Walter Oltmann scoops coveted Sasol Wax Art Award
by Michael Smith
Johannesburg-based sculptor Walter Oltmann has won 2007's Sasol Wax Art Award, which was announced at a ceremony at the Johannesburg Art Gallery on Wednesday September 5. He receives prize money of R130 000, the lion's share of the total sponsorship of R230 000. The hefty cheque makes it one of the largest awards on the SA visual art scene. This is the second annual Sasol Wax Art Award of its kind, with Jeremy Wafer having won the first in 2006.
The Award and subsequent exhibition are designed to recognize established artists. Eligible entrants need to have at least seven years professional practice behind them.
The initial flood of proposals (over 150) was eventually whittled down to a shortlist of five finalists, namely Wayne Barker, Usha Seejarim, Oltmann, Andrew Verster and Sue Williamson. Each then received R20 000 with which to realise their proposal.
The Award stipulates that works entered engage with wax at some level of their making, be it as medium, as a part of their process, or as an aspect of their subject. Oltmann's sculptural installation was made using the lost wax casting process. Entitled Unearthing, it contemplated the impulse to uncover or bring to light that which is hidden. Oltmann stated, 'I would say that the compulsion to dig or uncover is driven by a need to rediscover who we are. Reflecting on an earlier historical moment gives us perspective on our current situation, forcing us to question the impact of our legacies.' He added that his work for the exhibition 'reflects the post-apartheid era impulse to uncover our history.' His imagery referred to processes of divination or 'dowsing', quasi-scientific methods of determining what lies under the ground's surface.
The nature of the works on show varied greatly, revealing imaginative engagements with ideas around wax. Barker's work, entitled The Bees, The Children, The Bee Keeper, and The Artist, consists of a number of wall-based components integrating wax into his characteristically eclectic use of media. Accompanying these are a number of other elements, including an installation-style booth filled knee-high with pristine candles; this, coupled with his use of neon text elsewhere, links this work to a history of similar works, most notably his installation at the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale.
Williamson continued her interest in quoting documentary modes within the realm of visual art. Her work, entitled Wax and the City, consists of a dual-channel projection telling of women who visit waxing salons. It also incorporates the stories of the women who work in such parlours. An obvious play on the HBO series Sex and the City, the work nonetheless eschews sensationalist trickery, choosing instead unglamourised lighting and palette, and focusing on the subjectivities of the women involved. Says Williamson, 'Once you start, they are addictive - the untold stories of the salon'.
Verster exhibited an installation of hanging paintings, a dense maze of loose formats, under the title Skin Markings. Each contains images worked onto sections of tissue paper, subsequently joined with hot wax. The surfaces take on the appearance of flayed skin, thin and membranous yet bearing marks and traces of individual histories. The work reveals Verster's interest in relics, preserved ancient bodies viewed in museums, and also the modern revival of the art of tattooing. Verster says, 'We are all many people in one body, in one skin. Who knows what mysteries hover in our DNA? We are, as a country, searching for an identity. It will eventually emerge from the multitude of different histories that trail behind each of us.'
Seejarim's installation entitled Home Made explores her interest in how art shifts the commonplace into the realm of the exceptional. Seejarim showed a recreated bedroom and bathroom, all made out of wax paper. The frail, ephemeral quality of the material is calculated to subvert one's expectations of matter and surface quality: items like the basin and taps, a cupboard, even the floor tiles, are palpably flimsy and semi-transparent. Seejarim utilised this medium to express what she terms 'the transient nature of our material lives'. She continues, 'I have always been interested in our own transience as human beings, and thus decided to create a space which speaks of being human without showing a human being or figures'.
The award ceremony was host to luminaries such as Bheki Khumalo (formerly President Thabo Mbeki's spokesperson), Group General Manager of Sasol, CEO of the Arts Alive Festival Isaac Phaahla, and Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture Ntombazana Botha, all of whom delivered addresses. An extensive multi-part catalogue, containing texts by art writers Mary Corrigal, Brenton Maart, Sipho Mdanda and the pseudonymous Robert Sloon, was published to coincide with the exhibition. Elsewhere, brief texts by Sasol's Chief Executive Pat Davies, the managing director of Sasol Wax in Hamburg Johan du Preez, the Award's Executive Director Carola Ross and the show's curator Les Cohn, expanded on various aspects of the process.
The show is up at the JAG until September 29.