/ 15 February 2024

Brush off traditional views of art

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Helen Teede’s A Virtual Flowering, CeLaFaremo2

The Investec Cape Town Art Fair, acronymed ICTAF, has a reputation of being the most influential art fair in Africa. 

Lagos and Joburg will certainly argue, but in the art world, where size often matters, their Cape Town cousin is most certainly the continent’s largest. 

Boasting more than 500 exhibiting artists from four continents, its 11th edition is on from 16 to 18 February. It is titled Unbound and the main event over this weekend will again be held in the city’s cavernous international convention centre.

While a key part of the art fair experience includes careening from booth to booth after one too many glasses of complimentary champagne, the fair has more to offer than just memories, the visual quality of which is reminiscent of a GoPro strapped to an overzealous Labrador. 

When entering, one is overcome by the animated chatter that echoes throughout the large hall and the maze of colourful artworks that make one wonder where to even begin — sensory overload in the best way possible. 

Walkabout groups wearing headphones and led by some of the top curators in the country can be seen clustered around various booths and ambling through the winding maze of the fair. 

The solo booth section, titled Loopholes in the Walls of Darkness, explores a common question — how has painting endured as the behemoth of the art market, despite its reputation as the unhip grandfather of media? 

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NomThunzi Mashalaba’s Work in Progress

Curated by the respected art critic, curator and writer Sean O’Toole, the work of several hand-picked artists addresses this phenomenon. 

With the rise of ever-evolving Instagrammable digital art and new cutting-edge techniques, what makes painting stand apart from the rest? 

Painting remains the top-selling medium in the global art market, with the 10 most expensive works on auction last year all being paintings, fetching a combined total of $781 million (roughly R1.5 billion). 

To O’Toole, who sees himself perhaps as less of a traditional curator and more a visual orator, painting is in a constant state of reinvention. 

“Painting has always had to kind of reassert itself — there’s always a cooler medium emerging — but paintings hold value. You might have a flowering of NFTs or a flowering of photography, it might be a bouquet of sculpture, but generally paintings have held their values,” he comments.

Loopholes in the Walls of Darkness is made up of nine artists, predominantly of South African origin, as well as from Iran, Egypt and Zimbabwe. 

Unlike last year, when the solo booths were scattered throughout the fair, this year’s soloists will be placed next to one another. 

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Helen Teede’s work is being exhibited at the Investec Art Fair Unbound in Cape Town.

Some of the choices might seem unusual for a section ostensibly exploring the history and prospective future of painting, such as the textile works of Eastern Cape artist nomThunzi Mashalaba. 

This apparent contradiction is not lost on O’Toole: “The textiles that she’s exhibiting directly refer to the pattern-making of her paintings, so there’s this continuity.” 

O’Toole rejects the purist approach to both painting and curating, opting instead to explore the interconnectedness of various artistic practices. 

“Would someone who has a traditional definition of painting agree with me? Probably not. But maybe I’m not really trying to appeal to that person. I’m trying to look at painting in an expanded sense.” 

Despite this deviation from the strict definition of the medium, there are some more traditional painters included in the solo line-up. 

This includes Helen Teede, known for her exploration of painting as a living medium, and as something that is dynamic, responsive and intimately linked to its surroundings, as opposed to a static and isolated form of expression. 

The paintings of Maja Marx will also be on display. Her work contains intricate details and complex optical illusions, the likes of which cannot be fully experienced and understood from mere photographs. 

Notably, the youngest artist in the line-up is 26-year-old Mmangaliso Nzuza, whose work draws inspiration from traditional cubists. Using bold brushstrokes and thick swathes of oil paint, Nzuza gives his figures a unique depth and intricacy, creating his own visual language through which he explores the sombre, introspective states of his characters. 

Loopholes in the Walls of Darkness is just one of the four carefully curated sections of the fair that fit into the broader “unbound” theme. 

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Mmangaliso Nzuza’s work is also being exhibited at the Investec Art Fair Unbound in Cape Town.

The Tomorrows/Today section hosts artworks selected by renowned Spanish curator Mariella Franzoni  and features 12 underrepresented artists whose work addresses the future of art in the digital age. 

The latest addition to the fair’s curated section is Generations, which creates space to facilitate intergenerational conversations between artists in various stages of their careers. 

The project focuses on the work of artists who confront the failures of the past and strive to envision a future that harnesses creativity across all generations. 

The final curated section of the fair is titled Alt. It challenges curatorial norms through exploring the concept of the “anti-booth” and gives younger project spaces a platform to showcase their non-traditional modes of exhibition-making. 

Each of these unique sections leaves the viewer, with their conventional views of art, exhibition-making, and curating, unbound.