Tracing the Rise of 'the New Contemporary'


Is contemporary art over? It’s a question that perhaps the 2011 book Defining Contemporary art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Artworks promoted by virtue of its title. If we were a quarter of a century into the ‘contemporary’ period, surely its conclusion was eminent? This idea appears valid considering the revival of modernist modes and the glut of art fair art recalling other ‘contemporary’ periods. Perhaps market driven art is what is killing ‘the contemporary’, depending on how you define it, of course. The sharp rise in the visibility of artists from our continent on global stages has unfortunately, but expectedly, birthed a generation of copy-cat artists, believing that the line to international fame relies on following a set mode, form of expression or fashionable thematic. Not that this might necessarily be a terrible outcome.

As the Australian art historian Terry Smith suggested in a 2010[i] journal article we perhaps have yet to come to grips with the ‘contemporary’. The main obstacle in doing so was “presentism” itself, implied Smith. With little objective distance this could only lead to observers taking contemporary art “at its own word”, allowing for a form of parroting not only of contemporary discourse but indeed a repetition of the contemporary gesture itself. This might explain the constant re-looping of contemporary art, which is largely modeled on what was considered contemporary before.

This inner friction within contemporary art globally and on the continent, particularly in the wake of the hype around ‘African contemporary’, provides us with the balanced lens through which to survey the entries and artworks in this year’s Absa L’Atelier. For rather than the massive burden of delivering on ‘newness’ weighing on the young artists shoulders, we can rather appreciate their works as their interpretation of ‘the contemporary’. As such their art provides us with a mirror, reflecting on their perceptions of what kind of art might be valued at an award level.

As young artists they have time to discover their idiosyncratic voices, vocabularies, though of course, over the years some of the winners have already arrived on the scene almost fully formed. Some entrants are experienced practitioners with a few solo exhibitions under their belts, however, the majority tend to be artists in their final year of study or are new graduates.

The structure of the prizes for the Absa L’Atelier award is such that the young artists are afforded the space, place and resources to develop their voices. The residencies in Paris at Cité Internationale des Art, Sylt Foundation in Germany, the Ampersand Foundation in New York and the Bag Factory in Johannesburg, provide not only a dedicated space to make art, but a new, fertile setting which can propel them forward in new directions. The hype and drive to find the next ‘new’ contemporary African art star, which has seen some recent graduates in South Africa step almost immediately into a punishing cycle of art production for exhibitions and art fairs has reduced rich (and necessary) opportunities to explore beyond the expected and perfect their craft.

As such in surveying the finalists and entrants’ works on the exhibition, we should not necessarily be focused on what they are producing ‘now’ but what visual or ideological gestures suggest a future path towards their own place within the contemporary matrix.

Nevertheless, this exhibition has fast become a touchstone for the concerns consuming young peopl