In 2018 Sakhile Matlhare and Daniel Hagemeier opened the gallery and exhibition space Sakhile&Me in Frankfurt. Their program is diverse but intentionally prioritizes the African continent and its diasporas, with the goal of drawing attention to contextual specificity in and through art. Our writer Naomi Rado spoke with Sakhile Matlhare about their current group exhibition 'FIGURES', the importance of representation and why museums are political spaces.
Naomi Rado First of all I have to tell you how much I admire the work you’re doing at the gallery. It’s impressive what you’ve accomplished in only two years since your space in Frankfurt opened back in 2018. Sakhile&Me, which was co-founded by you and Daniel Hagemeier, is, as it says on your website, “[...] an international exhibition and research space working with established and young contemporary artists, curators, critics and researchers.” It further states that the aim of your space is to “intentionally prioritize the African continent and its diasporas, with the goal of drawing attention to contextual specificity in and through art”. Maybe you can tell us about the beginning of Sakhile&Me; what were the first implications you had in mind when you began working on the project?
Sakhile Matlhare Firstly, thank you for taking the time to sit with me to talk about how we started and the work we do. Sakhile&Me is a space that comes from my doctoral dissertation at Northwestern University in Evanston/Chicago. The research looked at the working relationship between artists and other cultural producers including art historians, curators, gallerists, collectors and other art enthusiasts. Through this research I also considered the concept of “genre” and focused on artists and cultural producers whose work is often referred to as “contemporary African art”, asking how artists position themselves in relation to this labeling, whether they personally ascribe to it or not and in what ways. What the findings suggest is that a lot of work by artists remains unseen, unacknowledged and uncompensated because much of it occurs away from the very visible and public exhibition of their artworks. And there are also several restrictions and varied opportunities for artists when their biography is at the forefront of their inclusion in exhibitions and recognition for their work.
Our aim at Sakhile&Me is to introduce new art positions to Frankfurt and Germany as there aren’t many galleries focusing on contemporary African art in Germany, yet. We also strive to educate our visitors on the specificity of each artist’s practice and create a space where the lesser known or seen aspects of exhibition making and building can be accessible.
We present at least four exhibitions in Frankfurt annually and also participate in regional and international art fairs with artists from the African continent and the Diasporas. Despite being an international city, Frankfurt is not amongst the major hubs for contemporary art, or contemporary African art for that matter, but the city boasts a widely regarded art museum landscape and a university community of researchers and visiting scholars. We believe there is a strong potential for collaborations and sharing knowledge through art, talks and creative workshops.
NR So what does it mean that the gallery is a space for showing and researching art? Does it affect the curation of works or is it rather a simultaneous process of exhibiting and educating?
SM Drawing from the doctoral research, the idea behind Sakhile&Me is to use an exploratory approach to share a glimpse of the lesser known aspects of our artists’ work. Looking at the ways many museums and cultural centres operate, our program aims to bring together the education/research programming often-times found or expected in museums with the commercial aspects of an art gallery. This does influence the way we curate the exhibitions as we take into account not only the aesthetic presentation of the work but also the possible points for learning through both an illustrative as well as an experiential level. In other words, when we curate an exhibition we think “How can we educate each visitor about the specific concerns of each artist, the materials they use, the conceptual and substantive content they address in their work and how does each person encountering this work see the work in relation to the other works in the space?”
NR Looking at your bio, it makes absolute sense to me, that you are concerned with the intersections of artistic practice and research. You do not only have a strongly informed background in arts and design, but also hold a Ph.D. in sociology. How does your sociological expertise impact the work in the cultural sector?
SM The dissertation research and my training in cultural sociology and the sociology of work not only inspired the concept of Sakhile&Me, but in many ways inform the way we approach our work. As I mentioned, the research broadly considered the evolution of contemporary African art as an art field and the growing number of researchers, curators and art historians working to both define and critically engage artists and their audiences. As a result, the work we do at Sakhile&Me involves constant education and an understanding of the connection between the artists we work with and those interested in their work, the artists’ personal and professional aspirations, and the championing of the artists’ work in Frankfurt, Germany and abroad. Education and re-education are pivotal in this work as the conversation amongst experts and art scholars is taking place in an increasingly mobile, linguistically agile and porous environment, one in which artists and their audiences have increasingly more access to platforms to share and discuss their work both on- and offline, pointing to potential shifts in the circulation of both art and the knowledge produced and shared about artists and their work.
NR When looking at the artworks presented in ‘FIGURES’ it is quite evident (not only from the title but the works selected) that these works focus on the figurative representation of Black bodies, especially though Black women. Why is it, in your opinion, important today to show Black women as a subject in media and art?
SM The concept of the ‘FIGURES’ group exhibition is to highlight interdisciplinary approaches to centring the human form in artistic practice. We not only consider the matter of inclusion or representation but the manner in which the artists represent the body or bodies in their work. Inclusion is a minimum, but it is not enough. How Black bodies are included and the kinds of narratives that are told through Black bodies are vital to pay attention to.
The curation of the exhibition was not gendered, though I am glad that there is a strong female presence. However, it is important to focus on the inclusion of Black women as protagonists, as artists with their own reach of agency beyond the gallery space, and not only in the context of being subjects in media and art. We need more active participation and less passive or trophy appearances.
The two female artists in this exhibition are Adelaide Damoah and Mbali Dhlamini. Damoah’s work encourages discussion about female representation, feminism, sexual stereotypes and art history and she is also a founding member of the Black British Female Artists (BBFA) Collective and the Intersectional Feminist Art (InFems) Collective. Dhlamini is a multidisciplinary artist and visual researcher whose work explores the decolonization of contemporary African identity-making and investigates current indigenous cultural practices.
NR I would also like to get your opinion on a current debate concerning the presentation of a work by Georg Herold in the Städel Museum. As you might know, there was a huge shit storm in response to it as the work not only uses the N-word in its title, but shows a caricature-like coloured person being thrown at with stones by a white, angry crowd. How does it make you feel to see a major art institution like Städel Museum choose this work from 1981 to comment on racism and a discourse that points to movements such as BLM, or Be Heard in Frankfurt – especially when there are so many talented contemporary Black artists and artists of colour whose positions could have been given a platform instead?
SM I think that this is both disrespectful and negligent given the way the painting has been presented as an individual work of the permanent collection without proper contextualization. Showing this work as part of a curated exhibition about racism would be one thing, showing it out of context and without dealing with the current outcry is something different. Black artists and artists of colour as well as portrayals of people of colour in the arts are already underrepresented and it is disheartening to have the Städel choose to show this work depicting what essentially is a lynching of a black man by an angry white mob, painted by a white artist, and the reason for it being deemed “non-racist” or even anti-racist is that the artist hails from the punk scene and isn’t known for racist depictions. That explanation doesn’t convince me. If the Städel, being a museum, a public cultural and historical institution, wanted to start discussions about racism in the current moment, it needs to make an intentional curatorial decision to include many other artworks, especially art by artists who are directly affected by racism, in an effort to take seriously the contributions and now the reactions of Black people and people of colour. It is also important to consider that the museum space or any cultural and historical space is not apolitical, to imply this is to be disingenuous with or without any knowledge and understanding of (art) history.
NR Sakhile, thank you so much for your time. Lastly, I just wanted to ask if there is anything you would want to point out or give our readers to think about.
SM As a good friend of mine puts it best, knowledge is a gift, embrace it – granted, it is not always pretty, painless or convenient. Ultimately, the kind of cultural work we do at Sakhile&Me was modelled after what we would hope to find in a museum and in other cultural and educational spaces. These institutions do have an obligation to the public, not only to educate but to take responsibility for the images and knowledge they produce and circulate. In today’s current environment structural racism, sexism and other forms of oppression may seem like abstract terms and labels but they are perpetuated through decisions, actions or inactions by groups of individuals. These are not isolated instances or incidents, they occur in various spaces, over several years and so the hurt and damage accumulates – it is generational and so we need a widespread and generational anecdote that challenges social stereotypes produced about art and through art. It is an individual and collective responsibility.
Sakhile Matlhare is co-founder and artistic director of Sakhile&Me. The group exhibition ‘FIGURES’ presents thirteen works including two oil paintings by Tega Akpokona, two body imprint works by Adelaide Damoah, five photographic prints by Mbali Dhlamini, two acrylic paintings by Tagne William Njepe and two oil paintings by Tim Okamura. The exhibition runs at Sakhile&Me from 18 June until 8 August 2020.