Feelings dominate in the second Klein Karoo National Arts Festival Virtual Gallery. DIANE DE BEER chats to the curator Dineke van der Walt about the moods she hoped to capture in Feel/Voel, with artistic director Hugo Theart adding his impressions:

Emotion (Curator Dr Paul Bayliss , Absa Gallery)

The Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK) was the first of the arts festivals to be impacted by Covid-19 last year.

Announcements of the country’s first lockdown came crashing down during the last weekend of the Woordfees (Stellenbosch) only a couple of weeks before the start of the 2020 KKNK.

It was a huge blow and while we are much more adept at adapting almost 18 months later, at the time festival managements were reeling and artists were trying to work out how they would earn a living without live performances.

Thinking on their feet, Artistic Director of the KKNK Hugo Theart and his young first-time festival art curator Dineke van der Walt realised that they could create a virtual art gallery of the 11 exhibitions which were already on their way to Oudtshoorn at that time.

And it worked! Following the huge success of last year’s first Virtual Gallery, supported by Absa, they have flung open their “doors” for a second time running.

They had tested it almost on the run the first time round, but this year they had the experience of the first effort, which had been richly rewarded. And this time they could work with a digital endgame from the beginning.

“It is a privilege to be able to offer such a fantastic range of visual art to art enthusiasts in the comfort of their homes for the second time,” says Theart. “Van der Walt is again the curator of this gallery having won a Fiësta Award for her work on last year’s virtual gallery.”

This time round, the gallery showcases of six exhibitions with a total of 260 works by 83 artists from far and wide across South Africa, as well as from Zimbabwe, Taiwan, America, Ghana, Mauritius, Kenya, Iran, and Namibia, with many artists from the Klein Karoo and Garden Route region, which is also the festival’s home ground.

The theme of this year’s gallery is Voel/Feel. “This collection of exhibitions presents a wonderful opportunity for us to see, feel and understand more about the way we experience and process feelings and emotions. My hope is that viewers will find the experience enriching and exciting,” she says. 

If you think about it, just midding in the meantime (or) Progression (Curator Fadzai Muchemwa)

The six exhibitions are: Emotion (Emosie),compiled by Absa with Dr Paul Bayliss as curator,Feeling Things, compiled by Donavan Mynhardt, Paint. Verf., compiled by Johan Myburg, If you think about it, just midding in the meantine (or) progression, compiled by Fadzai Muchemwa, Something Pauses, compiled by Christa Swart and Amplifica: A Medley of Moods in Miniature, compiled by Van der Walt herself.

“Since we built the platform last year, we have received valuable feedback from our visitors regarding what worked. So this year we had the opportunity to focus on aspects we couldn’t introduce last year. The artworks are, for instance, available on our e-commerce platform making it much easier to acquire. 

“Having the virtual architecture in place for our gallery was also beneficial for curators, who could select work that would present well in the virtual rooms. This however didn’t stop us from experimenting. I believe it’s important to continue exploring ways to present works and mediums that might be regarded as too difficult for digital platforms, even if it’s not yet clear how to do so.”

All artworks, she believes though, need to be seen. There are miniature artworks, three-dimensional sculptures and ceramics (Feeling Things), as well as primarily paintings (Paint.Verf. ), or digital artworks (Emotion) and works on paper (Progression). “We’re exploring how these different mediums interact with the overarching theme of emotions, but also how various mediums present online,” she notes.

And especially  from a digital perspective, I have sometimes found these works difficult to view as part of a more conventional exhibition because it breaks the rhythm of the viewing process. But here, it can be seen as a stand-alone exhibition and because it is digital, it makes sense to view it online.

Talking about the theme of the exhibition, Van der Walt feels there’s a striking irony in titling the virtual gallery VOEL/FEEL and presenting various material textures of artworks that viewers are unable to access through touch. “For me, this presents a playful opportunity for unpacking the possibilities of art as an emotional access point or a way of finding an emotional connection with others – even when it is presented digitally and virtually.”

It was particularly important for them to continue to expand and optimise the user experience of the virtual gallery started last year.

“I have noticed many people shifting focus and looking inward, considering the emotional impact that the outside world has on them. With this in mind, I wanted to select a theme that could be both meaningful – a way for viewers to contemplate their inner emotional lives – and that would allow playfulness. After all, emotions are not all dark and challenging, they can be light-hearted as well,” she reminds us.

In these times she specifically aimed for balance in the emotions explored because she wanted an equal playing field for both positive and challenging emotions. “Too often we regard the one as more important than the other. We might feel pressured to be happy all the time, or consider the ‘tortured artist’ exploring her/his dark emotions as more intellectual or powerful than light-hearted approaches.

“There’s certainly immense value in both, but I don’t think specific emotions can be regarded as more complex or important than others. We need the variety in that medley of moods we experience from time to time. Placing too great an emphasis on feeling happy, for instance, disregards the necessity of other emotions. Similarly, focussing on dealing with challenging emotions ignores that emotions can be shaped by our thoughts and how we choose to guide our attention,” she argues.

Her hope and her aim was for artists, curators and viewers to explore the fascinating complexity of our emotional lives. “There is so much that we can still learn about our own feelings, and we do this best when learning from one another.

“In observing how others express their emotions, we can learn to understand our own. We shape each other, and heighten the role that emotions play collectively. And while we cannot connect to people in all the ways we did before, art can be a form of exchange. It becomes our meeting place.”

This is even more important than before, and art also benefits from being seen virtually and in everyone’s own time and at an  individual pace.

Ilene Bothma’s Displacement (She Felt her Heart Sinking to her Feet)(Emotion)

There are many ways to view the work, and the gallery encourages individuals to find their personal preference. On the website viewers can get a quick visual overview of each exhibition and read more about each artist, curator and artwork.

There’s an option to view each individual artwork in full screen, where one can also zoom in to see more detail. This allows you to get closer to inspect a work than you probably might in brick-and-mortar gallery spaces.

“Being able to zoom in is especially helpful when viewing the miniature artworks of Amplifica, and also specifically when viewing Paint.Verf. curated by Johan Myburg – an exhibition that centres on the medium itself.” 

Each exhibition is also curated in a virtual room, showcasing the works in relation to each other, as artworks in dialogue encourage fascinating themes to emerge. In the virtual room for Emotion, viewers can watch video and sound artworks in their own time but also as often as they choose.

It’s also insightful to listen to the audio walkabouts of the curators when virtually ‘walking through the spaces’. Language choices are also available.

“In many ways, the virtual experience empowers viewers to construct their own ideal viewing experience,” says Van der Walt. And that is true. You have the choice to view in exactly the circumstances that are personally ideal.

In conclusion, Theart notes there is something for everyone in these exhibitions, with fantastic artworks on sale from only R500. “Absa customers also receive a 10% discount on their purchases as a bonus.”

Visit the KKNK Virtual Gallery, supported by Absa, at until the end of August 2021.