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Foregrounding South Africa: An Interview with Julie Taylor, Founder and Director of Guns & Rain

Julie Taylor is Founder and Director of Johannesburg-based gallery Guns & Rain, which was established in 2014 to showcase works by emerging and established artists from southern Africa. As an anthropologist, communications specialist and art entrepreneur, she is dedicated to promoting an understanding and appreciation of the region’s fine art and culture. Julie holds a BA (Hons) in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and an MPhil and DPhil from the University of Oxford.

Prior to developing the gallery, Julie was Head of Communications for Sub Saharan Africa at Google and played a crucial role in an Africa-wide initiative that brought 100,000 businesses online. Aside from being published in numerous academic journals such as the Journal of African History and Anthropology Today, she is also the author of ‘Naming the Land,’ a book based on her doctoral research on San identity in northern Namibia.

Originally founded to address the scant presence of African artists on the international scene, Guns & Rain represents practitioners from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and Nigeria. The gallery’s bold and diverse selection of works illuminates contemporary artists’ concerns with identity, belonging, history, land and struggle: what Julie believes to be the “cornerstone themes of southern Africa.” 

The gallery regularly participates in art fairs such as FNB Joburg Art Fair,  Investec Cape Town Art Fair, Also Known As Africa (AKAA) Paris, and will exhibit at this year’s 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London.

Services offered include art advisory, customised searches and sourcing, commissions and venue hire.

Stephanie Yeap spoke with Julie via video call between London and Johannesburg…

1. Describe your business in 5 words:

We are ethical, transparent, ambitious, resourceful, and savvy. I think there’s a lot of unethical behaviour in our industry, so businesses and organisations can really improve on that front by making their values clear. 

2. What inspired you to pursue this career?

I have a wide range of interests and skills, and founding Guns & Rain 5 years ago was really a way to bring all of them together under one roof. This ranges from my training in anthropology and development studies to my work in technology communications, and of course my passion for art. It was also a way for me to really clarify my purpose in the world. I think there was meaning to some degree in my previous lines of work but this has given me a full-fledged purpose. What inspired me was that I really saw the need to raise the visibility of African artists and I saw I could apply my knowledge to do that. 

3. What’s the most wonderful thing about the profession?

In between all the hard work, I do feel that the gallery is making a contribution to society in Southern Africa, and perhaps internationally. I think that running a gallery helps get people to think and talk about art, and often important social, economic and political issues. Secondly, in Southern Africa, I’m really pleased and heartened by the fact that the gallery is supporting young emerging artists in a very challenging environment. There’s very little support for the arts here, it’s quite different to Europe and the U.S., in that sense, and so I know the gallery is making a difference to artists and the infrastructure here.

4. And let’s get real… What’s the most challenging aspect of the profession?
I laughed about this because there are so many challenging things! Especially when you’re running a young and small gallery, it’s really tough to juggle all the demands of running a business as a solo founder. Overall, I would say that one of the biggest challenges is how uncertain things are at all times. One can never guarantee sales at a show or a fair, and one can’t predict how long the sales are going to take. On the creation side, one doesn’t know exactly what artists will produce and what decisions they’re going to make about their work and careers. So there’s quite a bit of uncertainty in this profession, and that’s reflected in multiple facets. I had to learn to grow a thicker skin to deal with all of it!

5. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given?
Susan J. Mumford (the Founder and CEO of AWAD) gave me some advice a few years ago, to continue with other jobs on the side when you’re starting a new initiative in another field. Having another job on the side has been important and allowed me to continue with the gallery even when things were hard. 

6. What do you now say to someone who is just starting out? (Maybe it’s that one thing you wish someone had told you!)
I would say that they need to know the road is long and that this is not a short-term game. It really takes time to build relationships and credibility, with the artists, clients, other gallerists, dealers, and institutions. It takes time for a new brand to establish itself, and it’s important to persevere through the ups-and-downs.

7. What challenge is the industry facing that art dealers need to address? 
One of the challenges is the proliferation of art fairs around the world, and how to deal with that, especially for emerging dealers and galleries. There’s been such a huge upsurge of fairs that I think that the landscape for that is very crowded and potentially confusing for collectors as well. I suspect the number of fairs will decline in the coming years, but now it’s tricky for emerging galleries to decide which to take part in. I’d like to imagine that fairs might grow to have tiered participation, so galleries at different life stages can get different pricing. The current fair model is problematic; I think it will be interesting to see what changes take place in the next year or two, in terms of how they are structured. That’s definitely a challenge for us, as well as for galleries (such as those from Africa) that are more remote from the art market centres.

8. If you had to be one work of art, what would you be – and why? 

William Kentridge (South African, born Johannesburg, 1955) The Refusal of Time, 2012 Five-channel video installation with steel megaphones and a breathing machine (elephant); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Roy R. and Marie S. Neuberger Foundation Inc. and Wendy Fisher Gifts and The Raymond and Beverly Sackler 21st Century Art Fund, 2013 (TR.52.2013)

The Refusal of Time (2012) by Willian Kentridge (b. 1955)

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I’d like to be a shadow character in Kentridge’s five-channel video installation, ‘The Refusal of Time’.  Lots of space to move around, stay active, listen to dramatic music and inhabit the biggest questions of our age – as well as be on a continuous global tour of famous institutions!

9. What do you personally believe are the best advantages of being part of an association like AWAD, and how have you benefited?  
For me, the appealing and attractive thing about AWAD is its international reach. I’m based in Johannesburg and whilst the art scene is very active here, I nonetheless feel somewhat isolated from what’s going on in other parts of the world. AWAD has allowed me to feel plugged into that, and it’s great to have a community where I can hear what’s going on in London, New York, and other places on a regular basis. It’s a community where you feel safe to ask questions and for help and to share ideas. I also get to share what I’m up to in terms of my programming, so I do feel that the international reach is one of the fundamental benefits.

10. How can you make the most out of being a member of a professional network? 

What you put in is really what you get out of it. It’s important to stay on top of all the programming that’s going on, even if you can’t attend everything. For example, one might not be able to attend a certain meeting due to the difference in time zone, but I notice in general that AWAD makes an effort to provide timings where even I, in Johannesburg, can participate. 

Sometimes new opportunities arise and one should jump on the back of those. For example, I’ll be in London this year for 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair so it’s a great chance to reconnect with the members here. I’ve already written to the AWAD team to see if they could arrange a group visit to the fair, so one also has to see what synergies exist and to see how your program can offer something to the association as well. 

Overall, I’d say get involved, attend as many events as you can, and beyond that, make an effort to build relationships. Last year I came to London and had a chance to meet some AWAD members in person and that was great because I could really get to know a few of them in more depth. I’ve managed to stay in touch with them since then, so really making an effort to get to know people and build relationships through time is important.
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