Gallery Profile: First Floor Gallery
Founded in 2009, First Floor Gallery is the first artist-run gallery based in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe. It is a partnership between Marcus Gora, who runs the young, independent music label Afrimune Records, and Valerie Kabov, an educator, writer, and researcher currently pursuing a PhD in art history. The gallery is registered as a not-for-profit trust, with Gora and Kabov as trustees, and stands out as an institution dedicated to equipping artists with the skill set required to create in an environment free from ideological and commercial pressures. In this interview, we have a chat about the gallery, its thrust, and artistic legacy.
You established First Floor Gallery in 2009 with music manager Marcus Gora as the first artist-run space in Harare, Zimbabwe. What inspired this collaboration?
I don’t like to use the word “fate,” but I think sometimes you meet the right person at the right place at the right time and things happen. When we look back on it, to start a gallery two weeks after the first visit to a country seems like madness, but at the time it was one of those situations where you think, Let’s just go for it.
I came to Harare to visit a friend in November 2009. I was in the middle of my doctoral studies in art history at Sorbonne in Paris, and my friend in Harare organised for me to do a presentation at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe on the subject of my research. As soon as I arrived, I began doing research, visiting art schools, artists, and gallery spaces to try and understand the local context. What I realised was that there weren’t any artist-run initiatives designed to encourage experimentation and focus on practice development rather than sales. I met Marcus through my friend in Harare, and we had a lot of similar concerns for emerging creatives in Harare. His company had half a floor in an old building in the centre of Harare, and he just suggested that one of the rooms could be suitable for exhibitions, and that was actually the genesis—a visionary, altruistic gesture. The only intention at the time was—and still is—to support young artists struggling to achieve their full potential in very challenging circumstances.
What else sets First Floor Gallery apart from others?
To be honest, we are too focused on doing what we do to worry about how others do it. Our mission has remained the same from the start. We have called ourselves an artist-led organisation, because the question we have asked ourselves at every stage of development was, “What do these artists need to thrive at this time and in this place? “And we have shaped our strategy accordingly. Sometimes the answer is materials, sometimes educational resources, sometimes exhibition spaces, sometimes studio facilities, and so on. This is what guides our strategy. The other aspect of our practice is building up strong personal relationships with all the artists we work with—a family approach. Our work together is a strong partnership, not only between the artists and the gallery, but also between artists at the gallery themselves. We are all here to support each other and each other’s success. It is a commitment, so any new artist joining the gallery is a joint decision, and any challenge the gallery faces or any artist faces is solved together.
First Floor prides itself on its role of representing artists and providing access to international programmes with expert curators and scholars, while re-integrating them into the broader social fabric. Now, in your tenth year, how would you evaluate the gallery’s impact on contemporary art developments in Zimbabwe and Africa, and why?
First of all, thank you for noticing that it is ourtenth birthday this year. To be honest, we are surprised that this much time has passed. We started the gallery with no real ambition other than to help the artists in Harare in a small way, from a small room. In 2009, there was no international market interest in contemporary African art. There were no international art fairs specialising in art from the continent and no African country pavilions in Venice. All we had at the time was belief in the talent of the artists we wanted to support and the desire to see them succeed. Seriously speaking, it was and remains a huge privilege and joy to work with such crazy amazing talent and to have watched some of the artists we started with grow and develop as people and as artists of real importance, with major careers. It is a real gift. Speaking for myself, I believe artists—rather than galleries or curators or museums or art critics—write art history. So, we are only as successful as the artists whom we work with and support.
Working so intensely in the here and now, it is difficult to assess our impact. From a very tiny space, a decade later, we are one of the most established international emerging art galleries on the continent. This would have been impossible to imagine at the time. Yet, we still believe that we have a lot of things to do and achieve for our artists in Harare and beyond before we say, “Yes, we have had impact.” Our hope was always to encourage other spaces and galleries to emerge and to show that you don’t need a lot of money or funding or rich parents or backers to do something. Our model of resource sharing, good will, and cooperation can and does work, and we know that people have been looking at our work and following our example. We have always wanted to share our experience and to support the growth of the art sectors not just in Zimbabwe but also elsewhere in Africa. This is why we created the Emerging African Art Galleries Association in 2016.
Promoting experimental work and politically conscious work presents many problems, considering that many collectors find political allegory offensive. How are you able to encourage your artists who may be creating less collectible works, considering that many African governments are grappling with basic infrastructural needs and offer little support to the visual arts?
You raise several important questions here. First of all, our primary mission was always to provide space for experimentation and practice development. Interestingly, however, we have found that in the Zimbabwean experience, it was this experimental and conceptual work that achieved success with international collectors. The Zimbabwean government, like other governments on the continent, is not in a position to prioritise the arts sector financially, which is why spaces like ours are critical to the development of independent artistic practices. Local collectors in Zimbabwe are starting to come on board with that. Many Zimbabwean artists are already internationally established, so in many ways, the collectors—who are just arriving on the scene—need to play catch up, rather than influencing the art produced by the artists.
Julio Rizhi Symphonic Dystopic Part 1 2019, molten plastic 200cm x 140cm x 30cm
Please tell us a bit about some of the challenges you’ve faced since beginning operations, and what marked changes have occurred on the art scene compared to other locations like South Africa and Nigeria?
Our experience is quite different to South Africa and Nigeria, as we opened doors at a time when Zimbabwe was emerging from a period of international isolation and hyper-inflation, with a lot of art infrastructure heavily under-resourced, with a tiny local market and little exposure to the international art community. A lot of what we did at the start was to address what was missing in our environment to the extent that it was having an impact on the ability of artists to make work, develop their practice, and engage with their peers and colleagues internationally. In many ways, this continues to be the bulk of our work and the bulk of our challenge.
What has changed is our ability to engage internationally and our visibility and our ability to deliver opportunities and support for our artists faster and more effectively. The international art world interest in African contemporary art has created numerous opportunities for exhibition projects and participation in exhibition projects, engagement with international institutions and connections with collectors and supporters from far and wide in ways that was not imaginable a decade ago. Part of this is the effort that we have put towards developing international connections on the continent and beyond, as well as press engagement and a strong social media strategy.
How would you describe the typical collector in Zimbabwe, and how have taste and changing collecting habits influenced stylistic trends in contemporary art in Zimbabwe?
It is very difficult to speak about a typical collector in Zimbabwe, because our art sector and the Zimbabwean collector base are still works in progress. You have to remember that Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, much later than Nigeria and Ghana and Kenya, so our middle class is much younger and less established. In my experience, from studying the art market, these things are correlated. What we focused on as a gallery is developing our gallery space as a welcome environment that enables education and social engagement, allows people to learn about contemporary art, to develop relationships with art and artists, and to develop a long-term view of collaboration. We have always believed that the market should follow rather than lead. One of our mottos is “dance like no one is watching.” That is to say, make the kind of art you really believe in and want to make, rather than trying to imagine what people will want to buy. “Build it and they will come.”
The only thing that we have worked on with an eye to the collectors is improving the production values of the artists’ work, making sure that everything is made with archival quality materials, that works don’t fall apart, can be installed, and so on—the boring logistic bits that artists don’t always consider when making work.
Your phrase, “What If Art Really Was for Everyone?” alludes to an elitist attribute. Can you kindly expatiate on your thinking?
That phrase comes from my belief that art really is and always was for everyone. You don’t need to make art specifically for broad audiences. What needs to be done is for broader audiences to have access to great art and to stop self-censoring. Our gallery has pushed back very hard against elitism in art reception and access. We have always insisted that our space be downtown and open to everyone, not in any exclusive, leafy suburb. We have also made a point of inviting people from all walks of life to exhibition openings and to our space in general. We don’t have any elite guests of honour at our openings. Rather, the artists are the guests of honour, and we ask the artists to invite their families and friends. For many of them, it is the first time to be at their child’s or relative’s exhibition. Drinks and snacks are always free, and people who visit from outside Harare always comment on how egalitarian, open, and fun our openings are.
Helen Teede The Tale of Great Ruins (Diptych), 2018 oil on canvas 197cm x 220cm
In April 2012, First Floor Gallery received funding from Arts Collaboratory to support infrastructure and the education objectives of the gallery. How important are these kinds of collaborations to running a gallery business?
As an organisation, we have always aimed to be self-sufficient, but in those early days, that grant was important as seed funding on many levels, because it enabled us to open our first professional space and invest more in ambitious projects and our artists’ practices, which enabled us to progress towards greater independence. Unlike many organisations in the arts, who focus on project funding, we have always viewed grants as investment in our growth and development, with a view to achieving full independence from grants. This means that we have only collaborated with partners who understand and share our objectives. We don’t compromise on our execution strategy. As a result, we have worked with only a small number of funders and, increasingly, on non-core practice projects. We are very grateful for the open-minded and straight-forward collaboration we have had with The African Arts Trust and Pro Helvetia (among others), who treat us as peers and respect our practice.
The gallery is conscious of art’s function in social engagement and urban renewal, as evidenced by the 2011 Mbare Kutapira exhibition staged in a ghetto area. What reform did this constitute?
As we mentioned before, democratisation of art through access has been a priority for us from the start and remains so. We believe, however, that art creates a space for social engagement, which is in itself unique. More than that, our artists are all part of the communities where they live and have become role models in their own right. In our context, the very idea that art can be a profession and that an organisation can succeed through mutual support and collaboration creates an important paradigm shift at a time of hyper-individualism and every-man-for-himself attitudes.
You recently facilitated the creation of the Emerging Galleries Association. Please tell us about the initiative and what you hope to achieve.
We started thinking about a collaborative network because of art fairs. There are only a small number of internationally active galleries on the continent, and we are usually one or one of a handful in our own countries, unlike our South African or Western counterparts. Many of our challenges are similar in our domestic environments, and many of us often don’t have colleagues to call on for advice or know-how of the international art market, which has become so important over the past few years.
Since we are by now one of the older galleries and have been going to art fairs since 2012, we realised that we were in a position to share knowledge and support others. We also felt that, as smaller galleries, collective bargaining can deliver advantages vis-à-vis art fair participation and cost-saving solutions, such as collaborative shipping, joint booths, and other resource sharing that will enhance our ability to compete with larger galleries with bigger market access and more resources. We could also create opportunities we could not achieve alone.
Wycliffe Mundopa, No Fear of Falling, 2019. Oil on canvas, 210 x 350cm
First Floor Gallery has participated in such major art events as the London Art Fair, Swab Barcelonaand1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. How have these shaped the perception of African art on a global scale?
Whenever you take part in an international art fair as an African gallery, you are an ambassador for your country. It is inevitable, given how ignorant most people are about the continent in general and about our countries in particular. Art fairs are part of that educational effort. As you might know, I have been writing extensively for Art Africa Magazine for the past few years on issues relevant to African contemporary art. And we have been collaborating on independent exhibition projects, such as Right at the Equator at the Depart Foundation in Los Angeles. We have also supported our artists going to international events such as RAW academy in Dakar. One of our video artists is part of a residency in Munich. As we say, “Every little bit helps”. Increasingly, we feel that what is more important is for people to come and see for themselves. We have made it our priority to invite people to come and visit us in Harare over the past couple of years, and the results are surprising and important. There is no substitute for personal experience and seeing art in the context of where it is made. We are also pretty tired of always having to meet Europeans on their own turf. It is time to reverse the balance of power and visibility, really. If we as Africans are serious about making our art significant, then we must make it significant here on the continent and bring our weight to bear to shift the centres of power away from the former colonial centres. We owe that to ourselves, our artists, and the future of our culture. This is our priority going forward.
April 16, 2021
April 16, 2021