Ten years have passed since Liza Essers took ownership of Goodman Gallery, and evidence of her journey towards making it what it is today can be found all over the house she shares with her husband, fine-wristwatch dealer Peter Machlup, and six-year-old son David. Inside the home’s walls are her life’s stories, from her upbringing in Durban as the daughter of a Libyan-immigrant mother to her first career starting out in the corporate world, and the many other hats she wears: film producer in Oscar-nominated movie Tsotsi, indie curator, gallerist, philanthropist, wife and mother.
The property is located on a quiet street in the suburb of Atholl in Joburg, and could not be further from the art world’s cold, white cubes. Rather, it was built to emulate the charm of a French barn, becoming an unfussy family space where the couple’s contemporary art and furniture collection could sit comfortably among children’s toys, rumbunctious pets and inherited antiques.
Architecturally, the house is organised around two central living areas that open through louvre shutters onto formal gardens. The former are defined by monumental rafter-beam ceilings, from which hang striking wrought-iron chandeliers. The rooms share screeded concrete floors that become a canvas for the family’s collection of antique rugs, and the lounge and kitchen-cum-dining spaces are presided over by dramatic, double-volume fireplaces that counter the Highveld’s icy winter.
Visitors to the family’s home are met with some of their Campana pieces, designed by Brazilian brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana. The moving parts of one of their Skitsch woodlamps are haphazardly arranged in the foyer alongside an enormous Shirin Neshat portrait, and a step away is one of the more cheeky Campana pieces, Soft Toy Banquette chair, made of stitched-together plush animals. The Campana works, Liza explains, were bought when she first exhibited them at Goodman Gallery’s project space at Arts on Main in 2011.
Her love affair with classic contemporary design will again find exhibition space as she prepares to relaunch European design brand Ligne Roset in SA with businesswoman Karen Liebmann at a dedicated showroom in Kramerville, Johannesburg. Classic Togo lounge pieces from Ligne Roset currently take centre stage in her living space.
Major works by William Kentridge hang throughout the home alongside pieces by David Goldblatt and Sam Nhlengethwa — three of her biggest mentors over the course of her time at the helm of Goodman Gallery. Liza says the three artists were her strongest allies against the opposition she faced when first taking over the gallery.
‘The art world a decade ago in this country was a very different place to what it is today. I was one of a few female gallerists at the time and I faced a lot of hostility from the boys’ club when I stepped into the business. But 10 years later it’s become more collegial,’ she says with a smile.
Today, of the 30 artists she has brought into Goodman Gallery’s stable, nearly half are female – her greatest achievement in her time as director, she says. Her home contains work by some of her favourites such as Marlene Dumas, Sheila Hicks, Bridget Riley, Ghada Amer and Shirin Neshat. ‘It’s interesting that of the women I’ve brought onto the Goodman roster, most of them – from Candice Breitz to Grada Kilomba, Kapwani Kiwanga, Gabrielle Goliath and Tracey Rose – work in performance-based and video-installation mediums. These are not easy commercial mediums. They can be demanding to experience and challenging in their subject matter. Tracey Rose is one of the first woman artists I brought into the stable; her work is radical, vulnerable, playful and disturbing all at once. I am deeply respectful of her position in South African art history and compelled to practices like hers, which so unapologetically challenge power structures.’
Outside the house’s front door is a bronze gorilla, entitled ‘One Party State’ – a piece gifted by Brett Murray from his controversial 2012 Hail To The Thief exhibition that famously brought South Africa to a standstill for its controversial portrayal of former president Jacob Zuma in the now legendary ‘The Spear’ painting.
Architecturally, the house is organised around two central living spaces that open through louvre shutters onto the property’s formal gardens.
Reflecting on it, she says that time was ‘one of the lowest points of my career. It was very traumatic. When there are 5 000 people marching outside your gallery wanting to burn it down and [African National Congress chairperson] Gwede Mantashe is calling you personally on your cellphone… People didn’t realise that I had a six-week-old baby! I was on maternity leave, breastfeeding at home, when I got a knock on my door with an application from the High Court that had been brought by the ANC, Jacob Zuma and his children.’
Above all, she observes, trying to balance motherhood, marriage and her profession is the hardest thing she has ever had to do. ‘My son is the most important person in my life, hands down. The choices I make come down to juggling being a mother, partner and gallerist. Navigating these roles is a challenge and a thrill. For the past 10 years, I’ve been committed to platforming artists who challenge power structures. This has been the guiding force behind my expansion of the roster. Tracey Rose puts it well when she says, “Good art comes from within; what you create comes from another place. If you are going to make decor art, go paint at Zoo Lake.”’