Underline: experimental art fair plans to cash in on the 'curated' trend

Unlike at other art fairs, curators will be manning the booths at this upcoming event in Joburg

08 September 2019 - 00:04 By Mary Corrigall
Zana Masombuka's 'Akwande 2', 2019 (digital print), can be viewed at Underline at the Museum of African Design in Maboneng.
Zana Masombuka's 'Akwande 2', 2019 (digital print), can be viewed at Underline at the Museum of African Design in Maboneng.
Image: Supplied

Almost everything is now said to be "curated", from Instagram feeds to ice-cream flavours. Yet in 2014 the late Nigerian art curator, Okwui Enwezor, observed that while there has been an exponential increase in curators, there are fewer spaces for the act of curating to take place.

"It is not possible to act in an art fair. It is not possible to act in a commercial gallery," he asserted. He, of course, never seemed to have a shortage of spaces "to act" - from the Joburg Biennale and the Venice Biennale, which he curated in 2015, to Documenta 11, to travelling exhibitions at all major museums from the Guggenheim to the Tate.

Despite the increase in art museums from the Wits Art Museum and the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (which went from having 16 assistant curators in 2017 to around five more recently) to A4 and the Norval Foundation, there are not many bona fide places for local curators "to act".


Curators are often used as marketing assets for art fairs - employed to counteract their "art supermarket" character. 

Investec Cape Town Art Fair announced that curators Nkule Mabaso, Luigi Fassi, Portia Malatjie and Tumelo Mosaka will be adding some weight to their fair in that city in February next year.

Adding to the art fair fanfare in Joburg this month is the entry of a new hybrid platform pivoting on curators and curating.

Underline, headed by three former Goodman Gallery curators, Lara Koseff, Natasha Becker and Londi Modiko, will present art for sale that is part of 12 discrete curated stands.

The curators will all be present at their booths, upturning the prevailing museum culture where curators live through their statements rather than being present to make a case for the art. 

Having struggled to find opportunities for themselves, the trio have established a platform that brings curating and commerce together, that bucks the traditional model of local art fairs.

The seed for the idea was a New York-based art show that Becker had regularly participated in called Spring Break.

"It is a roving show and also a fair. It is very alternative in the sense that it uses spaces in the city that are vacant. The first one was held in an old school building. Each curator got a classroom in which to stage their show.

"You transform it any way you like. If work is sold, the artist, curator and the organiser all benefit, but the overarching idea is to pool your resources and network of contact so you can create new opportunities for each other."


The trio has adapted this format for Joburg and will be staging the first edition in Moad, the now failed "Museum of African Design", which is owned and used as a permanent space for the University of Joburg's architecture school.

A call-out for curatorial projects for the exhibition was put out and it seems a largely unknown, young group of curators responded, 12 of whom have been selected for the inaugural event.

As curating and commerce have traditionally not mixed - with curatorial acts confined to noncommercial settings - the organisers are focused on breaking that historical barrier while galvanising a much-needed go-getter mentality more aligned with commercially-driven events.

Warther Dixon's 'The Dual Door', 2019 (LEDS, aluminium channel, cable), will be on show at Underline.
Warther Dixon's 'The Dual Door', 2019 (LEDS, aluminium channel, cable), will be on show at Underline.
Image: Supplied

"Curators should be comfortable not just with ideas and art but also the money and costs of it. Artists need to support themselves and curators need to be paid. We can't sit back and expect invitations that are not there. You can put something together yourself. It doesn't detract from curatorial interests. Curators need to get comfortable with that idea," says Becker.

But like any other fair or time-limited art event, it is the networking possibilities and exposure that Underline is designed to deliver. This was Becker's experience of the New York iteration.

"I bring an audience and another curator and artist has that too and their network comes to the show and we all benefit. It took a few years before Spring Break became known by collectors as something to check out to discover new things and new artists," she says.


Becker appears to have cut her teeth as a curator on the Spring Break platform. Though she worked at the Goodman Gallery, it was in this more experimental setting that she discovered curators can add value to works that would ordinarily not be hot sellers.

I am okay with [Underline] being on the margins before it becomes a mainstream thing. I want the curators and artists to feel safe and supported
Art curator Natasha Becker

She was surprised when she sold an unconventional installation with pink lights for $10,000 (about R151,475) at one Spring Break. "I realised that I had created a situation for that artist's work to be appreciated," she says.

Becker went on to co-curate two exhibitions, Perilous Bodies and Radical Love, at the Ford Foundation art gallery in New York. It includes the work of SA artists Athi-Patra Ruga, Jody Paulsen and Thania Petersen.

Underline isn't an under-the-radar event as such, even though it will be situated far from the fairs in Sandton, but it certainly is going to be a little rough around the edges. The curators are young, the artists are mostly unknown to the art market and Maboneng has undergone a cultural slump.

"I am okay with it being on the margins before it becomes a mainstream thing. I want the curators and artists to feel safe and supported," Becker says.

Underline is at the Museum of African Design in Maboneng from September 12 to 15. Visit

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