on 09 December 2015
STOPSIGN GALLERY OWNER AND CURATOR ZAMA PHAKATHI CHATS TO US ABOUT ALTERNATIVE ART SPACES, NOT FOLLOWING TRENDS AND BEING WHATEVER YOU WANT TO BE IN THIS COUNTRY.
Arriving earlier than anticipated for my interview with Zama Phakathi, founder and owner of StopSign Art Gallery wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be after all. 30 minutes before our set meeting time, as I’m responding to emails, I hear my name being called. Swirling around, I’m greeted by a diminutive giant with peroxide blonde hair, a dazzling smile and zesty personality. Fierce combination if you ask me.
She introduces me to the most attractive element of her personality by inviting me on a leisurely stroll around the block, revealing that she’s a real “peoples’ person.” This characteristic automatically sets her apart. Five minutes later we settle in at one of her favourite hang-out spots in the Maboneng Precinct: Pata Pata.
As an art lover and a creative individual, she has dipped her brush in various colours of the art world and continues to paint on the unending canvas which she continues to expand. Following her passion of art she started out directing and worked for production companies and moved on to curating, cutting her teeth in the Soweto Art Residency. The calling towards art led her even further down the path towards success.
“I started getting portfolios from artists, wanting to be part of the residency,” she elaborates.
“I decided to approach galleries to curate for and I was met with questions such as ‘who are you?’ and ‘who is this person?”
Spurred on by the rejection, she was motivated to go on her own tangent.
“I’ve never run any other company or gallery, but what I knew was that I wanted to actually start an art gallery that will give a platform to upcoming young artists.”
“How else will young people get exposure without being given opportunities?”
With a name like StopSign Art Gallery, one is bound to ponder the meaning behind it.
Revealing the significance of the name, she says,” It was me saying ‘stop’ to everything that I went through, while trying to assist upcoming young artists. I was saying ‘stop.’ It stops here. The slogan being: ‘This is reality. It is not for sale.”
Moving from dipping her brush in some paint, towards actually making a mark on the canvas that is the South African urban contemporary art scene- was an exciting moment.
“I couldn’t believe the response. We had some buzz, with articles in publications even before we opened our doors. And I thought to myself, okay, there’s no turning back. “
The space which stands out as a mobile gallery, shifting preconceived ideas of what a ‘normal’ gallery should be, has established itself as a hub for young people with a love art. Situated in Maboneng Precinct- it’s an ideal spot for connecting, networking and just chilling.
“When people come, they don’t want to leave. The gallery is my home. It’s your home too. It’s everybody’s home. It’s warm.”
With an inviting aura herself, Zama extends this to the artists she collaborates with and exhibits. With a belief that art is a calling, she uses this belief system to carefully select each piece for exhibit at StopSign.
“With the artists I work with, I believe we are on a spiritual journey of finding one another. I find them. They find me. When we do find each other, you’d swear we’ve known each other for years. The connection is amazing. I need to connect with your work so I can explain it to the next person that walks in. Art is a calling.”
A typical day in her industry turns out to be not so typical.
“Generally, galleries open Tuesday to Sunday, whereby Mondays are our days off. But Mondays just happen to be my busiest days of the week!” she says laughing.
“So a typical day for me would involve meetings- meetings with artists who want to collaborate, meeting with my mentor, interviews etc. The gallery usually gets crazy when we have an opening, when we have to organise things like the write-up for the show, the poster etc. I’m actually quite fussy as well so things have to be done a certain way. No compromise. Then you have the press release, invites that have to be sent out to people, you need to sort out drinks and food etc. So sometimes I open just Saturday and Sunday because the rest of my week is so hectic.”
I posit to her that she is not the typical face of a gallery owner in the country. Her response is both comical and sad in the sense that the industry still expects people to conform to certain ideals or standards and hasn’t outright encouraged free-spirited individuals:
“I don’t look like someone who could own a gallery. I don’t look like I could even have a job. People even judge you according to a certain way you’re dressed.”
This challenge is one of a few she’s encountered on her journey. She mentions that people not taking her seriously has been an issue but she comments, “The industry is very tough, but you just need to know yourself. Know where you’re going.”
Starting out wasn’t easy and she faced some challenging decisions. Explaining her decision to her family wasn’t easy. Growing up in a family that she describes as not understanding of art ‘to that extent’ she was faced with typical grown up problems –like having pressure to get a job.
“I remember when my mom told me I needed to get a job. I was thinking, ‘I’m trying to build something more solid than just a job that I can get. I want to create opportunities for young people,” she says wistfully. Today Stop Sign, which she likens to a baby, is crawling towards success.
As a transformational force in the industry, she continues to challenge the norms and break boundaries. “The whole idea behind using the shipping container was to use alternative spaces to present art. Because when people think of galleries, they think of formal spaces with white ceilings etc.”
In between our chat and while our stoic waiter takes our orders, another of Zama’s ‘peoples’ person’ moments takes the shine as singer Ishmael drops in for a five minute catch up session at our table. Picking up where we left off I ask where the Gallery’s headed.
“I’m not here to follow trends,” she states unflinchingly. I soon realise that these defining moments of the interview are woven in skilfully in between the banter.
Revealing future plans for the brand, she mentions her intentions to launch a gallery in every province in the country. “From next year we’ll be launching two more in other provinces. We also want to take the gallery to TV. There’s an amazing TV idea for the gallery I have.” This might present her with more opportunities to mentor young people by providing them with opportunities to manage the Maboneng gallery while she follows her dreams throughout the rest of the country.
What advice does Zama have for young creatives with a vision?
“The more people tell you your ideas are crazy; the more they tell you your ideas are bigger than you- it’s an opportunity for you. Follow your dreams. Follow your heart but don’t forget to use your mind. Whatever idea it is, make sure it’s going to sustain you, because at the end of the day, you need to make a living. People will talk, whether you do good or bad. There’s no idea that’s actually bigger than you as a person. It’s up to you.”
Visit StopSign Art Gallery at 263 Main Street, Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg.
Like their Facebook page: Stop Sign Art Gallery.
By: Phumzile Twala