Talent that needs no kick-start

In the introduction to a retrospective book, Standard Bank Young Artist Awards: 25 Years, National Arts Festival director Ismail Mahomed triumphantly writes that the arts community has always welcomed the awards committee’s choices. One imagines a synchronised nodding of heads and clapping of hands.

“There have never been any stories of jealous or disgruntled artists or even critics complaining about the choices of the committee,” writes Mahomed in the book that came out in 2009 to commemorate 25 years of the award. Every year since 1985 the bank has handed out gongs in categories such as visual art, drama, dance, music, jazz, opera and film. (This year saw the inclusion, long overdue, of performance art.)

One has to wonder whether such one-track-mindedness is really an admirable trait in a segment of society that’s supposed to question and generally be contrarian, particularly towards corporate entities. If the choices of the committee have not been queried — especially in the visual art category — could it be because the awards have chosen young, accomplished and critically acclaimed artists who are already enjoying mainstream success?

Let’s take the case of two recent recipients of the award. Mary Sibande, this year’s winner for visual art, is arguably the country’s most successful — which is to say the most mainstream — artist of the past few years. Who can forget the huge billboards on which were emblazoned her creation Sophie, a domestic servant royally clad in working-class blue, which were stuck to a number of high-rise buildings in downtown Johannesburg?  

Last year she showed her work at the Venice Biennale, an honour mired in controversy because her gallerist, Monna Mokoena, had been appointed as a commissioner in rather opaque circumstances. But some people agree that another commissioner without any links to Sibande would probably have chosen her to represent South Africa anyway.

Then there is photographer Mikhael Subotzky, who, before winning the award last year, had shown his work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2008. Some of his photographs documenting life in the landmark Ponte City had appeared in literary magazine Granta a few years previously. The award arrived when the rest of the world already knew about this talented photographer.

In summary, the cruellest thing that could be said is that the bank needs these big-name artists and not the other way around. For who could deny that Sibande and Subotzky would carry on being who they are with or without their awards?

I am not saying these gongs are useless (artists are, anyway, endlessly greedy for love). For visual artists, it means your work gets into the collections of institutions and other private buyers for big sums.

My point, I guess, is that the committee’s selection process seems like another case of reading history backwards with the benefit of hindsight. To award a prize of this nature to Sibande now and not, say, three years ago when she was an unknown entity is easy and convenient — a territory one should cede to the British queen, who hands out awards every year to subjects who have done something notable. They wait for you to achieve something and then honour you.

An award celebrating young artists, I feel, shouldn’t just corroborate what we already know. It should be able to kick-start the career of obscure but extremely talented artists and set them on the highway to mainstream success.

When I asked Gavin Younge, who teaches at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town and who won a Standard Bank Young Artist award in 1986, whether the prize had made a difference to his professional life, he began by saying: “One never really knows.”  

When he received the award, he had been teaching at Michaelis for 10 years and worked as an artist for a while longer than that. Younge said: “Without doubt, I would say that the award gave me the financial resources to undertake visual research among the ‘copper mountains’ of Namaqualand and to have my meditations on colonial conquest and mineral exploitation cast in bronze. Since the bank likes to tour the award-winner’s exhibition to other venues, I also benefited from this national exposure,” he said about his exhibition Koperberg.

“However, it was a further eight years before my work came to the attention of Jean-Yves Jouannais, who writes for French art magazine  Art Press. Perhaps my exhibition Koperberg contributed to this small success.”

So did the award make a difference to Younge’s professional life or not? We’ll never know.

An award in whose title the word “young” is stressed should do more than endorse those who have already set out on the road to stardom; it should launch the careers of young artists and bring them to our — and the rest of the world’s — attention.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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