Woman on top – Dr Same Mdluli
The Standard Bank Art Gallery’s new manager, DR SAME MDLULI, 35, is tasked with increasing the visibility of art. We meet the soft-spoken woman who’s ready to take on the challenge.
it’s just after 3pm. Downtown Jozi is not as busy as it probably was, say, during lunchtime. It’s a good thing, because the calm after the midday storm, prepares me as I drive towards Marshalltown, where I’ll find the quiet Standard Bank Art Gallery. Once you pass the security check, you’re greeted by majestic staircases that lead you to a vast yet open-plan space, featuring the work of some of the best critically-acclaimed artists. On the right-hand corner, there are offices neatly tucked away behind a wall. That’s where I find Dr Same Mdluli, the gallery’s new manager, appointed this year. She has a huge task ahead of her: to increase the institution’s visibility and help attract more patrons to the venue. How does she plan on doing this? “You know, after watching Black Panther with my sister, the movie triggered something in me. We can take some of our historical content and place it into contemporary spaces. We need to find new, fresh ways to make young people engage with art. One idea is to put art into a movie and make it relevant. So yes, I have sleepless nights over that because I’m constantly thinking about how we can encourage our people to come to these spaces.”
One cannot think of anybody better suited for this position. Dr Same’s academic résumé is simply inspirational. After completing a BTech in Fine Arts in 2006 at the University of Johannesburg, she graduated with an MA in Arts and Culture Management at Wits University in 2010. She’s also completed her PhD in Art History, also through Wits. The 35-year-old sharpened her art and administrative skills at places like the Goodman Gallery in Parkwood, Joburg, working as a junior research scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and as a guest researcher at another institution in Paris. And that’s just some of the work that she’s done. “I feel like my career has come full circle now. When I was growing up, I didn’t really think that I’d draw and be in the arts. I didn’t think it could be a serious career path. I only felt it possible when my parents enrolled me at the National School of Arts, instead of a normal high school. My dad had noticed that I like to draw so it made sense to study it at school,” she says softly, reflecting on how far she’s come in this tough white maledominated industry.
Her appointment as manager of an institution like the Standard Bank Gallery is important because, as Dr Same states frankly, anything that’s related to fine art is ignored by black people. We perceive it as snobbish, inaccessible and expensive. “The question is always why the appreciation of art is such a foreign thing in black communities. I’d argue that it’s not. If you look at a black family that lives in a shack, you notice that they’ve made the effort to make their space look decent and dignified. That’s a part of what art is about – humans want to be surrounded by beautiful things. So ‘fine art’ is seen as a luxury because of our social conditions. Part of my job here is to facilitate that process – for us to change our mindsets and know that art is for us too,” she explains. Her office has a magnificent view, and the smalls crowds outside, start making their way home. The Botswana-born gallery manager will focus hugely on curating art that’s made by Africans, and work hard to make it accessible to the public through vigorous marketing.
She encourages black parents to support their children if they show a keen interest in the arts. “I think my parents only started taking me seriously when I completed my PhD and I became a doctor! They had reason to be anxious because art is not something that’s associated with black success. But they had nothing to worry about because I was able to make a living from what I studied. I’ve taught in primary schools here in South Africa, as well as in Paris.”
The beret-clad artist continues: “The world is changing, and we no longer necessarily have to take up jobs that are about survival. Parents need to trust their children more. If your child shows interest in this career, guide them. Expose them to the many career paths that exist. Come to the gallery with your child and use that as a chance to bond.”
As a doctor of the arts, Dr Same reiterates that she wouldn’t be this far without education. “This is a difficult market to get into, especially here in South Africa, given our difficult history. But the advent of social media has shone a spotlight on the possibilities that exist.” The petite artist is passionate about passing on the baton. As a PhD graduate, she can now supervise other black students and share her knowledge of the arts.
Before the interview ends and rush hour traffic resumes, I ask Dr Same, now that she’s a 9-5 administrator, if she still paints or draws? “I read a lot, enjoy a good glass of red wine and yes, I do some paintings over the weekend.” I get a chance to wander around the gallery to see the current exhibition, and silently wish more people really do visit this lovely space.
The world is changing, and we no longer necessarily have to take up jobs that are about survival. Parents need to trust their children more.”
A BRONZE SCULPTURE ONCE ON DISPLAY.
PART OF THE UBUNTU EXHIBITION.
ANDREW TSHABANGU’S WORK.