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Founded in Johannesburg in 2005, Afronova became one of the first galleries to feature chief financial photographer Malik Sidibe in 2007 and Mozambican photojournalist Ricardo Rangel in 2008
After nearly half a century of fierce white supremacy, segregation is finally over. On April 27, 1994, a new South African constitution came into effect, giving blacks and other ethnic groups the right to vote. A general election was held, and two weeks later, on May 10, Nelson Mandela became president.
Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously used the term “rainbow nation” to describe the promise of equality and unity in South Africa. Although this idea has not yet materialized, the hope for a better future in the 1990s was high. In 1995, Belgian art dealer Henri Vergonne (1968-2020) arrived in Johannesburg for a three-month stay and found inspiration in the people who had long fought for their freedom.
“After the sanctions were lifted, people were allowed to live normally and art changed completely. People were making art of resistance, and now they are free to move inward and tell their own stories. Henry fell in love with the energy and decided to stay,” says Emily Damon, Director Avronova Gallery.
Fergon opened Avronova’s Central Business District (CBD) in 2005. “During apartheid, the CBD was very bohemian but after Mandela’s liberation, all whites moved to the suburbs,” says Damon. When Henry opened the gallery in the Central Business District, all the other gallery makers said, ‘Are you crazy? Collectors would never come to visit you. It wasn’t where the money was, but Henry wanted to be close to the heart of the city and the artists. Being white and owning an art gallery With local artists it was a very political thing.”
Working with some of the most progressive and influential artists in South Africa and the Global South since 2005, Afronova became one of the first exhibitions to feature major Malian photographer Malik Sidibe in 2007 and Mozambican photojournalist Ricardo Rangel in 2008.
After Damon met Fergon in her native Japan in the early 2000s, the two married and accompanied him to South Africa in 2007. “I got involved with Avronova by going to the opening of the student exhibition at the Market Photography Workshop,” she says. “I reached out to the artists and started bringing them in.” Démon soon joined the show and helped give it a new look.
Inspired by their different backgrounds, sensibilities, and areas of expertise—hers in art, film, and the art of urban renewal—they brought a multi-layered, non-linear approach to the gallery, favoring a hybrid expression of theater, literature, film, poetry, and performance.
“When we started, Henry was working with pan-African artists,” says Damon, who notes that the gallery closed the CBD space and moved to Newtown. “One of the city developers wanted to make it the cultural district, and we were invited to join in the beginning when there was only one gallery and one bar. Now it is the trendiest place, very civilized.”
But, in the end, Vergon and Démon didn’t need a physical space to work. They decided to focus exclusively on artists from Johannesburg including a new generation of photographers Libohang Kanye, Phumzile Kanelli, Sibusiso Bhika and Alice Mann. “Loss of physical space liberated us. Instead of waiting for collectors to come in, we went to New York, London and Paris to meet collectors,” Damon says.
“Instead of paying rent, we’re going to pump money into artists – but we don’t work with many artists because it’s a total commitment. When we meet an artist they have to click. We have to make sure they understand the long-term strategy: galleries, museum exhibitions, publications, critical writing.” We don’t adapt to the market. We create a market for every artist.”
Avronova He also works with young artists to guide and provide them with tools to understand the industry. “We can’t represent them all,” he says, “but at least we can direct them.” Damon, whose advice she shares with us. “For young artists seeking representation in a gallery, I tell them the best way is to apply for awards and residencies. Even if they don’t win, there may be one person on the selection committee who falls in love with their work and invites them to participate in an exhibition, write about them, or submit them to Museum director. It’s all about creating connections in the community.”
Published in gallery with: Emily Damon debuted in 1854 photographic.