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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

SPIER CONTEMPORARY 2007 (article first published : 2008-02-15)

Two thousand, two hundred works were submitted for the Spier Contemporary 2007 exhibition, a hundred chosen. What do we learn about the process and about the state of the art of the nation today?

Clive van den Berg in his introduction says that on previous occasions when he did a countrywide selection and review of artists’ work for the Brett Kebble Exhibition, “the dominant subject was the mutant body, bodies altered by fear, resentment, disease, abuse, neglect, or, one sensed, an uncertainty about how to fit in. The experience of fitting into a country that is radically altered and changing its norms, or re-stating repressed norms, all seemed to find expression in representations often characterized by a kind of linguistic clash, an abrasive “fanakalo”, which was at times frightening but which nevertheless promised much in its capacity to break linear sense.” He observes that “the body is still a subject for many artists” here.

Choosing works for such an exhibition from own experience depends on the dynamics which develop between selectors and, from any group of work submitted, a number of different exhibitions could result. It is an organic process in which one does not come with a list of criteria but rather with an open mind. However, “there was always a core of works that all on the selection panel felt should be included,” and that though “the core did not shift much, the constellations around it changed in scale and detail.”

It is fascinating to read that “Nelson Mandela is undiminished as a popular subject” to such an extent that “a large exhibition could have been assembled around” the man himself, “showing how he is conduit of many desires” However there has been a shift “from early rainbow nation optimism” which he symbolizes“ to a subtler series of feelings, less declamatory and threaded with doubt, if not cynicism: the popular and positive sit beside depictions of deep pessimism about child abuse and other forms of violence.”

My over-riding sense from looking at these works in their multitude of languages and styles and attitudes, is that art really does matter here and at this time. In more established and in older nations, art has lost much of its potency. As it has become more and more clever, and less and less stimulating, it tends to become just another form of distraction and entertainment. Artists rightly feel that they can alter perceptions and shape the future.

The creative mind has always thrived in times of change when values are in flux and when everything seems possible, and our artists here provide us with images of ourselves that are sometimes unnerving, challenging, frequently uncomfortable, but always honest. It is wiser thus to consult our artists and poets if we want the truth, than politicians and others in power who have agendas that are often self-serving and suspect.

One could ask for no finer thermometer of the health of our country than this 268 page collection of words and images.

The catalogue of the Spier Contemporary Exhibition: Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban 2007 / 08 is published by the Africa Centre. - Andrew Verster




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