A Weekend of Art and Excitement at the RMB Latitudes Artfair

By Thuli Mlambo-James

The last weekend of May saw Johannesburg abuzz with excitement as art lovers, communities, and tourists flocked to one of the city’s most anticipated art events, the RMB Latitudes Artfair 2024.

Set against the stunning backdrop of Shepstone Gardens, this fair promised an extraordinary fusion of art, nature, sculpture, and innovative design, redefining the art-viewing experience in a uniquely Johannesburg context. The luxury of arriving in private chauffeured Lexus cars added an extra touch of elegance to the visitor experience.

The RMB Latitudes Artfair is not just an art event, it is a celebration of African creativity and diversity. Hosted by the dynamic women-led team behind Latitudes Online in partnership with Rand Merchant Bank, the fair offered a global platform for artists from Africa and the diaspora. This year, 50 participating galleries and hundreds of artists came together to showcase a breathtaking array of artworks, from traditional mediums to cutting-edge digital installations.

One of the most impressive aspects of this fair is its innovative challenge to the conventional ‘white cube’ exhibition model. By dissolving the typical art-viewing environment, it created a space where art could be engaged with and questioned in a relaxed, open setting. The lush surroundings of Shepstone Gardens offered a serene and almost magical backdrop, enhancing the connection between art and nature.

These are some of the features that piqued my interest at this year’s iteration of the fair.

Sculpture Garden

One of the standout features of RMB Latitudes this year was the Sculpture Garden curated by Everard Read Gallery. With more than 20 sculptural works strategically placed throughout the picturesque gardens, it showcased the versatility of sculpture and how it can harmonize beautifully with nature and architecture. This new addition was met with widespread acclaim as visitors marvelled at the seamless integration of art and landscape.

New Additions, Highlights, and Special Projects

Lexus Critics’ Choice Award: This award added excitement by celebrating and recognising excellence in exhibition curation and design, highlighting the fair’s commitment to quality and innovation. The winner was announced on the last day of the fair, Sunday the 26th of May. The award for best design and curation went to Reservoir Gallery, an independent partnership specializing in collaborative curation, focusing on creating a space for ambitious solo exhibitions by independent artists.

Photo by Talita Swarts

INDEX Platform: In its second year, INDEX continued to break new ground by showcasing independent artists from South Africa and the continent who are not represented by galleries. This platform’s commitment to inclusivity and breaking down barriers to entry was a major highlight, offering a unique opportunity for these artists to shine.

Artist Spotlight – Insaan, Human Being by Abdus Salaam: Presented by THK Gallery in collaboration with Nirox Sculpture Park and Latitudes Artfair, this solo exhibition was a profound exploration of love, environmental consciousness, and personal reflection. Created during the artist’s six-week residency at the Nirox Sculpture Park during Ramadan, the giant art piece, over 10 feet high, captivated audiences with its depth and emotional resonance. Standing elegantly in the Centre Court, its vibrant colours and intricate lines drew my attention and left a lasting impression.

Nelson Makamo Retrospective: In a ground-breaking partnership, Nelson Makamo Studios and Latitudes Artfair presented a retrospective solo show of the famed South African artist’s work. The rooftop preview was a particular highlight, offering a stunning introduction to the full exhibition, which provided a rare opportunity to view decades of Makamo’s art, showing his trajectory and taking visitors on a journey through his prolific career.

Threads by Kate Otten Architects: Experiencing this installation, which was selected for the South African pavilion at the Venice Biennale 18th Architecture exhibition in 2023, was a delight. This installation, made up of weaving and beading by women artisans, took a distinctive approach to storytelling, deviating from the linear patriarchal narrative. It graced the grounds of Shepstone Gardens, taking centre attention at the Mezzanine. This cylindrical space with high ceilings and ample lighting created an immersive experience that invited viewers to explore the piece from multiple perspectives.

The ANNA Award: This award is sponsored by ANNA Pure Organic, a locally manufactured, environmentally friendly and organic feminine hygiene product range, this award aims to discover, recognise, and nurture a new generation of women-identifying artists from the African continent and the diaspora. The award winner for 2023, Nada Baraka from Egypt, had her solo exhibition at the fair’s Centre Court.

USURPA x Latitudes powered by Nike: USURPA which was established as a WEB 3 Digital Fine Art Platform and Physical Gallery, showcased new digital artworks by prominent South African artists, including Nandipha Mntambo, Roger Ballen, Siphelelo Mnguni, and Justice Mukheli. It was a major draw for visitors interested in the future of digital art.

FEDE Arthouse: Another impressive feature at the fair was the FEDE Arthouse Special Project, renowned for designing inviting and homey spaces. They collaborated with NISH Design Studio Cape Town, to create a series of modular wooden cubes. These cubic wooden structures were connected in different ways to serve as both furniture and accessible interactive sculptures. The goal was to use natural materials to craft versatile pieces that fit seamlessly into any environment and meet the needs of the people using them. Much like Legos, these structures were connected in various ways, allowing for creativity and customisation. There was that playful element, intuitive and flexible nature, about these structures, inviting users to engage with them as both functional furniture and interactive sculptures. This blend of functionality and playfulness evoked the imaginative and hands-on experience of building with Legos, creating a nostalgic and enjoyable interaction with the art pieces.

Among the many extraordinary exhibitions, my highlights included the captivating works of Treasure Mlima, by Imba Ya Sarai Gallery in the Centre Court. The buzz around his art was palpable, art lovers and critics alike couldn’t help but be drawn to his pieces, marvelling at the complexity and beauty of his creations. Additionally, the Digital section of the fair, the USURPA exhibition, stood out with its innovative and futuristic approach to art. The FEDE Project also captured my attention with its cubic wooden playful structures, which remind me of playing with Legos as a kid due to their modular interactive design, which could be connected in various ways. However, it was the giant piece by Abdus Salaam at the Centre Court that truly stole the show for me. Standing over 10 feet high and wide, this art installation with vibrant colours and intricate lines drew me in, leaving a lasting impression with its elegant presence and profound message.

The RMB Latitudes Artfair 2024 was more than just an art event; it was a cultural phenomenon that attracted art lovers, enthusiasts, local communities, and visitors from within the continent and globally. The fair’s location in Shepstone Gardens, with its breathtaking landscapes and historic charm, made it a must-visit destination. Lexus provided private chauffeured drives to the fair, adding a touch of luxury to the visitor experience. The fair’s innovative approach, diverse range of artworks, and commitment to inclusivity and excellence made it a standout event in the global art calendar. It left a lasting impression on all who attended, with visitors departing Shepstone Gardens inspired and enriched by the vibrant world of African art and creativity.

Sip along Franschhoek – Wine of Olifants hoek