Michael Stevenson on an extraordinary chapter in South African art

In conversation with the notoriously media-shy gallerist who has been instrumental in placing South African contemporary art squarely on the map.

Julile I, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2016
From the series Somnyama Ngonyama by Zanele Muholi, one of the internationally renowned South African artists that Stevenson represents.

When I meet Michael Stevenson, the director of one of SA’s leading contemporary galleries is wearing shorts and flip-flops. Incense is drifting through his office’s open doors into a courtyard at the back of his Woodstock HQ. We are a world away from New York’s glittering art world – he’s just returned after a packed schedule of meetings with its movers and shakers.

Stevenson’s eponymous gallery, which he owns with five other directors, is celebrating ten years. Having dealt in mostly 19th and 20th Century South African pieces but long been interested in contemporary art, he was inspired by the “politicised aesthetic” of the 2002 documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, and realised, he says, “there is a place for the periphery” – the geographic, social and artistic edge which SA occupies.

His first contemporary art gallery opened its doors in De Waterkant in 2003. Once the boutiques had replaced the panel beaters and the neighbourhood’s grit had been airbrushed clear, he moved to a significantly larger building in edgier Woodstock. “It was a very ambitious space to be in five years ago but it’s proved to be absolutely integral to how the gallery has evolved,” he says.

Today the gallery represents 31 artists. “It’s grown faster than anything I could have anticipated,” he says. He attributes this partly to the “incredible depth, experience and commitment” of the gallery’s six partners.

He also stresses the gallery’s curatorial emphasis on SA’s “extraordinary photography”, which has coincided with an intensifying interest internationally in the medium as a fine art form.  Representing sharpshooters such as Pieter Hugo, Zanele Muholi and others “has opened many doors” overseas, he says.

Stevenson has also reaped the rewards of its commitment to publishing, producing 70 catalogues and 50 books over the past decade (roughly one publication a month).

“I’ve always had a deep interest in publishing. It makes no commercial sense in terms of the direct [result] but in terms of what it’s done for awareness of the gallery and the artists it’s been phenomenal,” he says. “Most people in the world don’t see the shows and so their only way of mediating what’s happening is through those catalogues and books.” Catalogues are sent to international collectors and curators; he sometimes sees them lying around in offices years later. 

With the bulk of the gallery’s sales being international, Stevenson attends the four major international art fairs each year – Frieze in London and New York, and Art Basel (both the Swiss original and its Miami Beach sibling). The response at the last year’s inaugural New York Frieze was “spectacular” – the single piece Stevenson showed (by Nicholas Hlobo) was snapped up by the Paris-based Louis Vuitton Foundation.

“The world is changing fast – the periphery is no longer so marginal,” Stevenson says. He feels that as the new SA becomes less new, so the world’s fascination with the sociological experiment of its constitutional democracy (which has often also served as inspiration for its artists) has weakened. But there’s also been a shift from the way international collectors view SA work, he feels. The old, “patronising” expectations that the work be intrinsically defined by the country’s politics and the artist’s identity, are crumbling. Instead, South African work has become increasingly coveted in the US and elsewhere on the basis that it is part of a broader, global conversation, with aesthetics that are slowly breaking the insular mould which solidified around SA’s apartheid isolation.

As the burdens of identity and political expression lessen, artists such as abstract painter Zander Blom are feeling more at liberty to negotiate the meaning of shape, space and colour in a modernist tussle that never really occurred during the upheaval and urgency of SA’s past. Even in photography, there has been a steady shift away from the emphasis of the subject to exploring ways of seeing – Stevenson cites Guy Tillim’s Libreville series as asking questions like “What is space, what is perception?” instead of it simply stating, “This is Africa.”

Global interest is coalescing around a younger generation artists – such as Kemang Wa Leuhulere, Dineo Seshee Bopape and Zanele Muholi. Indeed, Muholi’s work has been sold to the Guggenheim, MoMA and Yale University.

Although sales from Stevenson’s Joburg outpost (which opened in 2008) represent only a fraction of the gallery’s business, Stevenson sees having a gallery in the City of Gold as essential. “There’s the most incredible art coming out of Johannesburg at the moment. That’s where the creative pulse is,” he says. “We’re witnessing an extraordinary chapter in South African art history at the moment.”

An edited version of this article was first published in Wanted magazine’s May 2013 edition.

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