Situated on Mpulanga Road, Ezulwini (Heaven), Swaziland, Yebo Art Gallery is one of the few Eswatini art galleries and is really one of a kind in this upmarket town still described by the municipality website as a “residential town with limited economic activity”.
Yebo Art Gallery is a family owned art gallery that is very much involved in community building and improving the livelihoods of the townspeople.
Aleta Armstrong, husband and son have committed their business to the people of Ezulwini, they have taken natural talent that the world possibly would have never known, developed it and gave it a chance to compete in the “art world”.
We had a chance to chat to Aleta about their projects, FNB Art Fair 2021 participation, YeboArtReach NGO, plans to open a café and more.
Zululand Press (ZP): Hi, Aleta. Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from? How do you end up in Swaziland? Your husband, family.
Aleta: I was born in Helsinki, Finland but left when I was 5 and grew up in Tanzania, Malta, Botswana, and Swaziland. My father worked with the UN, so we moved around a lot. After high school finished, I moved to Copenhagen and lived there till ’84 doing some art, waitressing, cleaning hotel rooms, et cetera. An opportunity came up to visit Swaziland, which I grabbed, it was supposed to be for a few months but I felt like I had returned home, plus I met my Swati husband Pete, so I stayed. We set up a screen-printing and design company from home which grew, employed 30 people, had two shops as well. We sold the company and Pete worked as an art teacher, I ran a project for unemployed people working in design and handcraft.
ZP: What is Yebo Contemporary Art Gallery? What impact does it have in the community? The projects you have? Who funds them? Are they making a real difference or just superficial?
Aleta: Yebo was set up at the end of 2010 by Pete, me, and our son Dane. As artists we were looking for a space to exhibit and we were complaining about the lack of spaces and opportunities for artists. We realized that complaining was getting us nowhere, so we decided to take a risk and set up a contemporary art space ourselves. We also knew a lot of artists and wanted together to create a good environment for the creative sector to grow. I think we have made some impact in artists’ lives and put contemporary art from Eswatini on the map. But there is so much to still do, we operate with limited resources and do the best we can in a small space. We have an NGO side, Yebo ArtReach which had funding for numerous creative projects. For example, the Women’s Voices Project in 2014 which had a powerful impact on creating awareness on feminism, funded by the US Embassy here. Phindile Mamba, who we now represent, started painting after that project and is now one of the top selling artists in our gallery, she’s currently exhibiting at Turbine Art Fair and will be at FNB Art Joburg next month. Do projects make a real difference? I think they are all part of the journey of creating awareness of the arts, asking difficult questions and having discussions about freedom of expression; it’s all an ongoing process in Eswatini. The gallery is a private company, we wish to be independent and allow artists we represent the freedom to do what they want and be part of the decision-making process of exhibitions and plans. Short term projects on their own are useless, they need to be backed up by a centre which is always open, where you can go for advice and exhibit and be part of a family of artists growing together. We are here 24/7 for the art community. I also hope to see more art galleries here, it is difficult now due to Covid-19 but hopefully in the future more artists and rural communities will set them up.
ZP: On the phone we spoke about privilege, white and male privilege. How are you using your platforms to address those?
Aleta: I have had a privileged life and it’s important for me to think about this seriously, learn and listen more and be actively involved in changing the systems of white privilege along with empowering women’s rights. This is an ongoing project, in changing myself. It’s important also to just be of service to your community and to listen to what the artists and public want and help as much as I can. It’s also a topic which comes up often with artists and it’s vital we all respect each other and create a space which is welcoming and supportive. It is important to have exhibitions on these topics as well, like Khulekani Msweli did so well in his recent solo ‘A Eulogy for a Black Man’.
ZP: How do you circumvent the elitist, exclusive nature of art galleries?
Aleta: By having free entry, doing free tours for schools, welcoming every visitor, and keeping the atmosphere relaxed and not intimidating. Our gallery is small, and we have a workshop behind it and we are all very casual and friendly. We are hoping to open a small café soon which will help in having a space for everyone to hang out.
ZP: What do you think of art as a form of activism?
Aleta: Some artists do find their voice through creative activism and it’s a powerful way to get messages across. We need much more of this!
ZP: Tell us about the artists you work with? Your favourite, if any? Currently showing? Those you represent? How do you choose who to work with?
Aleta: I have no favourite artists, each one is wonderful in their own unique way. The artists we represent are a diverse group. We choose artists to represent based on the quality of their work, something original and seeing their serious and passionate commitment to their work. Artists will email, WhatsApp or pop by with their portfolios. We are always happy to meet and go through it, many are just starting out and need encouragement to be creative. We also have open calls for exhibitions and meet new artists that way as well.
ZP: Most artists are unable to afford doing art, materials and so on, how do you help them with that and what sort of deals do you offer your artists for works you sell and exhibit? Bearing in mind that galleries have been known to exploit talent.
Aleta: We try and help artists with materials as much as we can. We don’t charge artists anything, we cover all the gallery costs, online fees like Artsy, et cetera, and offer them free assistance, marketing, and exhibition spaces. If we sell their work, then we take a commission. We organize the shipping. We have done workshops on prices, et cetera, so artists understand their rights and what are best practices. All work is signed in and recorded with the amount the artist wants for their work, that is what is paid to them as soon as their work is sold. A gallery only exists because of their artists, so there should be mutual respect and no exploiting of talent.
ZP: Tell us about your art, themes you explore, mediums you use, target audience, who is buying it?
Aleta: My art is quite eclectic, I do illustrations in ink pen, textile design and paint in acrylics and oils. I paint what I feel and I am influenced by current affairs, my dreams, poems, and the nature that surrounds me. I have no target audience in mind, but find it’s mainly women who buy my art.
ZP: The whole world is in a state of chaos, how are you and the ones around you surviving?
Aleta: We have adapted and learned to live very simply and operate a gallery on a tiny budget and take life one day at a time. It’s important to stay positive and supportive, everyone is in a fragile state right now.
ZP: What is the future of Eswatini? What is the future of Eswatini arts and culture?
Aleta: I don’t know. I could talk about what I hope for but that’s just dreams for now.
Visit their website and social media to find out more and possibly help with the community projects they are involved in. It would be great to see collaborations with our South African artists, which Yebo is very much open to.
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