A Black Girl Walks Into An Art Gallery …

Art fills my belly with appreciation, something many black kids never get to say in their lifetime because of Art being portrayed as juvenile crayon ‘pretty pictures’ that amuse idle minds. Slowly, the Arts or any form of artistic subject is being pushed out of school curriculums as a newborn baby entering this world during labour, an overwhelming experience.

Growing up in a black home and attending a Model-C school, I asked my authoritarian Zulu mother if I could enroll in ballet classes for I wanted to resemble the pretty white girls. I too wanted to have a bun in my hair and wear a pink leotard with matching pink ballet shoes. “Maths is more important than ballet”, was my mother’s response and to her, pooling money for extra Maths classes to boost my plummeting Maths marks was a priority over perfectly turned out battement tendus at the barre. My mother could not risk for me to be labelled as ‘that uneducated daughter’ by family members who devoured envy for breakfast. For many black families, the Arts is an elitist concept and is not a priority because the ribbon of ‘trying to make it’ is wrapped around us like a tightened bow. It is no doubt survival trumps Art.

On 10 September 2016, I had the privilege of going to the FNB Joburg Art Fair to witness and experience stories as represented by select artists, some of which are from East Africa. Upon my walkabout, my friend and I had the opportunity to speak to Mbongeni Buthelezi, a South African artist whose work is created from melted plastics such as cool drink buddy bottles, 6-pack plastics and other forms of discarded plastic materials. He owns a studio in Pretoria where he exhibits and sells his work.

One of the topics that came up in our tête-à-tête is how inaccessible local artwork is to those who want to support black artists. How do I start collecting an original by Nelson Makamo because of my intoxicating love affair with his work? How does Art become accessible to me without having to stoop to the shameful stereotypical question of “Bhuti, can I have a discount?” Is there an option for payment terms on original Art pieces? Lay-bye, maybe? (Asking for my friend)

Mbongeni affirms he understands where the frustrations of my friend and I come from. He elaborates that a change needs to happen where Government, Art Galleries and Artists need to collaborate in better ways. In order for an Artist to develop a loyal following, they set the price for their work at X amount knowing that the people who have bought from them before can afford it. The reality is, galleries need to make a profit and the only way to do so is to increase the original price set by the artist even higher. How much ownership does the artist have in this regard?

Much to the stereotypes, as a black person, I frequent art galleries and know a few black people who do the same out of their own accord. They do so for their appreciation of Art and the notion of seeing more black artist representations in big galleries. The works of Nelson Makamo, Zanele Muholi, Omar Victor Diop, Mbongeni Buthelezi, Kudzanai Chiurai, Lady Skollie, Tony Gum, Mawande ka Zenzile and many more are a searing reminder of the unattainable. There, but not quite there for me to own. I have experienced many times before, walking into an art gallery and being addressed by the “can-you-even-afford-this-work?” stare, as if I got lost and tripped into the gallery by mistake looking for the lavatories. It is that look that tightens my wrapped ribbon and ‘trying to make it’ forcefully moves in to rent space in the corners my mind. The fire to disprove that stare burns even more.

I will be visiting Mbongeni’s studio in Pretoria because it is vital for Art to be placed on the same level as Maths and Science. It is vital for more black artists to be supported and for these conversations to succinctly dangle from their ears. The beauty of diversity is not everyone is created to be a mathematician or a scientist. We need more black artists who can solve problems creatively, weave out-of-the-box perspectives, and document life in ways that serve as a catalyst to critical thought because Africa and black people are more than poverty and disease.

Writer: Mbali Zondo