How This South African Gallery Is Promoting Contemporary African Art

Stevenson Gallery, South African Art Galleries, African art, Contemporary Art, Sarah Browning-de Villiers
Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg
Serge Alain Nitegeka. Ode to Black II. 2017. Paint on wood. 172x244cm.
When a gallery’s focus is set firmly on its relationships with its artists, magic is made, and that’s the secret to how Stevenson gallery is contributing to the growing success of the African art market

Stevenson gallery in South Africa is unassuming: a grey wall and inset doorway on a busy street that cuts through the industrial neighbourhood of Woodstock, just outside of Cape Town’s CBD. It’s hard to imagine that inside are pieces by some of the continent’s most important contemporary artists. Further north, in Stevenson’s Johannesburg location, the gallery is equally understated—though this time situated in trendy Braamfontein, the same suburb as Constitution Hill. A former prison site, it’s where anti-Apartheid activists awaited trial, often finding the next leg of their journey to be to Cape Town’s Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent nearly 27 years of his life. Why is this important? Because it speaks to the heart of Stevenson: unassuming and unpretentious, yet committed to celebrating the continent, highlighting its formidable talent, and giving voice to its artists globally. It works the other way around too, with Stevenson bringing international artists like Francis Alÿs, Thomas Hirschhorn and Walid Raad to South Africa, often for the first time. “Stevenson is genuinely committed to the artists we represent and to bringing international artists rarely seen in South Africa to a local audience,” explains Alexander Richards, an associate director who joined the gallery in 2017.

Stevenson’s management is unusual: 11 directors sit at its helm. “The gallery is owned by a collective,” explains Joost Bosland, who joined Stevenson in 2005 and became a director in 2011. The result? “Always interrogating decisions from different angles and viewpoints, allowing for more critical debate, and questioning rather than a unilateral decision-making process,” says Richards. Not to mention an eclectic curatorial approach. “As a collective, our decisions are guided by the personalities, tastes, beliefs and quirks of 11 individuals,” agrees Bosland. “Stevenson is a place of ideas. We have a very active publication programme. We are one of the biggest art publishers in the region. As far as I know, we are the only gallery with a shelf of fiction in its library, where gallery staff and artists deposit and borrow books that have influenced their thinking.”

Stevenson Gallery

Viviane Sassen. Untitled from Roxane II. © Viviane Sassen

The calibre of pan-African artists Stevenson represents is impressive—especially when you consider the gallery was only founded in 2003. They include Edson Chagas, Meshac Gaba, Nicholas Hlobo, Mawande Ka Zenzile, Moshekwa Langa, Nandipha Mntambo, Zanele Muholi, Serge Alain Nitegeka, Odili Donald Odita and Viviane Sassen, to name a few. Many of their artists were included in the 2017 opening exhibition of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA). Several are now found in major international collections. Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art is owned in its entirety by Tate Modern, and Chagas’ Found Not Taken series won gold at the 55th Venice Biennale, as part of the Angolan Pavilion. The list of successes goes on.

Stevenson’s dual-focus approach—to provide an international platform for local artists and to expose their local audience to international artists—makes their involvement in carefully targeted fairs vital. “The fair that (still) matters above all others is Art Basel,” explains Bosland. “We’re proud to be part of its Galleries sector for the third year in a row. Our regional fairs are also close to our heart; in the past year we’ve done the Cape Town and Johannesburg art fairs, and Art x Lagos.” Those regional fairs are where new talent really gets its chance to be seen—and shine.

Stevenson Gallery

Odili Donald Odita. 2nd and 3rd Degree of Separation. 2015.

Yet does the gallery feel a responsibility to represent contemporary African art to the world? Bosland doesn’t believe so. “We don’t think we have any specific responsibility towards the art of our region—just like a gallery from Cologne is not responsible for the position of contemporary European art globally. Our responsibility is towards the 30-odd artists that we have long-term relationships with.” This no-fuss attitude characterises how the gallery approaches art sales, too. Mention the word ‘investment art’ and you’ll be met with alarm. “We avoid the word investment at all costs,” Bosland says firmly. “One should buy art because one is interested in the ideas, wants to live with the objects, and support the artist.” Richards echoes this sentiment: “Buy what you like; the real returns will be on your wall every day.” It’s a romantic notion—albeit one that does currently work.

After all, Stevenson’s portfolio of artists boasts both wide aesthetic appeal and names only growing in international prominence. So where to start? Bosland isn’t keen to choose: “It’s like asking a parent to pick their favourite child.” But when pushed, he acknowledges “purely in terms of external affirmation”, Kemang Wa Lehulere and Zanele Muholi as especially noteworthy, as well as Meshac Gaba. Richards adds to this list Serge Alain Nitegeka and Edson Chagas—though, like Bosland, he is loathe to highlight only a few when there is no shortage of incredible talent.

Stevenson Gallery

Viviane Sassen. Untitled from Roxane II. © Viviane Sassen

While the contemporary African art scene is enjoying the spotlight, what excites Stevenson the most is simply “the idea of a number of individual artists who happen to come from, or have close connections to, our part of the world. Long-term relationships with artists are at the core of everything we do.” It’s certainly a vision that’s serving Stevenson well. Stevenson.info

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Stevenson Gallery, South African Art Galleries, African art, Contemporary Art, Sarah Browning-de Villiers
Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg
Serge Alain Nitegeka. Ode to Black II. 2017. Paint on wood. 172x244cm.