Art + taxi = Artazi

29 October 2004

Two enterprising Soweto artists are taking art to their clients – in a taxi. They call themselves Artazi, combing “art” and “taxi”, and they’re linking artists and clients in unusual ways.

Nthabiseng Makhene and Mthunzi Ndimande, both 30-somethings born in Soweto, where they still live, call themselves art consultants but do much more than that.

They actively seek out artists and take their art to clients, at the same time advising artists on how to improve their work, while advising clients on interior design as well as hanging the artworks they purchase from Artazi.

They have a network of some 200 artists nationwide, and are supplying the new black middle class with artworks they would probably not otherwise consider purchasing.

Says Ndimande: “What we found is that the traditional art galleries run a monopoly where an elite few are promoted. It was difficult to penetrate, so we came up with an alternative aimed particularly at the new market, who did not study art but have money to spend.”

Makhene and Ndimande realised too that the “progress of black artists is hampered by a lack of business development skills and insufficient marketing”. And that’s where they stepped in.

The partners bubble with enthusiasm and savvy. Both have three-year fine arts diplomas from Pelmama Art Academy in Soweto, and more: Ndimande did a six-month Wits Business School arts and culture management course, and Makhene did a textile design course at Cape Technikon.

It hasn’t stopped there: both are in their second year doing BComm degrees through Unisa. And when they have time, they’re both active artists.

After studying, Ndimande did an arts administrator and curator apprenticeship with Standard Bank Gallery and the Wits Art Gallery, but after two years hit a “cul-de-sac” and looked around for other opportunities. By then Makhene had returned from Cape Town – they saw a gap, and formed Artazi.

It all began in 1999
Makhene and Ndimande started in 1999 by getting potential clients to art galleries, to interest them in art, then moved on to offering to bring the art to their homes, to help them visualise how the product would fit into their personal space.

This involved re-arranging the clients’ furniture, and coordinating the furniture with the art and often with crafts that they also supplied.

They asked clients to invite 10 friends to their home for the exhibition, and by then the ball was seriously rolling.

“We had help from the National Arts Council – we received R20 000, which funded four house exhibitions”, says Ndimande.

They haven’t looked back. “We get to know our clients, then find art that suits their personalities”, Makhene adds.

This means approaching artists, some of whom might never have gone outside of Soweto, with briefs, and encouraging them not only to expand their horizons but to meet deadlines for the completion of artworks.

This also means often providing a shoulder for artists to lean on when the pressure becomes too much, and being artists themselves, providing the right kind of artistic advice, taking artists from producing very realistic work to more impressionistic stuff.

They also take the artists to galleries, broadening their horizons, and showing them where their final products may end up.

“At times we sit with an artist for five hours to help him or her work through turmoil they may have. We offer them empathy, something that gallery owners don’t”, Makhene says.

And for the client they provide the option to purchase either an existing artwork or to commission a new artwork, at the same time helping clients to “conceptualise their aesthetic needs and requirements” and realise the value of the investment they’re making.

Makhene and Ndimande often source their artworks from Soweto artists, but also from elsewhere. “Our paintings and sculptures are sourced from both emerging and well-known black artists.” These include Charles Nkosi, Joseph Ndlovu, Bafana Mkhize and Eric Lubisi.

They have a rating system when judging the value of a work: works rated one – from new, unknown artists – are valued at less than R1 000, while works rated five – from internationally renowned artists – are valued at between R3 000 to R50 000.

They also supply murals, artefacts, crafts, prints, textiles, ceramics and photographs.

Taking an innovative route
Makhene and Ndimande are finding that their existing model of obtaining art from artists, either on commission or simply taking what artists produce, is no longer entirely adequate.

A new model is on the drawing board. It involves clients renting art from Artazi for a monthly fee, which has the added advantage of supplying regular income for artists.

This option would allow clients to live with an artwork for a while before making a decision to buy it or exchange it for something else.

“We are in negotiations with a company to form a joint venture on the rental model, in which they will do the back-end stuff like billing the client and paying the artist”, says Ndimande.

Their BComm degrees have come in useful already. “We now understand the business language of clients, and it’s helped us understand how to work out the rental model.”

That knowledge has been used by the City of Johannesburg: Ndimande and Makhene are consultants in one of the City’s latest art projects, an art bank, an effort to encourage local artists by buying their works, at the same time renting these artworks out to corporates and ploughing that money back to the artists.

They have big ambitions over the next 10 years. Makhene would like to branch out into textile designing, with her own label; Ndimande would like to complete an MBA and become a full-time artist.

For two talented artists, they make exceptional business people, and whenever they’ve hit obstacles they’ve “changed them to our own advantage”. One of their earlier obstacles was business knowledge, but that’s no longer a challenge – the BComm is sorting that out handsomely.

And by the way, no more taxis – they now have their own vehicle.

Source: City of Johannesburg