Popular gig: Indigenous Xhosa music icon Madosini and music collective Found at Sea perform at Gallery University Stellenbosch. Picture: SUPPLIED
Popular gig: Indigenous Xhosa music icon Madosini and music collective Found at Sea perform at Gallery University Stellenbosch. Picture: SUPPLIED

Jazz first brought Valeria Geselev to Cape Town. Among its smoky spaces and low-lit jam sessions, the curator of Gallery University Stellenbosch (GUS) found kinship among the Mother City’s outsiders. She quit her job in Israel and decided to take a two-month trip to SA before deciding what to pursue next.

"This was around 2012. I had no idea where to begin, but randomly ended up in Observatory," recalls Geselev in her Soviet-Israeli accent.

"On my first day in Obs, I saw some interesting people on the street and I asked them where to hang out. They pointed me towards Tagore’s, a now defunct hotspot in the area for jazz aficionados and other cool cats.

"I ended up going every night. It was such a socially cohesive space of inspiration, and I recall lots of interesting late-night interactions ranging from culture to philosophy and politics."

An animated, galvanising and disarmingly cerebral character in real life, she took over in March 2017 from Greer Valley as curator of GUS, an off-campus extension of the visual arts department and fully supported by its management.

Even though it is not a traditional art gallery, she explains, Tagore’s and similar places in Cape Town have since become her inspiration as artist and curator. "I’m interested in the spaces that bring together those on the fringe, the weirdos and all the black sheep of their tribes."

The memorable first trip prompted Geselev to return six months later to enrol for an honours degree in curatorship at the University of Cape Town. The timing proved to be interesting, with the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements – strongly supported and documented by artists on the campus – starting to gain momentum.

"I’ve done research into historical and empirical evidence that demonstrates the political significance of jazz music and its context within SA’s resistance culture," Geselev says. "During apartheid, people of different races would come together – often having to hide and sneak in the process – in order to create or find jazz spaces in backyards and basements."

Its layered intuitions, freedom of movement and ability to facilitate conversation are all qualities of jazz she believes that can be transferred to (traditional) visual arts spaces in order to facilitate growth and change — including in Stellenbosch through her post at GUS.

"Jazz has the potential to make traditionally exclusive spaces accessible to all. It tells new kinds of stories. It helps expose the broader arts to a wider audience. That has been one of my main aims when considering new projects for this gallery," she says.

Based in an old church building on Dorp Street, GUS is described on its website as "a public multidisciplinary community centre, creating a space for sharing of knowledge, ideas and inspiration". In addition to its visual art exhibitions of students, it has hosted live music events, poetry sessions, lectures and discussions. Popular events have included appearances by Xhosa music icon Madosini and virtuoso pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar; a screening of José Cardoso’s In Die Stof Van Die Vlakte; and a lecture by anthropologist Fernando Rosa, entitled African Epistemology and Art as Knowledge in Senghor’s Thinking.

"Just like you would update your phone to the latest iOS or Windows release, one has to stay relevant in real life as well. That is a guiding principle for me as curator," Geselev says.

"SA is transforming at a slow pace. One only has to look at the demographics of audiences who go to traditional cultural venues such as galleries, theatres or concert halls to recognise that. My target audience is the kind of people you don’t often see [as the majority of attendees] at those spaces. I want to create the kind of venue where those who are younger, poorer and darker would feel comfortable."

Members of traditional audiences are, of course, still welcome. Especially those who are looking to help create a better, inclusive future society.

"I’ve had a fantastic few months in Stellenbosch so far, and have had the privilege of being involved in the showcasing of some exceptional artists and intellectuals. During my first month, for example, we hosted the launch of Koleka Putuma’s debut collection of poetry, Collective Amnesia. We were approached by InZync Poetry Sessions, who were looking for a launch venue in Stellenbosch — all I had to do was say yes."

In addition to music, a pop-up photography show and video screening, the launch included a conversation between Putuma and Uhuru Phalafala from Stellenbosch University’s English department. "Thanks to Dr Phalafala’s efforts, Collective Amnesia is now a prescribed textbook for second-year English students," says Geselev. "While we love our mutual safe spaces, it is also important for outsiders to continue to interact with traditional institutions. That is how you bring about change.

"GUS is in an interesting position in that, while still being independent, we also fall under the university. Therefore, facilitating conversations between different kinds of social spheres, without provoking resistance, is a crucial part of my mandate."

One of Geselev’s goals is to find self-sustaining ways of bringing diverse programming to a broader, nontraditional audience. To do this, the gallery will need to find a financial partner or develop some kind of regular source of income.

"Hopefully the body of work built up since GUS first opened its doors will help attract the kind of surprising, serendipitous results that only jazz music can bring. It is important that we continue to be the Stellenbosch outsider haven we’ve become."

On November 30, GUS will host a free jazz performance of Afrikan Freedom Principle, curated by Mandla Mlangeni

  • This article first appeared in Matieland magazine

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