images via Stevenson

The Stevenson’s Instagram takeovers; Social media as a tool to subvert traditional art neuroses

The Stevenson gallery, a contemporary art space in Johannesburg and Cape Town, focusing on both national and international artists, is once again pushing the boundaries of the exhibition format beyond the confines and limitations of the white cube. The first exhibition series within this vein was Ramp at the Gallery in Cape Town, where the old loading-dock ramp of the front entrance (the space had previously been a factory) was utilised by young artists to create site-specific installations. Ramp acted as both a literal and figurative transition space between the gallery and the street outside and saw an interesting and diverse body of work emerge from Nyakallo Maleke, Buhlebezwe Siwani, Mitchell Gilbert Messina and Lady Skollie. 

The Instagram takeover series extends this spatial interrogation to the digital realm in a way that starts to unravel some of the gatekeeping distinctions between what constitutes ‘gallery-worthy’ art and what doesn’t. Not only does the Instagram format start to consider everyday social media articulations as potentially valuable artistic expressions, but it also raises questions around dissemination and access to art works, particularly important considering South Africa’s current socio-political landscape, where galleries could often be experienced as intimidating and inaccessible spaces.

A purely instrumental and commodifying logic is also undermined through the use of a format where the ‘art objects’ themselves can easily disperse, circulate and cross-pollinate. The rich body of work that has thus far emerged from the series speaks to the value of loosening some of the constraints and pressures of the traditional exhibition space where reputations and ‘cohesive’ physical bodies of work often need to be firmly established in advance of any opportunities. Importantly, the series sees the artists having direct access to the Stevenson’s account, uploading their content in a completely unmediated way- a turn that subverts some of the neuroses around artistic production where content is often heavily filtered through the eye of a predefined and often institutionally trained ‘expert’.

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The series began with Fela Gucci’s evocative and intimately personal Tsohle, which is described in the statement as reflecting the diverse influential elements of a complex identity and artistic practice, with Tsohle “being a gospel song that signifies the hope of everything coming together.” The work that emerged from this takeover interrogates the complexities of black queer identity through a body-politics that radically reimagines the possibilities for expressions of honesty and truth, and articulates fluidity as a sacred digital force. This takeover has, in part, opened up room for the inclusion of FAKA (comprised of Fela Gucci and Desire Marea) in the Stevenson’s upcoming group exhibition titled SEX (curated by Lerato Bereng), highlighting the potentialities that are being created for interactions and dialogues between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ exhibition spaces.

The second body of work to emerge from the takeovers was Tiger Maremela’s F5 (alt.ZA) + other imaginings described by Maremela’s statement as including three murals, “which might provide answers as to what might lie at the end of the rainbow, F5 (alt. ZA) attempts to ‘refresh’ South Africa and provides alternatives to white supremacist capitalist heteronormative imperialist patriarchy in the context of South Africa… Alternatives to hypermasculine and heteronormative masculinity and racist beauty standards are provided.”

The third artist to have instigated a takeover is Jody Brand, aka Chomma, who’s Drying Tears relates to a politics of sisterhood and radical self-care. Brand states; “We realise the capabilities of our human potential amidst powers which denigrate our existence. We are femme, pro-black, pro-queer and pro-hoe. This work stands in opposition to forces that attempt to silence us and relegate us unworthy”.

Speaking to the Stevenson’s Stefanie Jason, she stated that something exciting about the series was the democratic way in which artists are selected for participation, as well as the way in which the Stevenson remains open for individuals to self-propose takeover residencies, potentially radically opening up space for innovative engagements which subvert some of the traditional restrictions of art practice in South Africa. Keep an eye on the Stevenson’s website for future Instagram takeovers, with the next participant being art-book designer and graphic artist, Gabrielle Guy.

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