• Soma Art + Space, with a bar alongside the exhibition area, is aiming to create a less-intimidating environment. Picture: SUPPLIED

  • The more informal space has drawn a younger crowd to the current exhibition, I See You … Me. Picture: SUPPLIED

IT WAS while he was in San Francisco in the 1990s that serial bar owner Roman Slepica noticed that an establishment next to his two businesses — a café and a bar — was vibrant and always teeming with an interesting mix of people. The place, called 111 Minnaa, was in fact a bar and an art gallery of sorts. It was inviting and always had buyers snatching up art works on its walls.

That gave him the idea of starting a similar business back home in SA once he returned at the end of 2005. But the idea was left to percolate for more than a decade while he ran two bars in Johannesburg’s Melville.

He sold them both to start Lenin Vodka Bar in the city’s trendy Maboneng Precinct in 2014.

Then, last month, Slepica launched art-gallery-cum-function venue Soma Art + Space, attracting nearly 200 visitors when its current exhibition, I See You … Me, opened.

Curated by veteran portrait photographer Sally Shorkend, the art on display touches on several themes, from depicting everyday life to pieces that are overtly political and comment on the social condition and dominant public discourse in SA.

There are works by 18 artists, some well-established, others "emerging". They include Diane Victor, Samson Mnisi, Senzeni Marasela, Senzo Shabangu, Usha Seejarim, Pebofatso Mokoena, Happy Dhlame and Ayanda Mabulu.

Soma Art + Space is on the first floor of the Maverick building, home to eateries, fashion studios and Slepica’s Lenin Vodka Bar. The vodka bar has fast achieved legendary status, attracting an interesting mix of people: neighbourhood residents, tourists, and suburban folks out to enjoy what Maboneng offers.

Slepica acquired the Soma Art + Space’s ground floor section from the people who own The Burger Boys (which has moved). He has redesigned this space as an events venue, bringing down walls that used to cordon off offices. There is also a live jazz venue, as well as an art shop, and the space hosts poetry sessions and book launches too.

"Hosting corporate functions and private parties... allows us to plough the money from the corporate side of the business into art. This way, it allows us to put together the sort of exhibitions that … will expose a wide range of artists, both established and emerging, to the market without worrying too much about whether the art will sell fast or not. In a way, we also want to assist artists to access the market," he says.

SLEPICA is not bothered that Maboneng has already had a plethora of galleries and art studios enjoying mixed fortunes since its establishment, starting with Arts on Main in 2009.

It was here that the high-end Goodman Gallery opened its doors to the public amid much fanfare, only to close two years later.

"I guess timing is quite crucial when it comes to business. In a few months’ time, Maboneng will explode as there are going to be a number of residential and commercial projects that will be launched, adding more foot traffic in the area.

"For example, across the road, the heritage building Metropolitan Hotel, which is under restoration, will house another art gallery, and the Museum of African Design, also across the road, is currently under a major reconfiguration and will re-open soon with retail shops, fashion houses and restaurants, adding more foot traffic to this part of Maboneng, actually wooing people that in the past just remained at the Arts on Main part of Maboneng."

Slepica says serious art buyers and established artists see the bar and events-hosting — fairly unconventional for a gallery — as an opportunity to scout for new talent and make their art accessible to a wider market.

"Formal, traditional, established galleries tend to create an intimidating environment for those exploring the art market for the first time," he says.

"I used, for example, to be intimidated when I first went to established galleries such as (the Everard Read’s) Circa and Goodman galleries during exhibitions. Gallery staff … give you a glance that says this man does not know anything about art.

"We had about 175 visitors daily during the festive season. Currently, we have about 50 daily visitors, and I am not sure if established traditional galleries attract similar foot traffic," he says.

Shorkend, the veteran photographer-turned-curator, agrees with Slepica.

"The trends are that the art market tends to be getting younger with young professionals who earn good money now collecting art. They like an informal environment such as at Soma Art + Space, which allows them to buy art while they are having a drink and a meal," Shorkend says.

"Having turned 56, and left with 24 years to live, supposing I live until the age of 80, I needed a change from my photography that I have done for decades. I needed to try new things, such as curating.

"And so when Tanya Pampalone (Slepica’s wife), who I have known for years working together at magazines such as Empire and Maverick, approached me, I got excited for the opportunity and took six weeks to put together this exhibition," she says.

•  I See You … Me, is on until January 31 at Soma Art + Space, Maverick Building, corner Albrecht and Commissioner streets, Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg. Another exhibition, to show until February 13, will be announced