Press reaction to Doreen Southwood's win
The Brett Kebble Art Awards have come and gone. With the personality of the patron always threatening to steal the winner's thunder, even after the fact, a cynic might be inclined to state that spectacle has once again triumphed over content, in this case the art. But anyone familiar with the UK-based Turner Prize will know that empty fanfare is the key to any successful contemporary art prize.
Certainly this is evidenced in much of the popular press coverage of the event. Bonny Schoonakker, writing for The Sunday Times, set the tone with an (admittedly engaging) B-grade digression on the difficulties faced by Doreen Southwood and Josephine Ghesa in getting to Cape Town. In Ghesa's case her husband initially forbade her from making the journey from KwaZulu-Natal's Mooi River district after he was informed the day before the awards that his wife had been short-listed.
In Southwood case, she was an island called Panarea, part of the Aeolian archipelago, 40 km off the coast of Sicily, stricken by a national power failure. But for Dick Enthoven, of Spier wine estate, who sent a private boat to fetch the young artist, the Brett Kebble awards would have been without its headline winner. It is interesting to note that the only interpretation Anstey ventures of the work is that is a painted bronze called The Swimmer that depicts a diver.
Thankfully Die Burger's Cobus van Bosch demonstrated far more insight, describing the work with succinct economy as an "emotional self-portrait". Chris Roper, writing for The Mail & Guardian, offered an even more detailed bit of commentary. He prefaced his comments by stating: "Few would argue with the awarding of the first prize of R100 000 to 29-year-old Doreen Southwood... It's a beautiful work, one that I would term monumental if its nicely judged economy of scale wasn't precisely calculated to be anti-monumental."
In Roper's view "no picture or verbal description will do justice to this work. You have to view it yourself. Simply described, it's a painted bronze sculpture of a woman poised on the edge of a diving board. Southwood has invested the woman with such life, though, such dynamism, that her stillness is filled with an overwhelming array of possibilities, some horrifying, some delightful." It is an apt summation of a work that evokes fraught emotions yet manages to remain highly engaging.
But the quality of the winning work is only one variable underpinning this new award. In an editorial published in The Star, Johannesburg's venerable daily observed: "Not all aspects of the new Kebble venture are as easy. Some say it's about a controversial businessman trying to buy respectability. It surely is. But there are surely precedents. Perhaps Nobel and Pulitzer were among them. About the man, courts will make judgments, individuals may have views. As to the awards, they benefit the nation. May they be long sustained." Hats off to an argument well stated indeed. And congratulations again to Doreen Southwood.