In a recent documentary about the international art world – The Price of Everything – collectors pay mind-boggling sums for auctioned work by artists such as Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol. And the top prices are always achieved by male artists.
In South Africa, the reverse is true. The undoubted queen of the auction rooms is expressionist painter Irma Stern (1894–1966). From 2009 to 2018, auction house Strauss & Co has sold 149 Irma Stern works for a total of R336 110 154. The highest price for a South African painting was R52 303 600 for Irma Stern’s ‘Arab Priest’, achieved by Bonhams fine art auctioneers in London in 2011.
When it comes to living artists, Marlene Dumas, a Michaelis School of Fine Art graduate who has lived and worked in Amsterdam for decades, came close to that in 2008 when Sotheby’s London sold her haunting figurative painting ‘The Visitor’ for R47 788 000. At that time, this was the top price ever reached at an auction for a work by a woman artist.
What are the factors that have allowed women artists in South Africa to acquire such traction in the auction rooms? And to be so central to the arts in general?
Even in our patriarchal society, women were always key not only to the liberation struggle, but also to the cultural life of the nation. Irma Stern and fellow expressionist Maggie Laubser were highly regarded in their own time. In the 1960s, Gladys Mgudlandlu became the first black woman to hold solo exhibitions in all the major South African cities, with her vigorously painted rural landscapes and views of the crowded black townships.
Artists and gallerists are interdependent, and it was a significant moment in South Africa’s art world when Linda Givon (then Goodman) opened the doors of the Goodman Gallery in Hyde Park, Johannesburg in 1966, bringing a global viewpoint to a somewhat provincial art world. The Goodman continues to be one of the country’s pre-eminent galleries and, since Givon’s retirement, is now under the vibrant directorship of Liza Essers.
Among the established artists whose brilliant early work has led to a long career of outstanding achievement, one must list Penny Siopis and Jane Alexander.
Siopis has progressed through many provocative, successful experimentations since her popular early ‘cake’ paintings, and the enormous free-form process paintings in ink and glue in her Transfigure series (2017) were a highlight at the opening exhibition at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA).
Alexander’s malevolent ‘Butcher Boys’ (1985–6), consisting of three human-animal hybrid figures seated on a bench, is one of the most famous pieces in the collection of Iziko South African National Gallery. Alexander has continued building up and adding to an extensive company of odd creatures who play roles in her troubling installations, including ‘Frontier with Church’ (2012–3), seen recently at Stevenson gallery in Cape Town.
Both Siopis and Alexander have also been inspiring lecturers to generations of students. Another important artist/educator is Berni Searle, now director of her alma mater, the Michaelis School of Fine Art. In her ‘Home and Away’ (2003) Searle is filmed in the channel of ocean that divides Spain and Morocco, floating on her back in a shroud-like white fabric, lyrical but unmoored and dispossessed.
Outside the realm of art-school-trained artists, Ndebele painter Esther Mahlangu progressed from exhibiting at Magiciens de la Terre at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France, in 1989, to painting such diverse objects as a BMW, columns in Tokyo, the tail of a British Airways plane and numerous museum walls with her flawless and spontaneous designs.
Other stars who emerged in the 1990s are video artists Tracey Rose and Minnette Vári, and painter Lisa Brice, who’s had a prestigious solo show at Tate Britain in 2018. International art star Candice Breitz – who co-represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale last year – has seen her video installation, ‘Love Story’ (2016) scheduled for exhibition at nine different museums across the globe.
The younger generation includes multimedia artist Dineo Seshee Bopape, sculptor Nandipha Mntambo, sculptor, photographer, and visual artist Mary Sibande (honoured by one of two 2017 African Art Awards at the National Museum of African Art in Washington DC) and performance artists Gabrielle Goliath and the 11-strong iQhiya artists collective. Sculptor Bronwyn Katz currently has a solo show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and there is also the extraordinary Zanele Muholi, who has combined art and LGBTQI+ activism in her photographs, now seen around the world.
Women hold up half the sky.