27 Nov 2023 ///

RESERVOIR Projects on their unmediated, curatorial lens in South Africa’s artistic landscape

The structures organised around the artistic process are intricate; an interplay between communities and commercial markets, art has been mapped within these nuanced (and often contradicting) systems, intended to exist across many forms of experience; from distribution – to commodification – to appreciation and celebration. Whether it is the artists themselves, the galleries and institutions, collectors and audiences – there is perhaps no role that necessitates more function and advocacy than that of the curator. Acting as translators and interpreters between the domain of artists, their work and the rest of the world; curatorship extends beyond mere selection or contextual placement of artistic work. To curators, we often owe the meticulous shaping of a narrative and critical engagement; that ‘moment’ felt by all our senses, when we are standing in the midst of an exhibition, surrounded by tangible demonstrations of a person’s (artist/s) inner landscape. 

RESERVOIR Projects, a curatorial partnership between Heinrich Groenewald and Shona van der Merwe, is a response to this complex ecosystem of relationships, experiences, opportunities and vision of the artworld – both systemically and personally. Shona and Heinrich share a decade-long veteranship in South Africa’s art industry and through the vehicle of Reservoir, they experiment with the role of ‘curator’ through an independent, unmediated lens. Unencumbered by the often-inflated and siloed institutional structure of the art industry, the duo have the refreshing vantage point of focusing wholly on relationships. When most ‘rebellions’ against an institutional framework occur, it is likely born out of contempt – except RESERVOIR exists totally otherwise. No, this is not a response to the art industry in order to ‘disrupt’; rather, RESERVOIR is offering the South African artistic landscape a profound dose of independence; a required remedy to maintain the health of any ecosystem.

Heinrich and Shona by Paris Brummer, Amber Moir artwork in the background.

Heinrich and Shona have each cultivated careers rooted in respect and dedication; particularly centering trust as a basis to engage with artists and collaborators. In asking them how RESERVOIR began, Heinrich explains that “when we started this process together in 2021, we said yes to every opportunity. I think we still do, so long as our focus is always moderated with what the arts ecology can offer us, and what we can offer it. Very soon, we realised that the art world was a very warm, welcoming space – and we had all these people, especially artists, who have supported Reservoir more than we could have ever expected. People who literally lent us their bakkie or offered their hands. When we started curating shows as RESERVOIR, artists were willing to give us work. It has really catapulted us to a place where we have to stand for our credibility – it us only, Shona and I, as the RESERVOIR team.” This unconstrained and personal aspect of Reservoir – in which artists are directly engaged with Shona and Heinrich – lends itself to a distinct focus on quality in each project that RESERVOIR undertakes, across every single detail. 

Shona explains that, “it’s been exactly ten years since we have been in the industry and those years have been so important to our learning. While you’re being an administrator or a junior curator, you get to see the mistakes being made and it has definitely shaped how we approach projects and exhibitions, especially through our relationships with artists. The artworld can be quite chaotic and boundless – the rules are grey and bendy – so we have had to make sure that we create our own parameters as RESERVOIR.” 

RESERVOIR is two years old and can be understood in two phases. Its initial conception was as a nomadic gallery, in which RESERVOIR produced group shows in collaboration with contemporary galleries such as WHATIFTHEWORLD, THK Gallery, THEFOURTH and the Norval Foundation at Boschendal. In its second year, RESERVOIR has found its own home in Bree St, Cape Town – along with a permanent gallery space, has come a natural focus on solo exhibitions. On this, Heinrich says “solo shows offer a much more engaged process with an artist. It is about their work and their work at large – as opposed to curating singular pieces in a group narrative – instead, we are able to focus our energy on their entire body of work into a cohesive narrative that represents them entirely.”

Exhibited at Artissima 2023 BY Dale Lawrence, titled ‘Forget most of what you read’, 2023, clear packaging tape, digital print on paper. Photo by Paris Brummer.

Exhibited at Artissima 2023 BY Dale Lawrence, titled ‘Forget most of what you read’, 2023, clear packaging tape, digital print on paper. Photo by Paris Brummer.

Exhibited at Artissima 2023, Inga Somdyala ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold V’, Soil, ash, chalk and oxides on canvas. Photo by Paris Brummer.

Exhibited at Artissima 2023, Inga Somdyala, ‘History is Written in the Tracks You Leave Behind’, 2023. Ochre, iron oxides and waxed thread on canvas, Kiaat frame. Photo by Paris Brummer.

In this respect, RESERVOIR is able to function as a bridge for artists; particularly so in a landscape in which funding, infrastructures, grants and residencies are relatively minimal in South Africa’s creative landscape. On their initial foray into collaborating with other galleries, Shona describes how “it made sense to do group exhibitions at the time. Essentially, we were bringing together various parts of artist’s practices that were already well developed that fit together through our curatorial lens. Often, we didn’t have a very clear theme with our shows; it was just a very organic process that occurred while talking to artists in their studios, making connections and finding those common threads.”

Shona expands on how their understanding of curatorship was defined during those early days of RESERVOIR, saying “taste-making and story-telling are some of the most important things you can have in your arsenal in the 21st century, and this is essentially what we are doing as curators. In South Africa, there is a curatorship within institutional or archival frameworks – but almost all art on the continent has a commercial aspect to it, so understanding through taste-making has been very important for us.” 

Now that RESERVOIR has its own space, there is a new level of agency available to Heinrich and Shona’s curatorial partnership. Since February of this year, their shifted focus to nurturing artists for solo exhibitions has signified what the platform can offer – as Shona explains that “having our own space has created more independence for us. We were always independent but in going into another space – there are natural limitations as to what you can do. Our own space has definitely shown us a new level of success that we can achieve with artists.” of this direct relationship with artists, Heinrich notes that, “I had a lot of time to co-create with artists with whatever the reality of the moment was. I think that created a very important facet in how we understand art management. We recognise the critical need for security for artists in what is a very precarious or vulnerable situation; where you’re creating work in your altar space or studio, the realm in which your ideas come to be, and for those works to then go out into this sterile, cube environment for the whole world to view and critique. We have seen firsthand how important it is for those who are facilitating those moments, to have a sense of how profound or daunting this process can be for artists, and to have empathy as curators.”

Recently, RESERVOIR was affirmed in an incredible feat, becoming the recipients of the New Entries Fund award for their presentation at the 30th edition of Artissima in Turin, Italy. The jury, composed by titanic figures in the international art landscape – such as the former directors of the fair Ilaria Bonacossa, Director of the MNAD – National Museum of Digital Art – Milano, Sarah Cosulich, Director of Pinacoteca Agnelli, Torino –  Andrea Bellini, Director Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, and Francesco Manacorda, new Director of the Castello di Rivoli – noted their decision, saying “the exhibition proposed by the gallery RESERVOIR impressed the jury for its coherence and refinement in the dialogue of the two artists involved. The gallery, given its curatorial approach, presents works of great interest in a display of institutional quality.” RESERVOIR showcased artists Inga Somdyala and Dale Lawrence at Artissima. On receiving this award, Shona explains that “we had immense trust in both Inga and Dale, and we were able to create a link and a relationship between artists that would hold for the fair.” 

RESERVOIR. ‘As Far As The Sea’. A solo exhibition by Inga Somdyala. Photo by Paris Brummer.
RESERVOIR. ‘Something about this place’. A solo by Bella Knemeyer, Installation view. Photo by Paris Brummer.

Installation view, RESERVOIR at Artissima 2023. Photo by Matteo Losurdo.
Inga Somdyala in residence with RESERVOIR. Photo by Sihle Sogaula.

Heinrich notes, “both Inga and Dale explore post-coloniality through their practice, by means of referencing themes of a post-Apartheid South Africa, sourcing inspiration from authors who write about this precariousness transition, and by exploring material forms that speak to the ideas of land, identity and nationhood. So for us, it was about expressing that cohesion between two artists that come from different backgrounds, through a variety of unifying links.”

To be emerging as a gallery and platform, with notoriety built on trust, incisive attention to detail and an unbridled approach to the possibilities for curatorship; RESERVOIR are proving just how central the notion of relationships and care is for building South Africa’s artistic future. We cannot wait to see what comes next for this beautiful partnership. 

Upcoming exhibitions at RESERVOIR:
A solo exhibition by Jeanne Gaigher
Opening: 2 December 2023 

Follow Reservoir HERE

Written by: Holly Beaton

For more news, visit the Connect Everything Collective homepage www.ceconline.co.za

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