JOHANNESBURG – One art gallery stands out from the rest by being for and from the artists. Collaborative ownership by a group of women keeps it afloat.
Art on Kingsway in Amanzimtoti depends on member artists to pay the rent every month. This creative form of business ownership is empowering as nearly all of those involved are women.
Among those to have found a new lease of life via the gallery is the curator, Brenda Pratt, who does much of the necessary organisation and co-ordination. She will be a familiar face to many people around Durban since she was an English teacher, founding member and deputy principal of Crawford College La Lucia at retirement and before that taught at Grosvenor, Queensburgh and Westville girls’ high schools.
She says the gallery brought meaning to the lives of many of its contributors, some of whom had retired and were looking for something to occupy their minds and bring in extra income.
Pratt herself had no intention of becoming an artist. Her younger sister, Patricia McCann, dragged her to lessons, where she initially simply sat and watched. ”Ritha Vensker gave me pencils and told me to draw an eggbox. She looked at the result and said I should be working with oils."
Five years of lessons ensued – proof that you’re never too old to learn. On the way to art classes from her home on the Bluff, she drove past a shopping centre under development and determined it was the ideal spot for a gallery.
”My sister lived in the area and got involved. We found out six months later who owned the place. Mr Hansa proposed an exorbitant rental when Patricia approached him with the idea we had come up with. He came down to a fifth.”
Working closely with the Upper South Coast Art Association, Pratt spread the word about the concept and it came into being with about 20 artists collaborating in January 2017.
”When I retired from teaching, I found I could have a life. It had been very stressful and busy. Ritha taught me everything about art. She’s really good. The association would hold an annual show at the Galleria shopping mall, but that to me seemed limiting.”
Pratt is particularly pleased to have her two sons back from working overseas as she battles cancer in her twilight years. She takes pride in having helped to establish an enduring creative legacy. She plans to visit Barcelona soon to see Gaudi’s architectural masterpieces and says she is making the most of her life, enjoying the creative venture that keeps her busy.
The gallery sells at least 20 paintings a month, with nearly 300 snapped up since establishment. But Pratt says those who can’t afford a painting also have the option of buying hand-made cards which, at R25 each, are cheaper, original works more meaningful than those you’d find in the usual chain stores.
Every first Saturday of the month at 11am a featured artist gives a short talk and this interaction does wonders to promote sales. Buyers often choose to have pictures taken with the artist. ”It makes the process so much more personal.”
Bringing in artists helps to vary the offering and promote the gallery well beyond the town. Vanessa Mayhew, 50, who teaches and holds workshops at her studio between Hillcrest and Waterfall, is featured at the gallery this month. Her remarkably vivid and reasonably priced fluid art pieces could convert even those most resistant to abstract art.
Interestingly, McCann says ”abstract art has wider appeal across the cultural community – ideal for offices, hospitals and doctors’ rooms”.
Monthly themes also vary the stock. The latest, Mindscapes, is meant to elicit surreal art from contributors.
Behind the women are Clifford Barker, who handles the frames and mounts, and Kuswag school teacher Magda van der Merwe, who, says Pratt, ”visited galleries in Europe on breaks while working in Abu Dhabi to study how to hang, plan floor space and allocate art”.
Van der Merwe is ”an instrumental part of the committee”, says Pratt.
Art Friends, an extension of the gallery, meets monthly to discuss styles, art trends and new ideas. And there are so many ideas coming out of the participants. For instance, for R10 you can win an artwork in the monthly raffle. Then the artists themselves compete for the monthly prize of a canvass on which to create anew.
The next showcase will feature artwork by the Selborne Ladies, a group of half a dozen artists who live near the golf estate. Both sisters say that with their gallery possibly the only one between Durban and Margate, there has been resistance in the area to African art, which is little understood, but they are nevertheless negotiating to organise a possible breakthrough showcase with the African Art Society. They also liaise with the ATKV, the Afrikaans cultural organisation with whom they have held themed exhibits including Portugal and France.
For those interested in finding out if they have any artistic talent to develop, workshops are held on Mondays when the gallery is closed. Functions at the gallery never include alcohol since the owner of the centre is Muslim.
Although they don’t generally reach out with promotions at flea markets, where ”people don’t buy”, according to Pratt, they enjoyed some success participating in the Creighton Aloe Festival. The next step in expanding the business is to organise distributors in Johannesburg and Cape Town – ”ideal for consignments”.
Art on Kingsway has a Facebook presence.