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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.

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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 Lisa Brice, 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).

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