ABSA L'Atelier: In Retrospect
by Nomusa Makhubu
I do not know if I account only for my self or for others who may who have experienced the hardships of being at the mercy of organisations. Perhaps, it has been my ill-fate, or maybe I have yet to be introduced to the life of an artist and am just stumbling in my baby steps.
The end of the publicity around the 2006 ABSA L'Atelier Gerard Sekoto Prize marked the end of my contact with ABSA. That is, after the prize-giving night the magician and his wand disappeared. I imagined it all slipping through my fingers and imagined strategies to cope without finding myself in an unfavourable position. I had begun counting coins simply to make follow-up phone calls. I wondered if they had forgotten that they had announced a winner in July?
I would probably be sounding better if I was in a better financial situation last year. I was a student on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) when South African National Association of Visual Arts (SANAVA) president Anton Loubser kindly told me that I had to send 299 Euros to the Cité Internationale des Arts. How? I could hardly afford the call I made. Even ABSA's Cecile Loedolff answered my calls as if biology impeded my brain from birth when I tried to ask if there had been any sale on my work so I could pay this amount. I could hardly afford a visa and passport. After many calls, I end up being assisted by Tina from Institut Français d'Afrique du Sud (IFAS) who was clearly clueless about the prize. She had more questions than I did. She then referred me to Dirce Neto who assisted me with a visa which I could not apply for since I had no aeroplane ticket.
In January I finally arrive at the Cité Internationale des Arts and I am already in debt. No one speaks English, and I had not been given the French lessons that were promised by the prize. The deposit for the room and maintenance fee amounted to 598 Euros but I have been given 530 Euros by EGIDE (an organisation working with bursaries to which Dirce referred me). That first month was a nail-biting, infuriating experience. Nevertheless, I quickly had to find my penniless self some understanding friends. I could not make a 'phone call to let the organisers know, so I used the free internet service at the Centre Georges Pompidou to email them. No response.
I had to wait until February for another EGIDE cheque. It was better than the first one; at least it covered debt and some working materials. However, it could not cover the amount required to use the darkroom. Each day would cost me 19 Euros to work in a darkroom that was limiting in that one could only print black and white and no larger than 30 x 40cm. I ended up using the canvas and paint that the previous South African artist had left behind in that atelier. (Thanks Berco!)
I was still making 'phone calls to Anton Loubser who referred me to François Chambraud (Alliance Française) who in turn referred me to Laurent Clavel (IFAS) who referred me back to Dirce Neto (IFAS). She then then referred me to Clairine Larquin (EGIDE) in France. I went to see her and she gave me a confused look, corrected my spelling of her name, told me she had no idea what I was talking about and simply walked away.
I kept nagging Dirce Neto until my last days in France. She responded a week before my departure and sent a contract offering 2700 Euros. I start spilling with relief. An hour later an amendment to that contract arrived by e-mail, now correctly offering 1800 Euros. Anything for survival would do at this point. I could sign it but I could not afford to fax it. The next day, a second amendment to all previous contracts reached my inbox, stating that I will receive 900 Euros. I was ravenous and frustrated, so I signed lest nothing come out of all the phone and email nagging. Above all, I owed people money that I used for an exhibition that I had to share with another artist due to costs. (I had been persuaded by fellow artists that there were ways to exhibit for less than the advertised price at the Cité Internationale des Arts. At some point I thought it was really silly of me to try to exhibit within a short time and without enough finance. This, an exhibition which I was told I was not supposed to have by Mr. Chambraud, yet no one had informed me of any of these parameters before I left SA. It only made sense to me to show the little that I had done.) The amount stated on the final contract arrived on the day of the exhibition opening and I could only pay for my prints then. This was the first time I saw my images and they had to go up flaws and all.
I arrived on Southern shores early April, angry but feeling I should be a little thankful for the strengthening experience, confident that I still had some resilience left. I contacted IFAS. They wanted me to deliver a report to them, so I asked if I could meet with them to discuss the whole matter. Laurent Clavel could not find time in his day to discuss it, so there I was asking the 'phone receiver for answers. Dirce Neto told me, 'Well, at least you have contributed to the better treatment of the next winner'. I asked for an exhibition in South Africa as consolation and was told to wait for discussions. I have never heard from any of them again.
I have been waiting for the other facets of the story from the organisations because maybe this is the Gerard Sekoto experience: Maybe the prize was designed to illustrate the life of paucity that Sekoto lived in Paris (or have we forgotten?). I might be irrational because of my anger from the silence of these important people, where I probably would have been gratified by simple reassurances and pardon. I am thankful, because if I had not been so desperate and humbled by the situation, I would not have met the people I met or done things the way I did them (I would have not found the abject buildings that house and feed African expatriates, for instance). I am not expecting the organisers of the competition to react to these words. I am speaking out with the hope that emerging artists never have to go through something similar to this in a foreign country. I would have preferred prior warning to prepare myself for the vileness and ill-treatment or better yet, I hope that it does not happen this way again. But I lost that trust. Stay strong and keep your head up!