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A Portrait of a Young Artist Series: The prolific nature of Rhodes Fine Art Students

Text by Dave Mann. Photographs by Niamh Walsh-Vorster. Posted on November 14, 2014.

The Rhodes University fine art students arenít really seen all that much throughout the year. Besides popping up for a few smaller exhibitions, theyíre generally perceived as spending all of their free time sitting in front of canvases tentatively painting away, behind laptops tweaking multimedia works, or hunched over worktables in paint splattered, cluttered, studios. Then the Rhodes Fine Art Graduate Exhibition takes place towards the end of the year and reminds us that the art kids most definitely have a presence here in Grahamstown.

With works exhibited in galleries and venues all along Somerset street and up at Fort Selwyn and the 1820 Settlerís Monument, it was hard to ignore the sheer volume of work at this yearís exhibition. 19 students showcased their art across the walking tour style exhibition. Starting at the Rhodes University School of Art, the crowd enjoyed a few glasses of wine before Head of the Fine Art department Dominic Thorburn gave a short speech congratulating his students and acknowledging their four years of hard work. After picking up an exhibition map and grabbing a quick glass for the road, I hurried off with the rest of the crowd in search of our favourite works of art.

Jennifer Ball, 31 January 1972 (Photo by Niamh Walsh-Vorster)

The School of Art served as the first set of exhibitions, one of which was a series of memorial type works. Entitled 31 January 1972, Jennifer Ballís body of work focussed on a car crash which saw her lose two sisters she was never able to meet, and the subsequent effects the accident had on her family. Metallic balloons, empty photo frames, childlike hands, and overflowing shelves of empty pill trays told a tale of loss, innocence, and tragedy. A particularly striking piece was a chronological series of paper thin, intricately detailed moulds of Ballís motherís chest which was crushed in the same accident that inspired Ballís work. Her piece served as a reminder that these public works of art can be personal and intimate aspects of the artistsí lives and set the tone for a prolific tour of student produced artwork.

Next up was the Albany Natural Sciences Museum which played host to Matt Hazellís Chronology and Callan Greciaís Black Mirror. Hazellís works were inspired by a photograph which he saw in his fatherís office called The Blue Marble. A young Hazell subsequently became fascinated with the concept of dimensions that were beyond his grasp. Detailed portraits of astronauts and space crafts, whimsical, delicate paintings of the earth from space, and painstakingly pen dotted images of the globe showcased Hazellís diversity and did well to reproduced his personal grappling with time, space, and the metaphysical mystery.

Matt Hazell, Chronology (Photo by Niamh Walsh-Vorster)

Greciaís work dealt with something that most young exhibition goers could relate to- social media and online identities in the modern age. Painted translations of images found on the web which varied in size covered the walls of Albanyís Cube Gallery while the artistís main idea, the Black Mirror sat positioned in the centre of the gallery flickering images of social networks across its surface. The use of venue was perfectly suited to his work. The onslaught of social media symbols and widely circulated popular culture images presented in such a confined space forced you to engage with and reflect on Greciaís concept.

The Albany History Museum held most of the studentís works which ranged from translated family photographs, to paintings, multimedia works, and delicate tissue paper drawings. Stand out pieces were definitely Cal Thompsonís Face Value and Dun Lourencoís After Midnight.

Drawn in by the distinct sounds of Thompsonís work, I went to find out the story behind the many mounted faces and equations accompanying the music. By combining her passions for portraiture, mathematics, and music, Thompsonís Face Value managed to accurately portray the musical appearance of peopleís faces. Through photographing various Grahamstown musicians, developing her own hybrid musical/mathematical formula, and applying it to the portraits, Thompson was able to create the relevant music and essentially determine the sound of an individualís face. Her exhibition drew a lingering and enthralled audience.

Lourencoís body of work was comprised of expansive landscape paintings which represented the differing stages of grief. Through different techniques, compositions, colours, and passionate brushwork, Lourenco beautifully captured each emotional phase. Stand out pieces where the twisted green vines that made up the depression landscape, the tranquil and oddly calming blue tones that formed the feelings of guilt, and the dreamlike hydrangeas that exploded in numerous delicate colours representing release and resolution.

Lindsay Purdon, Indelible (Photo by Niamh Walsh-Vorster)

The long walk up to the 1820 Settlers Monument was the last stop on the exhibition and was made well worth the trouble by Lindsay Purdonís Indelible. By offering up her own experiences with anxiety and depression, Purdon combined trauma theory and personal stories into a visual representation of the effects of traumatic events. Manipulated, distorted family photographs showed how memories can be moulded together and distorted whilst crudely stitched together X ray images of brain activity spoke of the more clinical aspects of trauma. The body of work was tied together nicely by being presented on light tables, giving the pieces a macabre, medical atmosphere.

Toni Claytonís wonderfully nostalgic Sky Blossom lightened things up by taking over the sizeable Side Stage venue and transforming it into a fanciful, childlike playground. An open parachute crafted from strips of material suspending an old arm chair took up centre stage while blossoms created from old family photographs surrounded the piece. An old dollhouse projected against the back wall re enforced the element of childhood and added to the touching tribute of Claytonís grandparents and their background in craftsmanship.

Toni Clayton, Sky Blossom (Photo by Niamh Walsh-Vorster)

Having avoided the long line into the Botanical Gardens on my initial attempt, my last stop saw me visiting Kiara Watermeyerís Language of Trees as one of the last, lucky participants. What started off as an informative audio tour of the flora in Grahamstownís Botanical Gardens ended off with the dark reminder that much of Grahamstownís history is forged in the blood of countless marginalised individuals. Considering the fact that the Rhodes School of Fine Art is the oldest art school in the country, it was great to see that dedication to tradition and history in the exhibition.

For many of the artists, this exhibition was the first time that they had had their work exhibited individually in such a public manner- an initiation of sorts before they enter the world as professional artists. If the Rhodes Fine Art School continues to produce students that create art with this much dedication, passion, and thought provoking content, then itís safe to say that the future of the South African arts scene is looking rather good.

Dave Mann is a freelance arts writer who is currently studying journalism at Rhodes University.


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