The Bag Factory: 25 years of Freedom through Art.

I head towards the Oriental Plaza, looking for The Bag Factory. I pass Newtown, the “old” Cultural district of Johannesburg, “old” because Maboneng and Hipsterville Braam seem to have taken over that title. My survival instinct pushes me to walk on the busier streets to avoid confrontations with vagrants and hunger, homelessness and uncertainty and the often invisible truth of this city of gold. I pass a glorious building towards Fordsburg, very oriental, with palm trees in front swinging and playful, misplaced in their beauty and carelessness. Not much happens this side of town I assume seeing less and less faces (Im corrected when I remember that a lot happens on this side of town, but not a lot of people know about it). A familiar structure greets me, its grey in colour. I walk on and in 10 metres I reach the door. An unassuming building with a deceptive name, “The Bag factory” stands in front of me. Named after an old hessian bag factory, that produced bags for the then vegetable market (now Museum Africa), this 25 year old artists’ studio space has kept its name.

Inside I’m greeted by a void of gallery -esque white walls and a silence that swallows one up. Its very obvious the space was once an open plan facility, like most factory floors. Now, prefab partitions offer privacy to the 16 artists working in their studios. I’m here to see David Koloane, an artist, educator and founding member of The Bag Factory Artists’ Studios. He’s a subtle old man, Bra David, with the softness of grandparent-hood. A softness enhanced by years of negotiating with brittle charcoal in a time when blackness was a crime.

The appointment is not scheduled but I’m welcomed regardless. Outside his studio, on a wall, a nation of sculptured faces with Expressions that seem to suggest they know who they are, telepathically salute me. I enter, justify my presence and our conversation starts with the oppressive apartheid legislation that restricted movements of blacks in and around their native land. “As a result of overcrowding, there was no space for artists to work in the townships” he tells me. He spoke of how the city lacked a creative space for all artists to work on art, sharing ideas in a communal setting without any -isms to segregate them.

It was after being awarded a study grant to the UK to study museum studies that Bra David Koloane was introduced to the idea of a communal working space for artists. Some young British Artists had invited Bra David to work in their studio while on his travels. This invitation took him to a communal working space for artists of all types. This was previously an old bus depot that had been converted into art studios. He fell in love with the idea and came back to a racist South Africa to establish a similar concept with British Art collector and Philanthropist Robert Loder. There began the task to search for a space.

“Obviously, what was then known as white spaces was out of the question, blacks were only allowed in white spaces to service whites, as soon as their job was done, it was illegal to be in town. A black space would require too much work to build something and would probably yield a resounding no from the authorities. It was evident that what was needed, was a grey space (as designated by the Nationalist Government). A neutral space, a space accommodating to everyone, Newtown and Fordsburg were such grey spaces”, he says.

To cut a long story short, for 25 years, the Bag Factory has propagated the idea of non- discrimination and open access in the visual arts. It’s programming has expanded and developed as a facilitator, educator and established itself as an opportunity for cultural exchange, for both local and international artists. With its studios, residencies, exhibitions, educational workshops, curatorial development programme and training opportunities, it could be the Promised Land for talented artists looking to do more. Including community groups and the general public, The Bag Factory plays a key role in nurturing and promoting South African artists to legitimise the often disrespected artist trade.

25 years is a long time, a long time to forget the essence of one’s purpose in this city that offers so much and so little at the same time… but the bag Factory has remained steadfast in its mission. The funding received from Government, corporates and the public has made sure this continues uninterrupted. A few hundred metres away is a gentrifying Newtown, once the cultural hub of Johannesburg… now dying or considered dead to some. And through the years The Bag Factory stood in its modest beauty and purpose, virtually unchanged and has managed not to sell its soul. Their gallery is not commercial, It never was, instead, it is geared to exposing the artists’ work, although the work can also be sold directly to the public.

The Bag Factory enjoys international acclaim as the artists who were part of its programmes become unofficial ambassadors of it, Bra David shares with me. This contributes to the Bag Factory’s successful international residency programme which started around ’96. The three month residency programme is their flagship programme, where approximately 12 artists annually come from around the world, to create works, interact with the local art community, have exhibitions, make contacts in the art world and experience Joburg’s diverse cultural environment. At the end of their period of residency, they hold open studios and a public exhibition.

As I exit Bra David’s studio, an Asian looking woman mutters a rehearsed ‘good Morning’ like her tongue is new here. Her name is Asuka Nirasana, a Japanese artist with a short residency at the studios. We chat for a while before I bow a rehearsed bow in my attempt to make her feel at home, the gesture is appreciated. I think about all the artists I know who would benefit from being in such a space. Apart from the residency programmes, the Bag Factory also offers professional skills workshops to artists as well the public, skills such as video art, animation and performance art. My mind wanders to think about Bogosi Sikhukhuni who recently enjoyed a residency at the Bag Factor, Bogosi is a young ambitious artist whose work lives outside the bounds of traditional visual art.

At its essence, The Bag Factory is built upon values of collaboration, inclusion and the creation of opportunities for artists the world over. The shared artist space will be celebrating 25 years of existence in 2016 with a jam packed calendar of events. When I exited Bra David Koloane’s studio I pass a corner where I first met Artist Bra Pat Mautloa working on some found objects. A beautifully chaotic corner full of once lost “things”, old woods, boards, plastics and broken pieces. All these items and their dust can be easily mistaken for rubbish to be thrown out. But perhaps this is the lesson, that nothing should be disregarded, that there is beauty to be seen by those with the intention to see it… as Bra David Koloane saw those many years ago. An old space, once a hessian bag producing factory, abandoned, was turned into a home for Artists to create and show the world what beauty is, what beauty could be.

Join the Bag Factory for a public opening of its retrospective exhibition on 28 October 2016 at 6pm.

The Bag Factory is located at 10 Mahlatini Street, Fordsburg.
@BagFactoryArt || || 011 834 9181


This artilcle was originally written by Me for Conté Magazine

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