Sakhile Matlhare ’14 MA, ’17 PhD
PhD in Sociology
Sakhile Matlhare is the co-founder and art director of Sakhile&Me, a contemporary art space in Frankfurt, Germany that works with emerging and established international artists, creative entrepreneurs, and curators with a focus on Africa and its diasporas. She received her master’s degree and PhD in sociology from the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences in 2014 and 2017, respectively. Her dissertation focused on how contemporary artists work alongside art curators, historians, gallerists, and other experts in the gatekeeping process within and beyond the rubric of contemporary African art.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
The research for my Northwestern sociology PhD looked at the working relationships between artists and other cultural producers—art historians, curators, collectors, gallerists—and highlighted that much of the labor that artists do remains unseen, unacknowledged, or uncompensated. The idea behind Sakhile&Me is to use an exploratory approach to running a gallery to share glimpses into these lesser-known aspects of our artists’ work and into what it takes to sustain the creative practice over time. Learning from museums and cultural centers, we aim to incorporate education and research into the programming and operation of the gallery.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
When I applied for the PhD in sociology at Northwestern, I envisaged going into teaching or education research. Two defining moments during my time at Northwestern took place at or in collaboration with The Block Museum of Art. In 2014, I was invited to be part of a discussion with Wangechi Mutu when the multi-media and activist artist came to visit campus for the opening of her solo exhibit, Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey. In 2017, I was invited to moderate a discussion with Bisi Silva on her inspirational work with the Center for Contemporary Art and the Asiko Art School in Lagos. It was in private conversations and group discussions with Mutu and Silva that I learned that there are different and more inclusive ways to think about my contribution as an educator in training even if, and perhaps especially when, others view you as an outsider or an unconventional choice.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
The gallery idea developed as I learned from some artists about the need for sustained efforts in building platforms and infrastructure that involve artists at different levels of decision-making. In some ways, I continue to ask many of the same questions I asked while I was doing fieldwork for my dissertation, although now I also grapple with many of the same challenges and opportunities I witnessed artists and other cultural producers contending with on both a professional and a personal level.
What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?
Not to put all my trust in indecisive collaborators. I learned very early on that some of the people I looked to for support and advice had other priorities that did not align with mine. I do want to believe that their discouraging advice came with good intentions, so perhaps it was not so much a mistake as it was a realization that being transparent about your goals does not always guarantee that others will do the same. Discernment is key for being able to pick up on a red flag like indecision. Hindsight, as we say, is 20/20, but ideally, we learn to prevent mistakes before they happen again.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
It is rewarding to work with people whose work we love and with whom we share a mutually respectful and conscientious working relationship. This also means there is an added sense of responsibility as we present their work to different audiences within the gallery in Frankfurt and at art fairs in and outside of Germany. It is one thing to love the work that you do, and it is another thing to love the people you work with so we do not take it for granted when we work with an artist or another cultural producer who shares mutual respect and consideration with us.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
Ultimately, my work as an art director of Sakhile&Me involves an understanding of the connection between the artists we work with and those interested in their work, aligning this with the artists’ personal and professional aspirations, and the championing of their work in Frankfurt, Europe, and abroad. Contemporary African art as a field has a growing number of researchers, curators, and art historians working to both define and critically engage artists and their audiences. And the conversation amongst experts and scholars is taking place in an increasingly mobile, linguistically agile, and porous environment, one in which artists have relatively more access to platforms to share, discuss, and build on their work both on- and offline. Sakhile&Me was conceived with this backdrop in mind, as an alternative learning and teaching space that not only highlights the importance of studying trends in contemporary African art and the sprawling variation in how artists work and what they prioritize in their work, but also to contribute to the work done by others who are investing in challenging stereotypes about art, the art world, and knowledge produced by people of African descent.
When I was seeking out graduate-level sociology programs, Northwestern was among the best schools for sociology that came up in conversation with my college mentors. Northwestern also offered the generous Gwendolen Carter and Kofi Annan Fellowship, which supported my studies financially, connected me to the Program of African Studies, and introduced me to a very active interdisciplinary group of scholars from performance studies, political science, English, law, anthropology, and history.
Photo Credit: Katharina Dubno
Published: February 25, 2020
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