The art of positive thinking

As far as corporate social investment goes, Sun International’s concept is exemplary. Called Positive, it’s an annual event (now in its second year) fusing fine art, fashion, food, sport and pop music. It all happens this weekend at Sun City when the resort invests in an HIV/Aids support drive—the crux of the campaign.

In this self-serving world the idea that corporate culture and popular culture can combine to offer something positive to the lesser privileged, while also doing some hefty self-promotion, is nothing sinister. Audaciously taking its cue from aid organisations such as Unicef, Positive employs the services of various “ambassadors” to select the work presented both to high-flying corporate guests and lesser paying members of the general public. This year’s genre-specific names are composer/singer Ed Jordan for music, Sun International chef Conrad Gallhager for food, award-winning writer Adam Levine for fashion and visual-art curator Koulla Xinisteris for the art collection that will grace the walls of the Sun City’s rather kitschy Hall of Treasures. 

The reception venue is a mock-stone fantasy of an African grotto on a sunset beach. On an island in the carpeted sea stand three giant bronze giraffes. It is here that Xinisteris proposes to show an extensive collection of coveted artworks, some old and some new, by South Africa’s biggest names.

From the start Xinisteris hasn’t exactly been enamoured of the space, but that is often the job of curator—to create a neutral palette that will best allow for expression. “I’d been to Sun City once before,” she says, “when I was young. But when I saw the Hall of Treasures this time I thought, ‘Oh my God.’

“But now they’re laying down a charcoal carpet over an existing very busy carpet. They’re erecting screens throughout. Outside our exhibition there’s a Wall of Hope where celebrities will present their own artworks—and there are the giraffes and a pond. They’ve offered to cover the giraffes but we have darkened that space and will have the exhibits lit.

“But I think somehow it is going to work,” she says confidently.

On Wednesday, when the Sun City teams had in fact obliterated the giraffes and completed their set-up, Xinisteris called to say: “It has exceeded my expectation.”

The curator, whose day jobs include collecting art for the SABC and coordinating Fordsburg’s Bag Factory art space, has achieved buy-in from 50 artists who have made big concessions by way of payment. Some have allowed the Positive initiative to take as much as 50% of the selling price towards the HIV hospices that will benefit from the event. Sun City public relations manager Thoko Qoboza notes that whereas last year’s sole beneficiary was the Topologo Aids hospice in Phokeng (set up by Sun International, the local royal family and the Catholic Church), this year the scope has widened to include care centres close to other Sun International resorts dotted around Southern Africa.

But when an art exhibition presents itself as a fundraiser, first it has to present itself as a collection of works that the buying public wants to own. For Positive the collection also has in some way to speak to the issue of HIV/Aids.

According to Xinisteris, “the collection has to be a complete exhibition in itself.

“When I asked artists to make work or to give me work for the show, I didn’t necessarily want it to be about HIV or Aids because I didn’t want any work that didn’t have a truth about it. So if they were going to make a work about the human condition, about pain of some kind, it would work for me.

“Artists being artists would respond. They did and there was pain. But some people had gone beyond, they had transcended it. They didn’t work with the negative. Generally the work reflects how HIV/Aids has impacted on our lives in every way.”

Looking at the portfolio collected by Xinisteris, there is the predictable, ubiquitous use of red in keeping with the Aids theme, reflecting the colour of the Positive logo. Sun International, with the galleries to whom the artists are attached (Goodman Gallery, G2, Gallery on the Square, Momo Gallery, Warren Siebrits and Michael Stevenson) have generated a bound book of postcards that will be selling this weekend for R260.

Here there are red crosses (Berni Searle), red washing on a line (Paul Emmanuel), testimony written in red (Sue Williamson), a red crouching figure (Churchill Madikida), a red suitcase (Donna Kukuma), half a woman drenched in a swirling wave of red (Penny Siopis), a classical statue blinded by a red ribbon wrapped around his head (Johan Thom), a skeleton buried in the red earth (Julia Teale). Get the idea?

Folks going art shopping in the North West province this weekend shouldn’t expect bargains—Xinisteris has called the prices “market related”.

When you phone Sun International this week, the hold music is the latest album by soul crooner John Legend, this year’s Positive headline act. It’s terribly groovy. Qoboza says the resort is expecting more than 15 000 people for all events: the corporate Positive Rocks gala dinner and fashion show at a whopping R85 000 a table, the golf days, the art exhibition and Legend’s two concerts.

Last year the Mail & Guardian reported that Sun International had in fact spent R6-million to make R1,5-million—and for this it had taken some flak from the media. This year prices are up, the resort is expecting more guests and the margin will change.

According to Qoboza, this weekend they are hoping to double their takings—and, anyway, she counters, some of the investment is really given by the resort in kind, amounting to hospitality.

And the Positive footprint is growing. “We have also introduced an Africanist angle into Positive,” Qoboza says. This has included a Nigerian fashion designer and a supermodel, a Cameroonian designer based in France and singer Ishmael Lo. We are trying to build Positive in Africa, to involve people from other countries.”

The details

Positive 2007 takes place this weekend at Sun City resort in the North West province.

  • John Legend plays in the Sun City Superbowl on June 16 at 8pm and on June 17 at 3pm. Book at Computicket.
  • The Positive art exhibition and celebrity Wall of Hope can be viewed at the Hall of Treasures.
  • Positive Golf Days are happening on June 15 and June 17 at the Gary Player golf course and on the Lost City golf course from 9am.
  • There is a Positive Classical Picnic on June 17 in the grounds of the Sun City bowling green.
  • For details about all events, bookings and maps to get there visit: www.suninternational.com/positive/ or Tel: 011 780 7000 or 014 557 1000

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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