Lerato Bereng on Accessibility and Power Structures

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For our monthly collaboration with FLOURISH, an artist-run seasonal gathering that promotes community and collaboration across contemporary creative disciplines, Tiger Maremela chats to Lerato Bereng about sustaining relationships across the creative community.

My first introduction to gallery director Lerato Bereng’s curatorial practice was through the Stevenson Gallery’s SEX exhibition – a 2016 group show featuring contemporary South African artists like FAKA, Lady Skollie and Zanele Muholi and attempting to look at sex as a site of pleasure and violence. The exhibition analysed collective discourse around sex over a 10 year timeline in South Africa and aimed at initiating a dialgue with the broader public by using art as a catalyst. The show sprawled over two floors in the gallery’s previous Braamfontein location, and included a series of public talks as a way of making the issues raised in the show more accessible and tangible. The show has continued to spark interest globally, proving how South Africa, and the world in general, is becoming more open to talking about sex and its role in our lives. “I still get invited to sexpos, and to make commentary on sex in South Africa… but it made me realise how little dialogue there is about sex through creative platforms,” Lerato adds.

This group show is an example of what Lerato’s curatorial projects aim to achieve; nurturing relationships with artists and creating spaces that welcome conversation and make people feel things. From her grassroots-level organising in Maseru, Lesotho to being a confidante to the artists represented by the Stevenson, Lerato’s mission seeks to make art – and its often exclusionary language and practices – more accessible to the communities that the art affects. When looking back at Thank You Driver – a project realised in 2010 that explored mini-bus taxis in South Africa as not only a transitory medium, but a potential space for dialogue and community – it is clear how Lerato’s practice is rooted in projects that consider its audience and the kinds of art that make us think deeply about the worlds we live in. This practice isn’t only limited to institutional structures like galleries and museums; for Lerato curatorial projects can exist outside of the white cube and should always meet people where they are, physically and intellectually. Balancing concerns of accessibility with profitability is a team effort best exemplified by the Stevenson’s move to Parktown North. “The gallery must be honest about its work; we’re not a museum. Accessibility is important and we’ve found ways to do that and still keep the doors open.” Lerato mentions.

‘In the last 6 years or so the face of the gallery has changed,” Lerato adds. As one of 11 gallery directors, two of whom are black women, Lerato is very aware of what it looks like for people to have equal stake in structures and have the ability to make decisions that matter. She is interested in not only having black women visible in the South African art landscape but also ensuring that these black women are not held back by bureaucracy or the illusion of representation. This ranges from hiring practices, the kinds of work that gets realised through the gallery and how their represented artists go on to make changes that affect the globe. Having diverse power structures, in which all parties own a part of the machine and its policies, is important in moving the art world forward. “It makes all the difference to be the ones making decisions. It’s actually about who’s in power.” Lerato notes on power-sharing in collaborative efforts.
“You can be an island in Jo’burg… But there’s a big potential for collaborative practice.” Lerato comments on collaboration. The next frontier for Lerato, particularly from her observations of the city and its hustles, is a greater need for collaborations and artists working in collectives. Lerato recognises the power of having an immediate community to affirm and validate an artist’s work, and having a sounding board to bounce ideas off. Projects can be realised at greater scale when we come together to change the world.

Celebration is just as important to Lerato as hard work – the background work that happens to keep a gallery profitable and ensure that the relationships established with artists is mutually viable deserves a rightful reward. The Stevenson’s series of Makhwapheni parties, first held on the opening night of the SEX show, has become a platform to celebrate hard work and revel in the company of the artists and public that makes the gallery what it is. Celebration, and even music as an extension, is something that Lerato grew up around and continues to take on different shapes as her life and career progresses. Mentioning artists like Millie Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Tupac and Morena Leraba in the same breath, Lerato’s approach to DJing is a mix of soul music from before she was born, to hip hop influenced by older siblings, and seSotho music from her childhood. Sentiment and feeling is an important aspect to her DJ sets.

Catch Lerato Bereng alongside Stiff Pap, Wanda Lephoto, DJ Airtime Advance at FLOURISH on the 5th of September at Kitcheners. Doors open 9pm with a R50 door charge. FLOURISH is a seasonal gathering that celebrates community and collaboration across contemporary creative disciplines. Founded in 2017, FLOURISH is an audio-visual experiment to reflect a diverse appreciation of music across Johannesburg’s creative community. Held every first Thursday in the Spring/ Summer, the clubnight uses music to encourage artists and designers to expand on their practice, and draw on the dance floor as an exploratory space. Each line-up reflects a selection of artists and producers with a range of musical tastes, traversing across genres, generations and technical grasp. Support FLOURISH here.