Opening a Window on Art from Africa

Julie Taylor talks about Guns & Rain, the online gallery she created to provide a platform for fine artists from southern Africa.


Untitled, Richard Witikani

In 2008, Julie Taylor briefly left London where she was working for Google to visit Zimbabwe, where she was born and raised. It was a politically and economically turbulent time for many people in the country and during a visit to an art gallery in the capital, Harare, she was shocked by the dire financial conditions many of the artists faced.

'On a whim I decided to post some images of artworks on a blog site – and three works sold overnight to international buyers,' she explains. 'I realised then that the Internet could potentially change artists' lives'.

This experience would eventually give birth to her company Guns & Rain, a curated online gallery of work by contemporary fine artists from southern Africa, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana.

Whilst Guns & Rain is a business, I’m informed by social development concerns, which include both artist and audience development.

Julie Taylor, DPhil in Development Studies, completed 2008

While Julie was initially drawn to this work for philanthropic reasons, Guns & Rain is a commercial enterprise, which is responding to an emerging demand in the global market. Julie describes how Guns & Rain brings together her interests in both business and development:

'There are now dozens of online art platforms. Yet despite a recent explosion of international interest in African contemporary art in the offline world, African artists are still hugely under-represented online. Guns & Rain fills the gap for an accessible, affordable, thoughtful, intelligent representation and curation of this art. Hence, whilst Guns & Rain is a business, I’m informed by social development concerns, which include both artist and audience development'.

Julie’s interest in development extends beyond her company. She completed her BA in Social Anthropology at Cambridge University prior to completing her MPhil and DPhil in Development Studies at ODID, as a Rhodes Scholar and Beit Fellow. She is the author of Naming the Land: San Identity and Community Conservation in Namibia’s West Caprivi, which is based on her doctoral research with San indigenous communities.

Her time as an anthropologist was in many ways a training ground for her current work with Guns & Rain. Both involve efforts to collect and represent the life stories and perspectives of people and communities of interest. Julie’s anthropology training also taught her 'how to see things from different perspectives' and drew her attention not only to the narratives told by the art, but also the interesting life histories of the artists themselves. Guns & Rain has become a platform to 'support in recording, sharing and marketing these narratives and stories'.

Guns & Rain primarily features the work of emerging artists, as well as some who are more established. Julie looks for artists who are committed to their work, have a promising trajectory, and who explore themes through their work that resonate with her personally.

'The name "Guns & Rain" comes from the work of South African-born British anthropologist and playwright David Lan, who wrote about guerrillas and spirit mediums in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle — for its reference to nature, culture, identity, land, struggle, change, and many other important African themes,' she explains. 'These themes were, and still are, of strong interest to me both personally as a white female southern African, and academically. They certainly influence the selection and curation of works in Guns & Rain, because I’m more likely to resonate with artists and work which engages with those themes'.

There’s little appreciation, sometimes even within the continent, about the vast scale and range of artistic creativity in Africa.

There are a number of fascinating art initiatives emerging across the Continent. However, Julie is careful to recognise and correct the common misconception that Africa is a homogenous place and that one can speak meaningfully about “African art” as a singular thing.

'I think there’s still a tendency, like in many industries, to see Africa as "a country". There’s little appreciation, sometimes even within the continent, about the vast scale and range of artistic creativity in Africa'.

Julie describes the contemporary arts scene in South Africa as 'vibrant, buoyant, lots going on, an interesting mix between old-school establishment and an emerging post-apartheid community of younger artists, plus some legendary figureheads like William Kentridge'.

In countries such as Zimbabwe, 'artists have had to work within significant, sometimes extreme, resource constraints. This has often meant that they engage with different types of material than those working in more privileged environments', including found and recycled objects. In the Southern African region where Julie recruits artists, the contemporary arts scene reflects both continuities with colonial and European art heritage and tradition (ie certain styles of painting or printmaking), as well as new and quite different aesthetics, which she describes as 'exciting'.

Ultimately, it is the marriage between quality art and web technology that makes Guns & Rain so innovative. Julie has been able to successfully leverage over six years’ of work experience with Google, which included more than four years as Head of Communications for their Sub-Saharan Africa division. By putting the gallery online and enabling easy online purchasing, Julie is helping to close the gap between emerging artists on the Continent and the global marketplace. This has also kept overheads low, allowing her to keep the prices of the art more competitive and accessible to a wide range of customers, including students and young professionals who make up over 25 per cent of sales. Web technology and social media has played an important role in raising broader awareness about African contemporary art. Julie explains that 'people are often much more willing to explore a gallery or a museum online rather than in person, where those spaces can sometimes be a bit intimidating'.

Julie has managed to achieve an incredible amount of success to date; yet she describes her journey as really just beginning in many ways. 'It’s still early days for the business, and there’s a lot to be done, so I think 2015 is going to be a year of hard but exciting work. Next up are some collaborations with arts professionals in London and New York to get more African contemporary work on the global radar; and I’m also looking forward to scouting for artists in new countries'.

Her journey in education continues as well. Julie admits that she still has “a lot to learn about both art and business”. In fact, she is returning to school in 2015 to do a part-time masters in History of Art at Wits University in Johannesburg. 'I’m looking forward to stepping back into an academic environment'.

Moving back and forth between academia and the private sector has proven to be a winning combination for Julie and will likely continue to yield creative and innovative results for her projects ahead.

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Interviewed by Alpha Abebe.