Mark Coetzee by Luan Nel
I first met Mark in 1996. I was visiting Cape Town, then still living in Johannesburg with my Neil. I remember finding the Cape Town art scene vibrant with many new galleries opening their doors, in town, there was the Hanel gallery with Robert Weinek and also some new life in Woodstock. Upon visiting Robert at Hanel, he directed me to a new space that opened up just two blocks away on Bree Street. I walked up the road and I found the Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet. It was the most intriguing of the lot, being tiny, literally ten meters square, if that. Just enough room for a tiny exhibition or show on a wall and a small desk and chair for the gallery assistant. Soon after I met with Mark to see if I could possibly show there and a date was decided upon and it happened the following year, 1997.
It was only my third solo exhibition and in Mark I found a young gallerist who was also an artist. I think it was shortly after or towards the end of his Masters. He was a fountain of information, he knew everything that was cutting edge, queer, and concerning painting. I could not possibly have been in better hands. Upon Mark’s suggestion I included a small stack of prints, cards of a selection of work, five individual pieces from the hanging works and some ink drawings I made specially for the stack. We editioned 200 of these, placed them in little boxes and as a gesture to Cape Town, handed them out for free. Everybody could leave with a small bit of my work. They flew and became very popular, finding homes on some art critics’ fridge doors and one stack even finding its way into the Smithsonian, this I only found out years later. This is but one example of Mark’s foresight and very specific and individual approach to each show and each artist. He was very good at getting the whole picture. As artist, I was treated with respect and also challenged somewhat on the ideas informing the exhibition, made to consider all aspects of the installation. So much so that once the work was installed, all rather neatly, my friend Brian Webber (who was staying with me in our apartment in St James) and I packed up and headed back. That evening at around 10 pm it struck me like a bolt of lightning, it is all wrong. Neat is not what the work was. It was a mess. We contacted Mark and asked if he would mind if we work through the night we need to re-hang. We collected the keys, and he was as calm as ever, not making us more on edge. We went and created the perfect mess in the space and in the morning, he said, I was wondering what solution you would come up with. It was important to have such trust and freedom for one of the pivotal exhibitions in my cultural production.
I returned to Johannesburg and soon after left for the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. I today find myself living in Cape Town and in similar shoes to Mark’s back then. I am an artist and I own an art gallery. I have a program that stretches a year ahead, and I deal with artists. It has been an incredible education and I am still learning every day. My experience with Mark’s Cabinet informs the ways in which I approach exhibitions, as individual projects with their own set of needs. No two are the same and no two artists are ever the same. I do custom-made presentations or at least I try to. This I learnt from Mark. I did not forget he was also an artist and invited him to participate in our inaugural exhibition. He has shown on all our Queer exhibitions, not surprising as Gay Rights was something very close to his heart, and he often worked with the idea of breaking the binds and lifting the veils on male homosexual desire and lending visibility where there was little or not enough at the time. Those first works on our show were very ‘in your face’ expressive and loudly political. They were executed during a residency he did in Argentina, and the work addressed marriage equality. I find it poignant that Mark and Philip quietly tied the knot a month ago, realising one of his big dreams. When I curated the art component to Pride Afrique, the first pan-African Pride celebration, which took place online during the height of the pandemic, Mark presented us with a very poetic piece. It was a hand-tinted print of a reef of pink roses laid at the grave of Oscar Wilde. Wilde of course an icon of Gay love in times that were hostile to the mere idea of it. The Victorian era is known for its puritanism and cruel laws and punishment which saw Wilde imprisoned.
It has been an honour to show Mark’s artwork. I hope participating in my program was useful to him in his own artistic journey. It is sad we will not see what works he might still have produced. He was incredibly bright, a born creative, a leader in many fields and so brave. What we do have as well and something that will by its nature evolve, is Zeitz MOCAA. This museum would never have happened was it not for Mark’s vision. It remains an incredible contribution to the cultural landscape of this city and that can never be denied or taken away from him. Part of the legacy he leaves behind is that he managed to finally get all eyes from around the globe, focused on the contemporary art of Africa. That and the many people whose lives he enriched, and the many ways in which we are tied through our connection with Mark, is part of the legacy Mark has left us. His unflinching ability to stand up for contemporary art, no matter the cost. I remember him telling me in 2020, he and his family all have membership cards because this institution should be supported.
Mark understood the value and potential of art. He knew that art could transform people, places and thinking.
Art is transformative.
Art was his life.
Thank you Mark.