Being at the helm of one of the country’s most important non-commercial galleries can be a daunting task, but it can also be an exhilarating experience. It’s been just over four months since Dr Same Mdluli took on the role of manager of Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery and she’s been loving every moment of it. Dave Mann interviewed Mdluli about this new position.
Dr Same Mdluli, who holds a PhD in Art History from the University of the Witwatersrand and completed her B-Tech in Fine Arts in 2006 at the University of Johannesburg, first took up her new role in February 2018. Prior to her appointment, Mdluli worked as a chairperson of the Visual Arts Panel of the National Arts Council, and was the co-founder of Sosesame Gallery, aimed at empowering young and up-and-coming artists. Sitting behind her desk on the top floor of the gallery space, Mdluli reflects on the journey thus far.
‘I think I’ve already learned a lot,’ she explains. ‘Visual art is what I’m familiar with and what I’ve been doing all along, but this has been a great learning curve. It’s been enlightening too. We always tend to think that there’s no money in art, and working with the gallery and seeing how the corporate aspects of the work can connect with the art has been quite refreshing. The limitations aren’t as heavy, there aren’t as many constraints. It means that you can start with a much freer approach.’
Besides the usual admin that comes with the job, an average day for Mdluli can see her doing everything from engaging with visiting schoolchildren and young learners, to having the odd chat with a visitor to the gallery.
‘I’ve got a pretty open-door policy, I don’t mind it at all,’ she says. ‘Some people want to ask about the work and others just come in and say hello – that’s a nice feeling, and it’s an interesting way to see how the space comes alive, too.’
How people engage with and interpret art is something that’s close to her heart. Mdluli’s approach to contemporary art is a Pan-Africanist one – partly due to her younger years spent living in Botswana and the United States with her parents – but she’s also interested in creating and curating spaces that people can relate to through the artworks they’re seeing. When asked how contemporary institutions and galleries can work towards becoming less exclusionary spaces, Mdluli uses the example of the Smithsonian portraits of former US President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, painted by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.
To read more about what Dr Same Mdluli says about the Smithsonian portraits, making a contribution towards African art, and the next big project for the gallery – Igshaan Adams’ solo exhibition, purchase our June issue, or continue supporting the arts and culture sector by subscribing to our monthly magazine in print, or digital format.