A guide to embarking on an arts career in South Africa

Historically, apartheid art-activists had to think through creative modes of distributing both physical objects and education. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Historically, apartheid art-activists had to think through creative modes of distributing both physical objects and education. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Considering an artistic career in South Africa means entering into an old but all too relevant debate about what art’s role in society should be.

I will not lead you down a rabbit hole whose ending is too inconclusive, for I prefer to situate the question contextually — in South Africa — looking at the way art has been, and continues to be, a tool for moments of activist-led societal shift. Becoming involved in the art industry in this country places you along and within this historical trajectory.

If this is what interests you, then it is useful to know that “protest art” is not the only resource available to learn about this history, despite the fact that diverse South African political creative practices are usually framed and generalised in mainstream literature in this way.
Artists here, and in surrounding countries, have been in dialogue for many years, to debate the different roles art can or should play in society. 

Historically — in addition to the production of posters, pamphlets, magazines and clothing bearing anti-apartheid slogans and artworks — apartheid art-activists had to think through creative modes of distributing both physical objects and education. They had to think through how art could reach the public in an accessible way.

Thus, art became the way in which activism — especially during the early 1980s geared towards Black Consciousness — was able to gain publicity. It involved creative approaches to making networks, operating around oppressive legislature and empowering people with knowledge and otherwise censored information.

Learning these histories is one of the most exciting ways to reflect on what a relevant, creative art practice might look like today. Reading texts such as Art and the End of Apartheid by John Peffer, The Art of Life in South Africa by Dan Magaziner, about a little-known art school in KwaZulu-Natal called Ndaleni, and researching art education initiatives such as Funda Art Centre in Soweto, MEDU Art Ensemble in Botswana, Johannesburg Art Foundation, and Cape Town’s Community Arts Project gives a greater sense of how art practice has existed because of and in spite of political subjugation.

Alternatively, visit Keleketla! Library in Johannesburg for great reading and an immersive experience on how independent, interdisciplinary arts organisations are conducting their work and research. And compare these to art centres that joined the United Democratic Front and radicalised their practices in line with an anti-apartheid agenda.

Additionally, Pathways to Free Education is a publication available online and both creates work in line with this history and engages history and politics through writing.

I would argue that, regardless of your reason for involving yourself in art, these histories will be potent to your intentions and contribution.

Regarding praxis, the technical mastery of a skill is another motivation for becoming involved in art. Although studying in a university gives one access to the resources and tools to do this, often the focus of fine art degrees is more concerned with how to deal with and creatively resolve ideas.

For this reason, although one gets a window into a number of different skill sets to hone in on technical mastery, I would try one of the following:

  • Take short courses or internships at one of the many schools that teach skills in metalwork and woodwork.
  •  Digital art skills can be gained with a combination of education and practice. Easily available online, multiple free courses for software mastery exist on platforms such as lynda.com, or even Youtube.
  • Photographic knowledge, which is easily available online, and learned through experimentation on a digital or film camera. An advantage of art school, however, is often access to a darkroom in which one can produce images from film strips exposed in-camera. (In the Western Cape this is no longer feasible because of the drought, and darkroom work can use many litres of water in a session).
  • Institutions such as Warren Editions and David Krut offer courses in printmaking.

Colleges and technikons are also available for longer technique-focused courses and, once you are on your way, assisting an artist is a great way to direct those skills creatively.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of an artistic practice is that one (for better or for worse) is given licence to engage an idea from any angle, and then must go about presenting it in such a way that it can be received and interpreted by a public.

The usefulness of studying art in an institution is often an unlearning of the rules we assume should be used in putting things together, and an introduction into methodologies of taking things apart.

Fine art production — although now a specialised field — begins as a subversive thought, or as an idea about how a thing might be expressed in a new way that exists outside the sense paradigm of the usual image aesthetics. Art provides a set of tools for thinking about and understanding the world, and thus gives an extra lens and multiple potential for expression.

In addition, I would advise that you consider the following:

  • Combine your knowledge base with art. Having a background in a separate field and then coming into art is always useful. There is no field of study or career whose knowledge cannot be examined and processed using art.
  • The problem with isolated study in art is that many art institutions seem to assert that art production requires no content or specific site of exploration. Going through an undergraduate fine art programme in South Africa, it quickly becomes clear that this idea is a direct import of Euro-American modernism (1850s - 1950s) — a period of art-making characterised by an understanding of the art object as central in the pursuit of an ultimate aesthetic truth.
  • Look for an art degree that encourages interdisciplinary study. Some of the universities that offer degrees in visual/fine art are the University of the Witwatersrand, Rhodes University, the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria. The University of the Western Cape offers an interesting collection of courses engaging visual studies, culture and theory of the camera.

Each institution has different policies on how much or how little engagement one can have with other fields of study while studying art, but keep in mind that art at this moment requires content whether self- or institutionally generated.

I still have many questions of my own about what it means to be involved with the South African art industry. But I would assert that, generally, importance should be placed on an art education that is historically and politically situated within the context in which it unfolds.

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