SBYA: The inside story

November 8, 2016

 

The most hotly debated art awards have to be Standard Bank Young Artist. Often the winners are predictable, though this year the winner of the visual arts Beth Armstrong and Dineo Bopape for Performance art were a surprise as neither of these artists are established in either field – Bopape’s main practice is installation and not performance and Armstrong has not made huge headway as a sculptor. It is not to say that neither of these winners are not deserving, they were simply unexpected choices. It makes a change. Given how much status is attached to this award  you would expect more transparency around it.  There is little or none, however, which is hugely frustrating. Not sure what the benefits are in shrouding the whole thing in mystery. Even the press releases around the announcement do not outline who are on the judging committee the adjudication process or the prize money. This year instead of quizzing the winners, I decided to turn the spotlight on the process. Tony Lankester, the National Arts Festival Director responded to my questions. 

 

SBYA is one of the most important art awards in the country; who is on the judging committee - is it the National Arts Festival committee?

 

Yes – the Awards are made by the National Arts Festival Artistic Committee. Their names are published each year in the Festival programme. (note to reader: the festival programme only comes out 8 months after the award winners are announced)

 

For what length have members of the committee served and what is the policy around the length of their service?

 

Most on the Committee have served just one year – the current members are:

 

Brett Bailey

Chairperson

5

Lara Bye

Theatre / Performance Art

1

Richard Cock

Music

5

Samson Diamond

Music

1

Greg Homann

Theatre / Performance Art

1

Mwenya Kabwe

Theatre / Performance Art

1

Atiyyah Khan

Music

1

Liane Loots

Dance / Performance Art

1

Greg Maqoma

Dance / Performance Art

3

Tracey Sauders

Dance / Performance Art

1

Warona Seane

Theatre / Performance Art

1

Ruth Simbao

Visual Art / Performance Art

1

Patrick Tikolo

Music

1

Mandie van der Spuy

Visual Art / Performance Art

5

Ernestine White

Visual Art / Performance Art

1

 

The Jazz programme – and the selection of the winner of the SBYA – is managed by Alan Webster and the East Cape Jazz Promotions team, drawing on the expertise of past winners and bandleaders of the Youth Jazz Band.

 

The winners of the recently announced awards were determined mostly by the above members, with input from some other long-serving members who have retired/stepped down as their terms came to an end in the period between making the choices and announcing them this week - such as Adrienne Sichel, Nomusa Makhubu and Phyllis Klotz.

 

How does the committee go about arriving at their selection, what is the vetting process and who chairs or mediates it?

 

The Committee is broken down into genre-based sub-committees each sub-committee has been carefully composed of members who have a deep and intimate knowledge of their sector and who are also from diverse backgrounds, institutions and/or companies. Each sub-committee has an ongoing discussion about who should be considered for the Award. The Committee have an ongoing, long list of names that are on their radar, that list is added to and subtracted from over time. So at any given moment there might be a couple of dozen people who are currently under consideration for the Award. Members of the public and the media have proposed names to the Committee - those names are added to the long list and discussed.

At the Committee’s meeting in February each year, each sub-Committee presents a shortlist of three candidates, indicating which of the three is their consensus preferred candidate. They motivate for their preferred candidate and the Committee as a whole discuss it, and make a decision.  Sometimes a decision is deferred so that the Committee can observe the work of the artist if they are unsure or unfamiliar with a particular artist that has been suggested.

The whole process is run under the auspices of the Chair (currently Brett Bailey) and managed by the Festival office. 

 

What is the award's monetary value? What percentage of this must be spent on the creation/production of a new work for the festival?

There are two components to the prize – a cash prize to be utilized by the winner in any way they like (ie not as part of a production budget), and an opportunity to stage a work/mount an exhibition at the National Arts Festival. For the latter component, the artist together with the Festival office devise and agree on an appropriate budget for their project. 

 

The amount awarded has never been disclosed and National Arts Festival feels that having a public discussion about the extent of the cash prize detracts from the achievement of the winner in being awarded the prize. 

 

While thy understand there may be some curiosity about the size of the cash award, the commission of a new work or exhibition for the National Arts Festival's Main programme is, for them, the more important component of the prize and where, for the artists' sake, they'd like the focus to be. In that context, whether the prize is R2 000 or R200 000 or somewhere in between might be interesting to some, but it isn't material to the integrity of the Award. 

 

 

What support systems are in place for the artists to create new work - feedback and guidance to ensure the end result should be staged at the festival?

 

This varies widely by genre and dependent on the individual artist’s needs and experience. The genre sub-committee may nominate one of its members to work with the winner in a mentor capacity through the creation process, or the winner may have an existing professional relationship (with a gallery or institution) that they are comfortable with and that they wish to draw on.

The Festival’s Executive Producer engages with the winners and oversees the process.

 

What are the criteria for the selection - many of the artists appear to have been acknowledged internationally - how does this strengthen their chance?

The Award seeks to acknowledge and celebrate young artists who have developed an excellent body of work, but who may not yet have received full recognition for that work. Yes – in some cases the artists have developed an international reputation. In the case of classical musicians, for example, many of them choose to explore opportunities in other countries because there are simply more opportunities to be had there than in South Africa. And so inevitably by the time they reach their mid or early 30s they have achieved some success internationally. But acclaim/success is not as much of a criteria as the quality of the work they do.

 

Many recipients over the years just make the the 35 cut off line that defines them as "young"  - and there is a sense and certainly there have been remarks over the years that the recipients are already established in the art world and have been recognised. In this case, why is the award still branded as 'young', when this term is most often associated with talents that have yet to reach their full potential?

 

Given that most artists continue to be productive well into their 70s and beyond, there is a case to be made that a 35 ceiling is still considered young! Pablo Picasso once said “Youth has no age”, and we agree.

 

But your contention that many recipients “just make” the cut off line isn’t correct - looking at the Visual Art winners (where the cut off age is 38) from the past few years:

 

2017 - Beth Armstrong (30)

2016 - Mohau Modisakeng (30)

2015 - Kemang wa Lehulere (31)

2014 - Hasan and Husain Essop (28)

2013 – Mary Sibande (31)

 

In other genres, where the cut off is 35, Christiaan Olwagen was 28 when he won; Jade Bowers (29); Kyle Shepherd (27); Fana Tshabalala (26).

 

Our view is that the Award is for artists at a particular juncture in their career – regardless of when (apart from the ceiling age) they reach that juncture. Yes, we have awarded some Artists on the cusp of the age limit – two of the six Awards this year are to artists who are 35, but we have also awarded many who are younger, in their late 20s. 

 

We don’t view it as problematic if someone who is already established in the art world receives the Award – as mentioned earlier, having an excellent body of work is a critical criteria for the award and so, by definition almost, an artist would have to be fairly established to have met that criteria.

 

The questions are rather – how much more are they still able to produce/achieve in their future careers? Will having the spotlight on them and their work for a year – through this award – and will having the space to create a new work help them move to the next level? Are they deserving of recognition of what, as you put it, is one of the most important awards in the country.

We also consider that the award casts the winners into an intense amount of publicity and expectations of them are very high and so the winners will benefit from having had some exposure and life experience in order for the accolade to remain manageable and ultimately beneficial.

 

Is is necessary for the Festival committee to also select the winners for this award - as this puts them in a very powerful and dominant position where not only do they get to define who are the 'best' 'young' talent but they also are then gatekeepers of the biggest art festival too?

 

The Young Artist Awards were conceived and started by the National Arts Festival in 1981, so logically we would determine the recipients of the Awards. And precisely because part of the prize is presenting work on the Main Programme at the Festival, which the Committee is mandated by “the office” to compile, and because the committee is broad and includes some well respected voices, it stands to reason that the Committee should lead the selection. We’re comfortable that the process results in a strong outcome – and believe that the list of past winners bears that out.

 

 

 

 

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