The 2004 Brett Kebble Art Awards
by Kim Gurney
The exhibition of Brett Kebble Art Awards finalists is a far more coherent effort than last year's inaugural show. The 243 artworks (10 per cent of the total submitted) are gathered together in one large exhibition space under the vaulted roof of the Cape Town International Convention Centre, rather than dotted around the building's corridors like last year.
This arrangement makes more curatorial sense. The efforts of Clive van den Berg, Claire Breukel, Khwezi Gule and their display team have apparently paid off with a sophisticated show that is quite bewildering in its relentless visual stimuli. If the show can be taken as a barometer of visual art in this country, there is much to be excited about.
It is difficult to summarise an exhibition of such breadth and diversity. It is set out with some general categories in mind. Certain sections deal with landscape, some with the body and others with language. These are punctuated by subtle, skilled curatorial juxtapositions.
For instance, two sculpted figures vie for attention in the throng of one passageway. Suicide by George Ramagaga and Cinderella by Tyrrel Thaysen are worlds apart in medium and context yet both use the figurative metaphor.
Indeed, the prevalence in the exhibition of the body - in particular the head - is rather striking. The body is often an aberrant body, as Van den Berg points out, 'It is as if natural representation of the body could not necessarily cope with the permutations ... of the social order happening in the country.'
Another interesting thread is the juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary practice. Van den Berg says artists whose aim is the contravention of social order are often privileged above those whose practice underscores tradition, which is equally important. Ingcazi by Nala Ntombi, for instance, is a series of beer pots traditionally used by young women to acknowledge the advances of young men.
The curators have also picked up on three recurring thematic threads: HIV/AIDS, the cult of Madiba, and anti-Americanism. Kirsty Hall's In God's Monkey We Trust is one artwork panning President George Bush, while Jacques Coetzer makes his statement with a video of the American flag tumbling around in a washing machine in Soap Opera.
These threads occur amid an encouraging amount of experimentation. Jeremy Wafer, for instance, exhibits enormous landscape paintings Enhlobe 7638 on a scale no gallery could hope to accommodate. This freedom from regular space constraints is perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the competition from an artist's point of view.
A couple of other changes from 2003 have made a large difference to the exhibition. For one thing, the curators travelled the country promoting the competition in an effort that seems to have uuncovered new and exciting talent to challenge the tried and tested.
Their outreach aimed to include artists from the margins and to provide a platform for new talent. The joint winners - Lice Phillip Rikhotso for Untitled and Tanya Poole for Missing - are perhaps testimony to that success.
Van den Berg was at pains to avoid curatorial laziness that can creep into art exhibitions - particularly large group ones - with clichés often recycling the same names and values in the art world. He says: 'Curating can rely on formulaic notions of what a painting or sculpture is. We wanted to enable all forms of contemporary speech that would also give artists encouragement for next year.'
Van den Berg says the judges were advised to be open-minded about what constituted quality in art. He says, 'It's playing with language to open up the vocabulary ... rather than deciding on fixed aesthetic notions continuing with familiar comfortable ideas of what is good and bad.'
There is no doubt the exhibition is hugely popular. One Sunday alone, 1600 people passed through its doors. The venue is definitely a plus. The Convention Centre attracts a broad cross-section of suits, school uniforms and casual attire. The ambience is also less intimidating than a hallowed white cube, with the noise of new media installations and general surrounds putting visitors more at ease.
There was one exception on my repeat visit. An architect who had come along with friends was boycotting the show on principle and sat dejectedly outside. He had issues with the patron and would not set a foot through the door. Not even the sumptuous white catalogue could tempt him.
Closed: October 29