Dawn Kennedy

JULIANA Irene Smith felt a mild headache, a remnant from the night before’s Art Throb party, as she stepped into Albert Road’s not-for-profit Alma Martha gallery on Saturday morning, in time to open for the Biscuit Mill crowds.

Stunned, she saw immediately that the space had been ransacked. About R7 000 worth of electrical cables had been ripped out, the booze was gone and even the toilet roll had been pilfered.

Maybe it was the title of the exhibition, Swansong, that tempted the thieves? Could there be a more South African way to close a venue than with a break-in? Maybe it’s not even worth mentioning? But it seems an unfair fate for an effort that was for the public good.

Alma Martha caters for art graduates or emerging artists by providing them with an opportunity to have their first exhibition, test the gallery ropes and get their work in front of an audience.

Alma Martha co-founder Juliana is a global citizen and a mover and shaker.

The San Francisco-born artist arrived in Cape Town in November, and found a suitable venue, collaborated with artist Molly Steven and negotiated waiving rent in exchange for renovations which started in December.

From a shell of a building with no roof, electricity or plumbing, the doors swung open in February to a spacious, hip, social art project that so far has held nine exhibitions.

Juliana graduated from Parsons School of Design in New York with a BA in photography, and a Master’s degree in Public Art from the University of Applied Arts and Sciences in Lucerne, Switzerland. She’s intimate with every graduate’s dilemma that I’m going to call the “experience necessary” conundrum.

There’s an awkward stage when you graduate, but have yet to gain industry experience. To get the necessary experience, you have to apply for jobs that will only consider people with 2-3 years’ experience.

Art graduates face their own particular version of the dilemma; they aren’t able to get an exhibition in an art gallery because they haven’t made a name for themselves.

But how do you make a name for yourself if galleries won’t exhibit your work because you haven’t made a name for yourself?

This is where Alma Martha assists. Juliana and Molly passionately support social art practice, and have provided artists a place to play.

Juliana explains that “Alma Martha gives artists the opportunity to create work without the worry of selling. We don’t sell work, we play.

“Artists can go crazy in the space.” Taking commercial pressure off artists allows them the opportunity to create without keeping an eye on the price tag.

The project is fuelled by encouragement of freedom of expression.

“We’ve never turned anyone away,” says Juliana.

Alma Martha also supports art that might not have a platform in a commercial gallery, either because it’s considered too political or too radical. As Juliana says, “The aim is to support socio-political, collaborative and experimental contemporary art practice.

“We work with artists who push the notions of contemporary and being contemporary. It is not always about the final product, but, quite often, the process. Aesthetics is a personal choice and it is continually transforming.”

With Swansong, Juliana and Molly step out of their facilitating role and exhibit their own work. But, given the title, for Juliana, the exhibition is an opening act as it’s the first time she is showing her work in Cape Town.

Her contribution to the exhibition is called “Becoming Normal”, which immediately and intentionally evokes a “whatever that is” response.

The duo take very different approaches to their art; Molly deliberately dons rose-tinted glasses, and depicts sunsets and sculptural utopias. Juliana questions her perception of this foreign place and its complex history.

She explores her position as an “outsider”, asking, “As ‘outsiders’, are we allowed to say anything at all? If so, what is the best way to say it?”

Drawn to multidimensional art, Juliana’s performance combines a collage of beautiful black-and-white images, shot with a Hasselblad, juxtaposed with a live performance of the Violent Femmes track, Black Girls. She shot the main images at Pollsmoor when a group of Norwegians visited the prison.

She says: “Because I’m a foreigner in a foreign land, I’m drawn to photographing other outsiders. I don’t want to tell locals about being local.

“I’m not telling South Africans how they should live, but offering them a perception of a very politically correct person from San Francisco.”

This is the final exhibit at Albert Road, but she promises, “Alma Martha is in no way finished.” She is looking for the next space, while Molly is going to Paris to study a Master’s degree in business arts management.

It opens on Wednesday, September 2 from 6pm to 9pm and on Saturday, September 5 from 10am to 2pm.

l Venue is 329 Albert Road, Woodstock. For information, call 071 531 5872; e-mail [email protected]