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Linda Givon: The Woman who Changed the Face of SA Art

Linda Givon and her incredible impact on SA Art is celebrated through a new exhibition. Mary Corrigall reflects on her layered legacy.

Walter Battiss might not have flourished in the way he did without Linda Givon’s influence. It’s a bold statement, nevertheless one that Neil Dundas, a senior curator at the Goodman Gallery, stands by. Even though he concedes that the late artist enjoyed a great career before he encountered Linda Givon, a doyenne of the art world and founder of that gallery.

‘She really encouraged his real coming out as openly bisexual, to break borders in his personal life and in his art. I think people had previously tried to restrain him and she believed in fostering his identity and personality. This allowed him to blossom,’ observes Dundas. There are countless stories and examples of how Linda Givon identified talent and supported South African artists.

Indeed, many of the country’s most well-known artists all came to prominence through the Goodman Gallery during Linda Givon’s management. From Dumile Feni, William Kentridge, Ezrom Legae and Robert Hodgins, to David Goldblatt, Kendall Geers and Penny Siopis. Kagiso Patrick Mautloa worked as a graphic designer for the SABC before Givon encouraged him to become a full-time artist in the mid-1990s. ‘She had this way of challenging you and pushing you towards the deep end. I don’t know where I would be now if I had not made the leap,’ he says.

Linda Givon: The Woman who Changed the Face of SA Art
William Kentridge. Nandi with Constellation. Drawing for Felix in Exile, 1994. Charcoal and pastel on paper. 80x120cm.

Linda Givon started the Goodman Gallery in the mid-1960s after working at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. She undoubtedly gained experience and insights during her internship there but it doesn’t fully account for her savvy. Including her development in the South African art world and the Goodman Gallery as one of the first bona fide contemporary art galleries. Koulla Xinisteris shares that ‘she had her ear to the ground and her eye was always on the ball. She is the curator who grew the SABC art collection as well as directed the Bag Factory, among other achievements.

Dundas suggests that Linda Givon’s ability to understand artists and guide rather than control their talent helped set the Goodman Gallery apart. ‘She never dictated to the artists what to make and was always open-minded. Giving them room to fly,’ he says. Linda Givon made time for artists and was hands on, according to Mautloa. ‘She installed many of my exhibitions herself.’

Mautloa encountered her decades earlier when she first set up the Goodman Gallery in Hyde Park. Later moving it into a building on Jan Smuts Avenue. Here, it has become a Joburg landmark and inspired the art strip along this busy artery. ‘She was not a fly-by-night and took her gallery and artists seriously. Linda Givon changed the face of art in South Africa.’ Xinisteris frequented the gallery and quickly found that any artwork worth investing in was to be found at the Goodman Gallery. If she procured work from an auction, it could be traced back to the Goodman. ‘Everyone who was anyone had been through the Goodman Gallery.’

Goodman’s dominance shifted as the scene began to expand with the entry of other strong players. Such as Stevenson Gallery and Smac Gallery, as well as the expansion of the Everard Read into Cape Town. Many factors hampered the growth of the art scene in the 1970s and ‘80s – no more so than apartheid laws, which not only restricted the rise of black artists but SA’s standing in international art circles.

Linda Givon: The Woman who Changed the Face of SA Art
Sydney Kumalo. Warrior Queen. Drawing, 1983. On New Revolutions.

Linda Givon wasn’t blind to this and much of her legacy appears to be rooted in her determination to defy apartheid legislation and the pervasive censorship it engendered. She promoted the work of black artists and encouraged black patrons to frequent the gallery. ‘I had not seen such a mix of black and white people outside of the courts,’ Dundas states.

Many artists appreciated the way she promoted their art elsewhere in the world – a time before SA participated in art fairs. ‘I think there were few artists in her stable that did not travel overseas with her. She took my work to Houston and Belgium and made introductions. She knew influential people,’ Mautloa recalls. Ill health is largely what appears to have weakened her active role in the gallery and finally lead to its sale to Liza Essers.

Off the Wall presented a selection of the artworks she displayed in her home and showed at the Wits Art Museum. The exhibition might well be the first public nod to this art pioneer. She was instrumental in raising funds to establish the gallery among many other philanthropic contributions that extend beyond the art world.

Dundas notes how fortuitous it is that an exhibition of Walter Battiss’s art was on display at WAM at the same time as Off the Wall. He views this coincidence as a reminder of her impact on this artist and adds, ‘It has brought artist and benefactor full circle, generating a new awareness that art is not only made by artists.’

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