Imagine, in this moment, being able to come face-to-face with a 1.8m tall toy soldier in Johannesburg. An army-green figure stands astride a black horse made from a cut-out of a horse’s head attached to a long stick for a body. Zoom in on boots melted into a solid green base. It is a figure with distinctly feminine features: breasts concealed underneath a puff-sleeved jacket, in place of a military coat; and a soft face. Imagine being able to view Mary Sibande’s sculpture In the midst of chaos there is opportunity up close. Right now.
Then contemplate being able immediately to sit down on a fibrous, tree-like bench in Cape Town, while considering Zimbabwean artist Tatenda Chidora’s arresting blue-veiled image, Metamorphosis II.
Imagine doing all of this, within the space of minutes. You would be beholding pieces that have done the rounds in prestigious spaces already. Sibande’s artwork was featured as part of a group exhibition at BKhz Gallery in Johannesburg in January, while Chidora’s image and Houtlander’s bench were shown at BKhz’s Cape Town pop-up gallery in February.
These exhibitions are among several that can be viewed right now, alongside each other. Gallerist and artist Banele Khoza has found a creative way to cheat Covid-19’s restrictions: a digital window that transcends place.
Opportunity in chaos
Khoza has managed to keep the doors to his exhibitions open, virtually. Beyond the walls of lockdown, BKhz has created gallery tours that provide digital portals to the outside world.
Working with 3dtours, a company that specialises in online showcases of physical spaces in the property and interior design sectors, Khoza has broken the walls between art, art gallery and viewer. In another of his virtual gallery experiences, the 2018 solo exhibition, Seeking Love, we can also go back in time and better understand the progression of Banele Khoza, the artist, to Banele Khoza, the curator.
In a time when our connection to the art world is mostly through digital platforms, BKhz’s Virtual Tours offers a virtual reality experience unlike that of simply scrolling online. The tours allow visitors to walk the floor plans of each gallery and the opportunity to zone in on each of the artworks exhibited.
Khoza did not have to do it. In a time when online engagement is at an all-time high as the world attempts to #StayHome and reduce Covid-19 infections, social media would have served Khoza’s studio just fine. But when asked about why he added virtual tours to his gallery’s repertoire, Khoza reveals his commitment to making art accessible. It is a commitment to the public and potential investors alike. It is a hallmark of his work with BKhz.
“We began utilising virtual tours to better communicate with our clients and future clients who could not make it to Braamfontein, because they either had no means to make it to the gallery or they lived far off,” he explains.
“Secondly, I saw it as a way of archiving our exhibitions. Unfortunately, a show cannot last for three months, so a way to fully document the experience was to use virtual tours. Which made the exhibition a permanent feature for as long as you had the link.”
Balancing the preservation of culture and its sales potential is the work of any commercial art gallery, one that Khoza takes seriously, seeking to innovate well beyond the bounds of the traditional “white cube”. That term was coined in the 1970s by artist and critic Brian O’Doherty to describe the minimalist gallery format many of us are familiar with today.
While the art world is no stranger to disruptions around how and where art is experienced, and by whom, the question of how to translate the white cube in the age of all things digital remains under-explored. It is only now that galleries, faced with the realities of Covid-19, are exploring ways to better present white-cube exhibitions digitally. Even that is limited to clean websites, curated social media grids filled with 2-D images and verbose write-ups of a gallery’s archive.
However, incorporating virtual reality, as Khoza has, does something more than archive his exhibition. It blurs the lines between the physical and digital walls of his spaces, and between past and present. It creates a sense of omnipotent access from anywhere and everywhere, with a stable Internet connection.
While moving things online does not afford access all around – particularly not in a country with one of the world’s highest data costs – it does, in some ways, widen access, making an otherwise transient archive permanently accessible.
A communal vision
Standing on Juta Street in Braamfontein, Banele Khoza’s BKhz Gallery is a soft pastel interruption of the artworld’s white cube.
For one, its walls are pink. And green. And purple. As a contemporary commercial art gallery, it stays true to the format of giving art space to be viewed without distraction; the artworks are presented in the modern minimalist tradition.
Where traditional white cubes are often criticised for the creation of sterile, emotionless and soundless environments in pursuit of giving their artworks the most uninterrupted space, BKhz’s pastel walls create a subtle warmth and a communion not just between the art and viewer, but between the art and the colourful world in which it exists.
The gallery is a childhood dream come true for the 26-year-old Khoza. Hailing from Hlatikulu, a small town in eSwatini, he found a sense of escapism through art.
“I had a few friends that I didn’t always have access to, as my parents preferred I stayed at home … With the time on my hands, television and magazines weren’t enough, so I would grab an exercise book and make sketches, creating worlds that entertained me. This flexibility of creating different worlds … has been my strength in building my brands, Banele Khoza and BKhz,” he says.
As the winner of the 2017 ABSA L’Atelier Art Prize, Khoza has a burgeoning art career of his own, but his equal focus on the growth of his gallery speaks to a communal vision that goes beyond the personal.
“I have always wanted to open a space … I wasn’t sure of what it would be. Now it is a platform for creatives to showcase their art with a support system that cares for their well being in the process of each step. BKhz is what I wanted when I was stepping into the market,” he says.
In creating the space that he needed, Khoza has, in his own subtle way, elevated the white cube’s role from creating the optimum environment for art to be viewed, to creating the optimum environment for artists to develop, too.
“Most often creatives of colour are forced to take on many things to be able to feed their families and then feed their passion. Not having one’s full attention towards creating becomes the crack in the foundation of one’s career. It’s a privilege for me to be fully immersed each day in the building of BKhz, and with its growth it will hopefully assist the creatives we take on to make art their full-time practice,” he says.
Khoza’s commitment to artist development is amplified in his efforts to affect the entire creative ecosystem. Since opening BKhz, he has rented the gallery out at well-below market rates. He has also transformed the place into an accessible event, product-launch and community-talk space. In this small act of repurposing his space, Khoza avails what is seldom accessible to black creatives, real estate.
A shape of things to come
How the creative community will bounce back from the added social and economic challenges of Covid-19 is a question Khoza is tackling with measured perseverance.
“We need to embrace the uncomfortable and not let it break our confidence. Quitting is not an option … and I am certain that we’ll find our way to a resolution that will benefit us all when we make it through this period,” he says.
Khoza appears determined to keep looking forward, describing Covid-19 as “an opportunity to grow.” BKhz, for one, is growing. Khoza is in talks to open a gallery in France “soon”. However, this is currently in its infancy. He also plans to set up a fund for creatives affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Like many around the world, he is determined to etch a silver lining into our quarantined existence. Such is one of the roles of the artist in society: to create a sense of hope and possibility. Retreating in time into BKhz’s Cape Town exhibition, contemplating the immaculate Metamorphosis II from the bench named Preservation, reveals the possibility of the white cube’s own metamorphosis in the Internet Age.