Only after I engaged with the winner and runner-up statements following the award ceremony of the Sasol New Signatures 2021, did I realise what stood out most in this second pandemic year was that many of the winning works – especially these two winning pieces – were equally issue-driven and creatively excellent.
What seemed to inspire many of the artists was their engagement with particular issues and ideas that are important to them.
DIANE DE BEER
For example, the winner, Andrea du Plessis, is especially inspired by the natural world at a time when heated discussions about climate change are dominating universally. It’s as if someone has flicked the switch and the world’s leaders are taking it seriously for the first time.
And part of this awareness is the result of not only the young but also the artists around the world who are using their creative voices to focus on this particular narrative. As the winner, Du Plessis walks away with a cash prize of R100 000 and the opportunity to have a solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum in 2022.
The runner-up, Dalli Weyers, describes himself as an artist/activist and his manifesto has been activated to draw attention to the gross inequality (and everything which follows that) in the world today. He won R25 000.
No one can be happy with the absence of humanity seen everywhere we turn. Often those in power are all about greed while ignoring the people they were elected to serve. It’s as if there is a lack of understanding of why they were given the power. But more and more people are standing up for what they believe is right – and at the forefront are the artists.
For this year’s winner, it was her fourth attempt at entering the prestigious competition and, with her work being selected for the first time, she grabbed a win.
But then, Du Plessis’s narrative about her life and her art points to determination and drive. Not only could she not finish her fine arts course at the University of Pretoria because of financial problems but she also suffered from clinical depression.
For seven years after dropping out, she had very little interest in making art. Yet during this time she decided to travel to the UK where she worked for four years and also enrolled for a course in art therapy which slowly pulled her back into making art.
She returned to South Africa in 2010 (to Pretoria, where she was born and spent most of her formative years) and later enrolled for a degree in Multimedia Digital Visual Art at Unisa.
In 2015, she moved to Cape Town where she works from her studio as a freelance designer, illustrator and multimedia artist.
Describing her winning work, she says Paloceae Lupantozoa is part of a body of work called Supernature. “It was created in 2020 as part of my final year work for Unisa. It is a personal response to being in lockdown, which triggered a deep questioning and exploration of our complex relationship with nature in an augmented age, and how our access to the natural world has changed over the centuries.
“The work aims to create a link between art historical representations of nature (18th century, Romantic landscape painting) and contemporary representations of nature (new media such as augmented reality and artificial intelligence).The work is multi-faceted but, in short, I wanted to work with the notion of the sublime (experienced through nature and technology) and interconnectedness (in both the natural world and digital media).”
It’s a complex work that has to be experienced in real life to fully understand what she’s playing with. It’s also a response to the pandemic and lockdown, which had a huge impact on her and her work. “I’m privileged to have had a little garden to hang out in during lockdown and this really became a sanctuary as I began noticing all the insects and birds going about their day.”
While she was uncomfortable because of the isolation of lockdown, she also views the time as a “necessary metamorphosis” for which she is now grateful. “My research also involved biomimicry and I was reminded of the fact that nature is the ultimate engineer. As a ‘superior species’ we have so much more to learn and discover. We don’t exist on this planet in isolation. Everything is interconnected. That is the message I want to bring through my work.”
She describes herself as a multidisciplinary artist because she enjoys working with a very wide range of traditional (painting, sculpture, drawing) and new media (videoart, augmented reality and AI-generated art).
“I find it difficult to choose and specialise in only one medium. I need variety, and each medium carries its own meaning conceptually. My process is usually very layered and I like to combine several types of media into something new.”
Thinking ahead with her eye on next year’s solo exhibition as part of her prize, she is researching flower anatomy, metaphysics and virtual reality. “Hopefully 2022 will offer new possibilities to produce and exhibit my work,” she said before knowing she was the winner.
Well, it certainly will, and for her solo exhibition she envisions something immersive, meditative and surreal. In the world she creates with her art, that certainly predicts something extraordinary and exciting!
For the runner-up, Dalli Weyers, it was also a long and winding road – this was his third attempt.
And viewing the work, his voice was the one I was intrigued to explore. He explains best: “To date, my professional career can be characterised by a tension between my creative impulses and my commitment to social justice and progressive activism. I’ve consistently looked to find ways in which to bring these seemingly disparate elements together and to further my appreciation of, and to make concrete, the role and contributions creative voices and my own creativity can make to society.
“In the words of James Baldwin, I am at this point in my artistic journey because I believe ‘… the role of the artist (activist) is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see’.”
Influenced, encouraged and supported by friends, this activist/artist “rails against the crass individualism that has come to define so much of our politics over the last few decades and the concomitant loss of community of intent, purpose and inclusion.
“My politics appreciates the need for commonality to be found and fostered in order to rally progressive causes. The piece I created serves to start a dialogue around a clear set of principles that a community of creative voices needs to articulate in order to chart a course to a more just and equal society.”
Working during the pandemic by using unconventional materials readily available at home, his art practice under lockdown resembled a cottage industry. His intent was also to attempt to avoid an idealised, romanticised picture of scarcity and of individual, privileged domestic idyll.
“My anxieties often manifest in visions of apocalyptic doom. This work is in response to a world that was already on fire prior to the pandemic and to which the pandemic has simply been fuel to fire.”
The use of plastic bags can be traced back to previous works in ceramics where the relative fragility of ceramics was highlighted through the use of various plastics to bind cracked and broken ceramic pieces.
“I’m weary of using mediums in my work that on their own do not convey a sense of the moment we find ourselves in. In my mind, ubiquitous plastic bags stitched together, fragile and in a way impermanent (they disintegrate but do not decompose), are illustrative of the real world and the social conditions we live in that are a product of history and our intent in this moment.”
In these crazy and troubled times, Weyers is determined to make his voice heard. He believes his work has impact because it touches on the notion of the art of innovation both in the cultural sphere and in the broader society. “I believe my use of plastic bags as the sole medium is innovative and that it is furthered because the plastic is enlisted to embroider.” Again it is a work that has to be seen, and the manifesto read slowly to let the message seep in, and then look at the work and the way it was made.
And for me, that is really what these two winning works capture – innovation in a time of lockdown, which was both challenging and seemingly a great source of inspiration and innovation.
The Sasol New Signatures Art Competition exhibition, featuring the work of the 2021 winners and finalists is currently underway at the Pretoria Art Museum until 9 January 2022. A total of 123 works in a multitude of mediums can be viewed – from traditional painting and drawing to mixed media works, sculpture, installation pieces and video.
The 5 Merit winners were:
Nico Athene (Cape Town)
Cultivating our Unbecoming: with Gabrielle Youngleson and Johno Mellish (2021)
Michèle Deeks (Pretoria)
Sibaninzi Dlatu (Umtata)
A story of resiliency
Fired clay (bisque)
Eugene Mthobisi Hlophe (Durban)
The new crazy normal
Monica Klopper (Pretoria)
Shed snake skin and epoxy
Each Merit Award winner received a R10 000 cash prize.
Alongside the exhibition, the 2019 winner, Patrick Rulore’s solo exhibition, Stage 4 moments is also on show. His exhibition captures typical moments in many South African households during load shedding. The series explores human connections against the backdrop of an ephemeral world of light and shadow.
Pretoria Art Museum
Corner Francis Baard and Wessels Street
Tel: 012 358 6750
Tuesday to Sundays: 10am to 5pm.
Closed on Mondays and public holidays
Both exhibitions can also be viewed virtually on the Sasol New Signatures website. This virtual 3D platform gives you high definition 360 degrees access to all the artworks from wherever you are.