My favorite exhibition in Tshwane/Pretoria is opening very soon, SASOL New Signatures Art Competition. This exhibition represents an avenue through which an artist’ career can be launched. Unfortunately what is sad about the exhibition is accessibility to a wider participation of artists residing in the periphery of the City of Tshwane (and I suppose elsewhere). By this I mean artists residing in the far away localities who may not be able to easily access information regarding the exhibition. The coordinators of the exhibition are well aware of this fact and have taken steps to curb the problems of accessibility to the art competition by staging briefings and discussions in the peripheral communities. In real time and space.
Not always are the efforts that the coordinators take to make the art competition accessible successful in that there is
always the challenge of space in the communities and the unreliability of the community artists to receive this gesture. Thus because of lack of contact the artists who reside in the peripheral communities remain uninformed about the aim of this art competition and the nature of artworks that may be entered into the competition. There exist a mis- communication between the center and the periphery and the results is that of work of a disappointing nature been ferried to the art competition only to be thwarted out because contextually they do not fit within the paradigm that SASOL New Signatures upholds – which is conceptual art.
An exhibition’s core aim, never mind the content of the artworks, is to bring a body of work, executed by different or the same artist, into one space and create a dialogue between the artworks – this is also subordinate to the content of the work forming the exhibition; meaning the vision of what the overall feel of the exhibition should be is a huddle that must be negotiated by the artworks to be entered into the competition.
At a heightened level it is the artists who are in dialogue with one another through their artworks. Let us meditate on the word dialogue. Dialogue constitutes a conversation. It cannot be overstated that those in a dialogue should share a common language. And this is precisely what is missing in those artworks that are rejected from an exhibition, they do not contribute to the erected paradigm of the art competition, they do not accentuate the ideals of what the exhibition is about.
Do we have to care to reverse this misunderstanding that these aspirant artists suffer? The answer is emphatically yes. It is a question of erecting an infrastructure that that can regulate the vision of the art competition. That is if the ideal of the competition is also to educate the artists and the society about the movement that visual art finds itself evolving into. What do I mean by this? In order to get to the meaning of my feeble statement I shall retreat a little bit backwards into the genesis of the visual art practitioner to be. This genesis is in two modes. The privilege mode and the under privilege mode.
My reader should not misunderstand me here, when I talk about privilege artist I speak about that artist who has had the opportunity to study art at a higher institution of learning after matriculation, this artist is gifted, this artist has a vision to be a practicing artist and through the appropriate pedagogy this artist ascend into that dimension in which the western and global conventions of what constitutes visual art make sense to him both when reaching backwards into the history of the visual arts as well as firmly standing in the present tense looking at what is going on around him as far as contemporary art is concerned and simultaneously projecting the possibilities of the nature that the visual art as an ever evolving organism. This type of an artist confidently contributes into that future nature of art that will be called contemporary2.
It is utterly simple then to situate the underprivileged artist. He/she will represent the opposite of what I have just said about the privilege artists. And it is at him that much work should be done in order that he/she can comply with the status quo. It is in this locality where the talk shops and the workshops in the communities are in demand. It is here that we can learn what developments are taking place when there is interaction with the ‘community based artist’1. It is here that real developments from the sponsor of an art competition I much needed.
The art organizations and associations based in the communities must take steps also so that they can meet the opportunity halfway. This is not only an opportunity to be informed about an art competition which promises a five digit sum but it is also an educational opportunity for the artists since issues of presentation of artworks can be covered in an interactive process until all conceives the exact intention of the art competition. Then there can also be networking for other opportunities in order to further develop the artist and negotiate the underprivileged mode of genesis of the artist into a better level.
But this is not the only solution, it is only a part of it. Within the formal educational system in South Africa both at the tertiary level and the secondary level the nature of art should be exhausted holistically in order to foster dedication, professionalism and confidence in the aspiring artist. Here those who are in power to assimilate information must do so in a efficient, sensible and responsible manner. It is only when we face these facts that in time we will begin to see the glimmer of an infrastructure ,accommodating on an equal footing, formal art students as well as informally trained artists lacking formal education in the visual arts.
May I reiterate? This can only happen when we acknowledge the challenge. The challenge is that those who are in power (the educated classes and the those for whom art represent a commodity) of the nature of the status quo must acknowledge that by inserting an opportunity of an art competition, with arguments for it as a developmental modal for promotion of a virtually unknown artist are contributing to the development of the contemporary artist through monetary award and The fact that there is money at stake gets everybody’s ears pricked. It is the latter that mislead mostly, henceforth rigorous information assimilation and regulation on either side of the sphere to create an equal footing so that the artist treats the prize as an opportunity for sustenance and further development in their quest to forge careers as visual art practitioner.
Like I said I always look forward to SASOL, it is full of surprises. Last year’s runner up’s work was interesting in that what the artist did was simple. The artist Nare Mokgotho loaned the work that won 2007 overall winner and subverted it by presenting the work again in the 2008 exhibition with him as a collaborator thus questioning the nature of originality of the conception of the artwork bringing into scrutiny ownership. He initially radically wanted to claim co-authorship with all artworks that made it to the final selection however he was limited to the 2007 piece which SASOL owns due to the non compliance of the finalist artists, which is understandable. Here we see that this artist was operating within the present tense and was able to interrogate the status quo of what constitutes conceptual art in terms of SASOL New Signature. From a structuralist perspective Mokgotho achieved a dialogue between the conception of what constitutes contemporary art in the context of conceptual art and the 2007 judges’ choice of what they saw as a conceptually loaded artwork representing contemporary art. It is this critical thinking that must be naturalized in the aspiring artist aiming to practice within the conceptual art paradigm. This is what we need to grasp in order tackle visual art development never mind the institution or informal structures we belong to if we please to reach goal. We must have interaction between the center and the periphery.
SASOL New Signatures opens on 26 August at the Pretoria Art Museum.
1. The idea of a community based artist can be regarded as derogatory in that it perpetuates the myth of separation of communities based on binary opposition which in essence does not exists because the so called community artist opposes the equilibrium of such a notion when they dislodge themselves from their communities and enter into the centre/art gallery/art museum/art competition and their work is accessed by the external community foreign to their immediate realm.
2. Let us keep in mind that the word contemporary is subordinate to the context of the speaker, it is a shifting phenomenon.
© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2009