This year’s National Arts Festival features a visual art offering, ‘Continuum’ curated by Aysha Waja, which takes you on a tour through the current work of five years’ worth of Reinhold Cassirer Award winners, courtesy of The Bag Factory.
The Bag Factory annually awards one emerging South African artist under the age of 35, in the field of drawing or painting, the opportunity to spend 10 weeks at their studios. The award was founded by the late Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer, in celebration of her husband, Reinhold Cassirer’s love of the arts, and has become known for locating emerging local talent.
The title, ‘Continuum,’ denotes a sequence in which neighbouring elements have varying changes in character, yet still maintain perceptible similarities. It’s a clever reflection on the unintended coherence of the works, which lends itself to a thematic rather than artist-based curatorial strategy. Each artist’s work uniquely sets out to tackle aspects of the current turbulent post-apartheid socio-political structure in South Africa.
Tshepo Mosopa current works, featuring mixed breed dogs, show a dramatic artistic shift in technique from his earlier works, which are mostly figurative, busy, line drawings.
In his latest pieces, carefully placed, but sparse, lines –almost sketch-like in nature– come to reflect on race in our current political climate.
Blessing Ngobeni, who now boasts a well-established career, delivers three vibrant and dynamic pieces reflecting on the inherent ambiguity of the relationship urban residents have with their environment. They are a unique and thought-provoking entry point into the multitude of sub-plots within the overall theme of the works, which responds to the throng of varying issues facing our urban centres.
Asanda Kupa exhibits two exceptional oil paintings which are, as with Mosopa, an incredible technical leap forward for the artist. A quiet violence is captured in Kupa’s interrogation of the movement and functioning of bodies in the protesting crowd. The subject matter, however, seems to be an explorative pause in Kupa’s artistic journey as it does not effectively move away from the depressing themes of Marikana – which Kupa is aiming to leave behind.
Thato Nhlapo features fresh, graffiti-inspired pieces invoking a subtle brutality, which, even to the conceptually uninformed viewer, carries a sense of the ominous despite their minimalistic aesthetic appeal. Spray paint bullet holes shot against graphic backgrounds of yellow, gold and black, work as visual markers symbolizing the violence of the Marikana massacre.
Finally, Keneilwe Mokoena is the first female recipient of the award. While her work is conceptually perhaps the most dissimilar, this small body of work invokes, in a most appropriate and subtle way, the chaos of South African politics. The work sees vast patches of negative space set against what could be cell-like structures with dendritic arms, or perhaps intricate sections of a topographical map; an interesting conflicting parallel between zooming in, or zooming out, to witness what is, in either case, imperceptible to the naked eye without man-made machinery. Mokoena reminds the viewer that there is ambiguity wherever we look, as she recognises the disturbing chaos and destruction that is prevalent in society and within herself; thriving amidst both creation and destruction. Conceptually, Mokoena’s work comes to embody, in the quietest way, the over-arching presence within our country of a battle to keep at bay the constant move toward chaos and destruction, in order to preserve an order which is, ultimately, not invisible, but perhaps unseen by the naked eye.
While the works themselves are strong, the major blight upon the overall impressiveness of the exhibition lies in the ugliness of the exhibition space itself. Unfortunately, the Grahamstown Monument’s Ntsikana gallery does no justice to fully appreciating the individual works, or the cohesiveness of the exhibition; which certainly is a true misfortune for the exhibition.