© Jodi Bieber
AFRONOVA GALLERY, based in Africa’s powerhouse, Johannesburg, is the brainchild of the dynamic duo Emilie Demon and Henri Vergon who are developing and consolidating an innovative model of gallery together with some of the most progressive and influential artists in South Africa and the Southern Hemisphere. Right there on the frontline.
For twenty years, they have been nurturing relationships with a Pan-African and international network of like-minded curators, institutions, critics, private foundations and collectors. At the forefront of the African contemporary art scene, AFRONOVA GALLERY is actively contributing to the intellectual discourse and the emergence of new vernacular art forms from the most urban and contemporary environment on the continent. Inspired by their different backgrounds, sensitivities and fields of expertise, Demon in art and cinema, Vergon in art and urban rejuvenation, they thrive on a layered, non-linear and polyphonic approach that encompasses theatre, literature, film, poetry or performance, favoring hybrid expression. This intimate knowledge based on time mixed with a permanent re-writing of present history gives them perspective and a determinant capability to read the physical and artistic landscape of urban Africa today. Astute business partners, they generate a solid economy around each of the artists they represent. They are respected players on the international art market and run a transparent business model to the benefit of the artist and the project based initiatives. Together, they decided to commit to a limited number of artists, with a close relationship and understanding rather than run after the new sensation. Artists are not commodities and the personal interaction is what drives the process. Demon and Vergon do not aspire to become a franchise but rather stay flexible and reactive, unburdened. A speed boat rather than a super tanker.
Henri Vergon embarks on the South African adventure in 1995, one year after the first democratic election and the official burial of the Apartheid regime. Follows a rare effervescence and a formidable awakening, a time of all-out restless questioning and redefinition in the art world and society at large, a watershed moment with virtually no guidance besides the ever-present rainbow nation propaganda. Everything is in becoming. After years of creating festivals, urban projects and underground exhibitions across the city, Vergon launches AFRONOVA GALLERY, in 2005, in Newtown, the heart and soul of the artistic struggle of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, across the street from the legendary Market Theatre. The first multi-racial, gay-friendly, subversive stage in Johannesburg and a highly significant heritage. The young gallery successfully introduces South Africa to the rest of the continent and brings Africa and the diaspora to Joburg in a bold, radical move. The historical building will host memorable exhibitions of African monuments like Malick Sidibé (Mali, 2007), Ricardo Rangel (Mozambique2008), Mario Benjamin (Haiti, 2007), Gerard Sekoto (South Africa, 2008) or Gera Mawi Mazgabu (Ethiopia, 2005)) as well as some of the finest younger pioneers like Billie Zangewa (Malawi/South Africa, 2004), Zinkpé (Benin, 2008) or Mauro Pinto (Mozambique, 2008).
Emilie Demon arrives in Johannesburg from Tokyo in 2007. She immediately gets involved with the art scene and immerse herself in the vibrant African capital. She is the harbinger of brand new ventures and adventures to come. Embracing the narratives of a changing city, Demon tirelessly explores the new territories and languages of a fresh generation of creators. In this ever changing cosmopolitan platform, Emilie Demon will play an instrumental role in reconciling the historical perspective of the Sub-Saharan region with the global sound of an Afropolitan capital.
Comes 2010, promoters move into town and speculation is rife. Gentrification is the new gospel. The historical district of Newtown and the Market Theatre succumbs to the speculative aspirations of a few. AFRONOVA GALLERY finds a new home across the CBD, spearheading a brand new urban project in Braamfontein, a stone-throw away from WITS University. Demon and Vergon are amongst the first to invest in this former “no-go zone” together with visionaries like entrepreneur Adam Levy and avant-garde designers Dokter And Misses. Planting trees and opening artists’ studios, they channel a new energy into Joburg’s urban landscape and play around demarcation lines, transitioning a kinky part of town into a cultural hub. While exhibiting Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor at ARCO Mardrid, Emilie Demon and Henri Vergon curate ground-breaking exhibitions in their vast industrial space, with an inaugural exhibition with a debut show by photographer Musa N. Nxumalo reflecting on Joburg’s township subcultures.
In 2012, it is a natural evolution for AFRONOVA GALLERY and a conscious decision by its founders, after years of literally “running” a gallery space, to take a leap of faith and close its public outlet for a more intimate showroom. Not pretending to reinvent the wheel but allows to focus all energies on each artist.
The intention is about elective affinities and maturity beyond the transactional relationship between artists and dealers. The proximity and complicity with the artists completes Afronova’s legitimacy and its long term vision. Although in perfect sync with the global art market based in Europe and the United States, Vergon and Demon have made a deliberate choice to live together with the artists they represent, side by side, sharing their artistic outcomes and personal development. Afronova serves as a loud hailer to relay the voice of each of their partners in art. They work with smart, informed and articulate practitioners, create international opportunities with them and consolidate their respective trajectories.
In recent years, AFRONOVA GALLERY showcased artists from the continent in prestigious international platforms like The Armory Show, Art Paris, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in New York and London. The gallery enjoys collaborations with important institutions like the PAC Milan, Iziko South African National Gallery, The Studio Museum, The Smithsonian Institution, Mass Mocca, as well as foundations like Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, Prada Fondazione in Milan, Fondation des Galeries Lafayette in Paris, JP Morgan Chase in New York, La Maison Rouge in Paris.
It is about interactions and advancement, not shameless speculation. It is about the emergence of new generations of curators and art critics, ensuring that artists are connected to the thinking of the times and develop an independent stance, provoking encounters and a free dialogue with the rest of the world. It is about pushing the boundaries and fighting bigotry. They also work on a series of significant exhibitions in South Africa to keep the country connected to world class shows as well as promoting South African art abroad, in the same vein as the ambitious Roger Ballen retrospective in Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan, in 2015, in partnership with Kyotography and Comme des Garcons.
Demon and Vergon are passionate about what they call the most beautiful trade in the world and a permanent challenge to their personal beliefs. And what better place to keep asking questions than Johannesburg, the most exhilarating laboratory for urban cultures!