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A Quarter-Century for the Bag Factory

Over the last 25 years, the Bag Factory in Fordsburg has served as a space to facilitate, educate and provide opportunities for cultural exchange for both local and international artists.

With its 18 studios, residency programmes, regular exhibitions, educational workshops, curator programme and training opportunities for artists, the Bag Factory plays a key role in nurturing and promoting South African artists.

In the late 1980s, following renowned South African artist Dr David Koloane’s engagements with artist workshops and artists’ studios during his studies in London and visits to New York, the initial idea for what is today the Bag Factory was born. Koloane was inspired by the Triangle Workshop, started by artist Anthony Caro and art collector and philanthropist Robert Loder in New York, as well as the Stockwell Depot studios in London.

Donated by the city, Stockwell Depot was a disused former brewery in south London that functioned as a co-operative studio and exhibition space that heralded the emergence of the London artists’ studio movement and gained international recognition as a centre for abstraction in Britain. Having witnessed the way in which artists were able to work in these studios, occupying a private space to create while easily able to work with the artists around them, Koloane brought this ‘new’ idea of artist studios back to South Africa.

A Quarter-Century for the Bag Factory
Pat Mautloa and David Koloane. Sunday Times. 04 July 1993.

After speaking to local artists to gauge interest, Koloane approached Robert Loder with the idea and he agreed to purchase such a space – if they could find one. Scouring Johannesburg for a building with potential was tough at first, says Koloane, particularly with the racial divides and most areas being strictly ‘white’ or ‘black’. It didn’t take long though for the ideal building, an old hessian bag factory in a ‘grey’ area, to be found.

Although procuring local funding to turn the factory into individual studios took time, they were ready for occupation in 1991 and David Koloane, Pat Mautloa and Sam Nhlengethwa moved in. They were soon joined by Mark Atwood and Joachim Schönfeldt. Other artists who took up residence included such present-day luminaries as William Kentridge, Penny Siopis, Helen Sibide, Wayne Barker, Benon Lutaaya, Ricky Burnett and Deborah Bell.

Today, the Bag Factory is part of the international Triangle Network, a group of 30 similar spaces from around the world, keeping the studios continually connected to the international contemporary art scene.

A Quarter-Century for the Bag Factory
Helen Sibidi in her studio, 1994.

From the very beginning, an integral part of the Bag Factory has been the residency programmes. Although now a desirable space for artists from around the world, the residency programmes started quite casually and organically, says Koloane.

Officially started in 1996, the Visiting Artists Programme is a three-month residency programme that allows for twelve artists from around the world to visit throughout the year. Once in residence, the artists create works, interact with the local art community and experience Joburg’s diverse cultural environment. Key for both visiting and local artists is the networking opportunities that these residencies provide. At the end of the residency, the artists hold open studios and public exhibitions.

For artists who can afford it, the Artist in Residence, selffunded programme provides self-catered accommodation and a studio for rent, along with support from the studio’s staff and artists. ‘Apart from our residency programmes, we offer professional skills workshops to our artists as well as the public, such as video art, animation and performance art, which are not generally taught in art schools,’ says the Bag Factory. ‘When there is funding, we offer an audience development programme, for example, where a school is bussed in from a township to visit the studios and interact with the artists. It is often the first time children from disadvantaged areas have been to a gallery or come into contact with art in their life.

‘We also offer a curator programme for young people to learn curating skills, taught and guided by experienced curators.’

A Quarter-Century for the Bag Factory
The Bag Factory, Mahlathini Street. Pat Mautloa. Acyrilc on canvas, 2005.

In addition, the Bag Factory has partnered with the Barclays L’Atelier competition to provide one non-South African merit award winner a three-month residency, bringing him or her into contact with some of South Africa’s most exciting talents.

Pat Mautloa, who was one of the first artists to have a studio at the Bag Factory and is now a member of the board, says that art has always been a unifying medium to bring those who lived in separate worlds together. ‘Now our artists in residence are ambassadors for South Africa, and they come from all over the globe,’ he says.

Artists who have been residents at the Bag Factory demonstrate how the organisation has given many unknown artists their big break. Benon Lutaaya, originally from Uganda, is now a hugely successful artist in his own right, commanding upwards of R40 000 for a painting. He is known for his powerful paper collage portraiture paintings, ‘recycling’ his materials as a medium by creating giant collages out of pieces of paper on which he previously mixed his paints. Lutaaya’s work often focuses on isolation and the fragility of life.

A Quarter-Century for the Bag Factory
Bag Factory artists examine a model workshopped by Public Works

Blessing Ngobeni applied for and won the Reinhold Cassirer Award in 2012 and his career has blossomed since. He feels that this experience has benefitted him both ‘artistically and personally’. ‘My works are now being recognised around the world. Art collectors know my work. All the media recognition I’ve got has stemmed from winning this award,’ says Ngobeni.

At its core, the Bag Factory is a space for collaboration, inclusion and the creation of opportunities for artists working in a variety of media from around the world. This once abandoned space has, for 25 years, provided a home and a foundation for many of South Africa’s top artists.

To celebrate this, the Bag Factory hosted a retrospective exhibition on 28 October, followed by an auction of works, in partnership with the Absa Gallery, Strauss & Co and Creative Feel, on 17 November, in order to raise funds to continue providing the space that is so vital for the continued creation of art in South Africa.

For more information on the Bag Factory anniversary events, please visit their Facebook page.

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