Artists in commune

2012-08-05 08:59
Percy Mabandu
Percy Mabandu visits Newtown’s new artist-run centre and ponders the impact of artist collectives on art history


We owe much of our wealth of culture and art to creative collectives.

Artists have for decades and centuries come together to form associations, cooperatives and communes – clubbing together to energise each other’s creative aspirations and ideas.

These have included community art centres, shared studios and alternative art schools.

And now, a new commune with similar ideals is taking shape in the Joburg inner city.

It is nestled under the shadows of The Mills and the flyover of the M1 motorway.

NewARC is an artist-run centre with studios that hopes to create a rare context for interaction and exchange among creatives who might gather there.

It is an initiative of Assemblage, a non-profit artists’ organisation run by fine art photographer Anthea Pokroy and former gallery manager Louise Ross, who became, as she puts it, “frustrated with the gallery system and wanted to make art”.

I go for tea and a chat with Ross to learn more about the project.

Artists go about their work as we walk in and out.

A hint of paraffin, blending with the smell of oil paint, flavours the air.

The new whitewash and boarding of the interior walls is a refreshing contrast to the old bricks of the exterior.

New hope is coming out of an old shell.

“We charge each artist rent and that goes towards paying for the space.

Each studio space can be shared and that brings the rent down.

We’ve worked out the maximum number of people who can go into each cubicle,” Ross says as she sips her tea.

The artists at work are Isaac Zavale and Minenkulu Ngoyi.

They are third-year students at Artist Proof Studio, an art training initiative in Newtown.

They use the space when not at school.

Ross says: “There are a lot of artists out there with no place to go.

On the one hand, you have gallery systems and on the other, institutions of higher learning.

And then in the middle you have these people with all sorts of needs.”

Assemblage researched the needs of their peers and 80% of the respondents said they needed studios, she says.

However, Ross adds that it isn’t just about space to work.

“We want it to be more. There has to be a space for workshops and skills exchanges,” she says.

Precedents for such an initiative go way back. In South Africa, we’ve had places like Rorke’s Drift Art Centre, which was founded in 1962, when apartheid policies denied black artists and craft workers a formal education.

As a communal space, Rorke’s Drift became a fine art school too.

It produced some of South Africa’s most renowned artists and print makers, who shaped much of our visual culture.

The centre, located in KwaZulu-Natal at the site of the historical Anglo-Zulu battle, still operates.

It was memorialised in an authoritative publication titled Rorke’s Drift: Empowering Prints by Philippa Hobbs and Elizabeth Rankin in 2003.

There was also the Polly Street Art Centre, which was opened in the 1940s at the dawn of the Sophiatown renaissance in Joburg.

It began as a cultural recreation centre and when renowned artist Cecil Skotnes joined it in 1952, he guided it to become a significant training ground for a generation of artists.

Seminal creative partnerships like those of Sydney Kumalo with Eduardo Villa, and Louis Maqhubela with Giuseppe Cattaneo, were made possible there.

The centre also enabled many black artists to overcome, in part, the shortcomings of limited opportunities.

Through these multiracial partnerships that became possible, white artists were able to gain new insight into the black experience in a segregated country.

Working in the 1970s and 1980s would not have been possible for many artists without the communal efforts of the Federated Union of Black Artists founded by poet and cultural activist Sipho Sphamla.

The project made it possible for artists such as the award-winning Mbongeni Buthelezi to have a career.

Famous artist David Koloane also taught there.

Perhaps modern visual art hasn’t produced as stereotypically bohemian a commune as Le Bateau-Lavoir, a shabby, rat-infested tenement block in 1900 Paris, where artists like Kees van Dongen and Pablo Picasso took up residence.

Here in Joburg, a commune that bears the most resemblance to Le Bateau-Lavoir is, perhaps, August House in Doornfontein.

Contemporary rising stars such as Mary Sibande have taken up residence there.

As we part, Ross chuckles about being self-funded and how some help would be appreciated.

“Much greater things would be possible if we got some funding,” she says.