Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2020 | Q&A with Owen Martin of the Norval Foundation

For our second Q&A in the build up to the Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2020 we spoke to Chief Curator of the Norval Foundation, Owen Martin who is also on the selection committee for next year’s fair. Here he sheds light on the eco-system of art institutions in South Africa, what he’s busy with at the moment and which artists he is currently enthralled by.

1. What differentiates Norval from other art institutions in South Africa?

Each of the arts institutions in South Africa offer a particular viewpoint, have a distinct mandate and engage with a certain set of concerns through the cultural practices they invest in. This investment takes the form of exhibitions, talks, symposium, residencies, online portals, social media posts and other platforms. For me the power of each of these institutions, public or private, new or existing, is to build programming that is complimentary and particular, diversifying our understanding of what the arts can be and how an arts institution can engage with an artist’s practice. In that vein, Norval Foundation aims to add another layer within this larger ecosystem, creating programming that thinks critically about local, regional and international artistic practices from the 20th and 21st centuries. We want to be a bridge between visual arts practices here in South Africa as well as those happening internationally. One of the ideas we’ve been exploring is building programming that is also complimentary in terms of an artist’s conceptual concerns, their historical as well as geographical context. So when Ibrahim Mahama’s Labour of Many was on display, it was in relation to David Golblatt’s On the Mines and William Kentridge’s Why Should I Hesitate: Sculpture is currently displayed alongside Lisa Riehana’s in Pursuit of Venus [Infected]. Each of these pairings are intended to highlight points of connection and dissonance that makes for a rich experience for our visitors.

2. If you could name a highlight of your tenure at Norval so far what would it be?

Ah, that would be difficult! Myself and the Foundation’s team have been fortunate to work with incredibly talented artists, collectors and collections, writers, thinkers and galleries. Learning from these cultural practitioners, as well as from my colleagues, is really the highlight of my role at the Foundation. Currently, I’m busy researching Kenyan painter Michael Armitage’s work, which is brilliant subtlety, and I’m impressed with how Armitage, alongside his painting practice, engages his peers through his project The Gathering in Kenya—a forum for artists that from or are working in Africa to meet that he funds. A similar impulse can be seen in Ibrahim Mahama’s opening of the Savannah Centre in Ghana and William Kentridge’s Centre for the Less Good Idea in South Africa. It’s impressive to see these artists investing in their local art scene in meaningful ways. More broadly, I’m happy that visitors are finding the artistic programming emotionally powerful and

intellectually engaging. This feedback is incredibly important for us and helps us to keep going!

3. For those who don’t know what goes on behind the scenes for an art fair like ICTAF could you explain how the selection process works and what your role in it is?

This is the first time I’ve been asked to join the selection committee for an art fair, so it’s a new experience for me. I was motivated to join so that I could understand how a fair like ICTAF crafts its programme and selects the galleries that eventually end up on the fair. I imagine it will be a balance between a critical engagement with each gallery’s programme as well as the booth that’s proposed and the economic realities that the fair has to attend to in order to be sustainable.

4. Who are the artists you are particularly taken with at the moment and why?

Inevitably, one is always looking at a range of artists that address a number of concerns. It’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. Gabrielle Goliath’s recent video works, including This Song is For…, are powerful statements on the complex networks of social and political power that persist in South Africa and yet these works are deeply poetic and moving. British artist Haroon Mizra’s sculptures build on, and update, a rich tradition of kinetic art pioneered by Jean Tinguely and others. After recently doing a studio visit with Bronwyn Katz, I’m excited about her next body of work. She’s delving into a rich interface between linguistics and, seemingly, minimalist sculpture. A few months ago I saw Jordanian artist Lawrence Abu Hamden’s video installation Walled Unwalled in Venice and I found its exploration of listening, and the moral implications therein, deeply interesting. Few artists dealing with sound in such a nuanced way, though certainly the exception to that is the Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh, whose work I’ve also been thinking about recently

Image credit: Norval Foundation Chief Curator, Owen Martin, photo by Claire Gun


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