The 1-54 Interview Series: AFRONOVA GALLERY

AFRONOVA‘s founders, Émilie Demon and Henri Vergon, have been developing and consolidating an innovative gallery model while also showcasing some of the most progressive and influential South and Southern African artists. For twenty years now, they have been nurturing relationships with a pan-African and international network of like-minded curators, institutions, critics, private foundations and collectors.
For 1-54 Marrakech, they will present a selection of four young women photographers: Elsa Bleda (1988), Lebohang Kganye (1990), Phumzile Khanyile (1991) and Alice Mann (1991).

AFRONOVA has been involved with 1-54 since its early days in London and New York. What pushed you to participate in the Marrakech edition?

Over the years, the fair management has consolidated an important international platform offering a strong marketplace and fostering the conversation and discourse around African Contemporary Art. Marrakech is attractive on many levels, and MACAAL (the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden) is definitely a major drawcard! The whole country is transforming and witnessing the emergence of new political and artistic voices. We are living in very interesting times!

What do you think the Moroccan art market offers compared to other African art markets, such as the South African art market?

1-54 Marrakech offers a unique fertile ground for a Pan-African exchange based on the continent while maintaining a distinct focus on North Africa.
The fair welcomes European and international visitors as well as local collectors in light of its strategic location, therefore boosting solid sales and attracting a solid roaster of exhibiting galleries.

Elsa Bleda, Nightscapes, 2014 – 2018, 40 x 60 cm, Edition of 10. Courtesy AFRONOVA GALLERY

You are based in Johannesburg, South Africa, why do you think this city is different from the other African capitals from a gallerist’s point of view? 

Historically, Johannesburg has been alienated from the rest of the continent but closely in touch with all the Commonwealth countries and of course the trends and art market in London. Therefore the South African art scene has been strong for decades with viable outlets for the (essentially white) artists. This means some of the galleries are more than a hundred years old and that today, the art industry is well structured and consolidated with dozens of actors, art magazines and publishing houses, auctioneers, residencies and a network of art fairs…and too many galleries to start counting! There has been some degree of transformation over the recent years with a significant share of the market for black artists and professionals. A sustained presence on the international circuit is largely to thank for this progress.

Which elements of its contemporary art scene did firstly fascinate you?

Jumping into Joburg’s art scene in the mid-90’s was electrifying and disorientating. After a turbulent election process the whole country is on a rollercoaster ride, high on democracy and freedom. A rare and striking artistic effervescence.

Lebohang Kganye, tshimong ka hara toropo II, 2012, Inkjet print on cotton rag paper, 29.7 x 42cm, Edition of 5. Courtesy AFRONOVA GALLERY

Your curatorial choice often focuses on young photographers, many of whom receive worldwide recognition, including prestigious awards. Phumzile Khanyile was the 2018 recipient of the CAP Prize for Contemporary African Photography; Alice Mann won the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize in 2018 and was selected for Studio 1854’s Adidas Breaking Barriers commission in 2019; Elsa Bleda has been featured in The Washington Post, Colossal, OkayAfrica, Highsnobiety, and Rolling Stone Italia, just to name a few and finally, Lebohang Kganye obtained the Camera Austria Award for Contemporary Photography by the City of Graz in 2019.

The curatorial focus of AFRONOVA has evolved over the years, a lot thanks to the foresight of Emilie Demon. We work alongside outstanding artists like Lawrence Lemaoana, Senzeni Marasela or Malala Andrialavidrazana who challenge their own practice, from film to performance, photography, installation, drawing or embroidery.

We thoroughly enjoy their vitality and ambition and we work hard to generate a solid economy and robust conversation around their work internationally. We are proud to represent amazing photographers like Lebohang Kganye, Phumzile Khanyile, Alice Mann, Elsa Bleda, Nombuso Bhorholo, Dimakatso Mathopa, all of them women under 30!
But we shouldn’t forget the crucial voices of veterans like Ricardo Rangel, John Liebenberg or Mauro Pinto.

Alice Mann, Taylim Prince, Digital inkjet print, 55.8 x 66 cm, 2017, Edition of 5. Courtesy AFRONOVA GALLERY

Clearly your selection of artists converges cultural practitioners who are contributing to the explosive conditions of a cultural scene not only in Johannesburg but in general in the Africa continent. Why did you choose these four women photographers for your participation to Marrakech?

We carefully curated the booth for 1-54 Marrakech to offer a nuanced and pertinent narrative articulated around the four original readings of an urban and contemporary South Africa. Aware, informed, well-travelled, these photographers actively contribute to the contemporary discourse while enjoying serious critical acclaim and commercial success.

Phumzile Khanyile, Plastic Crowns, 2016, Inkjet print on cotton rag paper, 27,2 x 40 cm (Image and 15 mm margins), Edition of 8. Courtesy AFRONOVA GALLERY

How did you discover them and what did you first attract you of their work?

Each encounter is different and we have a very personal and unique relationship with each artist. We nurture long term partnerships so we must share meaningful affinities as much as artistic directions. We always are on the lookout; it is like a second nature. We eat, drink, sleep art.

Good places to start identifying bright young artists or photographers in particular are studios in the city as well as exhibitions in alternative spaces, pop ups, happenings (social media can be a precious source of info for events and gatherings). Importantly, it keeps us in touch with the latest developments in terms of urban culture, regeneration and problematics.

We have a 25 years relationship with the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown and it is obviously a fascinating laboratory in terms of contemporary photography. We closely follow the emergence of new generations of practitioners from this particular institution. We also connect with university departments and engage with the new dynamics and vocabulary.

One of the most gratifying way of meeting new artists is to share insights from the ones we already collaborate with. They understand the way we work and selectively recommend artists they believe would be a match with our vision. It adds yet another layer in our relationship with them.  Then, artists contact us and enthusiastically share their works with us so we can start a conversation and sometimes an adventure together. I guess it is a mindset, you have to stay informed, in touch, available and curious!

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