The Brett Kebble Art Awards: a report
The Brett Kebble Art Awards Show, which ran from October 1 to 10, was one of those events where it is somewhat difficult to sort out the art from the razzle-dazzle surrounding it. Last year, when First National Bank decided to reallocate its funding elsewhere and close down the Vita Art Now Award, which in its time recognised excellence in art with no ageist restrictions, a large gap opened up.
This is the gap which the BKAA seeks to fill, but gone is the corporate anonymity which lay behind the FNB, ABSA or Standard Bank awards. The new award is all about the patronage of a single person: something of a business bad boy, Brett Kebble, who when his name has not appeared in connection with the art awards in past weeks, has been named in stories about an upcoming court case.
So, is this all about PR? Or, do we accept the sincerity (in spite of the breathless writing style) of Kebble's statement in his catalogue introduction that, "I cannot imagine my life, I cannot imagine my business, without the artworks that inspire, that enthral, that challenge my perceptions and refuse to yield their deepest secrets, no matter how long I spend in their company."?
Let us say we give the man the benefit of the doubt. As the Cinderella of culture anyway, is the visual arts in any position to withhold support from a patron who promises, as the press releases never tired of pointing out, "South Africa's richest award", R30 000 in each of five categories with an overall winner to receive R100 000? The judges were named as the respected art world figures of Penny Siopis, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Julia Meintjes and Lucia Burger. So far, so good.
Launched at the end of May this year, entries in slide and photographic form were called for. The work had to have been made in the last twelve months. It was in the next stage, murky at the beginning of the process, that the BKAA took a wrong turn. More than 1600 entries were reportedly received. Entrants began to receive advice that their work had either been accepted or rejected for the final exhibition. Who had made these decisions? Not the judges, it turned out, but the curator Richard Smith, a cartoonist and painter, his assistant, the energetic Claire Breukel, who gave up her job at the AVA to take on this one, and others.
The specialist task proved to be beyond this team, and a number o f extremely weak entries were accepted amongst the selection of the 160 final entries, lowering the overall standard. Perhaps some really good works were turned down? We will never know. The judges, called in only once the final selection was installed, had the unenviable task of sifting through a large and scrambled array. The exhibition would have been much stronger had the selection been tighter and more rigorous, cutting the final show by half.
The task of the judges was not helped by the fact that instead of grouping all the photographs together, all the sculpture, and so on, which would have contributed greatly to the coherence of the whole, the media were all mixed up. For instance, a video projection would have a small oil on the wall in front of the booth, a lit light box on an exterior wall, in turn flanked by eight framed linocuts and, in a glass fronted insert into the dry walling, a blown glass edifice.
All of this was set up on pale grey screens and dry walls on two floors of the newly opened Convention Centre. Special lighting did a good job of focussing attention on to the work, and the choice of venue, dictated by necessity when the SANG and The Castle were not available at such short notice, did have the advantage of pulling in an audience which would never have seen the work in the other venues.
So, finally, to get to the work, how was it? A mixture of well-known names and unknowns. The former camp included Jo Ractliffe, Norman Catherine, Mark Hipper, Conrad Botes, Terry Kurgan, Kim Lieberman, Sanell Aggenbach, Joachim Schonfeldt, Tracy Lindner Gander, Helen Sebidi, Roger Ballen and Diane Victor. In this kind of review, one cannot really address the merits or otherwise of individual works.
The overall winner was Doreen Southwood, for her painted bronze, The Swimmer. Josephine Ghesa's Man Eaten by Fish took the sculpture prize. A linocut with burnt edges entitled Moonstruck, rescued by artist Dikgwele Molete from the charred ruins of The Artist's Press, won the prize for printmaking. Abrie Fourie's Solitary Confinement was judged best photograph, and Hanneke Benade's Shadow Boxer, the winning painting, was an elongated pastel, a series of images of a women's head turning. Lobolile Ximba's touching little icon in beadwork and cloth of a black woman being crucified on a cross won the craft category.
And in conclusion? This is the first year of a three-year initial commitment by Brett Kebble. In spite of a patchiness in work quality, expense in mounting and promoting the exhibition was not spared. Posters and a good catalogue accompanied the show. The opening was an extremely lavish affair. Coverage received in the press has been extensive, and should encourage a wider selection of professional artists next time around. Hopefully, the judges will be brought in at an early stage next year. I would say the profile of the visual arts in the minds of the general public has been raised, and possibly, and importantly, the popular appeal of the visual arts has registered itself in the minds of business and government.
In his speech, Brett Kebble said that the organisation would learn from constructive criticism of the event, and learn to live with destructive criticism. Time will tell.