Southern Guild Breaks New Ground

With an expansive new gallery in Los Angeles, the stalwart of Cape Town’s contemporary art scene is elevating artists from Africa and its diaspora to even greater heights.

Southern Guild’s founders with their artists. Zizipho Poswa, Patrick Bongoy, Sisonke Papu, Kamyar Bineshtarigh, Adam Birch, Jozua Gerrard, Zanele Muholi, Oluseye, Justine Mahoney, Andile Dyalvane, Julian McGowan, Trevyn McGowan, Manyaku Mashilo, Chuma Maweni, Rich Mnisi, Jesse Ede, and Nano Le Face. Photography by Ulrich Knoblauch, courtesy of Southern Guild

Trevyn McGowan had only been to Los Angeles twice before deciding to open an outpost of her gallery, the stalwart South African art and collectible design hub Southern Guild, in East Hollywood this month during Frieze week. “Los Angeles felt welcoming from the start in a way that flowed and felt authentic,” she tells Surface of the network of collectors, interior designers, publicists, gallerists, curators, and entertainers that she and her husband Julian quickly amassed while preparing for their move. 

It started when the Haas Brothers, longtime friends and collaborators, directed them to property developer Tyler Stonebreaker. He helped the duo locate a cavernous 5,000-square-foot former laundromat that perfectly suited the large-scale sculpture Southern Guild has specialized in showing since emerging onto South Africa’s art market in 2008. “We felt great kismet with him,” Trevyn says. “Everything felt seamless and integrated.” He, in turn, introduced them to Evan Raabe Architecture, an art-world favorite firm that trusted Trevyn and Julian with the details. 

The resulting property, which encompasses a courtyard, restaurant, and trio of exhibition spaces, may be smaller than Southern Guild’s original location, but rivals it in ambition. It also enabled its roster of bold-faced talents to make a welcome entry into the dynamic contemporary art sphere percolating in Los Angeles. Inaugurating the new location is “Mother Tongues,” a group exhibition that unites 26 artists from the African continent and charts how we channel language into diverse modes of expression. Spanning works like a fluid chaise that South African fashion designer Rich Mnisi reimagined in solid concrete, a stark portrait by visual activist Zanele Muholi, and terracotta torso vessels by Nigerian-British ceramicist Ranti Bam, the show plumbs how rituals of memory and meaning are kept alive across time and place. 

“Mother Tongues” at Southern Guild. Photography by Elizabeth Carababas, courtesy of Southern Guild
“Mother Tongues” at Southern Guild. Photography by Elizabeth Carababas, courtesy of Southern Guild

It’s a particularly apt exploration. In the late 1960s, a group of artists departed South Africa for California in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre and the censorship of political parties and cultural workers. Los Angeles is where Hugh Masekela established a home for Afro sounds as an imprint of Motown Records, Letta Mbulu provided the Swahili chant on Michael Jackson’s single “Liberian Girl,” and Roots produced its soundtrack with South African musicians. “We intend to be porous and open to the art world in Los Angeles—in our programming, curation, and artist relationships,” Trevyn says. “We’re actively seeking out opportunities for our artists on the West Coast through residencies, museum shows, and collaborations with institutions, and will be doing the same for U.S. artists in Cape Town through our Guild Residency program.” 

One such opportunity allowed Zizipho Poswa, the South African ceramicist known for striking totemic stoneware vessels inspired by traditional African hairstyles, to create her most ambitious works yet. On view alongside “Mother Tongues” is a solo exhibition of five colossal ceramic and bronze pieces that “celebrate the heritage of the people who birthed me,” she says, and surpass eight feet in height. She produced the clay bodies during a summer residency at the stalwart Center for Contemporary Ceramics at California State University Long Beach, a key fixture in the state’s ceramics legacy, where she had access to immense kilns and worked under the guidance of Tony Marsh. The monumental scale makes room for even more personal touches: she references the Xhosa “isacholo” bracelet in an arc of four large spheres representing white beads on one sculpture and recalls the Lobi people who settled in Burkina Faso through a majestic bronze reproduction of an ornate brass hairpin design on another.

“Zizipho Poswa: Indyebo yakwaNtu (Black Bounty).” Photography by Elizabeth Carababas, courtesy of Southern Guild

Southern Guild’s opening makes it one of the few Africa-founded galleries with a physical presence in the United States. So far, the reception has been warm. That owes largely to the strength of its roster and its sui generis perspective in a crowded contemporary art market, but also in part to the momentum Los Angeles has built as a magnet for blue-chip galleries since the pandemic. Perrotin, David Zwirner, and Hauser & Wirth all recently set up shop there, and the gallery’s new location closely neighbors smaller outfits like Morán Morán, James Fuentes, and Sized Studio, which is hosting British stronghold Gallery Fumi’s first stateside exhibition. “The open-hearted response has felt very affirming,” Trevyn tells Surface, “especially for us as we operate quite intuitively as gallerists.” 

A combination of intuition and impulse guided the duo’s entry into the gallery business to begin with. Trevyn, who ran an architecture and interiors practice, and Julian, an acclaimed theater designer, made the spur-of-the-moment decision to buy a house six hours outside of Cape Town after not having been to South Africa for 22 years. That was in the early 2000s, when the country’s collectible design scene hadn’t yet permeated the industry. Trevyn, however, had been sourcing pieces from South Africa for her firm’s projects, and fell in love with the country’s diversity of makers upon their visit. Launching the gallery in 2008 to articulate and elevate their visions became the ultimate passion project. Early outings at FNB Art Joburg and visits to Design Miami/ suggested the idea also made sense financially, and they slowly built a 32,000-square-foot campus that not only includes gallery space, but provides their network with ceramic kilns, painting studios, and bronze foundries across five buildings at the end of a port. 

Since then, Southern Guild has cemented its position as a pivotal force in elevating artists from Africa and its diaspora. With an even broader reach, that goal will be easier to attain than ever before. Patrisse Cullors joined three South African artists the gallery brought over to lead a sound healing experience for the opening events during a hectic Frieze week. “Just through our conversations with people here already,” Trevyn says, “we’re already seeing this bear fruit.”

Trevyn McGowan and Julian McGowan. Photography by Elizabeth Carababas, courtesy of Southern Guild
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