Art in the era of influencers

 

 

Most professions require a licence, permit or reputable training before one can, by law, start practicing that occupation. This applies to a variety of professions —but not to artists. 

Now that the internet has democratised information and gatekeepers are confronted with calls to decolonise spaces, an industry that doesn’t require licensing finds itself opening up to various affectations of artistry. 

The Mail & Guardian spoke to several cogs in the machine that is South Africa’s contemporary art scene to gauge how the label “artist” is earned and whether social media platforms are gearing up to become the white cubes of the next decade. 

Because the terms of regarding someone as an artist are fluid, social media has created the opportunity for anyone to be an artist. Creatives with an output that can be digitised, in the form of a photograph or video, have the opportunity to share it. If they align themselves with the right people, use the relevant hashtags and post their content at the right time, they are able to reach a wide and engaged audience, no matter their level of skill. 

This initial, ongoing, free-to-access engagement allows the content producers to gauge what their audience wants based on the content that receives the most likes or interactions. When this engagement rises, so does the probability of expanding their audience because it increases their chances of being suggested to people who do not follow them. The process is then repeated, increasing the content producer’s followers, cementing their brand and increasing their chances of being discovered by galleries, curators, art collectors and enthusiasts who can endorse their journey. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s coming from an institution that says you’re an artist,” says Banele Khoza, an artist and gallerist was also the recipient of the 2018 Gerard Sekoto Foundation award.“It’s about recognising yourself.”

Khoza is a hybrid. He studied and taught in the fine art faculty at the Tshwane University of Technology. However his contemporary art space, BKhz, is open to artists based on their output and not their training. 

When asked about the value of his time in academia, Khoza says school taught him “to be sensitive and not to take things at surface level”, in addition to visually articulating ideas soundly so when it is time for his work to be critically analysed he can justify his decisions. 

Still, Khoza admits that “at this point, school is being revolutionised by the internet”. In 2018 pop culture platform Vulture published Jerry Saltz’s guide “How to Be An Artist”. Using 33 points, the listicle takes the reader through a range of matters to consider, from developing a practice, materiality and matching your style to your voice, all the way to how to enter the art world. In addition, aspiring artists are seeing established artists, such as Dada Khanyisa, use their Instagram and Twitter accounts to demystify their practice by documenting their process. 

One of the artists who Khoza has endorsed is Lunga Ntila. Before her debut into the art world in 2019 during the Joburg Art Fair week — when she had work showing simultaneously at Art Joburg, Underline Projects and BKhz — Ntila considered herself a visiting outsider. Her work fuses photography and digital collage-making. The result is an expressionist and cubist take on self-portraiture. Even though Ntila managed to use her social media visibility to receive recognition from curators, she felt like an imposter because of her lack of art education or training. 

Her sentiments have since changed. “There was a shift when Banele took a chance on me: since that week the art world has been treating me well,” says Ntila. Following her art week debut, Ntila is currently a part of Blank Projects’ year end group exhibition, The Head the Hand, in Cape Town, as well as the current group show at Pretoria Art Museum, X_posure. “I consider myself a visual artist now, my proof is being in galleries, art fair and a museum,” she says. 

Joining Ntila in this wave is lifestyle influencer Lulama “Wolf” Mlambo. Through local media platform, Between10and5, Mlambo declared her transition from influencer to fine artist a few weeks ago. One of her pieces, The Process of Unbecoming, is part of Smith Studio’s summer exhibition, Rendezvous II

Using acrylic on canvas, the dismantled figures in the piece seem to mimic the Khoisan style of depicting the human form — a style that has been popularised by artist Lady Skollie’s practice. The manner in which Mlambo depicts the mustard, crimson and blue figures in a white abyss makes for a beautiful but safe work. Although it doesn’t feature expert brush work or make any solid commentary, its minimalist nature and use of warm colours result in a clean, familiar looking and aesthetically endearing work. 

Commenting on social media’s ability to democratise art, curator Dr Same Mdluli says that although she supports its ability to expose the arts to a wider audience, she believes that the perception that anyone can become an artist is not necessarily true. Adding to this Mdluli says, “Education remains a key component into the vocation of art/artmaking and, like any other discipline, there are no shortcuts — it requires doing the scholarship.” 

In an earlier interview with M&G leading up to her showcase at the 58th Venice Biennale, multimodal artist Tracey Rose touched on the contemporary art world’s attempt to accommodate creatives from other disciplines such as influencing, commercial photography and marketing. 

“People enter the art world from disciplines that have no love for art and artists; this changes the way that people who become artists engage with their own art,” said Rose, who in addition to being an artist, co-ordinates the Wits fine art department’s syllabus for first-year students. Due to the changed nature of engagement with art, when media coverage and likes equate to success, Rose says artworks are no longer looked at holistically. “The work becomes a statement without material engagement,” says Rose. “They just tick boxes based on what they know people respond to: that’s not art.”

Although her newfound security has seen her experimenting, Ntila’s introduction saw her practice attesting to what Rose refers to as ticking boxes. “There was pressure to produce or recreate a particular kind of work,” she admits. However Ntila saw it as a necessary means to get her foot into the door. “Sometimes you gotta Beyoncé it up [create work that sells] in order to release your Solange [create conceptual work that isn’t as commercial].” As a result, Lunga’s first solo exhibition and appearance at Art Joburg saw her selling all the editions of her work. 

Whether your opinion is for or against any person in a creative field referring to themselves as an artist, there’s no stopping it. Although there may be hierarchies and barriers to entry when it comes to galleries, museums and fair spaces, the art world is free of stringent regulatory bodies that can gatekeep with an iron fist — social media has just taken the freedom of being paid for one’s visual expressions up a notch. 

Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.
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