a gallery business?
Reflecting on the recent history and contemporary mutations of the Joburg skyline within a deep continental shift, the decision to open the gallery in Newtown, in the heart of The City of Gold, was a no-brainer. Home to the legendary Market Theatre, this rundown part of town, described by urbanists as a Wazi (war zone), saw the rise of a powerful cultural tidal wave. Artists’ studios breathing new life into decaying industrial buildings, a real sense of danger and urban urgency, and a tight community spirit were fertile ground for the 1995 and 1997 biennales and the emergence of a powerful vernacular thinking.
Like New York in the 80s, elective affinities and raw energy explored unchartered territory and established a pertinent identity in the global debate. The sheer insolence of launching Afronova Gallery in such a transitional space was a meaningful statement at a time when the local art scene was fast becoming an industry and entering the global market.
How did the name Afronova come to be, and how does the meaning relate to its overall direction and objectives?
From the onset, it seemed more relevant to design a progressive platform rather than promote an ego or a brand. Inspired by publications like Revue Noire, Nka, or even Actuel, and challenged by figures like Simon Njami, Afronova was conceived as a catalyst for urban culture and cutting-edge artistic practice in touch with a cosmopolitan and conscious community in Africa and abroad. We are still faithful to our original purpose!
The name Afronova is also a personal tribute to Radio Nova (101.5FM), a non-mainstream radio station featuring underground artists and sharing savvy insights. The typo is the original Air Afrique, for those who chose to fly Pan-African before 2001.
Considering South Africa’s cosmopolitan art scene, how does the gallery participate in the general pan-African discourse?
The rich South African art scene blossomed in almost complete isolation beyond the frontiers of the then British Commonwealth. The legacy is potent in the artistic outcome, vocabulary, and academic structure inherited from generations of privileged beneficiaries and kept strong by today’s gatekeepers, despite some significant disruptions in recent years.
Since its inception, Afronova’s focus has been on strengthening an inclusive dialogue—from Madagascar to Haiti—asserting singularities, and sharpening a common synopsis spearheading a fast-changing narrative.
As a gallery, it is paramount to formulate an informed interpretation of the recent history of the continent, from the colonial period to the independences, from the end of the Cold War in Angola and Namibia to the Arab Spring and the relentless appetite of competing nations jousting for resources and influence. Okwui Enwezor’s essential Rise and Fall of the Apartheid featuring photographs by John Liebenberg was instrumental in the contemporary reading of African emancipation and identity within a wider political and artistic discourse.
We have been consistently involved with a pan-African network for more than two decades, nurturing relationships in Bamako, Lagos, Dakar, and Addis, facilitating the circulation of artists and the exchange of ideas, and strengthening their position on the international market.
Afronova Gallery is helmed by the art and cinema expert Emilie Demon, as well as Henri Vergon, an art and urban rejuvenation professional. What particular experiences and skill set has each brought in establishing and operating the gallery?
Johannesburg is a multi-faceted, fast-changing urban environment, a wet dream for anyone interested in contemporary culture and its contribution to viable urban renewal beyond gentrification takeovers. Afronova is instrumental in reclaiming essential creative spaces across the city through decisive interventions and permanent public art features.
Emilie Demon, a cinema curator based in Tokyo, got involved in African Contemporary Art when working on “A l’Ombre des Masques” for Simon Njami’s Africa Remix at the Mori Art Museum. Upon arriving in Joburg in 2007, she launched a series of public, outdoor film screenings, including all-time art house classics never screened in Joburg before. Demon partnered with initiatives like William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour, staging a rare cine-concert featuring twelve films by Georges Méliès.
Collaborating with cutting-edge artists using moving image and animated film, like Lebohang Kganye, is giving us great joy. She is incredibly versatile and equally comfortable with film, photography, and performance.
We also developed a keen eye for new, immersive technologies and the potential yet to be explored. In that sense, virtual reality (VR) is a natural continuation for photographer Elsa Bleda’s ever-expanding photographic universe and her recent installation.
In 2012, Afronova moved away from the traditional model for gallery spaces by closing its public outlet and setting up an intimate showroom. Why was this shift necessary, and how would you evaluate your success so far?
In a short space of time, the young gallery successfully introduced South Africa to the rest of the continent and invited Africa and the diaspora to Joburg in a bold, radical curatorial move that challenged the local art scene.
We hosted memorable exhibitions of major artists like Malick Sidibé (Mali, 2005), Ricardo Rangel (Mozambique, 2008), Mario Benjamin (Haiti, 2007), Gerard Sekoto (South Africa, 2008) and Gera Mawi Mazgabu (Ethiopia, 2005) as well as some of the finest younger pioneers, like Billie Zangewa (Malawi/South Africa, 2004), Zinkpé (Benin, 2008), and Mauro Pinto (Mozambique, 2008).
It was early days for the African contemporary art market, and the local audience was mainly clueless, ill-informed, and intellectually lazy. While gathering fantastic critical acclaim abroad, Afronova had to perform athletic legwork to get local collectors to pay attention.
Today, 99 per cent of our business is in Europe and the US. The real reason we are still based in Joburg and not in Brussels or New York is the proximity to the artists. We value our close relationship with the artists who collaborate with us more than anything in the world.
So we naturally decided to address a more discerning audience in a more personal way. Our place is vibrant and always full of visiting curators, collectors, writers, and of course, artists. A private showroom is a perfect way to truly engage with collectors and nurture a conversation with like-minded people, and it serves the interests of the artists without imposing unnecessary pressure on them.
Your approach has been described as “layered, non-linear and polyphonic… [encompassing] theatre, literature, film, poetry or performance, favouring hybrid expression.” How would you react to criticism from purists that it is distracting and perhaps reduces the focus on the art?
It is in our DNA! We strongly believe in a broader understanding and permanent redefinition of what constitutes an artistic practice, resulting in striking artworks or collaborations. It is vital to protect the creative space of the artists from the pressure of the market and encourage an eclectic approach and outcome.
We enjoy such levels of conversation with artists like Lawrence Lemaoana or Senzeni Marasela. Over the years, Lemaoana has produced an amazing body of work encompassing textile, sculpture, installation, multi-media with a fluid language, and even a monumental bronze sculpture in the middle of Joburg.
Marasela doesn’t cease to impress with her powerful discourse articulated through photography, drawing, performance, textile, and embroidery. She was invited to perform at the 2015 Venice Biennale and just embarked on a full-body tattoo artwork!
Our relationship with each artist goes far beyond transactional and is a priceless reward.
What have been the most challenging and the most exciting aspect of running a gallery?
We are indeed very excited. After years of building and consolidating, business is expanding considerably, and we are on a very ambitious and dynamic trajectory.
In the past year, we have initiated strategic partnerships with important international galleries like Magnin-A in Paris, Sean Kelly in New York, and Rose Gallery in Santa Monica (California).
As gallerists, we enjoy a solid and healthy relationship with a beautiful and coherent group of artists. Significantly, we are increasingly collaborating with young female artists, like the incredible photographers Phumzile Khanyile and Alice Mann, who just joined Afronova. We are over the moon.
In other exciting projects, we started working with BOOM Architects to design a slick new space in Johannesburg.
What has been the lasting impact on Afronova from participating in major international art fairs, like The Armory Show, Art Paris, and 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, as well as from collaborations with The Smithsonian Institution, Mass Mocca, The Studio Museum, and PAC Milan?
It is a priority to showcase the artists and their works on the international stage and to develop their presence in serious institutions and art foundations and to sustain an exchange with the academia.
Collaborations with museums like the Mac VAL in Paris or the MACAAL in Marrakech or private foundations like PRADA Foundation in Milan and Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris offered valuable platforms for the artists involved.
We dedicate a lot of energy and resources to art fairs, and they form an essential part of our strategy. We have been part of 1:54 since the beginning, and it has been going from strength to strength, thanks to the unmistakable contribution of Koyo Kouoh. We will be showing a strong selection of recent works in New York at 1:54 in May, and of course, again in London in October. We also look forward to collaborating again with Magnin-A on Paris Photo with stunning curated focus on Joburg artists.
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