By Esihle Mngini
It’s time for the gallery space in South Africa to transform according to the needs of artists and viewers. To make it an accessible space that isn’t confined by four walls. To become a place where talent opens doors, and class and wealth aren’t considerations. There have been several advances in the right direction, most notably the Anton Smit open-air sculpture display, which is spread out over the Century City precinct in Cape Town, as well as the contemporary part-outdoor exhibition by The Spier Art Collection among others.
With concepts such as outdoor exhibitions, artists and curators are able to take art out of the walls of galleries and museums, and make it easier for their work to be accessible and gain exposure. By breaking down formal ways of exhibition-making, outdoor exhibitions catalyse the dismantling of long-standing barriers of inaccessibility. This form of showcasing increases the opportunity of where artists and curators showcase their work. It allows them to use ordinary outdoor spaces as functional spaces that showcase art.
In a collectively published book titled, Going Public: Creating Visibility in the Field of Art, Professor of Contemporary Art and Cultural Analysis, Sigrid Adorf, art historian Sonke Gau, and researcher Basil Roger, from Zurich University of the Arts, hinge on the idea of art practitioners making their work widely accessible and this being a political and communal act. Their assertion is that there are many ways to go public in art – that is to say, there are many ways for artists to make their work accessible and gain exposure. “It is only through making artworks public that they become accessible to audiences”, which in relation to outdoor exhibitions is achievable.
For instance, looking at the ongoing exhibition by curator and founder of Under the Aegis, Anelisa Mangcu, titled Freedom, I dream up for myself and others, one begins to witness the success of outdoor exhibitions and the effect that they have. In a collaboration with the Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust, Mangcu uses buildings and walls in the town of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape as a canvas to expose “the subtleties of our dreams and how we view the world” through the medium of photography. This canvas can be seen by artists and curators as a template for making their own art accessible. This form of showcasing not only enables artists/curators to get their work out there, but also to get people to engage with the work at an even greater scale.
Similar sentiments can be shared about independent art practitioner and artist Nqaba Shakes Mbolekwana’s work, which is situated at the entrance of the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. His showcase actualises its form through billboards with immersive photographs, reflecting on the political and economic hangover that is hovering over in present-day South Africa. More than just fleeting encounters, this genre of exhibition-making transcends the gallery walls, leaving an indelible mark on the collective consciousness of people.
The accessibility of art is imperative, not only to artists but the public as well, who observe art; as visual narratives can resonate deeply with the masses. It’s also significant to highlight that for many South Africans growing up, art is often not prioritized. Due to underfunding in schools, some pupils never have the opportunity to study art in their primary scholastic years. Art galleries and museums can feel daunting and unwelcoming to individuals who’ve never been there and/or exposed to those kind of spaces. However, when people witness artworks in common places like buildings and paveways, they’re able to see and resonate with themselves and their past, present, or even imaginative realities. Much like through Mangcu’s work, individuals can relate what freedom and dreams mean to them, not only from a far-fetched point of view but at face value. While with Mbolekwana’s work, they can go through “healing and an emancipation process”, all outside the confines of gallery walls.
As outdoor exhibitions continue to push the boundaries of what constitutes exhibition-making, they beckon both artists and observers, to embrace the open, outdoor space as a new frontier of artistic expression. In the same vein, they destroy the idea of art belonging in hyper-exclusive spaces where artists find it inaccessible and hard to showcase. Outdoor exhibitions have an allure which lies in the vast reach and unprecedented exposure that they offer. Placing masterpieces at the heart of bustling cities, away from the confines of conventional galleries, artists embrace the accessibility and opportunity for their work to be engaged by diverse and larger audiences.
This story is made possible by the Arts Story Incubator programme of Breinstorm Brand Architects, in collaboration with Klyntji and IQOQO. It is funded by a PESP-3 grant that is supported by BASA and the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture.