Same Mdluli
Same Mdluli
Image: Supplied

How did your new job come about? I came across an advert advertising the position on an employment website. I then kept the application open on my computer for about a week while I contemplated whether I should apply or not. I needed time to think through why I would apply for a job slightly moving away from academia. After much thought, I decided to apply because it made sense as the next step.

What kinds of challenges do you think you’ll have in the role? I come from an academic background and one may argue that the academic world and the corporate world are very different from each other. In many ways they are but in other ways they share similarities. One of the challenges I think I will face is finding a healthy balance between the two within a creative space like a gallery.  What is reassuring is that the Standard Bank Gallery has a history of successfully marrying these two aspects with a rich variety of exhibitions.

What were your earliest memories of the gallery and how do you think they shaped your relationship as an art lover? My earliest memory of the Standard Bank Gallery would have to be the Picasso and Africa exhibition, which perhaps also prompted my interest in art history as opposed to history of art. The former shaped my relationship with gallery spaces in general and what they mean not only as an art lover but more importantly as an arts scholar. There are still very few spaces where one can go and quietly view art in Johannesburg. These tend to be commercialised and are usually concentrated in one area or locale. The Standard Bank Gallery thus left an impression on me because of where it was located and its staging of a significant international show.

How do you see your role as manager of the gallery? My role at the gallery is first and foremost to manage the gallery efficiently to be a self-sustaining space, but also to create a strong exhibition programme that increases the visibility of the gallery and the sponsorship work that Standard Bank does. Part of my role will be to derive and co-curate exhibitions that encourage and stimulate a consistent and growing flow of audiences to visit the gallery. The other focus will of course include extending the visibility of the gallery to other parts of the continent. 

Your star as a player in the art has risen steadily over the years. Could you share bits of your story that you feel got you here? Someone who is very confident once said to me that they knew their name was written in the stars. I remember thinking “…of course it is! Everybody’s name is written in the stars…” But what I learnt at that moment was that indeed the universe is filled with galaxies and galaxies of stars with all of our names - it is just that some shine brighter than others, depending on where you are looking from.

That is a kind of philosophical anecdote, but a more realistic answer is that I believe I am where I am because I decided very early on that in addition to being passionate I would be dedicated, diligent, and enjoy the journey towards achieving my goals and that the journey would be a holistic one encompassing my mind, body and soul.

Many parents don’t approve of art as a field of study for their children. How did you convince your folks? My parents have always been supportive of my decisions so long as they did not bring harm to me and others and more importantly their pockets. Interestingly it was their decision to take me to art school from high school onwards for reasons unknown to me other than that I could draw and paint and one of my cousins was at the same school. I attended the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein and have been studying art since, but I think they were finally convinced when I completed my PhD almost two years ago.

Art galleries can be intimidating spaces. This often scares people who end-up choosing to stay away and not to visit them. How big a concern is this for you going into the role? This is not only a big concern, but I believe wherein lies the dilemma of the nexus between South African audiences and art spaces. It becomes a question of how to make a gallery space not only an inviting space but also a welcoming space. One way of doing this is to as much as possible allow for audiences to have experiences that reflect a sense of who they are but also challenge their social thinking and comfort zones. In other words, while there is a guideline for how exhibitions are selected it will also be important to consider what kind of exhibitions audiences would like to see. It will be as important to integrate this within Standard Bank’s strategic goals for sponsorship and the group as a whole.

Interest in African art, and South African art has grown exponentially recently in the global imagination. How do you see the role of non-commercial galleries like the Standard Bank Gallery in this growing cultural landscape? Non-commercial galleries are part of the art market – like art fairs, art museums, commercial art galleries, art schools, art residencies etc. They are as important in shaping what constitutes this market. Galleries like the Standard Bank Gallery become important firstly in their institutional capacity to provide resources and sponsorship for the growth and development of the arts. With its extensive history the gallery is also part of a heritage legacy focused on the preservation and conservation of classical African art but also the promotion of contemporary African art.

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