DIANE DE BEER
The arts have been reeling from Covid19 from the word go especially as it all began locally right at the start of the festival season when many artists earn the bulk of their bread and butter money.
It’s been a frantic scramble for artists to find a way to function in this new world and as many of us realise, this (which we don’t yet understand in its fullest) is the new normal. Awful phrase, but we might as well get used to it because it is what it is and even though Donald Trump is trying his best to ignore the many dying from the virus, the whole world has had to reinvent and find a way to start functioning again.
In the arts, it has been fascinating to watch because this is what artists do – they reinvent themselves – but for some like visual artists, it is perhaps an easier process. They’re not quite as dependent on live audiences in close proximity as actors and musicians for example.
With this in mind, the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK) was quick to react.
Their festival, which would have been held at the end of March, like all those following, had to be cancelled and they are still scratching their heads about how to proceed in the future.
But what became pretty obvious fairly soon was that they could create a virtual art gallery of the 11 exhibitions which were on their way to Oudtshoorn just as the festival was closed down.
“We are extremely excited to launch the first Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK) Virtual Gallery, where art enthusiasts from all over the world will now have the opportunity to engage with the festival’s visual arts exhibitions,” explained Hugo Theart, Artistic Director of the KKNK.
Theart says the festival has built a reputation for its extraordinary visual arts exhibitions over two decades and this year has encouraged them to take the virtual leap. “Although the cancelation of the 2020 festival due to the current Covid-19 pandemic remains a great disappointment, we are excited about this new digital experience”, he says.
And that’s exactly the thing. In this new world artists have to get creative and find new ways to do their work.
As chance and luck should have it, their brand-new visual arts curator, Dineke van der Walt, is young and probably grew up in a digital world. She was excited about the possibilities of this virtual gallery and says that in the future it can only get better. What it does is allow an international as well as local audience to visit this year’s art contribution with the theme Down to Earth.
According to Van der Walt, art can be viewed and bought directly in the Virtual Gallery. “Festivalgoers, art enthusiasts and collectors now have the opportunity to roam the digital halls of our visual arts programme, viewing the splendour of 11 exhibitions without the crowds. The offering includes works from 45 artists and more than 200 artworks”, she explains.
And she’s not exaggerating. Even though the exhibitions weren’t created with the digital space in mind, the curator and artists have been extremely creative, finding a unique way to show the work in a way that works specifically with each individual exhibition.
Running through the different exhibitions, Van der Walt points to a few talented young curators, including Amé Bell, Tammy Langtry, Tlotlo Lobelo and Suen Muller. “Artists include Usha Seejarim, Lisl Barry, Manyaku Mashilo, Strijdom van der Merwe, Heidi Fourie, Linda Ballen, Zhi Zulu, Olivia Botha, Ronél de Jager, JP Hanekom, Keneilwe Mokoena, Maryna Cotton, Sarel van Staden, Owen Claassen, Vincent Osemwegie and Nanette Ranger – as well as a collaborative exhibition between Jenna Burchell, Jaco van Schalkwyk and Wayne Matthews”, she says.
She notes that artworks by three young artists from Oudtshoorn are also presented by the Absa Gallery. Colin Meyer, Zietske Saaiman and Earlyn Cloud.
“A highlight of this project is a remarkable retrospective of this year’s festival artist, Barbara Wildenboer,” Van der Walt explains.
“Translating exhibitions which were planned for very specific brick and mortar spaces to the digital sphere proved to be specifically challenging,” she notes. A particular struggle was to find the best way to showcase installations as well as an interactive “sound painting”. “Due to the immersive and interactive qualities of these works, they are designed to be experienced by bodies in spaces,” she says.
“I also wanted to make sure the virtual rooms didn’t feel too empty and therefore thought it best to make as much information as possible available around the artworks and the exhibitions. The inclusion of the audio walkabouts also really helped to add voices to the spaces and give visitors accessible information delivered by the respective curator or artist. I enjoyed adding these different voices talking about their exhibitions in their own words – it helps add personality to each exhibition.
“I’m very interested in utilising curatorial strategies to effectively engage audiences and throughout the process tried to keep in mind how visitors might move in the space, and what could be included to facilitate a pleasant experience in the virtual gallery. I realised that different visitors might prefer different modes of viewing work online, and subsequently tried to include more than one way to access the work.”
And this is what I find particularly fascinating. Often at festivals, we don’t have an abundance of time to go through the different galleries and I find myself limited in the viewing experience because I haven’t done enough of homework.
Van der Walt has gone out of her way to make sure the exhibitions become alive with a fount of information to dip into.
She has also included a visitor’s book in an attempt to help put faces (“or rather names”) to the visitors, as a way to allow exhibitors and artists a form of interaction with their viewing audience.
“I enjoyed confronting my preconceived ideas of what curatorial strategies should and could be and considering what form presenting exhibitions might take when it solely exists digitally.
“It’s been a wonderful learning curve for me, especially working on creative ways to attract visitors and create a new exhibition experience. Because I don’t believe virtual exhibitions should merely try to imitate brick and mortar exhibitions, it can be a unique curatorial method.”
This is hugely exciting. The live experience can never be replaced by the digital world. It is important to play with the different strengths – not try to imitate, which is exactly what Van der Walt did.
She also pointed out that this had to happen after the fact. With this experience and (perhaps) in future doing both, the digital is simply going to go from strength to strength and enlarge rather than diminish future audiences.
“This initiative creates an important platform to visual artists to sell their work and generate an income from works that were created for the KKNK this year,” Theart says.
He adds that this will be the first of many exhibitions. “We believe this will become another KKNK institution which will add more value to our supporters and add more opportunities for visual artists in future.”
The first ever full scale KKNK Virtual Gallery is open at www.kknk.co.za and can be viewed until 22 July 2020.
It’s truly a spectacular experience.