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South African gallery Southern Guild expands to Los Angeles

The collectible design platform that represents major African talents has opened a sprawling outpost in Los Angeles, with thoughtful inaugural exhibitions

With a consistent presence at international fairs like Design Miami, Southern Guild has carved out its own place as one of the only platforms representing the vast output of collectible design from Africa and its diaspora. It’s a tall order to say the least, but one that founders Trevyn and Julian McGowan have mastered by focusing on the impetus of reinterpretation; the equally expressive and conceptual refiguring of ancient craft traditions as related to utilitarian and ritualistic practices. As it is for so many, this dynamic approach serves as a means of preservation. Community, collaboration and cross-pollination are essential factors. Among the gallery’s ever-growing roster are talents like Xhosa ceramicist Andile Dyalvane, and fellow South African Porky Hefer, known for his large anamorphic sculptures. Other talents hail from Benin, Congo, Kenya, Mali and even Iran. 

Southern Guild founders Trevyn and Julian McGowan have developed a platform for collectible design from Africa and its diaspora, which has now expanded to the USA. Photo: Elizabeth Carababas

First based in Johannesburg and later Cape Town, the 16-year-old Southern Guild has just opened its first international outpost in Los Angeles. The move puts a fine point on the city’s growing and ever stratified gallery scene. For a major platform to choose this West Coast metropolis over the more expected option of New York City was a bold, but not brash, move.  

“Establishing our second space here was a deliberate choice shaped by a fusion of cultural resonance and dynamic energy reminiscent of our roots in Johannesburg and experiences in Cape Town,” says Trevyn. “Los Angeles felt familiar to us; less structured and prescriptive than New York. It combines what we love most about where we come from: the city’s industrious spirit mirrors the people-centric energy of Johannesburg with the coastal beauty of Cape Town.”

The artists represented in Southern Guild’s inaugural LA show, Mother Tongues, represent the gallery’s illustrious roster of talent. Photo: Ulrich Knoblauch

The new gallery is situated in a sprawling 465-square-metre building dating back to 1926 that was completely revamped by Evan Raabe Architecture Studio—the local boutique firm also responsible for the outfit of Hauser & Wirth’s Los Angeles flagship and Christie’s Beverly Hills space. This latest addition to the city’s booming scene is situated adjacent to a landscaped parking courtyard shared with a few popular eateries. “With the more recent development of Melrose Hill, it feels like we’re helping to create something new in the city,” Trevyn says.

Our intention is to be very permeable.

Trevyn McGowan

Southern Guild is joining multi-city platforms like Carpenters Workshop Gallery, Friedman Benda, Garde Shop, Ralph Pucci and The Future Perfect, but also local heavyweights like Marta and Stroll Garden. It isn’t just blue-chip art galleries making their mark, however, especially as disciplinary boundaries continue to blur. 

In Mother Tongues, all of the works respond to some aspect of their artists’ heritages. Photo: Elizabeth Carababas

Southern Guild LA’s interior has three large, interconnected rooms tailored for different types of exhibitions. It is light, airy, welcoming and the perfect backdrop for the diverse array of works the gallery has on offer. “The programme will very much be in keeping with what we mount in Cape Town,” Trevyn adds. “There’ll be some solo presentations like Zanele Muholi’s self-titled show, which we held in the Cape Town gallery in June 2023, and on view in LA this May. At the same time, we want this second space to be a platform for artists working towards something new. Our intention is to be very permeable. We have been meeting with and finding common ground with local artists, and are just at the outset of seeing where these connections take us. We expect our programme will evolve with a flow of ideas and work going in both directions between LA and Cape Town.” 

Inaugurating the space during the city’s ever-burgeoning Art Week (22 February to 2 March)—centred on Frieze but also a whole host of offshoot fairs—are two showcases reflecting this holistic and dynamic thinking. While the Mother Tongues group show introduces the West Coast to much of Southern Guild’s illustrious roster, South African talent Zizipho Poswa’s Indyebo yakwaNtu (Black Bounty) stems from her time in residency at the Center for Contemporary Ceramics (CCC) at California State University Long Beach under the guidance of founder Tony Marsh, a respected experimental ceramicist in his own right. 

Poswa’s large-scale sculptures—produced using the institution’s especially large kilns—amplify elements of African beautification and ritual: precious metal jewellery, beadwork, hair combs and other typologies. The items are unusually produced by master craftspeople from across the continent upholding vernacular traditions and age-old techniques. “Drawing on Africa’s own mineral wealth, her people have created an immeasurable creative collection from which African men and women adorn themselves, resulting in a language of objects that has come to shape our identity,” the artist says.

Southern Guild’s other inaugural LA show spotlights South African talent Zizipho Poswa’s large-scale ceramic sculptures, which are fired in the especially large kilns at California State University Long Beach

Mother Tongue explores a similar preoccupation—the notion that both material and symbolic form can be used to express, distort and challenge established concepts—but on a macro scale. It’s a defining tenant of Southern Guild’s overall ethos. Most of the talents are responding to some aspect of their heritage through original, often code-switched, metaphysical vocabularies. Processes themselves can also carry the brunt of conveying a message. There is an almost anthropological but far less didactic and more self expressive undercurrent that ties the various works on view. 

Congolese fibre artist Patrick Bongoy’s rubber wall hangings transmute the impermeable material with unexpected properties but also hint at, if not re-appropriate the byproducts of, insidious colonial extraction and exploitation. While Nigerian-British ceramicist Ranti Bam’s terracotta torso vessels skew what it means to hold language, Nigerian-Canadian artist Oluseye collects found objects and detritus from a trans-Atlantic journey, almost as if a psychographic recounting of the trip so many enslaved people had to endure.  

All in all, this complex offering reveals how Southern Guild’s exhibiting artists all transcend the limitations of palatably codified tradition, even subverting them at times, as reverence and conservation. 

How the meaning of these works reach a Californian audience has also been carefully considered, given the long exchange between the state’s established creative community and groups of like-minded South Africans escaping cultural oppression during Apartheid in the later half of the 20th century. What is revealed is that inevitably, there are universities that serve as points of contact for almost anyone. Visceral treatments of matter and shape—design, craft and material culture—invariably remain one of the most tangible and direct means of achieving this exchange. Conceptual ideation can be harnessed through relatable objects.

Both Mother Tongues and Indyebo yakwaNtu (Black Bounty) are on view until 26 April 2024 at Southern Guild Los Angeles.

Read more: Collectible Design | Design | Gallery | Los Angeles | South Africa | Southern Guild | USA