Celebrating art

What does canvas, pastel and oil paint have in common with Wi-fi? Ask Roberta  Coci, co-founder of Latitudes Online, an internet-based art market.

One of Roberta Coci’s very favourite possessions is a Sam Nhlengethwa print she purchased ten years ago. “It’s from his jazz series and I never tire of staring at it. I often sit in my armchair opposite, doing crochet and listening to podcasts, so I see it a lot!” she says.

That’s one of the pleasures of owning beautiful artwork … a pleasure that, as co-founder of Latitudes Online, she has been able to extend to many others. “It gives me enormous joy to know that there are people who never considered themselves art investors, who may have been too intimidated to walk into a white cube gallery, and who are now on their way to building collections they love,” she says. At the same time, it gives her equal pride to think of the artists who are gaining an ever growing following, thanks to the platform she helped create for them.

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It was this passion for showcasing creativity and talent that led to the establishment of Latitudes Online. Roberta explains that, growing up, her obsession with colour and décor – “I was always decorating my dolls’ house” – was matched only by her love for telling people’s stories. These two interests collided when she took on a job at House & Leisure. “I became immersed in South Africa’s creative scene,” she says, recalling the thrill she got from meeting local makers – and even more so from giving them a platform to promote their talent.

She got to explore this further when she started curating the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair, one of the city’s biggest design events and a product of the company that co-ran the FNB Joburg Art Fair, Africa’s oldest art fair. As part of a small team, Roberta swiftly developed a sound understanding of what it takes to host a successful event – knowledge that proved useful when she decided to go solo, again focusing on establishing platforms to showcase creative talent.

Then, in 2019, she joined forces with long-time friend Lucy MacGarry and three other female entrepreneurs to disrupt the art world. “We realised that most of the art fairs in place at the time focused entirely on larger galleries. Small galleries and independent artists didn’t have a similar channel.” The decision to create such a channel may seem rather obvious, but given the rigorous criteria governing art fairs and the elite art world in general, it was nothing short of groundbreaking.

The art world thought so, too. Hosted at Nelson Mandela Square, Latitudes Art Fair attracted partners like the SA Mint and Strauss & Co, all of whom helped to make the event come together in just three months – no small feat, given that it usually takes a year to organise an art fair. More impressive still was the support shown to the exhibitors, who hailed from countries as varied as Angola, Norway and the United States … more than 7000 visitors arrived to take in the celebration of their talent. “That helped us crystallise our ethos. We knew that from then on, we would work with independent artists as well as galleries and institutions. Our thinking was that if you are an amazing artist, you should have a platform,” Roberta says.

No doubt the second Latitudes Art Fair would have been just as successful – more so, in fact, as the event was to be moved to the Sandton City rooftop, an area six times the size of the original venue – but Covid intervened. But Roberta and Lucy were quick to recognise that the need for a platform was even greater during lockdown conditions. “We thought of all those artists working in isolation. Already battling against limited access to markets, now they couldn’t even exhibit. ” Their instincts were spot on. Latitudes Online went live in July 2020 with 350 artists, and now boasts a curated collection of 1 500 African artists’ works.

While the growth of the brand is undeniably an achievement, Roberta is most excited by the role Latitudes Online has played in democratising the art world. “We work with artists across the continent, from digital artists in Nigeria and Cameroon to painters and printmakers right here in Joburg. And it’s been amazing to see them all come together on Latitudes as a community and find a platform to sell their work. In a way, our artists have been able to develop into entrepreneurs – and I love that!”

Roberta says that the team never stops hunting for new talent, and to this end, recently launched the first annual ANNA Award for Women Artists. Discovering these new names always gives the team a buzz, but it’s making art more accessible to more people that really drives them. They’ve built on this by introducing a new initiative which sees well-known artists releasing limited edition prints every month – and, in 2023, will stage a physical art fair, this time in a purpose-built venue at one of Johannesburg’s most famous gardens.

“I think of Latitudes Online as a technology business rather than an art business, because it’s through technology that we’ve been able to grow audiences for our artists,” Roberta concludes.

The ones to watch …

Here are Roberta’s picks of upcoming artists:

• Lerato Nkosi, winner of this year’s inaugural ANNA Award. “Her striking black and white works explore the intricacies of existing in the world as a woman.”

• Young Congolese artist Cinthia Sifa Mulanga has been commissioned by Gucci to create an artwork for an international campaign. Her work shines a spotlight on the beauty constraints women are subjected to.

• Cape Town-based artist Shakil Solanki is inspired by classical Eastern art, and delves into his experiences as a queer brown man. “His work is both intricate and intimate,” says Roberta.

Photographer: NICOLE MOORE nicolemoorephotography.co.za
• Make-up artist: Bronwyn Goddard 076-876-1300
Location: SOTTO SOPRA sottosopra.co.za

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