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Sponsorship 13 February 2018

Gallery’s new curator sees the big picture

The bank partners with leading South African curators to present shows at its gallery.

The Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg has appointed artist, historian and writer Dr Same Mdluli as its new manager.

"I have always loved being surrounded by beautiful things and initially wanted to study architecture," she says.

"However, something about it seemed too restrictive, with too many rules. I opted for fine art as I thought I would be able to learn the same critical skills without the restrictions."

Born in Botswana and raised in the US (where one of her earliest memories is of a visit to the Baltimore Museum of Art as a child on an excursion with family friends), Mdluli matriculated from the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein in 2001. She completed a B-Tech in fine arts at the then Wits Technikon.

"I then did a teacher training course in art and culture," she says. "This allowed me to apply to schools as a teacher while practising as an artist. I was then offered a job as an arts administrator at the Goodman Gallery, which was opening a new Cape Town branch."

She returned to Johannesburg a year later to complete a master’s degree in arts and culture management with a focus on heritage studies. She also worked as a full-time art teacher at a primary school, which she describes as "one of the most fulfilling jobs I have ever done, but also very demanding and at times stressful".

This was followed by another job offer at the Goodman Gallery, this time in the Johannesburg branch. She later left the gallery to pursue a PhD in art history at Wits University, which she completed in 2015 and where she had been teaching as a sessional lecturer until her Standard Bank appointment.

"The university can be a daunting space, especially if it is a foreign and unfamiliar system of learning," she admits. "I learned how to be independent during this time and because I was studying a subject dominated by white students it meant being exceptional and not just meeting the requirements."

Although she officially began her new duties on the second day of the year, the Standard Bank Gallery programme is planned at least 18 months ahead, which means that much of her day-to-day work at this stage involves planning future exhibitions and maintaining stakeholder relationships.

"Different people draw on different things depending on their backgrounds and their understanding of art," she says. "Throughout my studies, I learned the skill of visual literacy and the language of art.

"While an understanding of art and art history is important, critical thinking skills on how art relates to other fields are more so," she says.

While visitor numbers at the gallery vary depending on the popularity of the exhibitions, with some international shows receiving far more attendees than local ones, Mdluli likes the fact that people "from young children to pensioners" come to appreciate the art.

The first exhibition for 2018 is titled “I am because you are: A search for Ubuntu” with permission to dream. It includes works by leading contemporary and modern South African artists including Diane Victor, William Kentridge, Gerard Sekoto, Robert Hodgins, Norman Catherine and Lisa Brice.

"The year marks the celebration of 21 years of one of the most admirable constitutions in the world and would have been Nelson Mandela’s centenary — hence the inclusion of Johannes Segogela’s Mandela’s Birthday Party," says curator Usha Seejarim. "As we acknowledge the arduous journey taken to arrive at this point in our history, it seems apt to use these milestones as a barometer to consider how we measure up."

The works come from the Standard Bank Corporate Art Collection, one of the most comprehensive repositories of South African art, comprising more than 1,200 works by over 250 South African artists. The bank partners with leading South African curators to present shows at its gallery.

"Often corporates collect art and assets but are not fully aware of its value and provenance," Mdluli says.

There will always be more urgent matters than art. What is important is to ask how art can contribute towards the improvement and betterment of these conditions.

"My knowledge and experience in the art industry allows me to make more informed decisions that benefit the bank and its interests in the sponsorship work it does."

While she does not have any favourite artists because this changes with where she is in her life and intellectual space, Mdluli has a few favourite galleries in the world. These include the Guggenheim, which she describes as "an architectural splendour in terms of art space". She also found the MuseéQuai Branly in Paris "overwhelming", like many museums in the French capital.

This year is about making the gallery and exhibitions more visible and accessible to wider audiences. Beyond this, Mdluli would like to expand the understanding of the valuing of contemporary South African and African art, because it is often seen as entertainment and not an investment.

"Art has extended to being more than just pictures on a wall," she says. "Art now informs the way in which we interact and engage with the world, all of which is based on how we look and perceive information.

"There will always be more urgent matters than art. What is important is to ask how art can contribute towards the improvement and betterment of these conditions."

Source: Business Day