Gallery of Interest
On growing, partnering and building
with Julie Taylor
An anthropologist, communications specialist and entrepreneur by training, Dr. Julie Taylor is the founder of Johannesburg based gallery, Guns & Rain. One of the first to exist exclusively online in South Africa, the practice governing Guns & Rain prioritises partnership, collaboration, transparency, experimentation, artist growth and trust. Now existing online and in person, Guns & Rain is looking to cement their physical presence with a new home. Leading up to the new space being open to the public, FNB Art Joburg sat with its founder Taylor to talk about the gallery’s place on the continent, its curatorial programming, partnering with other galleries, access to the public and building sincere long-term relationships with its artists.
Before establishing Guns & Rain, you had two lives. First you worked in social sciences after being trained in anthropology and international development. In your second life you ran Google’s communication in Sub-Saharan Africa. Considering all of this, what informed your decision to start Guns & Rain?
The real spark happened a long time before I founded the gallery. It was back in 2008. I am originally from Zimbabwe but was living in London at the time. 2008 was a really bad year for Zimbabwe: there were severe food and fuel shortages and there was a lot of violence. I visited a gallery where the gallerist informed me about the enormous challenges that artists were facing. I asked him if the gallery was on the internet and they weren’t. I asked if I could take pictures of their exhibition, and later that night I set up a little blog and shared it with my contacts. The very same night, three artworks were sold. I wasn’t pursuing it as a business idea, I was just trying to help people in a tough situation.
I see how that makes up for the initial interest but it didn’t immediately translate into Guns & Rain. What was it that made it go from an inkling into something that you urgently had to leave corporate and academia to execute?
Well I still continue with my academic interests and actually completed my second masters in Art History recently. While I was at Google I was surrounded by web evangelists and we did a lot of work with small start-up entrepreneurs across Africa. We helped them get online and make things happen with their businesses. That’s when I started thinking about online art. I came up with the idea of having an online art platform and I started working on it as a night job in 2013; not long after that I came to the realisation that I had to choose between this and Google. So I left Google in mid-2014 and went full time into Guns & Rain.
How would you describe the ethos governing Guns & Rain’s practice and the way that it informs your everyday movements?
I think I would describe it as having a pioneering, experimental and entrepreneurial spirit. But I would also say it has a social responsibility. It’s not about profiteering. I could have started an NGO but I didn’t, and that’s because I believe the arts must be self-sustaining. So that’s why setting up a business made sense but with a focus on community and practice development. It’s about giving artists a leg up and helping them in a wide variety of ways, to think about how to build their careers. Mentorship programmes, ongoing guidance, education opportunities and helping them find residencies are all very important to how the gallery runs.
It’s also important that there be shared values between us and the artists. Partnership, collaboration, transparency and trust: those are critical for the relationships to work. And when we say collaboration we mean with both artists and galleries. Last month we collaborated with KZNSA in Durban and this week with Ebony/Curated in Cape Town. We have upcoming collaborations with Addis Fine Art, Ed Cross Fine Art and Hales. In a year we’re probably doing about 15 collaborations.
If we’re looking at contemporary art from the African and diaspora point of view, where would you position Guns & Rain?
From the onset the outlook was Southern Africa, it was regional. At that time, around 2014, people in South Africa were still blinkered to the rest of the continent, art wise. Our focus at Guns & Rain has always been on South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and eSwatini. Without neglecting South Africa, I wanted to support artists in those neighbouring countries who didn’t have an easy route to market and where there was very limited art infrastructure, especially Namibia and Botswana.
I started the gallery just as things were starting to kick off for African contemporary art.Since then there’s been a huge amount of attention paid to African art, thanks to a variety of reasons ranging from Black Lives Matter to Covid-19. So I think African art has become increasingly recognised and popular; there’s a hunger for new work, new materials, from collectors around the world, especially when they can find it at affordable prices. And that fits with what our ecosystem can offer. I believe and know that the quality of work coming out of Africa is really strong.
In September for example, Tuli Mekondjo became the first black Namibian woman ever to have a solo show in the United States. That for me was one of the highlights of my career and it gives me goosebumps.
I always think about where our art ecosystem will be in 20 years, here in Johannesburg. If we do not invest here and educate here, grow interest and awareness here, then it’s going to be in bad shape in 20 years because we can’t just rely on international fairs and buyers. So Guns & Rain exists in a context where we operate for ourselves, where we stand up strong for ourselves to support communities and make sure that in 20 years time, there are still collectors from Southern Africa supporting artists. It’s also about ensuring that not all the art leaves the continent.
Would you say campaigning for local investment and setting a continent-focused standard is something that is reflected in your gallery programming?
I think that in terms of describing our gallery programme, we’re a gallery with an African identity and an international outlook. This year we’ve just brought on Anthea Buys as a curator and we’re really committed to having a strong local curatorial programme. This programme will then unfold internationally as well. It’s a hell of a lot of work for us, but we’re ambitious.
I think we are also known for identifying new talent. Often, our collectors have had the opportunity to buy an artwork from $300 – $400 early in an artist’s career. Five years later, that artist is doing really well.
Now to touch on your location. After starting as an intangible gallery, Guns & Rain had a few pop-ups and at one point, shared a location with the P72 Project Space. Now you have found a new home at 5 3rd Avenue in Parkhurst.
For the first four years I operated from my flat and it got pretty crazy there! There were days where in order to get in my bed at night I had to move things around because there were so many artworks. At the beginning, a number of friends lent their homes to us for pop-ups for a night or two. Those kinds of community-based things allowed us to be here. It was really a turning point when we opened a permanent space in 2018. I love having a hybrid existence, but I love the way the physical presence solidified our community. Also we can’t forget the practical and logistics benefits of having a physical space and storage. I hope we are in our new space – which opens this week! – for many years ahead.
Through it all you have stayed in Johannesburg. What has kept your relationship with the city steadfast, in spite of there being so many setbacks and restarts?
Jo’burg is the perfect centre. It’s a geographical and a cultural hub for us. Artists from Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and everywhere else can get here easily. Art can come and go easily from this city plus we can travel internationally ourselves.It’s a very sensible location and when we want to access Cape Town it’s easy, we look to our collaborations.
Visit Guns & Rain at 5 3rd Avenue in Parkhurst for the opening of the duo exhibition You’re a Bird, Sing a Song featuring work by Princia Matungulu and Sizwe Sama