Much has been debated about the role of art fairs in the art ecology – are they spaces of critical discourse and education or do they simply function as marketplaces where buying and selling takes place?
The seventh iteration of the RMB Turbine Art Fair took place this past weekend (11th till 14th July) at its new home on Fricker Road in Illovo. The fair moved from the Turbine Hall in Newtown due to its extensive growth in recent years. The new venue resulted in an interesting arrangement of galleries segmented into “rooms” on the ground floor and a more open exhibition space on the upper floor. Naturally, the more established galleries were housed on the ground floor with more spaciousness to curate their own spaces to their liking.
The Turbine Art Fair lends itself as a space where a diverse range of contemporary culture can be engaged with in various mediums and subject matter; from Olivié Keck’s VR intervention, Thonton Kabeya’s collage-like works, Chrisel van der Merwe’s rock installations, Nompumelelo Ngoma’s paintings, LL editions with prints from various artists as well as new artist collectives such as UNTITLD, presenting for the first time.
The Turbine Art Fair is seen as occupying a critical space within the South African art landscape, creating a platform for emerging artists to engage with collectors who are looking to invest in art at an accessible price point (as artworks are generally priced between R1000 and R50 000). The extent to which this is true depends on the extent to which new artists are in fact able to access the space in the first place. Taking into account that artists who are not represented by galleries or project spaces often have to pitch roughly R2 000 per square metre, an amount that is prohibitive to most artists without a stable income, also bearing in mind that this excludes the cost of production of the artworks themselves. There is still more space to interrogate the economics of the fair and how it succeeds or fails to help artists build sustainable careers through access to broader markets.
From an educational perspective, it was quite a delight to see Strauss & Co’s presentation —A Meeting of Minds; Louis Maqhubela and Douglas Portway – a visual symbiosis focusing on the two South African painters. This presentation felt timely and relevant given the recent discussion around modernism through the exhibition; A Black Aesthetic: A view of South African Artists (1970 -1990) staged at Standard Bank Art Gallery earlier this year. The Gerard Sekoto Foundation presented an educational booth with the aim of developing awareness and understanding of Gerard Sekoto’s legacy by teaching the South African public about Sekoto’s life, art, music, philosophy and his writings. These two interventions, together with the extended programme of public talks and master classes, play a role in anchoring the fair, shifting the focus away from an ahistorical marketplace towards a slightly more contextual art fair.
It’s also interesting to see artists playing in both fields; larger art fairs such as The Investec Cape Town Art Fair and the Turbine Art Fair as it creates a continuity and allows us to see the growth and trajectory of artists within Galleries and Collections; among others, this included the Billy Monk Collection, Galerié Noko, Kalashnikovv Gallery and Candice Berman Gallery.
If we are to think of art fairs as the medium through which most artworks and artists will become known, it follows then that more thoughtfulness should be incorporated into how artists’ works are presented—to allow the public to critically engage artists over and above aesthetics and price point. In light of this, the RMB Turbine Art Fair posses the potential (compared to bigger fairs) to challenge traditional arbiters of taste. If staged under conditions that are ultimately favourable to emerging artists, the fair could present an opportunity for a healthier, diverse art landscape with a healthy collector’s base.