Archive: Issue No. 73, September 2003

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Art awards highlight search for South African identity
by Jette Kristiansen

What does it mean to be South African?

Art as a reflection of society has been a relevant theme throughout the ages. The forthcoming Brett Kebble Art Awards have reintroduced a focus on issues of place, home and identity, with many of the artists whose works have been chosen for the final exhibition, and who stand a chance at receiving the overall R100 000 award, citing "our country" as a main source of inspiration for their work.

167 artworks from six disciplines will be exhibited at the Cape Town International Convention centre from September 30 to October 10, functioning in many respects as a cross section of South Africa's current artistic reality. The Awards almost function as a measure for the amount of reflection and soul-searching currently taking place in this country.

"Since all the submitted artworks were made during the last 12 months, the Awards give you a very good idea of where art in South Africa is right now," says Brett Kebble Art Award assistant curator Claire Breukel.

Recurring questions of identity, race and patriotism appear to be central to many of the finalists' artistic pursuits - be they self taught or internationally trained. Complex issues of responsibility, love and fear are related to the subconscious common theme of place and identity.

Photographer Jurgen Schadeberg, the grand old man of South African photojournalism , has submitted a photo-essay of poverty-stricken Kliptown, the birthplace of the Freedom Charter. "One shouldn't make art out of poverty. It is so easy to either romanticise or make a caricature," Schadeberg says.

Apart from trying to be very honest in the portrayal of his subjects, Schadeberg has taken his responsibility one step further. He uses his own success to train and promote young photographers from Kliptown; he calls them 'The Snappers' and is planning a joint exhibition with his protégés early next year.

A significant number of white female artists number among the finalists, and also seem to have tapped into their consciences. Katherine Glenday's work, for instance, is a series of paper-thin ceramic vessels, all with cracks and imperfections but that carry poetic symbols such as the imprint of a fingertip, a feather or a seed, which are all meant to represent simple moments of joy in life. Glenday speaks very emotionally about how she, as an artist, has had the privilege to work with naive statements such as poetry and beauty, while simultaneously being aware that other people have paid with grief and poverty for her privileges.

Tamlin Blake, a 29-year old botanical artist from Cape Town, has been trying to come to terms with her identity as a white woman while working on her piece for the BKAA - a series of images imbued with South African symbolism. Her submitted work is a collection of South African stamps featuring Proteas, made out of beadwork.

Originally issued by the apartheid regime of the time, the stamps were part of her childhood stamp collection. As an artist, she has tried to reinterpret and invert the symbolism by making representations of these stamps in the tradition of Zulu love-letter beadwork. "We are all going through the same process of reflection and trying to find out who we are. I am very visual, this is my way," she says.

Other women artist finalists, including Tania Babband and Charmaine Haines pay homage to the sacrifices made by black domestic workers who cared for white children while their own children were far away.

Sculptor Wilma Cruise says that the meaning and effect of such sacrifices, present throughout her own childhood, were incorporated into her personal life and ultimately her work, when she adopted the baby son of her domestic worker, to prevent him from being sent away from his biological mother. Her two submitted sculptures are a reflection on the "in-between-ness", of childhood and adulthood and white and black. She attributes her main source of inspiration to her son Themba Cruise, who is now a teenager, trying to define his own identity.

Another poignant theme related to identity is fear. Fear of poverty and Aids are themes most frequently dealt with by black artists. Miner-turned-artist Nkoali Nawa from the Gugulethu township outside Cape Town is one such artist. His haunting oil painting The Tap, reflects on the hardship experienced in informal settlements where water can only be accessed by queuing for one of the few communal standpipes.

"To many people in South Africa, life is hard. Without water, nobody can live. That is why I chose the subject of this painting. But I am not a political artist," he says. "I just paint what I see around me".

Aids is an omnipresent theme in the work of Lobolile Ximba. Her beaded crucifixes are a reflection on life in rural Kwazulu Natal. By portraying the victims on the cross as black women, thereby deconstructing traditional symbols, she highlights the plight of the victims of the pandemic.

Interestingly, crime is a theme which has been reflected on from very different perspectives. Independent Newspapers' photographer Rogan Ward submitted a photograph from an overcrowded Pollsmoor prison. "It seemed to encapsulate the very opposite of what I had come to see - loneliness, the other aspect of prison life. It was something I shot for myself - something I wanted people to see," says Ward.

Prison inmate Stanford Mshengu's painting Half of Africa has also been chosen for the exhibition. The mood of his picture is very dark. He shows the Zulu King looking into the future as the sun sets on mankind. At his feet are calabasses overflowing with blood; symbols of a violent past.

A completely different perspective on the theme of fear is young artist Sanell Aggenbach's Red Shoe sculpture. She took her images from the Wizard of Oz, where the heroine Dorothy was transported back to the safety of home by magic, whenever she clicked her heels. Aggenbach deals with many South African adult's longing back to a place of safety; "the way things used to be".

Assiatant curator Clarire Breukel says that there is a lot of social relevance in the artworks chosen for the final exhibition. "While many white artists perhaps struggle with defining their identity as white citizens in Africa, black artists tend to face a different challenge. Many of them are tied into expressing themselves in traditional ways, largely due to lack of exposure and training. Also, to a large extent they have had to please the viewer and make commercially viable artwork in order to make enough money to survive. Still, many of them have managed to push the boundaries despite the restrictions of their media".

"For the first time, we have included craft as a category of fine art. This has given the exhibition a valuable extra element and new voice. With this we have managed to tap into a lot of new talent - both rural and urban" says Breukel.

The Brett Kebble Art Awards have created a significant showcase for South African art. If it succeeds in raising the profile of South African art, as the organisers have expressed their intention, then it is likely to continue to showcase art dealing with South African issued of identity for several more years.

The exhibition opens at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on September 30, when the award recipients will be announced, and will run until October 10. It is open to the public.