Blonde ambition

2012-02-17 12:40

Very early on in our conversation, Thandi Sibisi, the owner of a new art gallery at Melrose Arch, Joburg, declares that she gets bored very quickly.

She giggles and flaps her eyelashes before advancing this follow-up statement: “I’m a rebel at heart,” she says to explain what appears to be a need to be constantly doing something new and exciting.

We meet at the Melrose Arch Hotel ahead of the opening of her gallery. It’s only natural to wonder if this isn’t just her latest stop in a constant search for excitement.

Apparently not. Sibisi says: “Art speaks to a deeper part of me, so I know I won’t get bored with it.”

There’s a sparkle in her eye when she says: “Art has no rules. It means I can still be the free spirit that I am.”

There’s a slight pause. She clasps her hands and rests them in the cleavage of her knees. Her shoulders shrug slightly before she continues. “It will mean travelling the world, and discovering artists and introducing them to South African audiences and vice versa.”

Sibisi wears a tight black dress and elegant stilettos that make her taller than she is. Her head is a blonde mat that blends into her complexion. Her skin is marked by landmarks at random intervals.

These are tattooed phrases that I can’t make out. There’s also a converse pyramid on her left shoulder. These cliched marks of hard-living, street-smart types are contrasted every time Sibisi speaks. She drags her vowels in a low mellow tone.

Born in KwaZulu-Natal, the 26-year-old entrepreneur blushes when she senses her answers may not have been the sharpest she could give. Like when I ask her about her skills background.

“I was at University of Johannesburg studying marketing. I dropped out. It was just boring. I wanted to be a businesswoman.”

Perhaps feeling a need to justify herself, Sibisi says: “I’m a proud dropout. You know, I felt I already knew how to write a business plan and the ideas were already in my head. Yes!”

But that was in 2005. A lot has changed since then. Sibisi has since launched herself as a model and started a branding company called In Vogue that does consultancy work for the department of arts and culture. She has been travelling in Europe, making stops in Paris, Italy and London last year. This is where she stumbled onto the idea of opening a galley, or at least where it took proper form in her head.

“They make art seems like so much fun over there,” she says with gleeful emphasis. “Unlike here at home,” she continues, “everything here is as conventional as it was 50 years ago.”

So Sibisi aims to shake things up a bit.

However, she’s aware that the South African art market is very closed and doesn’t let people in. This she observed by hanging around with industry insiders. This exposure provided for rare learning curves and invaluable moments of clarity.

“I found myself spending more and more time with artists and curators, and one day someone tried to sell me something (a Nelson Makamo print) and I thought you know, I can do this much better.”

She teamed up with experienced curators Christopher Till and Jeremy Rose to guide her efforts. Till was once the director of culture for the City of Johannesburg and is now director of the Apartheid Museum. Rose is a graphic designer and an award-winning architect who designed the Goodman Gallery Cape Town premises.
The team has been hard at work.

“We have artists lined up for the whole of 2012,” Sibisi says, explaining that they are looking to attract a specific clientele.
“It’s a high-end cosmopolitan market and it’s international.”

But what does all of this mean for the much-needed transformation in the heritage sector? Well, Sibisi is not interested in shifting tastes as much as captivating consumers in a funky, youthful way. Like putting iPods where violins used to play.

» The Sibisi Gallery is on High Street at Melrose Arch, Johannesburg

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