With recent high sales at international auctions, a boom in the number of gallery spaces in the region, and an influx of talented graduates in the creative industries, some people have claimed that a fine art renaissance is under way in South Africa.
The South African art scene has struggled for decades with a lack of institutional and financial backing. As a result, there have been very few fine artists of note recognised on the global art scene. William Kentridge is the only South African artist whose name appears next to several zeros at auction houses in New York and London. While prices at auction are still relatively low, a few well-known collectors have been spotted in galleries across the country, and independent buyers have supported recent galleries showcasing South African art at some of the world’s biggest galleries including the Tate Modern.
South African art is renowned for a mix of European and African traditions. With this dynamic heritage, it’s only natural that the arts explore varied ways to create and promote their work alongside 21st century technology: finding new expression through sculpture, photography, paint and digital multimedia.
With new ways to market and express their work, many other South African artists are exploring themes – locally and globally – in meaningful and innovative ways.
But has this contributed to the rise of South African art more broadly? We have the artists themselves answer that question…
“Certainly, I believe South African art is on the rise. I think the recent record sales of old South African modernists (Maggie Laubser, Pierneef, Alexis Preller, Stern, and Jean Welz) on the international auction markets show global interest in the SA art market. Now, artists such as Kentridge, Dumas, Rhode and Ballen are taking international acclaim.
“With global interest shown in contemporary South African art, there is a way forward for South African artists creating their own local and international markets.
“It is up to the artists to create profiles on electronic media to promote their work. I for one have been approached by multi-national corporations in China, India and the USA for commissions to be housed in their corporate offices/collections – interesting, no corporations from SA (private investors, yes!). It’s up to the artist to get their work out into the World Wide Web, as they cannot rely only on local commercial galleries to promote their work.”
“As both an artist and a gallery owner, I feel there is a definite new-found interest in South African art by an international audience, as we are increasingly represented at International Art Fairs and Biennials. Unfortunately, it is rather difficult for South African artists to participate and attend these events. This is due to our weak Rand (South African currency), the distance for shipping, and lack of support for the arts from our government. However, I feel South African artists have a fresh approach – with vibrant colouring and emotions – that can be an attribute towards the international art scene.”
“I think we have had to work so hard to be seen and heard that we could not but get better at making art. There is so much excellent art in South Africa that the real art lovers and collectors are looking at us. South Africa has a long and great tradition of painting and sculpture. I have had experience of showing and selling work in South Africa and overseas, and this also helps to create interest in the work. Technology has also helped to get our art seen elsewhere in the world.”
‘About Face’ (oil on canvas)
“South Africa has an amazing mixture of cultures that work to produce exciting works of art. This ranges from the very personal to striking political pieces. It seems like the overseas market has taken notice, and that the market within South Africa has strengthened – although it is still a relatively small one. Painting and sculpture are very much alive. Growing up in Stellenbosch was a great privilege, since the arts are respected here. The past few years have seen a great increase in the interest in sculpture since the town has made an effort to include contemporary sculptures in communal areas and encourage gallery visits. Art is more accessible to more people, which means more support and growth.”
“My art is about my life experience: what’s happening around me and what’s touching me emotionally. Art is commitment and hard work – loving what you do and enjoying it. Practice is key and I explore to find something different that makes each element unique.”
“In recent years I’ve been spending less time focusing on the gallery scene and more time on integrating art into strategic public and advocacy driven exhibitions. Particularly in the last eighteen months, I’ve noticed an increase in interest to generate debate through creative media on various platforms.
“With the flood of media that we are subjected to these days I think the only way anything will make an impact is to innovate on presentation of our stories, experiences and opinions. It’s an exciting time to be in the industry.”
“I personally do believe the art scene in South Africa is on the rise. I think we have a large body of artists that produce artworks of excellent quality, in a great variety of mediums and disciplines.
“There have been many exhibitions that I have visited over the last couple of years where I have been super impressed with the excellence and creativity displayed. It also seems to me that the public is becoming more “art aware” and more individuals are starting to invest in artworks, or buy for pleasure. This is largely due to initiatives such as Cape Town’s “First Thursdays” where a large group of galleries have collaborated to open their galleries and have new work up on every first Thursday evening of the month.
‘Risk Taker 2’, oil on canvas
“I think South Africa has a long way to go in getting more involved in the art scene internationally, but it is definitely happening and I believe increasing. It seems to me that overseas art enthusiasts are becoming more interested in South African art. And I hope that more opportunities will open up for us to partake in international exhibitions.
“Institutional and governmental assistance for artists in South Africa is minimal. When there is assistance, it seems to be aimed at such a small group of practicing artists – mainly those that do public and community projects. So that leads me to conclude that the rise of the South African art scene can mainly be contributed to the initiative of passionate individuals and private art enterprises. Overall I am very positive about the art scene in South Africa, and am excited to be a part of it.”
All images featured can be accredited entirely to the artists.