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 people on the continent. Works referencing hair styles as a form of expression, identity and a site of contestation has been prominent in previous years and remains important to a number of this years entrants, such as Sibande Nonkululeko, Motaung Lebohang (both from South Africa) and Komukama Darlyne (Uganda).
Some artworks offer insight into the particular conditions and contexts from the artist’s countries of origin. Constant power outages in Lagos, Nigeria, account for the unexpected metaphor between electricity generators and religious shrines by Akinwande Ayo.
Pressing political issues regarding land ownership in South Africa surface in works by Malan Vianca, Chiliza Mhlonishwa, Nixon Karla and Struwig Ciara. Forced removals and land ownership are mirrored in Bya'bazzukulu (For Grandchildren) by Donald Wasswa. Challenging fixed gender roles was a prominent theme uniting the finalists works last year and continues to be the driving force behind works by Mayongo Mzoxolo and Maluleke Matimu Lloyd. These artworks affirm not only the dominance of sociopolitical discourse but the artists perception that contemporary practice is, should be, irretrievably tied to addressing them. Political protest and social commentary has certainly reentered prominent platforms in western art centres since; a new world order led by Trump, the rise of other right-wing leaders in Europe, the isolationist attitude reflected in Brexit and a new feminist wave, which reached a crescendo during the #metoo campaign.
Refreshingly, the depth and breadth of the entries to the Absa L’Atelier award are so diverse; there is almost room to argue any point about expression from the continent’s rising creative class. Personal impulses will always inform art and are its main currency.
“What I’m asking artists wherever they are from is to show me their identity. Not an essentialised identity in which a Spanish (person) would be dressed as a matador; identity is something very complex, which is very personal,” observes[ii] Simon Njami, the world-acclaimed curator.
Stanwix Benjamin (South Africa) takes an unconventional approach in generating a drawing of a family member’s thesis on documentary photography in the wryly titled Odd Future.
Young artists on the continent may not be deliberately conforming to notions of ‘contemporaneity’. However, the number of photographic works, ties in with the dominance of this medium on the continent, as reiterated and perpetuated through festivals such as Bamako and Lagos Photo Festival, which provide a platform for, celebrate and entreat artists to rethink their use of it. Given the main opening exhibitions at the two new flashy institutions for contemporary African art, The Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden
(Macaal) and the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African, were dominated by photographic works suggests its currency with regards to the ‘contemporary’.
Maintaining photography’s contemporariness remains tricky. Particularly, given the speed at which images are created and shared via technology and various apps. It’s interesting to observe those artists who work with the photographic medium in different ways, such as Benjamin’s drawing of photographs and notes interrogating a history of photography. Obeng Henry (Ghana) also makes novel use of the medium, printing it onto bamboo and combining it with rubbings, in his unique attempt to render a drain. Henry’s commitment to the ‘present’ in all its banality or in highlighting the overlooked features of the urban fabric, which also echo through works by other entrants, clearly forms a sub-strand of contemporariness being advanced here. Or perhaps it is exemplified by those who look beyond the present and reality altogether; such as Qhomane Mpho (South Africa). He manipulates photographic images to produce suspended buildings that not only pay homage to the imagination but future projects that are unmoored from the present.
Ultimately, what makes this art competition compelling is not so much what we see in the Absa gallery today but the exhibitions by the winners, finalists and indeed other entrants that will follow in the future. It is significant that this award is also structured to provide for future exhibition opportunities. This will afford us, the viewers, consumers of art, a glimpse beyond what we are seeing now and what may come in future. - this essay first appeared in the Absa L'atelier 2018 Award Catalogue
[i] Smith, Terry. “The State of Art History: Contemporary Art.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 92, no. 4, 2010, pp. 366–383. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/29546137.