I’m at Gallery MOMO [again] and Joël Mpah Dooh’s Since We Last Met is on exhibition (as of October 13 until November 28, 2016). First order of business is marveling at the works of the Cameroonian flaneur, observer, and symbolic maestro’s works as he scratches away on surfaces such as paper, canvas, corrugated iron and acrylic sheets, while incorporating earth, paints, clay, packaging, wood and chalk, to bring about his view of Johannesburg. But this is not the only reason I am here. I am also here to see Karen Brusch, (Gallery MOMO’s Joburg branch Manager and Director) as we have planned, to have a conversation on mentorship. Karen has been a great mentor of mine for the past couple of months and when I thought about writing on the subject, she easily sprung to mind.
If you have been keeping up with my features over the last few months, you will have noticed that I visit MOMO often. Part of the reason for this is that with each visit, Karen and I have been unpacking a project I have had under wraps for some time now. The project- titled Lentswe– has been given shape and form with each visit as we discuss it at length and iterated its vision and direction with the aim of astute clarity. From proposal drafts and exhibition layouts to funding and execution, Karen has taken the time to watch over the project and, my career and its slow progression. Of course, this taxing additional role of being my mentor is not one who’s significance is lost on me. The role of a mentor, in any field, can never be overstated. The privilege of being able to learn from the experience and work of those who came before you is a blessing almost all professionals seek as history has a plethora of examples of great men who have built their empires on the shoulders of giants. Alas, cultivating that mentor-mentee relationship is not easy, so I sat down with Karen to really talk about what mentorship is, it’s significance for both parties involved and the reason why Gallery MOMO has made mentorship the cornerstone of its strategy, this is what was said:
Shots011: Gallery MOMO has had a developmental approach to its artists and their careers, playing an instrumental role in developing artists such as Mary Sibande and Blessing Ngobeni. Can you shed light on why this has been the approach since the gallery’s inception in 2008?
KB: Often in life, things happen organically. I do not know if it was a conscious decision to do this on Monna’s part. I know that looking for young talent is something that all galleries in South Africa and in the world do. MOMO is constantly on the lookout for artists with exciting new voices. It just happened organically with the careers of artists such as Mary Sibande, Blessing Ngobeni, and now with Maurice Mbikayi who’s our new rising star.
So, I do not think it was something that we have done consciously. It happens organically, where new talent comes on to the scene and we are excited by these are artists and immediately wish to show them at Gallery MOMO. The development starts naturally from there. MOMO then takes an active stance in the development of their careers and artworks.
Shots011: Is it important that artists have mentors and is it important for galleries to offer mentorship and support to artists?
KB: I think it is important that everyone looking to grow within his or her career has a mentor. If you think of it, artists are at the forefront of social conversations and dialogue, they represent what is happening in the society during a moment in time. So I’d imagine that artists who wish to make commentary on society and what is happening therein, need to grow within themselves.
I think mentorship becomes crucial for anybody wishing to grow within his or her industry. There’s only so much you can do on your own. You need the reflection of those that have been in your particular industry for a long time, to shed light, experience and share knowledge with you. So, you take on influences from society; develop yourself with the books you read and the people you open yourself up to; and then your mentors can offer different perspectives as well. These are all steps toward inner growth.
It is vital that we as galleries, and not just galleries, but all companies, take mentorship really seriously. Since the art world is about networking and connecting with what is happening in academia, business, and the world; with the right mentorship, you stand to accelerate your career quicker than most. This is also a way for a company to grow, simultaneously with their employees.
“I think it is important that everyone looking to grow within his or her career has a mentor.”
Shots011: What are some of the characteristics you look for in the artists you mentor and what kind of mentorship-structure exists within Gallery MOMO?
KB: It hasn’t really been structured. I think our approach, as Gallery MOMO, has been as I said, organic. It all depends on the artist and what their needs are. For example, with Blessing Ngobeni, it was literally hearing about this fantastic new artist on the block who definitely was a diamond in the rough. Monna visited his studio, saw his potential and they took it from there. It’s really all about conversations between MOMO and the artists.
Again, if you look at Ayana V. Jackson’s first show at the gallery- a group show which included the Leap Frog Series- she had cast her friends in the characters she wished to portray in the series. Monna then suggested, in his capacity as her mentor, that she casts herself in all these roles instead. I believe that this input was pivotal for the progression in Ayana’s work because ever since that point she started using herself in all the archival work.
If you look at Mary Sibande’s work, she wanted to create a dreamlike quality in her Sophie character so that the viewer would question whether he/she was looking at the artist or a mannequin. Right from the beginning, the conversation with Mary, even before she created her first photograph, was how was she going to present herself? Her process is similar to performance art, where she paints her skin to look darker than it is naturally and the post production process makes the figure look almost matte and unnatural. This results in the illusion whether there is a mannequin or actual figure in the photograph. This process was mentorship from Monna’s part.
I think mentorship becomes crucial for anybody wishing to grow within his or her industry. There’s only so much you can do on your own. You need the reflection of those that have been in your particular industry for a long time, to shed light, experience and share knowledge with you. So, you take on influences from society; develop yourself with the books you read and the people you open yourself up to, and then your mentors can offer different perspectives as well. These are all steps toward inner growth.
“Mentorship is about conversations”
Shots011: How and when do you know when artists are ready to be released from the gallery, looking at Blessing’s career for example?
It all depends on the relationship we’ve had with the artist. Relationships between artists and galleries can often be like a marriage [laughs]. Sometimes the marriage is a beautiful and blissful mutual agreement. Other times, the marriage starts having issues and it’s at that point where a decision to part is reached. This could be for a number of reasons. We have parted ways with artists because we have felt that they weren’t growing in their careers, or artists felt that the culture of Gallery MOMO didn’t quite fit with where their careers direction. So sometimes it’s the gallery and sometimes it’s the artist, or sometimes it’s a mutual agreement. It is a lot like a relationship, the break-up is always different depending on the persons involved.
Shots011: Exploitation is and has been something closely attributed to the art industry. What type of relationship does the gallery develop between the gallery, the artists and artist’s work?
We protect artists from legal matters. We protect artists when it comes to copyright issues. We are a buffer, and often with our superstar artists who can get scores of requests on a weekly basis, we protect and filter all that information so that the artists can focus on creating. We also help run their projects with them.
However, I am sure if you ask an artist who is not with a gallery, what they would do once those requests from around the world start flooding in; their answer would be to hire an intern, an apprentice or an assistant or someone to help them. Someone who is a bit more logistically minded than they are, so they [the artist] can just focus on their work.
Shots011: There is a growing disinterest with South African artists, many fearing that by joining a gallery they might be forced to create a certain style of work to align with that gallery’s interests. How does Gallery MOMO navigate work through this?
I honestly hope that this is not the case. We have so many artists that come in here and want to exhibit with Gallery MOMO. When they open their portfolios, one can immediately see from their subject matter that this space is not for them. As I said, it’s almost like a marriage. The artist has to be absolutely aligned with the curatorial aspect of the gallery.
We would never impose a certain way of thinking on artists. We could never go to an artist and say that is crap or you HAVE to think about this particular issue. NEVER! That is a complete misconception. What then is the point of creating art? What is the point of being Gallery MOMO? This is why we treat our young artists’ careers like a mentorship process, rather than a dictatorial one.
Shots011: What are some of the most common misconceptions artists have when it comes to mentorship?
KB: Gosh. Honestly, every single artist that I have come across values the mentorship they have had throughout their careers. It is very important that you actively go out there and choose the people that you want to be mentored by and learn from. For example, if you’re a black and white photographer with an interest in taking photographs but you don’t wish to be seen or engaging in the photographs, much like a voyeuristic approach, then you’re surely going to go to an artist like Andrew Tshabangu and ask to spend a day with him.
I cannot imagine that as an artist you would have a negative experience regarding mentorship unless you are put in a situation where you do not like the artist/mentor. I hope that doesn’t happen to artists. If you have the opportunity to be mentored by somebody, and find yourself in a situation like that, I think its best you look for someone else.
I really don’t know how to answer this question. I think with this one, you’d have to ask artists personally regarding their experiences of mentorship.
Shots011: How valuable is business acumen in an artist’s career?
KB: KB: I think in today’s art world, business acumen is everything. As an artist, you mustn’t only focus on developing your crafting and artistic skills but you also have to consider things such as marketing, PR and finance. Unfortunately, we do not live in an age like the seventeenth century where an artist would have a patron who recognised your talent and would take care of all your needs. That just doesn’t exist anymore.
So you need to be as proficient in as many areas as you can. If you do not have those skills, you need to actively go out there and learn them. This is why things such as mentorship and networking can play a significant role. You need to evaluate yourself on all your weaknesses and seek people who can develop you in those areas. You can also work together in collaborative groups, where the artists find someone to be the driving force behind the business and then someone else who can do the marketing and PR. The three of you can then develop the company together. I believe that this is how we operate more and more in the future. We are much more powerful in groups than we are as individuals. You can bring in everybody’s strong points and focus on those while also balancing out everyone’s weakest areas.
“We are much more powerful in groups than we are as individuals.”
If you are lucky enough to be represented by a gallery then great because all your legal, marketing, PR, and sales are taken care of for you. However, it is still important that you develop yourself in all these areas if you want to operate on your own. I mean, as an artist you already have the creative talent. So all you need is to develop your website, work on your marketing, VANSA has a free legal desk you can approach, and all the other skills you can learn in your way as you develop yourself and career, with the help of mentors along the way, of course. Eventually, when you start making money, you can hire an assistant to do all that work for you so you can focus on creating.
There you have it. If you’re an artist looking to grow in your career, get mentored preferably by someone who has a similar style of work that you like and a personality that can be compatible with yours. Visit galleries and see what artists out there are doing and ask how you can engage with the artists and not just the work you see on the walls. Your career growth is not just dependent on you but also on the people around you and how they can accelerate your career in ways that you can’t on your own. So go out there and find yourself a mentor and start your conversations.