Women in the Arts: Liza Essers

‘I hope that, in time, the pendulum settles in a place where male behaviour has shifted and women feel comfortable, respected and empowered’

For this series celebrating women in the arts, the owner of Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg/Cape Town, shares her unorthodox entry into the arts and her view of #MeToo from a South African perspective.

As you were starting out in the arts, what were the possibilities for mentorship, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women?

My trajectory into the art world hasn’t been a direct one. I started out in the corporate world, which I broke out of in my early 30s when I started to produce films and documentaries and found I loved the process of telling meaningful stories and collaborating in a creative team. South Africa was no different to anywhere else in the world in that both industries were heavily male and very much pre the #Metoo standard of gender awareness. Soon after that, I worked as an independent art advisor and, at age 34, I took a leap and bought Goodman Gallery – one of two top South African galleries at the time. Goodman’s legacy was unique: it was founded by a woman in 1966 – a time when very few women were owning and running businesses – and had provided a platform for black artists to exhibit their work despite apartheid laws against this. So when I bought Goodman Gallery from Linda Givon in 2008, I knew I was not only inheriting a successful commercial art gallery, but receiving the baton from a pioneering woman and taking on the responsibility to continue to collaborate with artists who address power structures and seek to enact social change.

I also inherited a roster that stood out for its line-up of established male South African artists, from William Kentridge to Sam Nhlengethwa and David Goldblatt, some of whom became mentors to me. As a young woman coming into the art world, I found the landscape lonely and regret that there were not more powerful women leading the way. I have sought to rectify the dearth of women on the Goodman stable, particularly women of colour. In the past ten years, I've brought on a diverse range of international women artists, most recently Grada Kilomba and Kapwani Kiwanga. Some of these artists are deeply conscious of gender inequalities in their work, such as Shirin Neshat and Candice Breitz. And, it must be said, they do keep me on my toes! Collaborating with CCA Lagos founder and director Bisi Silva has been a highlight. Last year we worked together to bring El Anatsui’s exquisite metallic tapestries to South Africa for the first time.

I enjoy reading contemporary women thinkers in the arts, from diasporic writers like Neelika Jayawardane to Western commentators like Charlotte Burns.

by-thys-dullaart_900.jpg

Lia Essers. Photograph: Thys Dullaart

Lia Essers. Photograph: Thys Dullaart

What, if any, are the difficulties of embarking on a career in the arts as a woman?

Coming from the Southern tip of Africa, you really have to paddle your own canoe. I was motivated to pursue this path out of total naïveté. What I did know was that I also absolutely love art and believe in it as a driver for social change.

As a white woman in South Africa, I have had an easier time making my way in the art world than others. I am aware of that privilege and try to play a facilitating role for younger women both by increasing the women on the gallery roster and by hiring women in curatorial and management roles. The creative industries remain so male-dominated that competition is heightened for women, not just to break in but to climb to top roles. I am conscious of these persisting imbalances and try to foster an environment of opportunity and creative collaboration for the women I employ and represent.

What has changed today?

As a result of movements like #Metoo, we are finally starting to glimpse structural change in Europe and the States. In South Africa, movements like #Metoo are having a ripple effect, particularly at the level of discourse, but we have a long way to go. For a country with one of the highest statistics for rape and femicide in the world, there remains deeply insidious patriarchal structures that are yet to be outed and uprooted.

It is exciting to see the rising international recognition of women artists from the continent who challenge race and gender structures very powerfully in their work, from Ghada Amer to Tracey Rose, Zanele Muholi, Gabrielle Goliath and Mary Sibande. It is also exciting to see these power structures challenged in the work of emerging male artists like Kudzanai Chiurai, a Zimbabwean artist whose recent bodies of work re-represents colonial and art histories to depict black women in positions of power. Platforming incredible artists like these is a role I can play in turning the wheels of change. On a separate note, it is striking that ten years has passed and I remain the only woman-owner of a gallery with international standing on the continent.

What are your thoughts about #Metoo and other initiatives to call attention to sexual harassment?

The #Metoo movement makes me feel invigorated to be alive in this era and excited to be part of this evolving landscape. I do also hear the cautionary voices who warn against the potential for these campaigns to narrow perimeters for social conduct – taking us to a potentially stilted place of hyper-self-awareness, to the extent that low-level flirting is feared. Ultimately, I see this moment as necessarily radical in re-drawing the lines for what is and what is not appropriate behaviour and hope that, in time, the pendulum settles in a place where male behaviour has shifted and women feel comfortable, respected and empowered in the workplace.

Liza Essers is the owner and director of Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg/Cape Town, South Africa. Essers was co-executive producer of the South African film, Tsotsi (2005). Directed by Gavin Hood, it was the first African film in history to win an Academy Award (Best Foreign Language Picture, 2006).

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018