The Absa L’Atelier Competition, now in its 28th year, is arguably the premier fine art competition in South Africa. It certainly attracts some very fine young artists. I went along to the Absa Gallery in downtown Johannesburg to have a look at this year’s exhibition.
This year, more that usual, I was positively impressed with the sheer creativity of what I was seeing, as well as the skill. Ok, maybe that is not more than usual because the creativity is always impressive, rather I should say that the fresh and different approaches struck me anew, and very acutely.
I engaged with the “Top Ten” artists who explained their works to me. These artists are Vincent Bezuidenhout, Louis de Villiers (aka Skullboy), Heidi Fourie, Pauline Gutter, Ruan Huisaman, Franci Meintjies, Mongezi Ncaphayi, Kathleen Sawyer, Jan Tshikhuthula and Jacob van Schalkwyk.
The overall winner this year is Pauline Gutter who wins R125000, a six months residency at the Cite Internationale Des Arts, Paris, France and a solo exhibition in the Absa Gallery. Her work was entitled Die Huweliksaansoek and consisted of a video, an old farm telephone, an engraved plaque on an obelisk. It all relates to “Boer Soek ‘n Vrou” and it is both amusing and a very real look at the whole concept of marriage-as-reproduction which is prevalent in most societies where land has to be worked, or traditionally had to be worked. A a knowledge of Afrikaans is necessary to truly appreciate this work in its original form. Having lived in Swaziland where marriage and reproductive ‘rights’ are closely linked, the video clip with a bull servicing a cow makes its point. This work left me with a lot to think about.
The Gerard Sekoto Award carries with it a three month residency at the Cite Internationale Des Arts, Paris, France and it was given to Mongezi Zanemvula Ncaphayi for his work entitled Migrant Workers’ Hostels .
A Merit Award carrying with it a two month residency at the Kuns Raum Foundation, Sylt Quelle, Germany and a solo exhibition in the Absa Gallery goes to Jaco van Schalkwyk for his work “Beloofde Land?/Promised Land?” This young artist has been working with land issues for some time now and his style is both distinctive his and quite different to anything else I am seeing from most other artists.
A further Merit Award carrying one month residency with the Ampersand Foundation, New York, United States of America and a solo exhibition goes to Kathleen Patricia Sawyer for her work Somata, a collection of the artist’s note books exploring themes of transformation and death.
This year the work which intrigued me the most was not one of the winning works, but rather the 100 piece polyptych entitled You & Me by Louis de Villiers (also known as Skullboy). The catalogue entry says: “From June to December 2011, the artist collected the stories of anonymous participants’sexual debuts – the circumstances, scenarios, emotions, celebrations and tragedies of how they came to lose their virginity. This was done via small forms left with drop boxes in clubs and bathroom stalls, focussing on the 16-35 year old alternative crowd who would most likely frequent those Durban clubs surveyed. From the 300+ collected accounts, 100 were chosen and rendered as 100 small individual artworks. The aim of this exercise is two-fold. Firstly, it captures a glimpse into the reality of the state and practice of sex in our modern-day society; and secondly, to create a healthy dialogue about sex in reality without the baggage of religion, media, television and moral decorum. Through this communal discussion, we destroy the unrealistic expectations of sex set by society and ourselves and strip such a significant event of any shame, pressure or sense of failure.”
Louis de Villiers (also known as Skullboy) did another work which intrigued me greatly but which was not nominated for the Top Ten entitled “The Lost Supper”. It is a reflection, of course, on the Last Supper and the critique is harsh, but valid. Given my own religious convictions I found this the most personally challenging of all the works on display.
This exhibition is currently on at the Absa Gallery and it will run until 22 August 2013. Absa Gallery, Upper Ground Level, Absa Towers North, 161 Main Street. Members of the public are requested to bring their ID books along for parking and entry purposes. There is a catalogue, Imagine the untapped talent of the L’Atelier 2013, available for sale detailing all the works and listing the winners.