The Art of Performance is a monthly column written by Dave Mann, an editor and award-winning arts journalist.
Why do we keep art in our homes? What does it mean to have a framed print, a painting, or a sculptural work in place of stock canvases and vases from home-décor stores? Does keeping art in our lived spaces serve to enhance the space itself, or to enhance our experiences of the space? Does it influence the way we go about our days, or does art simply exist to beautify a space?
Collecting art is a tricky business. Tricky because there are many factors to consider when purchasing a piece of art – price, space, value, content and more – but also tricky because collecting art can be used for rather seedy ends.
Entire fortunes can be built and sustained through collecting art. The process of buying and reselling artworks for enormous profit is one way to do so, and then there are those who dodge the taxman by ‘donating’ artworks to museums or private galleries. It’s also not uncommon to hear of groups of buyers who band together to buy up a certain artist’s works, trading them among each other until they’ve raised the value high enough, and then selling them off for dizzying amounts of money.
But as layered and complex as the art-buying market is, I’m more interested in the organic process of collecting art – buying a piece you love and keeping it in some prized spot in your home, purely for the love of the artwork.
I’m reluctant to call myself an art collector. As much as I can, I save up to purchase the works of friends and favourite artists’ works, but I’m hardly a high-flying collector with a keen eye on the market. I simply buy the work I love, and the work I can afford, and I keep it in my home.
The first piece I ever bought was an editioned print by Cape Town-based artists Mo Hassan and Inspiral. I knew of Hassan from his days as a graffiti writer, and I had recently interviewed him for a story on his new character illustrations. After combing through his Instagram and viewing his works online, I knew I wanted to have a physical work by him. We chatted via Instagram, made all the necessary transactions online, and a week or two later, a parcel containing two prints – the collab print, and another solo work by Hassan – arrived at my door. I was thrilled.
Since then, my walls have slowly been populated with original prints, paintings, and photographs by local artists. Some of them are by artists I’ve written about or followed online, many of them are by friends. Most of the works mean something to me – a memory, a message, a way of thinking or performing in, or making sense of the world. There are others that I keep purely because I think they are beautiful and I enjoy looking at them every day.
Recently, I’ve become interested in the way my generation (I’m 26 so you can consider me a millennial if you’re that way inclined) collects art. People my age grew up in the digital boom and it’s shaped, for better or for worse, the way we interact with the world.
Social media, for example, can be an interesting influence on the way we collect and engage with art.
My walls, and the walls of many of my friends, will mostly be covered with a range of artworks from different artists, across different styles, mediums, colours, and motivations. In this way, it’s not too different from the way our Instagram profiles look – a bright and chaotic grid of curated, but far-reaching influences and styles.
While young art enthusiasts still visit galleries and attend exhibition openings, it’s often through social media that we’ll end up learning more about an artist, ultimately connecting with them and buying their work.
In the home of Joburg-based writer Youlendree Appasamy, four different works adorn her walls, all of them purchased from artists she’s never met in person.
One is Oranges by UK-based illustrator Manjit Thapp, while another is Ancestral Mothers by the US-based Somnath Bhatt, and Tiny Dancers by the Eastern Cape-based artist Pola Maneli make up the other two. All of them were purchased via Instagram, with Appasamy having followed the artists on there for some time.
‘Buying art via Instagram is interesting because you see the work on a screen and when it arrives at your door, you finally get to see the detail, the brush strokes, or the artist’s signature, you know? It’s not mass-produced, it’s still personal. There’s an element of surprise almost,’ explains Appasamy. ‘I also feel more comfortable buying art through Instagram because I didn’t grow up with a sense of how art is formally purchased. I feel there’s more accessibility – you can scroll through an artist’s portfolio online and although informal, artists are truly professional. Buying through galleries or by knowing the artists personally was never something that came to mind.’
The outcome of buying an artist’s work online is no different from purchasing it through a gallery or private dealer, either. Appasamy explains that she still keeps in touch with the artists through Instagram and having their work in her home means being able to discover more about the artworks and their meanings each day.
‘The works I keep in my home reflect some aspect of who I am or who I’d like myself to be,’ she explains. ‘Art doesn’t have one fixed meaning, so the meaning I ascribe to a painting differs as my emotions do. It’s also really important to me to wake up and see the things I love. We’re often restricted from that love in our daily movements or interactions, so to find that moment every day in your home – that means a lot.’
As African art continues to grow across local and international markets, it’s unfortunate that buying a piece of art is still considered a luxury to many of us. Still, buying work from emerging artists, friends, or even prints of original artworks are ways to bring art into your home.
I once bumped into a friend who told me how, driven purely by impulse, she had just spent an alarming chunk of her salary on a piece she saw on exhibit at a gallery in Braamfontein. Eventually, she managed to pay it off in instalments over a few months – an agreement she reached with the gallerist. Still, she didn’t seem to regret the decision at all and I imagine it now makes for a good story whenever someone sees it hanging in her home.
Art has a distinct ability to capture moments in time, too. Like family albums, trinkets, or even well-worn pieces of furniture, they’re things that build up over time and serve to represent specific and personal memories. The thing about works of art, though, is that they often express these things more intimately than other objects.
I have a framed photograph taken by a Durban-based artist in my home. I was born in Durban, but didn’t grow up there. I moved away with my family when I was too young to really form any firm connections with the city, but old enough to retain a few distant, hazy memories of the city. The photo – a wistful and balmy scene at Durban’s South Beach – seems to capture all of the feelings and memories about Durban that I can’t put into words.
Similarly, I have two photographic works by a Joburg-based artist that capture and isolate two iconic Johannesburg buildings. Both images were taken in wet, stormy weather and see the buildings being shrouded in a thick, grey fog. When I first moved to Joburg, there was a lot about the city that scared and excited me, and even though the city’s now familiar to me, the photographs still remind me of those uncertain days spent traversing a brand-new city.
Maybe it’s the case that we fill our homes with art so we can be continually faced with the things that move us. So that even on the worst of days, we can look at those works and be reminded of all the things that inspire us, keep us grounded, or even irk us. And if art is simply another way of making sense of ourselves and those around us, then filling our homes with new and different works of art can only serve to make the outside world more bearable.