Art Radar studies the recent winners of South Africa’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award and the themes driving their work.
We chart the creative practices of Kemang Wa Lehulere, Nandipha Mntambo, Mikhael Subotzky, Mary Sibande and the brothers Hasan & Husain Essop.
For more than 30 years, the Standard Bank Young Artist Awards (SBYA) has recognised talented artists in South Africa standing at the threshold of international success. Since 1984, the annual award for music, visual art, theatre, dance, jazz and performance art, has set out to nurture artistic development in the country and boost confidence in those pursuing an artistic career.
In the Visual Art section, the prize has picked some of the biggest new names emerging from the country. To qualify, artists must be below the age of 38 and demonstrate their work to be nationally recognised and showing signs of a promising career ahead. Each year, the SBYA winner is selected by the Festival Committee and given an exhibition as part of the main programme of the National Arts Festival (NAF).
The 11-day festival runs from the end of June to the beginning of July in Grahamstown. It is the biggest annual celebration of the arts on the African continent and the platform for SBYA. As the Chief Executives of the Standard Bank Group said in the event press release (PDF download), it is
a working model of what we want South Africa to be: vibrantly creative, deeply African and confidently cosmopolitan.
Kemang Wa Lehulere
Kemang Wa Lehulere was declared the winner of the 2015 SBYA for Visual Art earlier this summer and he is certainly a star on the rise. In recent months, he has created a new temporary commission for the Edinburgh Arts Festival (30 July – 30 August 2015) as well as participating in “Sightings” at the Kwazulu Natal Society of Arts, Durban (18 August – 6 September 2015).
Kemang Wa Lehulere was born in 1984 in Cape Town. He has a dazzlingly diverse practice that encompasses text, chalk drawings, installation and performance. His work references a collective history in relation to notions of creating and erasing, the remembered and the forgotten, as well as factual and fictional narratives that unpack the space between past and present.
Wa Lehulere’s exhibition “History will Break your Heart” for the NAF ran at the Monument Gallery in Grahamstown from 2 to 12 July 2015. The artist used films, installations, polaroids, paintings and chalkboards to create multiple narratives that spoke about the marginalisation of artists, experiences and histories that represent the fractured nature of South Africa’s past. The artist referenced notable past South African artists and writers such as Gladys Mgudlandlu, Ernest Mancoba and RRR Dlomo.
“We grew up not talking about history,” Wa Lehulere commented as he led a walk through the exhibition. He added that his works are “an inter-generational dialogue of history”. Does this mirror have memory is 16 artworks matched into pairs, where Gladys Mgudlandlu’s paintings as well as chalk drawings made by Wa Lehulere and his aunt face each other. By pairing them, the artist creates a dialogue between the original representation and chalk drawings inspired by his aunt’s memory of Gladys Mgudlandlu’s work. In the background, his film The Bird Lady plays, documenting the artist collaborating with an art restorer in an excavation process of uncovering Mgudlandlu’s murals beneath layers of paint at her old house.
Dr Nomusa Makhubu, a Festival Visual Art Committee member discussed Wa Lehulere’s work in an email interview with Art Radar. He said:
Kemang Wa Lehulere’s intellectual work engages with the excavation, construction and re-telling of past narratives. [His] process-based works are not for the passive viewer or for passive consumption but shed light on the viewer’s complicity.
If we look back at the previous four years of winners of this award in South Africa, we touch upon some compelling insights into South African contemporary art. Four years ago, the 2011 winner Nandipha Mntambo presented her exhibition “Faena” at the NAF. Mntambo is a significant artist: she is currently showing in the South African Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale (until 22 November). Back in 2011, she displayed a selection of cowhide sculptures, cow hair stitching on papers and a video. According to the Stevenson Gallery statement, “the artist extends her interests in the cow as both subject and medium, and particularly in the personal and public dynamics inherent in the art of bullfighting.”
The following year, the 2012 recipient Mikhael Subotzky showcased surveillance footage, photographs and archival portraits for the exhibition “Retinal Shift”. His works question and locate the politics of looking. As the Standard Bank press release explained, his work “combines the directness of the social documentary mode with a questioning of the nature of the photographic medium itself”.
In the surveillance footage, the criminals face the camera, forcing the viewer to make eye contact. Talking to Art Radar, Dr Makhubu states of this artist’s work:
Subotzky’s brilliant photography revealed the brutality of the city […] [and] shows how surveillance segregates and how segregation dehumanises.
It was South Africa’s colonial history that was being drawn upon in the 2013 winner Mary Sibande’s SBYA exhibition “The Purple Shall Govern”. Here she presented sculptural installations of her alter ego Sophie, who resists a domestic worker identity by wearing Victorian clothes that reference South Africa’s colonial history. Dr Makhubu notes that the artist “highlighted the persistence of domestic labour [and] what it means for their descendants”.
In an interview with Percy Mabandu from City Press, Sibande commented:
Purple [ …] is a colour of privilege. I am attempting to use this privilege afforded to me by those who have fought for it.
Hasan & Husain Essop
Last year, photography was once again weaving its way in with winners Hasan & Husain Essop. The two brothers capture spaces that allude to danger and violence in panoramic photographs. Their multi-layering of spaces within their “Unrest” exhibition for NAF explored the aesthetic yet disturbing depictions of a reality that viewers of everyday life in South Africa are often blind to.
Hasan Essop commented in a phone interview with Art Radar:
Our work highlights the paranoia embedded in South Africa’s mental and physical violence.
South Africa and beyond
After 1994 and the transition period from an Apartheid to Post-Apartheid era, artists in South Africa have explored complexities of race, culture, religion and gender in their contemporary identities. Over the past five years, we have seen artists exploring their experience of living in South Africa, in a way that deeply considers the past.
Yet, while post-colonial theory grounds Sibande’s contextualisation of South Africa and its resonance with other British ex-colonies, as Dr Nomusa Makhubu points out, the following year the Essop brothers were “[using] multiple images of themselves to […] reveal ways in which people construct an idea of ‘coloured’ males or Islam”.
Reflecting on his experience of evaluating the SBYA visual art winners in recent years, Dominic Thorburn, Professor and Chair of Fine Art at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, told Art Radar:
I would like to think that the artists have mirrored our own diverse and transforming society and experiences through their individual voices. I believe they are all globally contemporary but enjoy a shared South African identity that reflects in their work.
This was echoed by Brenton Maart, the Head of the Festival Visual Art Committee, who commented:
Artists use themselves and the country as their ‘case studies’.
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