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Guns and Rain founder Julie Taylor’s oldest art memory is of drawing dinosaur stencils. That memory, wrapped up as it is in the imagination of a child, re-imagining creatures that are extinct and inking them back to life, is in part what inspired her to establish the contemporary online art gallery.
Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, Guns and Rain sells artwork by artists from across Southern Africa, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana, online . The gallery’s curatorship is slanted towards young and emerging artists, but it does not shun work by established artists.
Taylor tells Ventureburn that she is continually scouting for new artists in South Africa and across the region and will soon be expanding to East and West Africa. She explains:
In some cases, there are established artists in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria who just don’t have the exposure that they should have — untapped, but could start to get snapped up soon given online trends and global interests in African art.
While this might sound like some kind of philanthropy, Taylor is strict when it comes to selecting artists for the gallery.
The name, Guns and Rain, comes from a book written by South African-born British anthropologist and playwright David Lan. The book was about guerrillas and spirit mediums in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. Taylor chose the name because the curated artwork stands for anthropology, culture and things of the spirit.
Ultimately, Taylor notes, the ecommerce site wants to provide a platform for local artists on a global stage. With online possibilities the idea to bring local artists into a global audience is very possible.
“We are helping raise the international profiles of young emerging artists from Southern Africa, boosting representation of African contemporary art in the global marketplace, and ensuring fair prices for artists,” the former Google SA exec says.
For the startup to reach its goals, it’ll have to jump over some hurdles. How does it plan to create an international audience not that familiar with African art? How will the gallery attract an African audience? How will it keep the artwork affordable?
Taylor thinks the answers to these questions lie in social media, among other things: “By showcasing their work with the power of technology, and making it readily accessible to online audiences.”
“There is huge creative talent on the continent, and much of this talent is under-exposed. Given the rising global interest in all things African, the time is ripe to help change this for the benefit of African visual artists.”
So far, the gallery has succeeded in selling its artists’ work to international audiences, with buyers coming from countries including in the US, Canada, UK and Australia. International shipping is charged in the range of $40-$80 depending on the size of the artwork, with added insurance for transit.
At the core of Guns and Rain, consciously or subconsciously, is an agenda to disrupt the art industry. Traditional art galleries seldom engage with audiences online, and often don’t have a great record when it comes leveraging social media.
Guns and Rain isn’t traditional, and it likes change.
This obstinate insistence of galleries to resist change is partly was led to the birth to Guns and Rain. It was in 2008 in the middle of difficult times in Zimbabwe when Taylor visited a contemporary gallery in the capital, Harare. The gallery was in a terrible state. Taylor remembers that the gallerist told her that some of his artists were not eating for days at a time. “It was a horrifying situation” she recalls.
She suggested to the gallery owner that internet could help with sales. The gallerist was not convinced but nevertheless allowed her to take photographs to try to sell the artwork online. That night she managed to achieve something remarkable, something the gallery had failed to do over a long time – he sold three artworks to international buyers.
“I realised that the web could really make a difference for African artists, and not just to those in crisis,” Taylor tells us.
The artworks all come unframed and the delivery date is within 14 days or fewer for customers in Africa.
Using social media isn’t entirely new either and over the years, there have been other interesting methods used to make art accessible. In India, for instance, there is The Art Renter – a startup founded in 2011 that allows individuals, companies and organisations to rent original art pieces of all values.
Taylor does, however argue that “all these have very poor representation of African art.”
Taylor was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in a national park. After spending the later part of her childhood in Harare, she obtained a BA (Hons) in Social Anthropology from Cambridge University, and an MPhil and DPhil from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar and Beit Fellow. It’s an education background that puts her in good stead when it comes to building the startup.
“Guns and Rain brings together all my different passions — anthropology, culture, technology and art,” Taylor says. “I’m really grateful for my Google experience, which equipped me not only with all sorts of new skills but loaded me with a good dose of entrepreneurial spirit”.
Art isn’t new to Taylor either. While working for Google, she worked on the launch of Google Art Project in 2011, which brought 17 of the world’s most famous museum collections online.
“Guns and Rain fills the gap for an accessible, affordable, thoughtful, intelligent representation curation of contemporary African art online. The demand for online art will only grow as as people’s comfort levels with digital”, Taylor says.
Time is ripe
Taylor also believes that it’s a good time to be in the contemporary art space, which has undergone a resurgance in the last 18 months. Examples of this, she says, include recent successes like Paddle8, Bonhams, 1:54, a new art fair based in London, and the Dakar Biennale that is held in Senegal. She is however quick to point out that artists in Africa are still under represented. The “African share of the creative global economy is extremely small (less than one percent). The Internet can help change this,” she says.
Taylor argues that, in line with other industries, art is moving online in a big way. “It’s still early days but it’s moving fast. That demand will only grow as as comfort levels with digital channels increase,” she points out. “In the next five years, seven out of ten of the world’s fastest growing economies are expected to be in Africa, and contemporary African art is increasingly recognised internationally as an investment opportunity.”
Bootstrapped and bullish
Guns and Rain is self-funded by Taylor, with her “shoe strings” she says. She also admits that she has been “scrappy” with sourcing funding.
The startup’s online presence seems impressive. A quick Google search shows a fair amount of media coverage of Guns and Rain and it is also one of the first African art portfolios to appear on Google Open Gallery.
One serious challenge that Guns and Rain faces is art prices. Art is expensive and the reality is that many people cannot afford it. The online gallery is hoping to help change that.
“The Guns and Rain prices are more competitive than offline galleries not only because overheads (versus a bricks & mortar gallery) are somewhat lower but also because I’m trying to make the art as accessible as possible to potential buyers, and in turn to support the artists with regular income,” Taylor explains.
Taylor tells us that pricing is a conversation between the artist and the gallery:
Artists usually state their price, based on their own informed consultations and decision making, but, in turn, curators and dealers also help determine the final selling price of the work, based on the history and standing of the artist in the market.
The primary audience for Guns and Rain, Taylor says, is young professionals. That said, it doesn’t want to limit itself to that demographic. She also adds that in “over 25% of those who bought online in 2013 were under age 30”.
Payments for artwork on Guns and Rain can be made via PayPal using Visa/Mastercard credit card. Art buyers in South Africa can pay direct local bank transfer/EFT
“I would like Guns and Rain to be the global leading boutique site for African contemporary art, sporting significant partnerships with cutting-edge organisations in the international online art space,” Taylor says.