Occupying the Gallery by Mary Sibande and Lawrence Lemaoana: Exploring the white cube as a site for process

02 Oct 2023
The gallery is alive with activity. Handwritten text and photographic prints line the walls while zines, paints, etching tools, masking tape and other art-making materials cover trestle tables and makeshift workstations.

Since early July, a group of artists have been Occupying The Gallery by using Gallery 1 at Keyes Art Mile as an open working studio – a place to develop and explore their visual art practices. In August, they presented the first body of work to come out of this process, a series of prints produced with Danger Gevaar Ingozi Studio (

Occupying the Gallery is a project by the artists Mary Sibande and Lawrence Lemaoana and hosted by DGI Studio. The premise, signalled by the title, is to take up residence in an otherwise single-purpose gallery space, and to transform it into an active and open working environment that showcases both the end-result of artistic process, as well as the process itself.   

In this "studio setting" nine artists – Mary Sibande, Lawrence Lemaoana, Lusanda Ndita, Mosa Anita Kaiser, Nathaniel Sheppard III, Ngoma KaMphahlele, Bongani Ndlovu, Minenkulu Ngoyi and Hoek Swaratlhe – working across photography, printmaking, sculpture, installation and more, further explore their ways of working while cross-pollinating their practices.
Work in process at Occupying the Gallery. Photo: David Mann.

Sibande and Lemaoana view the project as a space for mentorship and collaboration, but also as a space for peer and public engagement. It’s the latter that makes Occupying the Gallery such a vital project. “The principle of Occupying the Gallery and the makeshift [nature] of an open studio in an unsuspecting white cube, aims to encourage and unpack how peer and public engagement inform processes of making,” explains the duo.

Very rarely do artists open up their studio practice to the general public in such a way. Here, members of the public are able to enter the space, watch the artists at work, and engage them. The resultant discussions, opinions, points of view, and ways of seeing ultimately influence the artistic process, and subsequently the artwork itself, in an organic and collaborative manner.  

Explorations into enduring apartheid architecture, contemporary masculinity, and the living socio-political archives embedded in South African jazz and fashion are just a few of the ideas explored by the artists in residence. Spread out across the space like this, the artists and their projects jostle up against each other, possibly influencing or challenging one another’s ways of working.
Handwritten texts and photographic prints line the walls. Photo: David Mann.

But this is not strictly an experiment in more open and self-reflexive art-making practices. The first outcome of Occupying the Gallery is Bazobuya... they are coming back; a group show featuring five artists that has used Gallery 1 at Keyes Art Mile as a temporary space. 'Bazobuya' references the Soul Brothers’ 1990 song of the same title, echoing the lament of children, mothers, and wives of husbands who have left home due to the migrant labour system in South Africa.

Through their respective bodies of work, the artists, all graduates of the Market Photo Workshop, deal with topics relating to masculinity in South Africa. Lusanda Ndita, Ngoma KaMphahlele, Bongani Ndlovu and Hoek Swaratlhe will be joined by another young photographer, Mlondi Magubane, to present the work they’ve produced through this experiment in a public, collaborative process. In partnering with DGI Studio, the sense of collaboration is further extended through the navigation of interdisciplinary artistic practices.

Bazobuya... they are coming back closes on Thu, Oct 5 at Keyes Art Mile before Occupying the Gallery moves to a new location. Follow @marysibande and @lawrence_lemaoana for updates.


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