Givon broke down art barriers and built up artists

Linda Givon founded the Goodman Gallery and showed works by artists of all races when it was illegal to do so. Her death is a loss to the artists and institutions she championed.

The idea of writing a conventional tribute to Linda Givon, the founder of the Goodman Gallery, who died suddenly on 5 October 2020 at 84, seems trite. This is because she was much more than the pedestrian sum of her parts. She turned the South African art world from the 1960s upside down and on its head and gave and exposed South African artists to an international audience.

In 2011, she told art critic Wilhelm van Rensburg that she was not interested in writing a conventional autobiography. She wanted to pen something you could “open at any page and find something interesting to read”. Her life was arguably like that. Givon was flamboyant and understated, generous and direct. When she was acknowledged as the 2019 recipient of the Business Art South Africa (Basa) Art Champion award, she said: “Having lived through really gruelling times in South Africa, for the purpose of empowering disadvantaged and disinherited artists, I felt it my mission to keep the heart of art pumping.”

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The seeds for Givon’s career were sown when she was a child. Her fascination with everything to do with outer space matured into the more pragmatic idea of gallery space and its complicated currency on the walls of a black box (her Hyde Park gallery) or a white box (her Jan Smuts Avenue gallery), according to the dictates of exhibiting fashion.

Born on 2 August 1936 to Morris and Hetty Finger, who had immigrated to South Africa from Eastern Europe, she read for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Witwatersrand, before studying drama in London. She later interned professionally at the Grosvenor Gallery, under its American founder Eric Estorick. Givon grew into a powerful figure in the South African art world, living in the cut and thrust of this world and finding relevance even as apartheid continued to hold. 

Founding the Goodman Gallery

Givon was just 30 when she launched her storefront gallery space in Hyde Park. Thirty years later, the gallery reinvented itself into the white landmark that now sits in the heart of the Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank – the Goodman Gallery. For many years, the space was one of a few commercial galleries dealing in contemporary art in South Africa, and this had the world’s attention. 

The establishment of the Goodman Gallery in 1966 entered into an art space that favoured the generally parochial, pretty and safe. A world in which mainstream art toed the party line, and where the works did not upset the hearts and bigotries of its audiences – your landscapes, still lifes and the like. 

Givon, however, established her gallery against these ideas and the oppressive apartheid system, undermining the racist regime’s stranglehold as she worked to get black and white South African artists the acclaim they deserved.

In a society and time defined by racism, Givon – fearless in her self-belief – gave prominence to such artists as Dumile Feni, Ezrom Legae, Durant Sihlali, Johannes Segogela and Willie Bester. These were individuals with voices that were fresh and fierce, unique and unapologetic.

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It was not only gallery prominence that Givon presented to her “stable” of artists. She gave them much more. Her work cocked a snoot at the cliché of talented artists dying unknown in their ateliers. She made these artists known, helping them to earn a living through their art too – doing so long before it was permissible and legal for black artists to show their work in a world designated “white” by the apartheid regime. Indeed, the story of exhibiting artists masquerading as waiters at the gallery’s exhibition openings, in case of intrusion by security police, is a hallmark of the era.

As The New York Times noted: “She soon discovered that the reality of running a gallery during apartheid was quite different from selling works of art from revolutionary periods long past. ‘I was constantly getting into my car and driving down to the cop shop to bail my artists out for pass offences,’ she said, referring to the notorious ‘pass books’ that all blacks were required to carry.”

In 2008, she sold the Goodman Gallery to Liza Essers, a former financial consultant. Essers has since expanded Goodman’s programme to focus on artists from countries with “shared colonial histories”.

Aware of art and society

Known for her immense generosity and wisdom, Givon was no walkover. She knew her own value and the effect of her presence. Privately, she was a quiet person with simple tastes. Her work in South African visual art over the years reflected deeply on her awareness of not only art, but also of society. She was critical of other commercial galleries in the city, which habitually “lauded artists who made pretty scenes of the townships, so that the white elite who bought these works could believe they were doing their bit for the blacks but were just living with pretty pictures”.

Respected as one of a few gallerists to really be dealing in contemporary South African art, she focused on artists with fire in their bellies. This included renowned artists like William Kentridge, David Koloane, Walter Battiss and Norman Catherine.

The gallery hosted performance artist Steven Cohen too. His first show was in 1999, in Nobody loves a Fairy when she’s 40. Exhibiting with Peet Pienaar in a controversial work about circumcision, Cohen opened the show with a performance which found him naked and in the window overlooking Jan Smuts Avenue. Cohen, who currently lives in France and has often described how that exhibition was pivotal to giving him the courage to develop his extreme repertoire, said that he was gutted at the news of Givon’s death. 

Liberated voices 

Much more than a sedate queen of art, sitting in her plush and art-filled office, Givon never restricted herself to those laurels. Over the years she stood on toes, banged on authoritarian doors, curated, thought and fought in her quest to develop the art world itself. She was giving too. 

She donated art to institutions around the country and was often an anonymous donor to causes that appealed to her. Hers was a significant voice in community art centres too. 

In a statement, senior curator at the Goodman Gallery Neil Dundas honoured Givon as “a rock in her championship of liberated voices, pens, cameras, pencils and brushes, and the role of art in a new South Africa”. 

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In 1999, Cape Town-based artist and writer Sue Williamson said it would be impossible to imagine what the South African art scene in the absence of the Goodman Gallery would be. She too exhibited there.

The gallery still exists, but the fact that Givon doesn’t any longer feels catastrophic and, to some, an orphaning. Tracey Rose, another of the gallery’s significant artists, said: “Linda was the womb of contemporary South African art. Without her presence, this present would have been unimaginable.”

Givon leaves behind her brother Michael, her daughter Lee and her son Robert and their families – and an art community profoundly affected by her life and legacy.

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