ArtThrob first launched in August 1997, in the era of dial-up and 0.3 megapixel cameras, and so we mark our 20th anniversary this year. Things have changed in that time, and you can browse through our two archives here and here, to get a sense of the shifts and currents of South African art. We turned to some of our past editors to reflect on there time at the helm, but we would also like to thank the myriad of people who have made the site possible over the years from tireless copy-editors, web techies and admin guardians to regional editors, accountants and designers. A particular mention must be made of the writers who have given insight, knowledge and criticism over the years.
ArtThrob couldn’t exist without our Editions, and the artists who have generously donated to us throughout the years. Thank you so much for your kindness Ashley Walters, Athi-Patra Ruga, Cameron Platter, Candice Breitz, Chloe Reid, Claudette Schreuders, Clive van den Berg, Dan Halter, David Goldblatt, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Georgina Gratrix, Guy Tillim, Hentie van der Merwe, James Webb, Jane Alexander, Lauren Palte, Lisa Brice, Mikhael Subotzky, Nontsikelelo Veleko, Peet Pienaar, Penny Siopis, Pieter Hugo, Richard Mudariki, Robert Hodgins, Sam Nhlengethwa, Senzeni Marasela, Siemon Allen, Sue Williamson, Tracey Rose, Walter Oltmann, Willem Boshoff, William Kentridge and Zanele Muholi. Visit our shop and help us get to the next twenty years.
ArtThrob was conceived over a glass of champagne at a 1997 wedding, when an editor at Internet Africa invited me to do a monthly column on contemporary art in South Africa, in exchange for them designing me a website. At the time, I had never seen the internet, and did not have an email address. Email? I hardly knew how it worked. But I said yes. I never got the website, but ArtThrob has been online ever since the first column came out, in August 1997, just before the opening of the legendary second Johannesburg Biennale. In the beginning, it was just me, and studio mate Paul Edmunds, who became ArtThrob’s nit-picking sub editor for many years.
It was before the days of popular digital photography, and 35 mm transparencies had to be scanned for each issue, but in 1999 I bought a Sony Mavica digital camera for the website, into which one inserted floppy discs, each of which recorded about 12 images. Digital images! Amazing! I took some of the first for one of my first ‘Diary’ entries, when I was visiting Jeff Koons in his studio.
We later expanded to appoint Johannesburg and Durban editors, and a second Mavica camera was purchased, which then-editor Sean O’Toole carelessly left in an exhibition room at the Oudsthoorn KKK fees and never saw again.
But 1997 was the time that the internet was just starting up, and we were there. Other art sites are often online versions of print magazines, or gallery or museum sites. I have never come across another which covers the art and artists of one country, with a dash of international news, as ArtThrob does. We might be one of the oldest art sites in the world. Once we were exhibited on a German exhibition as an artwork.
And almost every foreign curator I have met tells me that once they start researching South African artists, it is not very long before ArtThrob comes up. Gallerists hunt the archive, for old reviews about their artists. Students use it to track down information for their essays. The art community reads it just to find out what is going on. There have been other websites … like ArtHeat which everyone enjoyed for its salacious and funny content … but they couldn’t keep up the pace.
I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the website which was started so casually has become an institution of the South African art world.
There are many words that pithily account for my time at ArtThrob: clueless, neophyte, journeyman, voyeur, grifter, and finally graduate. None of them quite capture what was a steep learning curve. I joined ArtThrob after the ping of the early site had disappeared, during a period of modest transition. The tech was old school, at least judged by today’s metrics — no comment boxes at the end of reviews, no links to social media, no video interviews, just captioned pictures and hyperlink-capable text. Quaint really. And yet, every fortnight, the site was updated. Sometimes people wrote angry letters in response. I recall one sent as a read-only PDF, so I wouldn’t edit the salacious allegations. An editorship at ArtThrob, while important sounding, just means you edit and write, or write and edit. I still cringe at most of what I wrote. The infinite length of online invites rococo musings when the forum should, ideally, be used to hone the sharpened skill of capsule reviews. An enduring bugbear. But now I’m sounding like Malcolm, who wrote to complain. Justifiably. In 2004, when Sam Nhlengethwa was profiled in 10 Years 100 Artists, my recent Artbio was listed as a bibliographical reference. That fact seems ridiculous nowadays. But such was the paucity of writing about even well-established artists circa 2002 when I captained ArtThrob from my flat in Braamfontein. In a way, ArtThrob was a pre-LED torch that cast a warm yellow beam of light. Mostly for me.
Thinking back to my time as an editor and guest editor too, I think the things I am most proud of are the “Special Issues” which included, amongst others, “Durban Poison” (guest edited under my editorship by Kwezi Gule), the “Pink Issue” on LBGTI+ issues in art in South Africa (imperfect but still has some amazing contributions – re-read Michael Stevenson’s contribution for example!!! – and was disappointing for me in one way by several people *not* willing to contribute) and the issue on publications and criticism in and about SA Art. The sheer size of the monthly issues then was something to behold a lot of content and many opinion pieces and under my editorship I tried to have as much content as possible.
Being involved with ArtThrob meant accessing some of the finest people in South African art. I was regularly amazed at how generous people were with their time and resources if it meant contributing to the debates around visual art in the country. Our participation in the FNB Joburg Art Fair felt like an annual culmination of the collective effort, a chance to sell prints but also to see firsthand what people were up to in the scene. Many tried to pull me aside to grind an axe, or to further their agendas, foolishly thinking that I was amenable to or even comprehending of their attempts at networking. But most were simply supportive of what was being done to fulfill ArtThrob’s rather tricky mandate of covering most of the country with a staff of less than ten people. Highlights?
What was, for me, the most important aspect of ArtThrob, when I took over as editor, was its history and its integrity. I felt at the time – and still do – that it is one of the few critical platforms that allows the necessary objectivity that magazines of this nature require. Personally, perhaps the two issues we addressed at ArtThrob which I am most proud of were the investigation into the corruption that surrounded South Africa’s participation in the 2011 Venice Biennale and the open letter to the Zeitz MOCAA. However, the most frustrating aspect was the fact that those involved in the corruption of Venice 2011 (namely Moenna Mokoena, Paul Mashatile, and Victor Dlamini) have escaped both legal and critical sanction. It was also somewhat disturbing that Mark Coetzee and the Zeitz MOCAA did not respond to the open letter and that many of the criticisms as laid out there seem to have been ignored. Both of these results, I feel, replicate the lack of accountability that we currently see in South African society as a whole. My deepest regret while working as editor was that I published an article that unfairly chastised one of the current editors. What I learnt, certainly from that incident, was that an editor must not only seek objectivity but must also be able to make a value judgement on what is fair and ethical comment. ArtThrob taught me a great deal about South Africa’s art and society and for that I am deeply grateful – long may its publication continue.