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.

True Love - - Contents - By ZETHU ZULU

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.”




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