Ungovernable: Makgati Molebatsi

Ms. Makgati Molebatsi spent the better part of her career in Marketing, expertly riding a wave towards and executive position. After attaining this and sticking it out for a decade, she decided to turn her private passion for art into a business, and has become one of the most important voices in the South African art world. As told to Mr Siphiwe Mpye.

I grew up in Sharpeville, in a corner house. We had many people passing to school, the shops, and just going about their business. My dad was a teacher, those old school teachers, and my mom a nurse at the local clinic. Everybody knew them. We had a verandah, and loved sitting outside, so there were endless greetings. Growing up, people used to have fruit trees – we did not, as our house filled the yard, so neighbours used to bring bowls of peaches, grapes, apricots to my home.

Even though I went to the same school where my dad taught – and he had a car – I walked to school like every other kid, even when it was raining! Privilege was frowned upon. I remember playing in the streets until very late, despite the curfew that my parents insisted on. They asserted that darkness must never find me in the streets, but for me, that was just when play became interesting. My favourite game was jumping rope, ‘kgati’. I don’t know if it was because of my name.

“Even though I went to the same school where my dad taught, and he had a car, I walked to school like every other kid, even when it was raining! Privilege was frowned upon.”

 Growing up in the township, patriarchy was very strong, the notion of men being superior was supposed to be a given, at school, in families, in the neighbourhood. My parents were professional and had full time jobs, equality was instilled in my home, but I felt patriarchy outside the home from an early age, playing ‘make believe families’ with other kids in the neighbourhood, boys taking on that patriarchal role.

My mum – who instilled the love of reading in me by taking me to the local library from the age of 7 – had a profound impact on me. The library was next to the clinic and she used to leave me there and continue to work during school holidays. And continuing to see to my university education after my dad passed on mid studies. At 94, she is still a voracious reader and still imparting wisdom to cherish.

In the late 90s, I was ignorant of the contemporary art world, let alone the art world. Working for the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale on a voluntary basis in the hospitality part of the administration, my responsibility was to ensure artists were sent invitation letters to arrange their visas. I worked very closely with the Artistic Director of the biennale, Okwui Enwezor, so I was exposed to the entire process of the preparations of the exhibition. I was not familiar with artists or the art they were making, so names and conversations were a new discovery for me. The art world descended on Johannesburg that first week in October 1997 – artists, Curators, Museum Directors, gallery owners, collectors. I remember walking through the exhibitions and trying to grasp the installation-based conceptual art, wondering what made it art. That is when I decided to seek more knowledge and educate myself, starting with those installations by Kay Hassan, Pat Mautlwa, Wayne Barker, Joachim Schönfeldt, Carrie Mae Weems, Yinka Shonibare, Wenda Gu, Xu Bing, Tracy Rose among others, artists whose work I still enjoy to this day.

“Growing up in the township, patriarchy was very strong, the notion of men being superior was supposed to be a given, at school, in families, in the neighbourhood.”

Back then, I felt art was my passion, and I did not want to make it my business. I was still enjoying my marketing career, and advancing in it, aiming for an executive position. After ten years in that senior position, there was no longer any excitement. I had reached a glass ceiling and I was not interested in moving to another organisation to wait out my retirement. I needed stimulation, and I reconsidered my sentiment towards not making art my business. I felt at this mature stage in my life, I could combine passion with business, enjoy it and make the most of it, which I am doing.

I think the women in the art world are determined to confront whatever sexism they encounter. Being an artist, curator, museum director, gallery owner etc. requires a lot of dedication and breaking down barriers, and I see women challenging and resisting those biases and exclusions. That is one thing which fascinated me about the art world, dealing head on with issues of gender, culture, race, identity, nationalism, patriarchy, laying them bare, questioning and being confrontational. Whether you are a woman or a man. It’s already changing, more women moving into positions of influence in the art world, in significant institutions with authority and prestige.

I needed stimulation, and I reconsidered my sentiment towards not making art my business. I felt at this mature stage in my life, I can combine passion with business, enjoy it and make the most of it, which I am doing.

As an advisor, I bring my extensive network, experience and knowledge built over 20 years of relationships locally and internationally which I bring to my advisory services. It’s more educational and empowering, beyond mere encouragement of acquisition of an artwork. I have launched the EduArt lecture series, to share this knowledge and dispel the myth of art being elitist, and encourage more people to engage with art beyond the gallery and into museums and exhibition art spaces. 

I never want to be prescriptive in which artists people should buy. Everyone is different. It depends what resonates with a person. What I can say is, look at early career artists, go to their first shows and buy what engages you, what makes you take a second look and think. It’s still affordable at this stage. It’s an artist’s early work, you will live with it for a long time, and if that artist’s career takes off, the work will be valuable as an early work illustrating his trajectory. Also, develop your eye and inform yourself, look at a lot of art. As your eye develops and you gain knowledge about artists and their careers, you will know who to buy.

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Images Supplied

EduArt Sessions are on monthly, with the first one open to the public on 19 May 2018. Visit www.makdct.com for more details.

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