South African gallery owner Liza Essers, director of Goodman Gallery, with branches in Johannesburg and Cape Town, has a pioneering history. In 2005, at the age of 31, she was an executive co-producer of the feature film Tsotsi, directed by Gavin Hood, the first African film to win an Oscar (Best Foreign Film, 2006). At 34, he bought the Goodman Gallery, which was already among the two most powerful galleries in South Africa, founded in 1966 by a female gallery owner, and since then a platform for exhibiting black artists, even under Apartheid.
As a young gallery owner, Essers inherited a lineup of established South African artists, such as William Kentridge, and set herself the goal of correcting the shortage of women in the Goodman portfolio, bringing African and international artists such as Grada Kilomba, Kapwani Kiwanga Shirin Neshat and Candice Breitz to the forefront. The collaborative spirit that she impressed to her management gave rise to prominent institutional partnerships on the local scene, such as the one established with CCA Lagos (Center for Contemporary Art Lagos).
A year after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Liza Essers launches the SOUTH SOUTH platform, which she defines as an online community, dedicated to the art of the Global South and its diaspora. In an interview to seLecT, she explains why this initiative was only possible after “a seismic shift in people’s perceptions, not just in response to the pandemic but also due to the political turbulence which has prompted a new awareness of the bias of Western perspectives”.
To paraphrase the question that gave the title to one of the Think Thank tables at the platform’s first sales event: Who is it all for?
Liza Essers: SOUTH SOUTH is holistic in its ambitions. Our aim is to cultivate an already rich arts ecology and give it the much-needed support and resources to help it grow, benefiting the entire artistic ecosystem of artists, galleries, curators, not-for-profits, collectors and also for students and arts education. Furthermore, in seeking to address a historic imbalance in the artworld framework and increase the world’s consciousness of art from across the global south and its diaspora, SOUTH SOUTH introduces collectors and audiences to a rich fulcrum of artistic production they would otherwise not have access to.
What is the difference for a traditional art fair?
An art fair traditionally is a week-long physical event, whereas SOUTH SOUTH is something very different: it is a year-round platform, a forum for artists, galleries, collectors and curators to come together, and a space for new, shared value systems centred on community, collaboration and exchange. This will be realised through a variety of events and initiatives that will seek to activate our already strong network to help de-center the art market by foregrounding the work of galleries operating outside of the dominant centres.
Its inaugural event SOUTH SOUTH VEZA, a hybrid selling event that encompasses OVRs from over 50 galleries with a live auction and a curated exhibition and Talks and Film programme, is just the first of a variety of events and initiatives that will activate our already strong network to help de-center the art market by foregrounding the work of galleries operating outside of the dominant centres. No other peer-led platform exists with the same depth of research, archive, editorial and ambition.
This is clearly an answer to the times in which we live. Would such a platform be possible in a pre-pandemic world?
Good question! I don’t think it would have been possible to have realised SOUTH SOUTH on such a scale in a pre-pandemic world; there were so many other distractions and demands in terms of travel and trying to keep all the balls in the air.
You are absolutely right that SOUTH SOUTH responds to an acute need. Before the pandemic, around 70% of income for many galleries from the Global South came from fairs, and not being able to travel has made many very vulnerable. Yet in some ways the pandemic has also brought the world closer, making innovation both necessary and possible. With the crisis, there is also an opportunity, in which innovation becomes both necessary and possible.
This past year has seen a seismic shift in people’s perceptions, not just in response to the pandemic but also due to the political turbulence which has prompted a new awareness of the bias of Western perspectives. Possibly more than ever, public awareness is bringing people together in solidarity and has created an opportunity for a profound re-evaluation of where and how culture is produced and appreciated.
Why did you choose the auction format to open the event?
The use of auction technology is to innovate the OVR model and bring more direct activity in the online market for primary market sales and build a dynamic forum, one which is tailored to primary galleries needs. We are dedicated to increasing the visibility of art from the global south, so the live sale was open to everyone and gives access to audiences and collectors from all over the world.
Which balance do you make from the sales results of this first event?
SOUTH SOUTH’S auction is tailored to the needs of the galleries and artists, while realising much-needed funds for the Not-for-profit partners. Our aim is to create a sales event that is responsible for an artist’s career — in a way that the primary market sales of auction houses are not — and so for this reason we not publishing the results.
The auction has been a way to trigger sales and create an impetus and recreate the energy of a vernissage at a fair. It successfully achieved this for a number of artworks and had collectors registering from Africa, Asia, Australia, EU, Latin America and North America. It resulted in galleries being able to develop new relationships with the buyers and underbidders for their work and galleries that ordinarily made no sales at Frieze and Basel were able through this innovative model to make sales before the OVRs had opened.
Why do digital sales platforms have the potential to create a more inclusive market?
For the simple fact that they are more accessible — both for exhibitors and for audiences. For instance, at VEZA we are able to convene more than 50 galleries that have come from over 30 cities from all across the world and to support younger galleries that would not have the means to exhibit in a traditional fair.
Many of the SOUTH SOUTH galleries have already exhibited at the main fairs. The main difference now is that they are unable to travel due to Covid-19 restrictions and increased associated costs (and flight uncertainty, etc.). Marfa, from Beirut, is dealing with the additional issue of the explosion of the docks; Housing is focused on mutual aid and supporting protest actions, and OH is a very new venture!
Digital sales platforms have the potential to be more geographically democratic. For the longest time, the Global South has been ‘regionalised’ by the art market and the art world. By creating an online platform that is innovative and inclusive, and which is powered by collaboration and community, there is, at last, the possibility to disrupt existing hierarchies.