Sam Nhlengethwa's 'Abstract in Orange and Blue'. He is one black artist whose works can fetch hundreds of thousands. Picture: James Fox
Sam Nhlengethwa's 'Abstract in Orange and Blue'. He is one black artist whose works can fetch hundreds of thousands. Picture: James Fox

The relationship between artists and galleries is one of interdependence. Artists need the backing of galleries to help their careers — and galleries without artists are just empty rooms. But these relationships are not always symbiotic: the scale often tips in favour of gallery owners.

In South Africa, an artist who can make a living from their art is rare — and it's even harder for black artists. When it comes to the names of acclaimed local artists, only a small number are black. Is this because there are no black artists, or is it because the art world is another industry that needs to be - to use a buzz word — decolonised?

A black artist who has worked within the gallery system and independently (and does not want to be named for fear of reprisal) says the business side of art often leaves black artists at a disadvantage. "Black visual artists ... find themselves in quite a precarious space, constantly negotiating between institutions that all but disregard them.

"From galleries to academia, the disregard is blatant, potent and too persistent. My experience and that of my contemporaries makes me believe this malignant environment will only get worse."

Last year, during the Black African Modernisms exhibition at the Wits Art Museum, Dr Same Mdluli, a black curator, claimed that the show's white chief curator, Professor Emeritus Anitra Nettleton, had sidelined the black curators involved in the project.

In a letter to City Press newspaper, Bongani Mahlangu, another of the show's curators, said only certain narratives of blackness were considered acceptable by white gatekeepers in the industry — often "depictions of black people in compromised scenes".

In a letter in City Press, Nettleton said she agreed with Mdluli and Mahlangu's "assessments of the unequal ways in which the art world is structured in South Africa in general", but felt their attack had been personal. "I actively continued to work to transform the history of art syllabus at Wits, and from there the secondary school syllabi, from being completely dominated by European art," she wrote.

Nettleton declined to comment further this week and Mdluli could not be reached.

The artist we spoke to said: "It is well noted how South Africa's first black visual arts elite were dictated to by the liberal white art consumer to work the way [whites] wanted. This phenomenon has no doubt mutated over the years into other, different forms."

There are some famous black artists. Abstract in Orange and Blue, by Sam Nhlengethwa, sold for just over R227,000 in 2016. Another recognisable name is that of Zwelethu Mthethwa: in 2011, six years before he was convicted of murder, his work A Woman with Angels sold for just over R245,000.

Gerard Sekoto's work does not fetch the prices white artists with a similar profile get. For example, the highest price paid at a Strauss & Co auction for one of his pieces was R3.1-million. Irma Stern's work sometimes reaches eight figures. Internationally, however, one of Sekoto's works sold for R6.7-million in London in 2011.

The artist we spoke to — the only one who agreed to comment — felt that black artists were undervalued. However, a lot of them were beginning to create their own spaces in which to control their narratives.

"These alternative spaces are not established to oppose, but rather to enhance our market, because these settings are an excellent testing ground where emerging artists can thrive creatively."

In a statement in response to the issues raised, the Goodman Gallery said: "We acknowledge that there is an undeniable cycle of white privilege and underrepresentation of black artists in the South African art world, and, much like many other sectors, a lingering and harrowing marginalisation."

The gallery opened 50 years ago as a space "where black and white artists could exhibit on the same platform, with the same rights, when the kind of prejudice we still see today was institutionalised and enforced". No accusation was made against the gallery — which said it "would never intentionally discriminate" or engage in tokenism.

Another gallery, the Stevenson, said in a statement that the art industry "operates within a society that has a lot of structural and systemic biases. It is true that different levels of privilege are encoded into everything and it's not a secret that there is a historical valorisation of some positions over others."

Fast Facts

Choosing the names to invest in: makes sure you like the piece

Works by South Africa's old masters are usually a safer bet to buy than unknown talent for those wanting a return on their investment.

Last month, a 1928 painting by one of those old names, JH Pierneef's Farm Jonkershoek with Twin Peaks Beyond, Stellenbosch, sold for R20.4-million - the second-highest amount paid for a painting at an auction in South Africa. The record belongs to Irma Stern's Two Arabs, sold for R21.1-million in 2011.

In its 2016 year in review, Strauss & Co said"painting remains the benchmark collectable for South African art collectors".

Other names whose works fetch top auction prices are Maggie Laubser, Alexis Preller, Robert Hodgins, Vladimir Tretchikoff and Stanley Pinker.

According to Henry Taylor of the Art Curator Gallery, which specialises in investment art, recognisable names are best if an investor is expecting an "immediate return" - in three to five years. "With young emerging artists, you will have a longer period of time to see their work escalate in price. [Whereas with] artists that have been around for a longer period of time, the value of their work can escalate 10% to 20% per annum," Taylor said.

Strauss & Co said works by Walter Battiss were a popular choice for entry-level buyers and seasoned collectors. Younger artists were Jessica Webster, Georgina Gratrix and Nelson Makamo.

Among the most successful of South Africa's living artists are William Kentridge, Norman Catherine and Penny Siopis.

So how does one start collecting for investment purposes?

Taylor recommends buying art that you will enjoy seeing on your own walls. "Art prices rise and fall, so if you buy something that you like, you'll be able to live with it through the lean years." 

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