Why South Africa’s Goodman Gallery Is Expanding to London as Brexit Looms
Portrait of Jo Stella-Sawicka by Kuba Ryniewicz. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
Still from Kudzanai Chiurai, We Live in Silence (Chapter 3), 2017. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
London is teeming with hyperbolic art openings during Frieze Week, but one major event that will remain in the city after the furor of the fair is the opening of a gallery set to shake up the art scene in the British capital.
Goodman Gallery is already a name with worldwide recognition. Established in Johannesburg in 1966 in the midst of the apartheid era in South Africa by Linda Givon, it was a foundational part of the development of the country’s contemporary art scene. In 1982, the gallery made its first trip to Art Basel.
Tabita Rezaire, SENEB, 2016. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
The gallery’s championing of artists from across the African continent and diaspora internationally has been pivotal. For the last five decades, Goodman has remained rooted in South Africa, with gallery spaces in Johannesburg and Cape Town. On Thursday, the gallery inaugurates its first location abroad: a 5,730-square-foot space on Cork Street in Mayfair. The new gallery will be headed up by Jo Stella-Sawicka, a former artistic director of Frieze Art Fair, and Emma Menell, the founder of London’s Tyburn Gallery (which closed earlier this year).
The London gallery scene has no shortage of major commercial outfits, but Goodman’s program will insist on the sociopolitical power of art. The inaugural exhibition,“I’ve grown roses in this garden of mine,” is a group show that presents the essence of Goodman’s program, featuring leading names from its roster, such as William Kentridge, David Goldblatt, Yinka Shonibare CBE, and Carrie Mae Weems, alongside some lesser-known but influential voices whose exposure to the British public has been limited: Grada Kilomba, Kapwani Kiwanga, and Kudzanai Chiurai among them.
Kapwani Kiwanga, Desire Paths: District Six , 2017. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
Yinka Shonibare CBE, Athena II , 2019. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
“We are excited to give a platform to so many talented new voices who have not shown in London and are leading the charge in confronting experiences that are too often marginalized,” Stella-Sawicka said.
It’s an interesting time for a move to the U.K. capital, on the eve of Brexit and amid a politically chaotic time. But Goodman Gallery is used to challenges. Since its inception, the gallery has taken risks that are unusual for a commercial space. It was one of very few galleries to represent and exhibit black artists at a time when South Africa’s art spaces were strictly segregated.
Making good on Goodman’s legacy
Kudzanai Chiurai, Black Vanguard Resource Centre, 2019. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
Throughout its 53-year history, Goodman Gallery has continually defended the role of a gallery as a non-discriminatory space where all forms of expression can coexist. This was something that Goodman’s current owner and director, Liza Essers, was eager to continue when she took over from Givon in 2008. Under Essers’s leadership, more than 30 artists have joined the gallery. The daughter of a Libyan refugee, her passion is also personal; Essers said she “was drawn to Goodman Gallery’s legacy for social change.”
One particularly memorable moment in Goodman’s recent history came in May 2012, when the gallery’s Johannesburg location exhibited Brett Murray’s controversial painting The Spear (2010). The painting depicts then-president Jacob Zuma in a Lenin-esque pose, with his penis exposed. The painting sparked protests and was attacked by vandals. Zuma’s party, the African National Congress, even filed a lawsuit for defamation against the gallery, which was later dropped. Amid death threats against the artist and pressure from the government, Goodman sold The Spear to a German collector but kept the rest of Murray’s exhibition on view, earning itself a reputation as “South Africa’s most hated gallery,” according to The New Yorker.
Sue Williamson, A Few South Africans - Mamphela Ramphele, 1985. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
Sue Williamson, A Few South Africans: Amina Cachalia, 1984. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
Artist Sue Williamson joined Goodman in 1994, the year the first democratic elections were held in South Africa. That same year, the groundbreaking South African artist took part in the Havana Biennale with Goodman. Although Williamson’s work addresses “the trauma that has come out of the troubled South African situation,” as she put it, it also touches on pain that is human and universal; one of her videos, for instance, documents a conversation between two young people whose fathers have been assassinated by the state.
It is dialogues like these—between shared and divergent experiences, histories, and perspectives—that Goodman will emphasize at its London space. Stella-Sawicka envisions programming that will “challenge perceptions on non-Western artists in the U.K.” In order to achieve this, she added, “it is essential that artists from the African continent are not pigeon-holed and are included in the wider global discourse.”
Centering those previously sidelined
Shirin Neshat, A Few South Africans - Mamphela Ramphele, 1985. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
A focus for the gallery will be unlocking access to the U.K.’s institutions, where programs and collections are still imbalanced. “We are bringing these conversations and concerns to the heart of the art world,” Stella-Sawicka said, “bringing perspectives from regions previously sidelined in art history right into the center.”
Major new additions to the gallery roster who have previously not been represented in London include Shirin Neshat—who will have her first U.K. solo exhibition since 2012 next year—and artist-activist Alfredo Jaar. This drive to champion artists making challenging work has been amplified by the diverse practices of the artists Goodman presents. Gabrielle Goliath, one of the younger artists on the gallery’s roster and in its inaugural London exhibition, had her first solo show with Goodman in 2014.
Alfredo Jaar, Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness, 1995. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery
“As the longest standing gallery committed to critical contemporary work in South Africa, Goodman’s impact on the local art scene is undeniable,” Goliath said. “There is a tendency in this country to subsume the accomplishments of black and brown artists within institutionalized, often romanticized narratives of white enablement—be it those of galleries or art centers. Goodman’s impact cannot be spoken of outside of some acknowledgement of the ambition, talent, and political negotiations of the artists associated with it.”
Goliath’s long-term performance project Elegy (2015–present), which deals with rape culture in South Africa, has been shown to audiences around the world. “This is important as a way of drawing people into a situation which, though ostensibly ‘distant,’ has a social and political bearing on them, and relates to patriarchal and systemic violence more globally,” the artist said.
Gabrielle Goliath,This song is for..., 2019. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
The decision to focus on bold political work, Stella-Sawicka conceded, is also a financial challenge. “As a gallery from South Africa, setting up a U.K. gallery in rands is a great financial risk, she said, “but an important one for ensuring that the artists’ voices are internationally amplified and to give their market the opportunity to grow to the levels they deserve so they are valued at the level of their international peers.”
In spite of the logistical and financial challenges, Goodman is committed to changing the way culture operates in a hub of global power where art’s disruptive potential is often defanged by the market.
“Social healing and change is increasingly recognised around the world for its urgency during these turbulent times,” Stella-Sawicka added. “As Nelson Mandela once wrote in a letter to the gallery: Now is the time!”