Within the Gallery with: Emilie Démon

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Established in Johannesburg in 2005, Afronova grew to become one of the first galleries to show Malian master photographer Malick Sidibé in 2007 and Mozambican photojournalist Ricardo Rangel in 2008

After nearly half a century of virulent white supremacy, apartheid finally came to an end. On twenty-seven April 1994, the new South African constitution went into effect, giving Black and other ethnicity groups the right to vote. General elections were held, and two weeks later, on 10 May, Nelson Mandela became president.  

Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously coined the term “rainbow nation” to describe the particular promise of equality plus unity in South Africa. Even though that idea has yet to be realised, back in the ‘90s hope for a better future leaped high. In 1995, Belgian art dealer Henri Vergon (1968–2020) arrived in Johannesburg for any three-month stay and discovered inspiration in the people who acquired fought so long for their independence.

“After the sanctions had lifted, people were permitted to live normally and the art completely changed. People have been making resistance art, and now they were free to move inward and tell their own stories. Henri fell in love with the power and decided to stay, ” says Emilie Démon, movie director of Afronova Gallery .  

© Alice Mann.

Vergon opened Afronova in the Central Business Region (CBD) in 2005. “During apartheid, the CBD was very bohemian but right after Mandela was freed, all the white people moved to the particular suburbs, ” says Démon. “When Henri opened the particular gallery in the CBD, the rest of the gallerists said, ‘Are a person crazy? Collectors will never visit you. ’ It wasn’t where the money has been, but Henri wanted to end up being close to the heart of the town and the artists. Being light and having an art photo gallery with local artists has been very political. ”

Working with some of the most progressive and important artists in South Africa and the Global South since 2006, Afronova became one of the first galleries and museums to show Malian master photographer Malick Sidibé in 2007 and Mozambican photojournalist Ricardo Rangel in 2008.  

After Démon met Vergon in her native Japan in the early 2000s, both wed and she accompanied your pet to South Africa in 2007. “I got involved with Afronova by going to student exhibition open positions at the Market Photo Course, ” she says. “I connected with artists and started to bring them in. ” Démon soon joined the photo gallery and helped give it a brand new shape.

© Lebohang Kganye.

Influenced by their different backgrounds, breathing difficulties and fields of expertise — hers in art and cinema and his within art and urban revitalization — they brought the layered, non-linear approach to the gallery, favouring the hybrid expression of theatre, materials, film, poetry, and efficiency.  

“When we began, Henri was working with Skillet African artists, ” says Démon, who notes the particular gallery closed its CBD space and moved to Newtown. “A city developer desired to make it the cultural region, and we were invited to participate at the very beginning when there is only one gallery and one bar. Now it’s the most fashionable place, very gentrified. ”

But , ultimately Vergon and Démon didn’t require an actual physical space to operate. They made a decision to focus exclusively on performers from Johannesburg including a brand new generation of photographers Lebohang Kganye, Phumzile Khanyile, Sibusiso Bheka and Alice Mann. “To lose the physical space liberated us. Rather than waiting for the collectors in the future, we went to New York, London and Paris to meet the collectors, ” says Démon.

© Phumzile Khanyile.

“Instead of paying lease, we would inject the money straight into artists — but we don’t work with many musicians because it’s a full dedication. When we meet an designer it has to click. We have to make sure they understand the long-term strategy: art fairs, art gallery exhibitions, publications, and vital writing. We don’t adjust to the market; we create a market for each artist. ”

Afronova furthermore works with young artists to mentor them and provide them with the tools to understand the industry. “We can’t represent them all, yet at least we can guide all of them, ” says Démon, who gives her advice with us. “For young artists seeking gallery representation, I tell them the easiest way is to apply for awards plus residencies. Even if they do not earn, there may be that one person in the selection committee who drops in love with their work plus invites them to be in a good exhibition, write about them, or introduce them to a museum director. It’s all about developing connections in the community. ”

Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a Fresh York-based writer focusing on artwork, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books by Arlene Gottfried, Allan Tannenbaum, and Harvey Stein, as well as magazines and websites including  Time,   Vogue,   Aperture, Dazed, AnOther, and  Vice, among others.

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