Creative Womxn: Lerato Bereng on curating exhibitions that make people talk

Lerato Bereng is one of three associate directors and six directors at the Stevenson gallery, and works closely with artists such as Zanele Muholi, Simon Gush, Nandipha Mntambo and Kemang Wa Lehulere. Earlier this year she curated the group show Sex, which saw the Joburg gallery overflowing with people on the opening night. But it’s her projects outside and around the work she does in the commercial gallery space that reveals more about her approach and thoughts on the contemporary fine art landscape in Southern Africa. Born in Maseru in Lesotho, Lerato curates an art project every year in the small town of Morija, which has no formal functioning art space. She became interested in figuring out what accessibility means during her MA in curating, and how curating can be used as a tool to create dialogue and create space for dialogue; how to make space out of no space. Mindful of the role of language and contextual frameworks, Lerato’s hope is to see more project spaces established that can address some of the institutional shortfalls of the commercial art establishments and engage with people on a more relatable level.  

You’re relatively young in the position you currently hold as associate director and curator at Stevenson. What has shaped your career journey thus far?

This is my sixth year at Stevenson. I guess I started when I was really young and I kind of grew up on the job. I joined the gallery at the point of transition where Brodie Stevenson was merging and becoming Stevenson in Johannesburg and as the company was coming into a new moment and phase of growth. Each year is a new step for me with new growth and new responsibilities. Stevenson is really unique in the way that it is set up. We have quite an unusual sized curatorial team. But this is what makes the gallery so interesting. There are so many of us with so many perspectives and different tastes. So the gallery is really an amalgamation of different views. And becoming an associate director means that now I own a little bit of the gallery. You start to take more of a sense of ownership of things as time goes by and I grow up as a person but also as a curator. So yeah, the Stevenson saw me come of age.

One of the really great things about the job is you’re encourage to be creative all the time. So if I come up with an idea for a group show that’s what I’ll focus on. So we work quite organically. Sometimes we work together, but mostly one of the curators is interested in a particular idea and needs to scratch a curatorial itch and then proposes a show, which is how curated group shows usually develop.

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What has been your experience defining your role and position in a predominantly white male industry? What does the current curatorial landscape look like in South Africa?

I think this is a difficult question, because I’m still trying to figure out where I fit in to this narrative. It is predominantly still a white male industry at least in terms of ownership and who runs the spaces and project spaces. There are very few black curators of this generation. There was a kind of moment in the past where there was an emergence of this strong black curatorial group – I think of Gabi Ngcobo, Thembinkosi Goniwe, Khwezi Gule, Melissa Goba – but for some reason, in terms of curating and the opening up of spaces, it’s kind of paused. Apart from a few galleries that have come up recently, like Sosesame, there’s not that much happening, or at least not as many as there perhaps could be. Maybe the momentum will pick up again in the next decade. Currently there just isn’t as much integration as I thought there would be at this point. But there are incredible things that are happening quietly, like Keleketla!, which is this really incredible concept of a space, which is doing radical work that challenges everything institutional. There’s also a new space that’s been started by Gabi Ngcobo, Dineo Bopape and Sinethemba Twalo called Nothing Gets Organised. So there are definitely things that are happening, just not on a very visible, big scale; not in the commercial spaces, rather the project spaces.

What I love about working as a creative individual in Joburg in particular is that nobody cares, but at the same time everybody cares. Joburg is supportive of people just doing shit and people that are gutsy enough to do their thing. So I’ve felt a lot of support in my work, just because of the nature of this city. I get asked often [about being a black curator] and there’s this tendency to focus or not focus on it. But there’s this perception that as a black female I must have fought my way to my position because there are so few visible in my position, but I really didn’t (even though it would be much more interesting if I could say that I did). I just worked hard and it’s just been about getting on with the thing that I’m doing and finding my own voice and rhythm that just so happened to work with where I work.    

By extension do you think the contemporary fine art industry in South Africa affords female artists the same opportunities as male counterparts?

There are a lot of black male artists and white male artists who are accomplished, but far fewer black female artists. It’s a problem and questions that’s constantly on my mind, but I’m not entirely sure what the answer is. I’ve been consciously on the lookout for black female artists. It seems that there’s a moment in Cape Town, with collectives like iQhiya, who’re a strong group of black female artists who have come together to become incredibly visible. This is a very positive moment, but then you wonder, why are they only visible as a group? I think this speaks more to society. I think outside of an individual perspective there’s clearly something that’s been missed by society at large in relation to female artists. And this is insane, because we’re in 2016!

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As a curator, how do your own preferences and taste influence what you do?

As much as one would pretend or try to be objective it’s very subjective, which is why it’s really interesting to work in a group of so many individuals. At Stevenson we’re essentially trying to find a unified voice with eight different sets of eyes. This is great because it challenges the reasons why you might gravitate towards things and helps one develop a finer set of perceptive eyes. So you’re able to refine your conceptual reasons for being interested in certain things through being challenged every day.  

Is it apt to talk about a curators’ ‘eye’? What skills does it take to do what you do?  

To be honest when I started curating I was embarrassed to call myself a curator. I had the prefix then of ‘young’, which helped my feel like I wasn’t assuming a particular mode of importance, and I still feel this way all the time although I’ve had to take away the ‘young’ (as this would just be a lie at some point). So I think it is really an individual thing. And I think it’s important that whatever your supposed curatorial eye is, is not just an instinctive taste. It has to be more. It has to be more conceptually grounded, and whatever your thing is you should know it well. So I think it’s really just about learning and acquiring knowledge about and once you’ve honed this knowledge you’re able to have a particular way of looking at the world or a particular way of seeing or thinking about concepts. There are lots of people with a curatorial eye that are not curators. Several of the artists that we work with, and some collectors, just have an eye for things. By ‘eye’ I don’t mean literally looking, but being able to look and think at the same time.

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What was the initial inspiration behind the group show SEX that you curated?

While on a residency in New York I visited the Sex Museum there but was slightly underwhelmed, in that it’s such an interesting subject that can expand in so many ways but I didn’t feel like anything was really happening. So this stuck with me as a rich subject that is not only titillating but also very broad and relatable. It felt like such a simple but complex subject that everybody can relate to on some level. Joburg as a city has so much sex and secret sex things happening that it just felt natural to do a show about the topic at the time.

Looking back on this show, the after party and talks, what do you think the turnout and response to this show reveals about art audiences?

I think people were excited by the subject and that it was inviting enough for those who were just curious. I think often exhibitions and curators create quite dense and verbose texts, which are fine for those in the industry, but one has to ask how does the general public relate and respond to these? I think this is why the Sex show did so well and I think that’s why people were drown in. The giant “SEX” written outside also helped, because people wanted to know what his was all about. With this show I also decided that I didn’t want it to be a static show that people come to see and then left, rather I wanted to create a dialogue so I hosted two talks as part of the show that were not about art at all. So it was about not only focusing on the artistic interpretations of the subject but also looking and talking about actual sex. We included on of the first South African porn films in the show, which a lot of people were taken aback by. But I felt that if I’m doing a show about sex it doesn’t make sense to only conceptualise around the subject. That was also an immediately relatable thing for a lot of people that saw the show. Relatable, shocking, whatever. But they were immediately able to relate to it because it was what it said it was.  

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How do you measure success for a show?

This is honestly one of the most difficult things working in a space that’s open to the public. People come and go and you don’t know what they think unless they decide to tell you. For me for the Sex exhibition I was happy to see that people asked questions and engaged, at least during the talks. Generally though, an exhibition is a success when it makes me think and when it engages me. When I’m not just looking but also questioning or learning something new. If I want to talk about it, that’s how I know it was something.

Where do you see yourself career-wise in the next 5-10 years?

I cannot even begin to think beyond today. I guess it’s rare that one finds one’s thing that they’re interested in early in life but I kind of did. And so I hope to grow in this space that I’m in, both curatorially and in relation to the gallery.

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Photographs of Lerato by Tarryn Hatchett.

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