Gallery hopping with Thabo the Tourist

27 Feb 2024
With their stark air-conditioned interiors and a hint of intellectualism hanging in the air, Joburg's art galleries can be a little intimidating if you aren't a regular visitor to exhibitions. Enter Thabo Jacob Modise, more commonly known as Thabo the Tourist, a young and energetic entrepreneur and artist trying to do the art gallery experience differently through his company Toura Travel Therapy.
Thabo Jacob Modise aka Thabo the Tourist outside Studio Nxumalo. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket.

It was in 2021 when Thabo realised that while Joburg's art scene has a compelling mix of established galleries and smaller, more daring new spaces, the exhibitions and openings do not garner wide enough attention and usually see the same faces. Not one to sit on his heels, he started Toura Travel Therapy to bring more people into these spaces and show them why they can and should visit Joburg's galleries. We joined Thabo for his Hop-On Joburg Art Galleries tour and can safely say that it is an excellent way to be introduced to, or get back into, art in Johannesburg.

We arrived at Keyes Art Mile on a scorching summer morning, and the warm breeze filtering through the trees offered little respite from the heat. With bright oranges, pinks, and blues colliding happily on his self-styled clothing, we didn't have to scan the pavement for long to find Thabo. You're immediately put at ease as a smile lights up his face, and it was great chatting with him while we waited for the last person to join our tour, an American woman who works between South Africa and its neighbouring countries. She is a regular on Thabo's tours, and they spent five minutes getting caught up before we walked across the road to our first stop: Everard Read.
As we strolled down the side of Everard Read to its impressive wrought-iron entrance, Thabo filled us in on the building's history. The first commercial gallery in South Africa, Everard Read was once located in the CBD before moving to Rosebank in the 70s. The building itself is an impressively understated piece of architecture and, before it was converted into a gallery, it was the home of the owner of Everard Read. This lends its white, softly lit interiors and hodgepodge of courtyards a more personal feeling.
Thabo always makes sure to listen when his tour members are sharing their insights into the art. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket.

Thabo returns to the present as we walk inside and the conversation quickly shifts to the art on the walls. What stuck out as we studied dense works by Blessing Ngobeni, bright paintings by Tafadzwa Tega, sculptures by Angus Taylor and more, was how relaxed the discussion felt.

Thabo doesn't force his opinion on you, and while he will point out his favourites, he also encourages you to roam the floors to find what interests you. Before you know it, his questions have you analysing the work more deeply.
The light-hearted nature of the tour is incredibly refreshing. There is no thinly veiled intellectualism with Thabo, and his sense of humour means it is rare that you aren't smiling during the tour. I chat to him about this and how he strikes a balance between entertainment and education as we leave Everard Read Gallery for Circa's curved structure. Thabo pauses for a moment before replying, "I don't see the two as separate. With how quickly the art market is changing, there are always so many new artists and ideas that you must be learning all the time. But it's art. It's beautiful and therapeutic, and these galleries give you the space to pause and reflect. So how can one not enjoy looking at it?"

This encapsulates the philosophy of Toura Travel Therapy: showing people that they can visit and engage with art no matter their background and that, whether or not you understand it or know the theories behind it, you can still get lost in it. In particular, Thabo wants to get more people of colour going into galleries. He points to how you can still see the effects of the Apartheid exclusion of black people from galleries in the predominantly white openings. He laments how most people don't know that Joburg's galleries are free to visit and how people are intimidated by them. He asserts that if he can get more people to take a moment at a gallery and perhaps even start buying art, he will be happy.
One gains a greater understanding for the work being exhibited with Thabo's knowledge on South African art. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket.

The sun is at its zenith as we wind our way out of Circa and into the Trumpet Building. We zip up the elevator and are soon immersed in art again at Studio Nxumalo. Here, Thabo starts speaking passionately about the importance of growing the art market and points to Studio Nxumalo and BKhz for the risks they take in showing underrepresented artists. He ties this back to the significance of more people visiting galleries. Joburg's art scene, while not without its issues, has expanded over the past few years with a growing roster of galleries providing more avenues for artists to have their work displayed or find support for it. The audience needs to grow with the art scene for it to keep growing and be more sustainable.

Sadly, we didn't have time for the short taxi ride down to David Krut, Gallery 2 and Goodman Gallery with us all having limited time on the day, but this is usually part of the experience. As we said our farewells, I was struck by how a gallery visit is an intimate experience, and in our brief stroll through the art-adorned walls at Keyes our conversation flowed from the weather to the art to our personal experiences and politics. While the insight into the art that Thabo provides is invaluable, his ability to show his guests what really matters is how art allows you to find out more about each other, yourself, and the world around us is what makes these tours worthwhile.

If you want to start exploring Joburg's art scene, or are looking for a fresh perspective on it, book one of Thabo's tours by emailing Sign up for our weekly newsletter and check out our weekly art round-ups to stay up to date with all things art in Joburg.


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