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Hlengiwe Vilakati

Following in the footsteps of Thandi Sibisi, who opened Sibisi Gallery in Melrose Arch last year, Hlengiwe Vilakati (33) is passionate about spearheading the black art movement on the continent — it’s her duty, she says.

It’s taken her five years to conceptualise and convert her Orange Grove home into Jozi’s latest contemporary art gallery, realising her lifelong dream and dedication to empowering African artists.

Named in honour of Vilakati’s parents, Jo Anke is a combination of her father Joel’s name and her mother Nomsa’s name in Arabic, and was launched in September. The gallery’s location, she says, builds on the city’s regeneration programme. “A thriving city needs active and energetic spaces that function as incubators and offer an extended art experience that is both unforgettable and different from what people are accustomed to,” she says.

Not only a platform to promote black artists, the gallery is also a nurturing space where both established and up-and-coming artists can grow, says Vilakati.

“A lot of people don’t see art as a channel of communication. Our aim is to raise awareness of the role that culture and creativity play in resolving African issues. We believe that interactions and collaborations shared through cultural exchanges can be a powerful and fruitful experience.”

I believe we will reach a point where the African market and African people are open to art and recognise the personal satisfaction one gets from acquiring a piece of art.

“What’s exciting is that in Joburg artists are open to collaboration and with that kind of mindset we believe it can allow us to bridge cultural differences much quicker, perhaps, than other African countries,” Vilakati explains.

With black art collectors on the rise, Vilakati believes there is a gap in the niche market, but she’ll have to manage the expectations of local black artists first, many of whom lack the patience of their white counterparts.

“I’ve found that a lot of black artists want everything now, they cast their eyes too far and they don’t want to go slowly. I’ve found it very difficult to foster the same kind of patience and vision white artists have, but perseverance is key,” she advises.

Jo Anke is currently exhibiting the work of five local and two Zimbabwean artists, which will run until early next year.

Having secured her own funding to finance the gallery, Vilakati is free to focus on establishing the gallery’s reputation to rival the likes of the Goodman Gallery without the financial burden of loans and financing.

Vilakati has the following advice for aspiring art gallery owners: “When you get rejection you shouldn’t be angry with those people. Don’t be resentful, rather let it fuel you to further achieve what it is you want to achieve.”

Driven by a passion to bridge the cultural gap between black and white people and other Africans, Vilakati plans to embark on a month-long road trip to eight African countries to scout and engage with African artists in the hope of “exposing African artistic intelligence”.

While her business is still in its infancy and up against a “chauvinistic” society, Vilakati says she’s optimistic about its potential success.

“I believe we will reach a point where the African market and African people are open to art and recognise the personal satisfaction one gets from acquiring a piece of art.”