It’s all white. Around a white table, seated on white chairs, a lively group are busy with their hands.
They are working at the Cape Town premises of the recently established A4 Arts Foundation, a new nonprofit that wants to change things in the art world.
The artists are enthusiastic despite the oddness of their endeavour. From white shards of porcelain crockery each person is making a strange construction, sticking pieces together into free-form minisculptures. They’re using glue, strings and tape. All white.
The walls are white, so is the floor and the shelves where more bits and pieces of broken cups and saucers are stacked.
It is a friendly space, the room has a big window, and the conversation is cheerful. The activity is a performative artwork by Yoko Ono. Yes, that Yoko Ono.
This is possibly the first time that an Ono artwork is in a public space in SA. The significance is more than a first-hand experience of the Fluxus-inspired artist — it also signals the A4 Arts Foundation’s international connections, and its aims of creative collaboration.
As an artwork, Mend Piece is a good fit for the first exhibition in the A4 gallery. You & I is a group show, focused on the dynamics of interactive and mutual art-making.
The foundation is housed in a sturdy 19th-century industrial building that had been used by one of the rag-a-tag cheap clothing outlets that clutter the edge of District Six on Buitenkant street. It is diagonally across from the Caledon Square Police Station, the District Six Museum is a block up and the Homecoming Centre and flourishing Fugard Theatre a block down. The cultural fit for a new public art space is seamless.
Behind the burnt orange wall and "A4" sign, a glass door leads into a small exhibition area, and beyond that to the library/ resource centre.
Free to the public, it functions as "a place to embed oneself into diverse material related to arts and culture".
The neutrality of white is everywhere inside. A utility staircase sweeps up to the gallery on the first floor. (There is also a lift.) Open and adaptable, no matter how you experience it, it conveys a sense of workmanlike anticipation. Exhibitions will run more or less quarterly.
The top floor is the closed space used for artists’ residencies, workshops and seminars. A nifty canteen kitchen, a covered outdoor section and small management offices spread out under the high roof.
On a bright, midweek day, off-the-street visitors are checking out the challenges of the zesty group exhibition, while the director of A4, Josh Ginsburg, gives the lowdown on the snazzy new asset for the Mother City. The 31-year-old is slight, his body language is charged and he formulates the foundation’s mission and objectives with forceful clarity.
We defined two needs. One for the preservation of contemporary artworks for local public benefit, and spaces for artists and public to interact, debate, share and imagine,
With a master’s in Fine Art from the University of Cape Town (he also has a BSc in engineering), Ginsburg became the curator of collector/patron Wendy Fisher’s South African holdings in 2012. Their discussions over the years led to the opening of this new creative culture space.
"We set the ball rolling in January 2015, starting A4 as a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to supporting local contemporary arts," Ginsburg says.
Concern about the city’s lack of public contemporary art collections, spaces for art projects, funding bodies and public programmes, motivated their quest. Although many perceive art as an activity for the intellectual or financial elite, they believe it can be an effective educational tool.
"We defined two needs. One for the preservation of contemporary artworks for local public benefit, and spaces for artists and public to interact, debate, share and imagine," he says.
The A4’s collection is driven by a view to offer it as an educational resource.
"We asked ourselves how would that be a productive, sensitive, appropriate contribution to cultural life in SA," he says.
Ginsburg is all too aware of the dynamics and politics that sometimes distort or overpower the local art world, the role of commercial gallerists, art fairs, institutions and status collectors. He is all too familiar with the distortive influence of big money. "For the collection, we acknowledged a need to support artists functioning within gallery infrastructure, as well as those that don’t fall within the commercial imperatives."
They spoke to many artists, collectors, patrons, arts administrators, writers, curators and dealers to get a feeling for what was needed. They examined existing infrastructure and institutional models abroad.
The result of the research is the concept of an artist-run project space, and an open laboratory of ideas and experiments. Flexible and adaptable, the site emphasises interdisciplinary exchange and educational programming.
"We want to develop collaborations with like-minded institutions locally and abroad through residencies, workshops, exhibitions and publications," Ginsburg says.
The name A4, he explains, is derived from "academy" (a space for critical thinking and learning), "archive" (preserve and share resources), "apparatus" (institution as equipment or tool to further artistic and cultural ends) and "access" (seek to widen art contacts).
Funding of the foundation is partly through the Kirsh Family Foundation, of which Fisher is president. This covers a third of operating costs; the rest has to be raised from private donors, corporates or foundations.
As one of the 20 artworks on You & I, the Yoko Ono installation rings especially potent in the light of A4’s mission.
Other collaborations include Luvuyo Nyawose and Brett Seiller’s audacious performance piece Reading Homophobia, the Gugulective’s Debt Trap and Haroon Gunn-Salie and James Matthews’ Amongst Men.
International artists include the American Glenn Ligon’s Give us a Poem, Meschac Gaba’s delightful manicure-inspired Venissage and a splendid short film by The Propeller Group, The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music.
Ono’s Mend Piece 1966-2015 is on loan from the Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Most of Ono’s art, inspired by the 1960-70s Fluxus interdisciplinary group of creatives calls for audience participation. A short Ono poem accompanies the artwork: "Mend with wisdom/mend with love./It will mend the earth/at the same time."
• You & I will run until January 2018.