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CETSHWAYO PORTRAIT WINNER (article first published : 2003-03-9)

Helene Train of Cape Town has won the R100,000 King Cetshwayo Portrait commission run by the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg. Tatham director Brendan Bell made the announcement at a press conference recently. The decision was made by an "overwhelming majority" of the selection panel.

Speaking on the phone from Cape Town - she was unable to get to KZN for the announcement as flights were full of cricket fans Helene Train expressed great excitement at winning and said she "can't wait" to get started. An admirer of Victorian painting, she has painted portraits in the style of Franz Winterhalter and the new portrait is to be a companion piece to the gallery's massive copy of Winterhalter's coronation portrait of Queen Victoria.

The selection panel were the members of the gallery's acquisitions committee Brendan Bell, Malcolm Christian of the Caversham Press, Juliette Leeb du Toit of the Centre for Visual Art on the local university campus, art teacher Valerie Maggs and Suren Naidoo, the vice chairman of the gallery's board of trustees - and five invited judges who were asked to participate on the basis of their knowledge of Zulu culture and matters pertaining to the royal household. They were Dr Godshero Donda, a school principal from the Gingindlovu district; Dr Reginald Khumalo of Radio Ukhozi FM; Professor Jabulani Maphalala of Emandulo Consulting; Sibongiseni Mkhize, director of the Voortrekker Museum and Professor Caesar Ndlovu, Managing Director of the Playhouse Company.

Paintings were identified by number rather than name to keep the process as fair as possible.

Hlene Train has been asked to make certain changes to the finished work for cultural reasons. Both the leopard skin cloak and the shield will have to be removed and it must be made plain that the king is sitting at the front rather than the rear of his hut. In the finished portrait, he will wear a beshu, a lions' claw necklace and an ungiyane (headring).

Brendan Bell said the slightly old-world feel of Train's entry was something people would relate to readily, particularly those without formal training in visual literacy who might have been uncomfortable with a more modern style. He also said the panel felt entries which took a more Africanist approach to the portrait would not translate comfortably to the size required.

Referring to a number of letters that have appeared in the Natal Witness criticising the choice of finalists, Bell said he had been expecting controversy but was surprised by the thrust of the criticism. "The letters I have seen suggest disatisfaction with the selection from a particular artist who appears to be orchestrating the letter campaign," he said. "I was expecting, and hoping for, more public discussion of the fact that none of the finalists was black."

Tatham education officer Mduduzi Xakaza said complaints about the all-white line-up of finalists had been voiced at the exhibition opening and were still being heard, even if not in letters' columns. "One artist has said that the whole process should be brought to an end, and has made accusations of corruption against the panel," he said.

"I tried to explain to him that I felt the selection was done in a very fair manner," said Xakaza who went on to discuss the whole question of black artists and the competition, saying that black communities have been deprived of opportunities to study art at all levels. "But I do not feel the selection process was unfair," he said. "The entries by black artists are informed by the deprivations of the past, and that is a reality for now."

Bell agreed with Xakaza's assessement and said, while he is encouraged that so many artists had the courage to take part in the competition, he hopes the situation for black artists and art teachers will be highlighted by the competiton and taken up by the education authorities.

The completed portrait is due to be unveiled on November 13 this year. Margaret von Klemperer




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