art, art, Interviews, Interviews

The Goodman Gallery's Liza Essers Talks Women In The Arts

Mikael Subotzky

This year, Goodman Gallery owner and director Liza Essers celebrates 10 years since taking over the iconic gallery. House and Leisure visited Essers at home to get inside the story of her pioneering work and insights as a woman in the arts.

Sue Williamson points out in this issue that female artists in South Africa, for instance Marlene Dumas, Irma Stern, Maggie Laubser, dominate the auction/secondary market, unlike in European and American markets. Would you say it's the same in the current gallery environment for contemporary female artists working in South Africa?

The old masters are dominating today’s auctions in SA full stop. Most contemporary artists in South Africa – men and women – do not have comprehensive auction track records because the local market isn't as developed for their work and we are still developing a primary market for contemporary art. Modern work dominates – the contemporary is a tiny percentage of auction sales. Artists need to become known and develop in the primary market first.

In some cases, however, the drawback for auction visibility and success can be the medium of the work. An artist like Diane Victor sells very well on local auctions. Photography, however, is regarded as a difficult medium and, of course, mediums such as installation, film and performance are generally not viable for this platform. Many women artists in SA work with these less conventional mediums.

You have worked in your own capacity to change the game for the representation of female artists in the local art world, what was the biggest hurdle?

In the past ten years, I've increased the number of women on Goodman's roster from about three to 18. Some women in the stable were born in SA, but live and work in the African Diaspora, where their careers are flying – Lisa Brice and Candice Breitz are two examples. Goodman represents a diverse range of women, local and international, and we show their work in our gallery spaces in South Africa and at art fairs to facilitate an international dialogue.

Many of our women artists' chosen mediums (film, installation, performance) can be expensive to produce and difficult to bring visibility to, particularly in settings such as art-fair booths, where collectors tend to favour more traditional mediums.

I try to address this hurdle in different ways. Recently, I funded solo exhibitions for Tabita Rezaire, Kapwani Kiwanga and Grada Kilomba in our gallery, which have proven to be very significant shows. I have also helped fund performances in spaces outside the gallery walls, most recently Tracey Rose at documenta 14 and Performa 17; Gabrielle Goliath at The Holocaust and Genocide Centre; and Nelisiwe Xaba, whose performance forms part of the SA Women's Month programming at the University of Johannesburg this year.

This year, Goodman also funded solo presentations of work by Rezaire at The Armory Show and co-funded Breitz's video installation 'TLDR' at Art Basel Unlimited. Both artists received impressive accolades from big publications as well as important curators – 'TLDR' was dubbed a stand-out piece at Art Basel and Tabita Rezaire's 'Sugar Walls Teardom' made the major press reports on The Armory Show. These solo presentations at international art fairs can be a major boost to an artist's career. Watch this space.

As far as investment goes, what is the best route to take when putting your collection together?

To treat art-collecting primarily as an investment can miss the point. I would say, buy art that forces you to see the world from another person’s perspective. To embrace art for its transformative potential is, for me, the most rewarding approach. My advice would also be to invest in younger artists or artists of your generation if you're starting out collecting in your twenties and thirties. With younger artists it can be very exciting to follow their careers and collect works from different periods in their trajectories.

Artists positioned under categories like 'woman artist’, 'queer artist' and 'artist of colour' are experiencing a spike in collector interest and museum acquisitions. The challenge is to ensure that this interest isn't seasonal and that the work is recognised for the work, not merely the subject position of the maker.

What are favourites from your personal collection of female artists?

I adore my pieces by Louise Bourgeois, Lisa Brice, Ghada Amer and Shirin Neshat. I'm drawn to art that challenges stereotypes around female sexuality in idiosyncratic and arresting ways.

Work you wish you had bought when it went for sale?

When I was dealing art, I let go of some beautiful Marlene Dumas drawings, which I wish I’d kept. The way she manipulates paint to appear semi-transparent on the surface of the canvas speaks to the simultaneous vulnerability and resilience of the body in such a distinct way.

I am particularly compelled by Zanele Muholi's recent work, but I wish I had started collecting her in the 2000s. I also wish I’d collected Julie Mehretu and Wangechi Mutu when they were emerging. Both artists have had major pieces in various curatorial initiatives that I’ve pioneered at Goodman over the past few years, which has been an incredible honour. I feel the same way about Yto Barrada, Naama Tsabar and Kara Walker, who feature incredible work on this year’s iteration of one of these curatorial initiatives, titled In Context: This Past Was Waiting For Me, which is on at Goodman Gallery Cape Town. I’d love to have their work in my personal collection. Perhaps I will one day.

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