From: Sharene Mylchreest : firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Sasol Young Artists
Date received: September 3
In response to the very relevant view from Kristi [um, is that Veronique Tadjo you are referring too? - Ed.]. I think the tone of the exhibition was established when Sasol had their submission form designed. It consisted of an incredibly sickly sweet image of preschooler wielding a paintbrush. Needless to say it dissuaded a lot of my contemporaries from entering because we could see that Sasol was definitely not looking for more socially engaged work. Young artists are out there and are making critical work and I agree with Kristi that there seems to be a trend whereby South Africans favour non-political or socially irrelevant art. Social commentary is being made, I just don't think it is being fully absorbed. It is a sad day when we all turn into Sunday painters sitting by the Lake as Sasol would like us to.
I reckon we are too strong of character and there are plenty of other forums for socially-engaged art for us to turn into 'Sunday painters'. PE
From: Nicole Sartini email@example.com
Subject: The Land of No Critics
Date received: September 3
In response to Sean O' Toole's piece about art criticism -
I have this assumption that contemporary artists exhibiting in our major galleries and featured on this website have some degree of critical literacy and that critics exist to measure or assess this. And yet in what is self-proclaimed to be one of the most visited, popular South African art website the reviews seem more reportage than criticism and the critical responses to the reviews somewhat thin. In fact art criticism has dried up in the Mail & Guardian and the popular print press generally. The only publication that is beginning to scratch the surface of art criticism in this country is 'Art South Africa'. I believe that rigorous art cannot exist in a system without criticism.
I suppose that the problem of a non-critical South African art lies in the fact that too many artists are practicing 'critics' (or rather claiming to be critics). What many of these 'visual practitioners' really write are endorsements for other artists who will later endorse their work. As a fine arts student this rampant professional back scratching became clear to me. It seems that in order to practice real criticism these artist-critics would have to take certain perceived risks in writing honestly about the work of their peers. These risks would include exclusion from certain shows and groups, little support for their exhibitions, no critical support and difficulty in obtaining funding or sponsorship.
Not taking critical risks results in a group of artists who are expert back scratchers, and art that is nothing but sheer masturbation. So, I wonder why we have no critics. With all the heavies overseas (Geers excluded) the kids can play without supervision. With most of the laaities with their sights on New York, London etc., we are left with a small pool of artists and fewer critics left to scratch each other's backs and wallow in the kind of offerings presented at MakeShift which opened at the Johannesburg Art Gallery at the end of August.
I don't disagree with you completely, but I'm not sure whether you are commenting on the vagaries of being an artist or a critic, or of being both. In response to the options you spell out for an artist-critic who takes the risk of criticising his/ her peers, I would add that this person also has to deal with the sycophancy facing any critic - free catalogues, phone calls requesting reviews and enormously long emails and large jpegs from galleries and aspirant artists alike. As for your comment ' the critical responses to the reviews somewhat thin', we encourage but seldom receive critical response to our writing. Thanks for engaging with this issue. PE
From: Gabeba Baderoon firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Images of Islam in South Africa
Date received: September 5
I am researching images of Islam in South Africa, and would appreciate information on artists, both contemporary and historical, who produced work that could be of interest. There is some compelling work on this topic in the theatre and in literature, and I would be interested to know if there are comparable developments in the art world. I would welcome a broad interpretation of this question of images of Islam in SA, and also have a specific question. One of the people I interviewed recalled a woman painter in Durban who attracted some controversy a few years for using erotic images in reworking some classical Islamic art, but could not remember her name. I'd appreciate help with this, and any sources you'd recommend.
English dept, UCT
I know the artist to whom you refer and am making some inquiries. Until I come up with something, maybe some site visitors can help you.
From: Robert Hodgins
Date received:August 24
This is Robert in London perplexed at "Bangladesh without the floats". He said, "without the floods". Surely everybody is going to be thinking I've lost my marbles. There are no floods of any kind in London this summer. Indeed we are impressed by the lightest drizzles.
Sorry Robert, the unpredictable summer atmospherics of London apparently must have done something to my hearing. You'll be glad to know that I used extra soap when washing out my ears today too - just as an extra precaution. Thanks for correcting the error. Sean O'Toole.
From: Antoinette Murdoch
Subject: Art critics
Date received: August 24
Just do remember the Afrikaans critics! Wilhelm van Rensburg (he is probably the best of the lot), and there is Lucia Burger who knows what she is talking about.
Thanks. Wilhelm van Rensburg coincidentally contacted us last month about the same thing. And Melvyn Minnaar reminded us about Cobus van Bosch from Die Burger
From: Lorriane Mackeand
Subject: Comments on Editors and Critics
Date received: August 24
For those of us who are active artists in the academic field, the value of critics and magazine articles is very important. But we do need to have genuine critical opinion. There are now a couple of South African art magazines, which are really a needed item in our art field. Us as teachers and those as students need this input, whether in the magazine or on websites, but not all have websites.
Would be really super to have a local newspaper ART ARTICLES available, even once a month, with latest comments on our artists, i.e. Sue Williamson and her overseas Biennale, etc. Also Kendell Geers.
And some concepts of curators, and the programmes here in South Africa.
Also? what about some information on Restoration of Art, are there short courses available?
Thanks for your comments. You might want to look into subscribing to Mike van Graan's ARTWATCH subscription newsletter. The details are as follows: Individuals and organisations with annual budgets of R100,000 or less pay R11,40 (VAT incl.) per month, while organisations/institutions with annual budgets of more than R100,000 pay R28,50 (VAT incl.) per month. Subscribers must pay a year's full subscription fee. Thereafter, subscribers will be contacted one month before the expiry of their subscriptions and will be given the option to continue to subscribe for 6 or 12 months. Write to Mike at Artwatch, Postnet Suite 126, Private Bag X18, Rondebosch, 7701 or email him on email@example.com Regarding information on the restoration of art, can anyone assist?
From: Scott Bredin
Subject: Special Feature: Who's criticising who?
Date received: August 26
I have read the articles in this month's 'Special Feature' with great interest. I was particularly struck by what Sue Williamson had to say: "Even if the result is stultifying, it is important to reflect on what the artist was trying to achieve, and to engage with that." Whilst I recognise the structural issues in SA art criticism raised by Andrew Lamprecht, I do believe that the quality of our critics' output should not go unchallenged.
A recent one-sentence review of my own work at the NSA by Virginia MacKenny in ArtThrob proved to be particularly galling because of its complete failure to engage with the work. Ingrid Winterbach (who was exhibiting in an adjoining gallery) received the same treatment. (http://www.artthrob.co.za/03june/reviews/nsa.html) Apparently the work was not sufficiently challenging.
Remarkably, MacKenny managed to squeeze two factual errors into her two-sentence review: I live in Durban and it was Francois le Vaillant, not Louis. (The correct information was contained in the press releases published on ArtThrob.) Perhaps then it should have come as no surprise that MacKenny failed to explore any of the parallels between my research into topographical drawing and Winterbach's appraisal of le Vaillant's colonial view - let alone attempt to critique the shows.
Given that I had specifically chosen to exhibit at the NSA in order to elicit some kind of critical response, you may appreciate my disappointment. I suppose it is the critic's prerogative to choose what to engage with. I am also very conscious that it is idle to reply to one's critics. However, I rather suspect that the lack of attention to detail has more to do with a critical discourse that discounts painting and drawing as unfashionable - which, of course, it is. I took heart at Kendell Geers' recent remark that he was turning away from video because it was "too easy". Perhaps the nature of my challenge was misunderstood, namely: that is not necessary to blindly wander down the path to an installed multimedia monoculture bleating about 'open ended meanings'. Is seems that the "look" of painterly landscapes led your contributor to assume that their production involved no internal challenge.
I suggest MacKenny examines her own contribution before lampooning other writings of dubious quality. (http://www.artthrob.co.za/03aug/news/mackenny.html)
In response to Scott Bredin's letter. The 'review' of his work as he sees it was not a review of his work. It was, as he accurately pointed out, one sentence and as such was a reference to his show - one of three exhibitions then on view at the NSA. The review was, as the heading clearly indicated, an engagement with Jan-Henri Booyens installation Minor Acts of Violence
- a review whose focus was to some degree dictated by the thematic concerns of that particular edition of artthrob as requested by the editor. The one sentence reference to Bredin's work merely attempted to acknowledge the juxtapositions of work in the gallery at the time and, by definition, could not possibly engage with the work - the same is true of the reference to Ingrid Winterbach's show (previously a Winterbach show had received focused and favourable attention on artthrob by this same reviewer - a clear indication that her work is not dismissed nor is it found insufficiently challenging).
Bredin's comment that my lack of engagement has 'more to do with a critical discourse that discounts painting and drawing as unfashionable' is erroneous. Whilst painting has been declared 'dead' on numerous occasions during the last century it is currently experiencing a revival of interest across Europe and America and will probably continue to be a hardy perennial. In addition I too am a painter, and personally love painting.Having just presented a solo show of paintings myself at the NSA I would have thought I had publically declared my alleigances and I do not occupy the position of the aloof critic who never opens themselves to public scrutiny in their field. My acknowledgment of Bredin's skill comes from an intimate recognition of the medium, but at the same time it does not preclude me of being critical of his painting nor I might add from engaging with or appreciating work from other disciplines.
One thing I have never engaged with as a reviewer is sarcasm or gratuitous put downs. In fact the reverse is true - if I feel negatively toward an exhibition for whatever reason I attempt to contextualise my comments and balance any negative comments with a positive statement - in fact I have often been accused of being too soft in my criticism for this reason. In the case of my one sentence reference to Bredin's work I say that the work is unchallenging but also state that it is technically skilled and whilst no negative comment was stated in the case of Winterbach I attempt to place the work indicating that the issues she deals with are difficult ones thereby hopefully prompting any prospective audience to come and make up their own minds and engage with the issues at hand. The fact that neither of these two shows received a full review is more an indicator of a variety of constraints; one being limits on the availability of my own time and the other being a lack of critics and other vehicles for criticism in Durban than a lack of anything with which to engage. Bredin's heavy reliance as a contemporary painter, for instance, on a particular tradition of landscape painting long nurtured in Pietermaritzburg and the Cape bears examination, but it was not appropriate in a review of the work of Jan-Henri Booyens.
As to other points that Bredin makes: the reference to Pietermaritzburg acknowledged Bredin's Masters at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg and did not as such claim his domicile as being Pietermaritzburg though I can acknowledge that the statement could be read as such and could therefore be misleading. The mistake of misnaming de Vaillant is recognised, apologised for and regretted - errors such as those tend to distract one from and, by proxy, discredit valid aspects of the critical process and are as damaging to the writer as they are to the artist. As to my lampooning others - I refute that that is what I did. I did not resort to sarcasm but simply highlighted �dismissive comments and unintended ironies within the work of another writer who I feel did not engage with the work he was reviewing.
On the other hand Bredin's somewhat sneering and sarcastic references to "blindly wandering down the path of installed multimedia monocultures bleating about open ended meanings" echos sentiments that he expressed in his opening address for his own show - perhaps he was unaware that another exhibitor, standing by his side at the time, was a multimedia practitioner. Apart from clearly stating his biases, which of course he is free to do, his comments at the opening were registered as being potentially insulting even if they were inadvertently so and as such hardly a challenge to those interested in those arenas whether they be practitioners or commentators.
Finally I am willing to examine my own contributions and acknowledge error where it exists however it would be great if Bredin put his money where his mouth is and contributed to the broader public debates on contemporary production rather than just popping his head up when he feels personally wronged and broadly slating arenas for which he clearly has no respect.