In issue 22 of one small seed, The Joburg Issue, the notorious DJ Chubbi from YFM takes us on a Jozi street tour through all his favourite stops in the art, music, fashion and nightlife scenes. One of the art stops is Unity Gallery in Newtown, and Chubbi stops to chat to the owner, Andrew Miller. Check out that feature in the latest issue, in stores now. To give you a taste of what else to expect, here is the full, unabridged interview with Andrew on Unity and the Joburg art scene.
one small seed (OSS): Tell us more about yourself. A little background, what do you do?
Andrew Miller (AM): I’m a writer. I was born in PE, and I’ve been living in Jozi since my folks moved up in 1998. And aside from the writing, my wife and I run Unity Gallery. And that’s a full-time gig.
OSS: Tell us about unity gallery. When did it start and how did it begin?
AM: It’s very organic. My wife’s an artist, and I’m a writer/poet. When we first hooked up and moved in before we got married or anything we were dead broke, so we needed to earn a living from our writing and our art. So we set up the company, and in the first few years it was kind of learning how to earn money. After that we steadily came into contact with more artists and writers in the city. We were working from home, and then we decided to open up a gallery because it’s kind of a natural evolution. So Robyn found this place in Vrededorp, this abandoned place we could get for a very low rent, cost us quite a bit to fix it up, but it was a nice gritty kind of urban space, and we set up the gallery from there, then everything else kind of followed in a natural process. People walk in the door, and if you, as a creative space, are willing to say hi, the rest grows from there, I mean that was like 6-7 years ago, and yeah it just evolved.
OSS: Unity gallery… What’s that all about?
AM: In its current incarnation, it’s a gallery space, it’s a creative space so it caters to writers and artists, and it’s got a social folk, so as much of the Joburg art scene does, it’s got somewhat of a collaborative intent. It’s a place where people can come and share things on a philosophical or creative level, and/or share on a business level, because a lot of artists need to learn how to make money. Once you’ve left the training institution it’s really hard if you’re not born into a wealthy environment, it’s really hard to figure out how you’re gonna make a living. I think Unity’s one of the few spaces where you can access resources, internet, stuff like that, and get access to fellow artists, and start to talk about your career and how you’re gonna turn a buck. That’s in a nutshell.
OSS: What type of art do you guys display?
AM: We are underground, we represent a lot of emerging artists and that means artists who are making their way up. That said and now that we’ve been going a while, some of the people who were initially emerging artists have now emerged, so we are lucky to have now a good range of people who qualify as investment artists. People come in to buy their art not only because they like the art but also because of the financial value that it will grow.
OSS: Tell us about this industry, negatives and positives.
AM: I’ll start with the negatives. It’s who you are or the kind of life you were born into, as with the rest of South Africa, that’s a defining factor. So if you’re born middle class and you’re kind of pushed into that university channel, whether you are a writer, artist of whatever, then it is a relatively straightforward thing to make a career as an artist. But if you are born into the township, or born into an environment where you don’t have access to money or the social networks that are around, it can be extremely difficult to make money from your art. Regardless of how talented you are. And that is something that we experience all the time:
who you are, who you know and all those kind of things can define who you’ll end up being as an artist.
OSS: Is the art scene in Joburg big? Do we have a real movement?
AM: I think we do. You can split into the larger half, the formal university-oriented scene on the one hand, which is a big scene here: there are a lot of artists who are high profile and bridge into the international scene. And then we have an underground scene that’s growing fast, and for me that’s where the interesting stuff is happening. The formal university-orientated vibe is quite predictable, whereas the underground scene is edgy and vibrant, and you don’t know what you gonna get there, and there’s some very interesting stuff happening, and there’s a very interesting overlap between music, and fashion and art.
More and in the last couple of years I’ve heard advertising people and the like referring to Joburg as kind of similar to Berlin, in its intensity of art, and the stuff that’s going on here.
OSS: What do you think is the future for art, particularly underground art here in Joburg?
AM: I think we are headed the right way. I think it’s very important that as a city we get our head around how important the online world has become. For me, the bottom line is if you don’t have access to broadband high-speed internet you are severely limited in your career as an artist. So young people of an equivalent age in other countries in the world have free access to high-speed bandwidth, and we don’t have it in the city, and we certainly don’t have it in the townships.
If we don’t get that right, there’s a danger of us operating in almost our own parallel universe.
And conversely if we do get it right, I think more and more opportunities can open up for our artists to prove that they are amongst the most dynamic around in the world. But if you can’t access a line, life is hard. So that’s the one area that we need to look at as a city really carefully, to see what kind of access we are giving our artists to digital technology, and then what kind of digital training. Because people need to understand the open source movement, what software is out there on a creative level and how to use that for their careers and that’s what I see as a development point. If we can get that right I think recognised as one of the more dynamic art cities in the world – because of our cultural cross over, the kind of different references we’ve got going from the kind of whitey European thing all the way through to the kind of multicultural black setup, so the potential is there to be very dynamic.
OSS: Tell us about the Prince of Newtown.
AM: He makes jewellery out of knives and forks, and spoons and assorted cutlery. I think he’s one of the most important people around Newtown, people call him Prince of Newtown, he’s an interesting figure because wherever he goes in Newtown people know him and welcome him. He can walk anywhere into any restaurant, big or small, and people give him love, and maybe a bit of food, and then buy his jewellery, and he brings a lot of light and a lot of laughter with him. He’s a very eccentric guy. For me, the important thing about Prince is that when everyone left the city and ran away, you know that time it was about 10–15 years ago, where it was literally abandoned, it was people like Prince who were still in Newtown and kept the atmosphere of Newtown alive so that when people came back they could turn it into this quite Bougey artsy-fartsy scene that there is now, so it’s important that someone like Prince is recognised and represented. So he’s not considered to be a street artist, but what he does is given a higher value, and that value is always manifested through PR, through magazines and interviews. So in our work what we tried to do was to get him exposure in the media and to ensure that he has a place as an important member of Newtown art community. That he has a place to work from. A formal space for a very informal person.
OSS: So what is Joburg to you?
AM: That’s a tough one. For me, Joburg’s my home, Joburg is people. I haven’t been around a lot but I’ve been around enough to know that Joburg’s got a particularly special thing, in the kind of confluence of people. That people from all over Africa and all over the world who mix it up in Joburg with such a happy heart.
You go to other places in the world and you don’t get people willing to meet and greet and share and collaborate and for me that’s what defines Joburg.
When I say that I’m talking about the city, as you head out into the burbs, it’s a completely different thing. That for me it’s just strip clubs. For me personally that’s what Joburg is – it’s people.
OSS: Looking into the future, what does Unity gallery have in store? What’s coming?
AM: We’ll get back into spoken word a bit, we used to do a lot of spoken word, and a lot of live recording and music sessions, which we haven’t done in a while. We’ll probably get back to that now that we’ve got a good space to be in. And otherwise we’re just looking to make our growth really count. I think the danger for any arts organisation – in 2008 for example – I think 6 galleries went under when the recession hit, so not only do we want to survive, but we also want to prosper for our artists. It’s important for us that artists as they grow earn more money and are able to buy houses and cars and all those kind of things. And not be caught up in that South African thing where you’re a famous artist but you’ve been broke your whole life. So I think for us that’s gonna be our focus and I think we will look at developing our shows more, having funky Saturday shows and good art during the week.
OSS: Any last words?
Act on a dream, rather than dreaming all the time, you know because it’s a big jump to make to actually act on your passion. And you will face so many failures along the way, but if you can master the art of just sticking at it and practically acting on your dream, you’ll be amazed at how successful you can be. Conversely, if you’re just sitting and letting your mind drift, it’s just gonna keep going like that, so act on it. Find people who are doing similar things to you and start earning some money.