Valerie Kabov is the director of international projects and education at the First Floor Gallery Harare in Harare, Zimbabwe, which she co-founded with Marcus Gora. The gallery is Zimbabwe’s first independent contemporary artist-run gallery and educational space, and was also the first Zimbabwean gallery to take part in art fairs. They have previously exhibited at art fairs in London, Berlin and Johannesburg, and will be exhibiting at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair held from 19 to 20 October 2014 at Somerset House, London. AMA talks to Kabov about the gallery’s formation, its role in the international art scene and what sets Zimbabwean artists apart from their European counterparts.
Could you first of all introduce the First Floor Gallery Harare?
The First Floor Gallery in Harare was founded in December 2009, meaning we are coming up to our 5th anniversary. Originally it was founded by Marcus Gora and myself, out of a concern for the lack of artist-run galleries in Harare and the lack of opportunities for emerging artists to experiment and develop their practices free of commercial constraints, as well as the chance to connect internationally with their peers. Marcus provided a free room in his office next to a tailor’s workshop and that was how the gallery started. We very quickly realised that having just the space on its own was not going to be sufficient to support the emerging artist community. The more we engaged with artists and researched the obstacles to development, the more we realised what had to be done. For example, young artists didn’t have any management experience as there was no precedent for artists running their own organisations, art materials were and remain very expensive in Zimbabwe and are difficult to come by, making experimentation for its own sake very difficult. There were also various issues to do with the scope of education and art schools.
You talk about the need for an artist-run gallery; what does this mean?
We’re not a traditional gallery in many ways; for us to be meaningful and relevant in Zimbabwe we cannot operate like an ordinary commercial gallery, nor can we be a purely not-for-profit educational facility, because the artists who we work with need to make a living from their art. They cannot have part time jobs, because the Zimbabwean employment sector doesn’t permit this. Artists don’t have a choice about making a living from their art, meaning that from the outset there is a pressure to build professional careers and create opportunities for sales. You are having to foster education and support artists with materials, creating the opportunity for discourse so that these practices can evolve to become successful, whilst you’re also having to deal with the pressure of delivering income to the artists.
How do you go about selecting artists?
There are two factors, which make things pretty easy for us. Firstly, the emerging contemporary artist community in Harare is not very large, seeing as there are only two art schools in the city — Harare Polytechic and National Gallery Visual Art Studio School — as well as a programme at Chinhoyi University of Technology which has a degree in Design and Fine Art, producing under 20 graduates a year. It is not difficult to have a good awareness of who is doing what, given these numbers. Secondly, we have a committee of four artists who work closely with us, and they have the opportunity to introduce new artists to the gallery. We have a stable of about seven artists with whom we work closely, and we hold several group exhibitions a year which gives us the opportunity to introduce new artists and see how we can work with them. When we started in 2009, there was really only one other gallery, apart from the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, working with contemporary artists — Gallery Delta. While the visual art scene is experiencing a revival at the moment, there are still only about four spaces providing exhibition opportunities and there are no formal commercial galleries providing representation, so artists are always anxious to try out all possibilities and there’s very little chance that we would miss out on talent.
Have the lack of galleries and output from art schools played an important role in why the gallery hosts a lot of educational events?
Definitely. While the art schools are trying to build up their capacity and resources, at the moment, the art schools in Zimbabwe do not provide a fully-fledged international standard Fine Art degree, so most of the artists who we meet only have certificates or diplomas. This is problematic in that many don’t have a sufficient theoretical background comparable to their peers internationally and they do not have exposure to the broad range of contemporary art practices: new media, video art, performance, practices, art theory, and curatorial work. Much of our educational programming is based around filling those gaps to the extent that the artists we work with need it.
How important do you think it is to open up Zimbabwean art to an international audience?
I think it is extremely important, but so is opening up Zimbabwean contemporary art to local audiences. So we work on two fronts. Local support is crucial but is not an easy undertaking. Contemporary art has audience engagement challenges worldwide, but even more so in a country where art is not taught as a subject in the majority of schools. One of the things we are trying to do is to build up support for art education and contemporary art. However, as Zimbabwe is a very small country (it has a population of only 13 million), it’s unrealistic to expect artists to make a living based purely on the domestic market, which doesn’t happen anywhere in fact, so the international audience is very important. Every year we have about three or four international guest artists spending time with the gallery and our artists, as well as guest collectors, and we’re developing relationships with other art organisations, especially within Africa, to enable our artists to go on residencies abroad. All of these opportunities serve to enhance the practices of emerging artists and build confidence.
What for you makes Zimbabwean art particularly interesting?
Being an art critic and art historian by background means I have worked with emerging artists for quite a while. For an art critic, to find genuine talent is always magical. This is what I felt I found in Harare. I also recognised that if these artists were not supported in the right way, it would be a terrible loss to the art world. What I like about Zimbabwean artists is that they come from a culture and a tradition which is intrinsically philosophical and conceptual, so these artists need not be told that art has to be about concepts and ideas, that it has to resonate with their core beliefs; they are there already. At the same time, they are also very deeply connected to the lives of the people in their country, making them contemporary on a very profound level, and they feel an enormous sense of responsibility towards their people, very responsive; it’s not something that they need to be taught. The only things that really stand in their way are resources and pressure to compromise their work, which comes from the need to earn money by any way possible. We don’t want them to compromise their work because of concerns for how well it will sell or what people will think of it — as long as they stay focused on what they feel is important, they will produce their best work. The key artists we work with are all under 31, which surprises most people, given the depth of thought and feeling their work demonstrates. But for better or for worse, in Zimbabwe many young people are almost too mature for their age, given the difficulties that they face but also thanks to the strength of communal times and the culture of marrying early, meaning that by 26/27 most people are already married with children and facing the responsibilities this brings.
Do you think that allowing artists this freedom is important in opening up Zimbabwean culture to other audiences and playing a role in intercultural dialogue?
Absolutely. A lot of the issues that our artists engage with are not unique to Zimbabwe; they are broadly human issues. Wycliff Mundopa’s whole practice, for example, focuses on the lives of women and children, which is clearly not just a concern in Zimbabwe. It is something which concerns us all as humans. We want to enable artists to speak with their authentic voice on the issues they feel are the most important for them, to bring out their best and make their work important. What tends to happen in our environment is that funding for art organisations comes from bodies with a specific aim or ideology, to which the artists have to conform to comply with funding conditions, preventing them from speaking about the issues that they personally are most concerned with. We work hard to shield our artists from this kind of pressure.
How do you think your own background has helped the development of the gallery?
I am very fortunate to have a combination of skills — I am an artist, art historian, art critic, and I’m also an international lawyer — meaning that I have worked with a lot of startups and emerging businesses. The same goes for Marcus Gora, my co-founder, who also has a background in project management, as well as public and media relations. The combination of both our skills has allowed us to accelerate the growth of the gallery. But we are conscious of the need to share our skills and experience to support new projects and initiatives, and to help organisations to develop. Our internship programme teaches cultural management to university students, with two to three interns a year working with us, learning skills and also starting their own projects. In this way we hope to create a new generation of confident cultural managers that can help support the growth of the industry.
The gallery is also working on a journal; what was your motivation behind that?
The journal is still a work in progress. We’re trying to get some funding behind it, which is by no means easy, as hard-copy publications are probably one of the least profitable ventures today. The journal is intended to encourage local audiences to take an interest in contemporary art in Zimbabwe. It is planned as a bilingual publication, to be printed side by side in English and Shona (the majority indigenous language here in Harare), which we hope will support recognition of visual art as an indigenous art form and create a vocabulary in Shona around visual art which will enable people to speak confidently about contemporary art. It will also hopefully give emerging writers the opportunity to start writing about art.
What do you envisage for the gallery’s future?
It’s hard to say; when we started, the whole idea was just to have a room to enable experimentation and discussions, and now we are participating in international art fairs and hosting international exhibitions! What I hope for personally is that we can continue to work with and develop some of the best emerging artists in Zimbabwe and give them the international recognition they deserve. We also really hope that we can support a sustainable, vibrant and successful visual arts sector in the country
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