The morning after the launch of the 2017 Sasol New Signatures Art Competition, a bus filled with art critics, journalists and bloggers rolls along the N1 en-route to the Pretoria Arts Association gallery. They’re all there as part of a media tour for the competition and its subsequent exhibition, the winners of which were announced the evening before. It’s a hot day and inside the bus, people are irritable but enthusiastic.
The bus rolls on and enters Pretoria, passing the clusters of face-brick apartments, dusty pavements, gangs of pigeons and the slow ticking over of sprinklers in Arcadia Park. Nobody in the bus is talking about the competition, or about any kind of art for that matter. Instead, there are conversations about World War II, cultural heritage, current affairs, developing nations and the intellectual work of the late Solomon Mahlangu, a former operative of the ANC military wing. When the bus eventually pulls into the parking lot, many of its passengers are still in conversation.
And that’s the thing about art, isn’t it? It’s a medium that, despite its many forms and features, always results in the same thing – conversation. Needless to say, at the Sasol New Signatures Art Exhibition, there was a lot to talk about. The art featured this year is as exciting as it is thought-provoking, as most pieces by young or emerging artists are. Student work in particular – much of which is featured in the exhibition – is executed with a certain truthfulness. There is nothing subtle or covert about these artworks: their creators are angry or happy or passionate, and so they turn their emotional state into something that makes sense to them – and others – in the form of art.
Perhaps that’s why a competition like this has managed to stay functional and fascinating for so long. What started out as a private collection in the 1960s has now turned into one of the most diverse annual competitions and exhibitions in the country. In this year’s exhibition alone, there are ceramic renderings of the fragile human body, urgent responses to the crisis of sexual violence in South Africa, cheeky interpretations of modern families and striking investigations into stubborn histories.
There are stand-out pieces, too. Sthenjwa Luthuli presents work that echoes and honours South Africa’s great artists with such precision that it’s hard to believe he is only 26. This year’s overall winner, Lebohang Kganye, uses what we know about photography to reassess what we think we know about the past and memory. Another particularly powerful piece comes from Claire Simone Manicom and features only a dusty suitcase and what’s made to look like a mummified dog. The artwork, suitably titled ‘Let them lie’, shows the sleeping dog inside the suitcase not quite dead, not quite alive, and impossible to ignore.
Occupying a sizeable section of the gallery is Zyma Amien’s ‘”Real” lives and “Ordinary” objects: Partisan art-making strategies with garment workers of the Western Cape’. Amien was last year’s overall winner, taking the prize for her multimedia installation, which both interrogates and illuminates the working lives of women in the garment industry. The piece offers a quietly harrowing look at the labour issues that continue to exploit workers, and upon viewing the artist’s piece in its entirety, it’s easy to see how valuable an ongoing institution like the Sasol New Signatures Competition really is when it comes to fostering and sustaining the careers of young artists. Complete with artworks that stretch conceptual boundaries while still acknowledging institutional histories, the Sasol New Signatures Art Exhibition is a showcase of contemporary pieces that demand attention from all who view them.
On the bus ride back to the sanitised reaches of Sandton where the Sasol building finds its home, people are still talking, although quietly now. Many sit in silence, their eyes closed or fixed on points outside the bus. If the Sasol New Signatures Art competition tells us anything, it is that there is much to be done if we are to address the myriad issues and perspectives brought to light through its artworks but that art, in its many forms, serves as an excellent starting point.
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