Gallery Profile: Goodman Gallery
Goodman Gallery is one of the most prestigious international contemporary art galleries. Established in Johannesburg in 1966, the gallery works with contemporary artists who influence and strive to shift perspectives and engender social transformation.
Founded during the era of apartheid, Goodman Gallery offered a non-discriminatory space when museums served the agenda of the autocratic government. Since 2008, under the directorship of Liza Essers, the gallery has expanded on this legacy, shifted its focus, and introduced numerous pivotal curatorial initiatives and partnerships. Essers has promoted a global outlook, while initiating unconventional interventions both within and outside of the traditional gallery space. This approach has dovetailed with an incisive three-tiered focus: working with southern Africa’s most significant artists, both established and emerging; those from the greater African continent; and international artists who engage in a dialogue with the African context. Currently, Goodman Galley is based in Johannesburg and Cape Town. In this interview with Omenka, Liza Essers talks about the gallery, journey so far, ongoing projects and plans for the future.
Please tell us a bit about your background.
I began my career in the commercial and financial sector of South Africa, receiving a Bachelor of Commerce in economics and working as a strategic consultant for the leading global professional services company Accenture, as well as in private equity. I began my journey into the art world by working as an independent art advisor and curator specialising in the conceptualisation, development and production of visual art and film projects. In that time, I also served as co-executive producer of the South African film, Tsotsi (2005), which was the first African film to win an Academy Award (Best Foreign Language Picture, 2006). But Hollywood wasn’t really for me, and I found myself unfulfilled. So, I made a decision to focus on contemporary art, and only focus on projects that feed my soul in some way, which is how I ended up as owner and director of Goodman Gallery.
In 2008, you acquired Goodman Gallery from Linda Givon, who established the gallery in 1966. Since then, you have expanded on its legacy, shifted focus while introducing several pivotal curatorial initiatives and partnerships. In this short period, why were these directional changes necessary, and how would you evaluate your success so far?
One of my priorities in taking over Goodman Gallery was to give it a more global outlook. I wanted to do this while also avoiding being pigeonholed as an African contemporary art gallery. It’s great that there is huge interest in art from the continent right now but Africa is often seen as ‘fashionable,’ which makes all this hype not necessarily sustainable. It is more important that we build long-term critical conversations, and that’s why we’ve created curatorial initiatives such as South-South and In Context. It is about incorporating the African voice into international art history. Obviously, we have South African and African art history, but those are chapters. There is only art history ultimately and this is what we are focused on. In terms of success, since taking over from Linda Givon, I have brought 26 new artists into the gallery, who very much represent this vision. This includes artists such as Candice Breitz, Kapwani Kiwanga, Grada Kilomba, and Shirin Neshat. I’ve also increased the number of women artists on our roster from three to address the other pressing need to correct gender imbalances in the art world and beyond.
You have participated in many major international contemporary art fairs, building on Goodman Gallery’s already established name. What portion of your business is driven through them, and how relevant are permanent physical spaces today, considering the proliferation of art fairs?
We dedicate a huge portion of our business towards participating in all major international art fairs. Alongside one or two other South African galleries, we are the only ones to consistently take part in these events. The fairs are very expensive but for us the benefit comes in being able to platform our artists and give them international exposure. In terms of the gallery’s ongoing relevance, there is a lot of debate around how fairs are affecting the art world. On the one hand, many people feel like there are simply too many fairs on the calendar and not enough galleries are able to participate due to the prohibitively expensive barriers to entry. Many also believe there will be a consolidation of fairs in the future, so that there are fewer in number. Another trend which is already happening is that there will increasingly be a focus on curation of fairs, offering a more valuable cultural experience that encourages attendance. For me this idea of quality over quantity is critical to the continued relevance of the physical gallery space. I believe as long as galleries pay attention to the curation of their programmes, they will remain relevant and best suited to represent the interest of artists. This intellectual support comes in many forms from publishing incisive catalogues to providing curatorial support for artists to explore ideas and receive critical feedback that contributes to the growth of their practice and collector interest. Finding this balance is critical to our gallery.
In 2012, you exhibited a controversial painting The Spear, by South African artist Brett Murray, which depicted Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s then president, in a heroic pose with exposed genitals. With increasing globalisation, how relevant are contemporary African artists today in not only holding their leaders accountable for their misdeeds but also in engaging critical socio-political issues?
The controversy around The Spear saga gave me an opportunity to reflect on what freedom of expression means. At the time it was clear that we had to fight for our constitutional right to freedom of expression. But going through the whole process, it became clear that with freedom of expression came the important aspect of responsibility that comes with exercising that right. The idea of transformation, perpetual change, radical ideas and shifting perceptions and histories is central to what I view as both Goodman Gallery’s and more broadly contemporary art’s mission.
The gallery represents artists who have helped shape the landscape of contemporary art in southern Africa, while working with already eminent younger artists. What is your curatorial thrust and how do you go about discovering and selecting artists?
I have sought out artists at the cutting-edge of contemporary art practice, many with feminist and post-colonial concerns in their work. As a result, our gallery’s roster has organically grown to include more women and international artists of colour. This reflects our curatorial direction, as well as a broader trend in the art world to create more space for previously marginalised voices. Our artists come from across Africa, the Middle East, the United States (mainly New York) and parts of Europe including the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Many, but not all, of these artists have ancestral roots in Africa and could be classified as Diasporic artists as these ties strongly influence their practices. This applies to recent recruits to the stable, such as Yinka Shonibare, ruby onyinyechi amanze and Kiluanji Kia Henda but also to artists like Hank Willis Thomas who we’ve represented for a few years. Some of these artists are emerging, some are more established. What matters to me is whether the artist is taking the conversation forward on a local and global scale.
Currently, Options, Nolan Oswald Dennis’ second solo exhibition is showing at your space. Consisting of a new series of drawings, diagrams and systems, the exhibition presents work synonymous with its title. please tell us more about it and how the reception has been.
Nolan is one of the fastest rising talents in South Africa. He recently received his Masters in art, science and technology from MIT, and his work is engaged in critical conversations around uncovering the hidden structures of our social and political framework. The urgency and relevance of this work is reflected in the fact that Nolan has received an extremely encouraging response to his exhibition. From the steady stream of visitors to the gallery to reviews from some of the country’s top cultural critics, the verdict has been overwhelmingly positive.
Goodman Gallery recently concluded the 3rd edition of South South: Between Land and Sea, a programme of exhibitions, films, public discussions and adjacent projects realised across Johannesburg and Cape Town. Kindly enlighten us about this project, including the inspiration behind it.
A big commitment of our gallery is taking part in a global conversation surrounding the existence and possibility of a more interconnected ‘Global South’. This is reflected in our ongoing South-South initiative, which I introduced to our programme in 2015. At this moment in history, with the notion of ‘global communities’ clashing with populist rhetoric, I am interested in exploring ideas around the ‘Global South’ as a problematic but restorative concept. Our third edition of South-South, titled Between Land and Sea brought the work of Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto to South Africa for the first time. Neto’s combination of immersive play and meditative healing brought something new to the local scene and enriched the conversation between South Africa and South America in the arts. And in Cape Town, we held a solo exhibition of new work by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, which was inspired by a trip he took to Robben Island several years ago. The work considered the significance of symbolic sites for reconciliation and provided a valuable space for reflection.
How would you react to criticism that Africa-focused art fairs like 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair and the Also Known As Africa (AKAA) are “ghettoising” art from the continent?
It’s very important that while we help encourage the global interest in art from the African continent we also make this a sustainable trend. To do this it is vital that we help foster a culture of collecting among Africans who can sustain their own market. We’ve just returned from a great trip to Morocco for 1-54, where we interacted with collectors from all around the world. I think the fact that a fair such as 1-54 is helping foster this connection somewhat counters these sorts of criticisms.
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