The Absa L'Atelier, now in its 27th year, is rated as the longest-running and most influential art contest in the country. In a partnership between Absa and SANAVA (South African National Association of the Visual Arts), it is hosted annually with works from all over the country displayed at the Absa Art Gallery in Johannesburg. The awards pay homage to both established and emerging young local artists and their compelling artistic vision. The awards serves as a launch pad for a career in the visual arts and artists have the opportunity to make a mark on the South African contemporary art scene.
This year's theme is Art Child, the idea that creating art is like giving birth, it is a part of who you are. "The works produced showcased the individual creative journeys, inspirations and influences of our artists. A large proportion of the entries were personal reflections by the artists of how they viewed the world around them or those people that had positively impacted their world," Dr Paul Bayliss, curator of the Absa Art Gallery and Collection, explains. The selection panel, guided by Dirkie Offringa, received entries from Belville, Bloemfontein, Durban, Johannesburg, East London, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria, Nelspruit and Thohoyandou. The two winning pieces – Selective unveiling by Elrie Joubert and Mama Uyimbohodo II from Bambo Sibiya – took top honours as this year's overall winning work and recipient of the Gerard Sekoto Award respectively.
The finalists' exhibition held on the 18 July consists of 85 works by 77 artists that were judged as well-conceived conceptually and technically; artworks with a sense of engagement in discourses present in our society; and, artworks that display a confident use of material. The artworks were received with both criticism and appreciation. Some works did not offer something entirely new to its audience but praise can be given to the execution of the various mediums displayed. Bayliss stated that this year’s entries were a diverse mix of traditional media as well as a variety of quality prints and digital pieces. He believes the ABSA L'Atelier awards are a platform for young artists to be recognized and it pushes the artists out of their comfort zones.
The judges aimed to keep an open mind and to be as objective as possible and the tough challenge of choosing the winner was met on 3 May 2012. The winner had to be someone that would benefit fully from their experience abroad and that artist seemed to be Elrie Joubert.
Joubert was born in 1984 and studied BA(FA) at the University of the Free State. She graduated with an MFA from the same institution in 2010 and has participated in several exhibitions. Her work in mixed media Selective unveiling shows her private obsession with collecting scientific objects on her family’s farm near Brandfort. The collected objects of bones, plants, drawings and notes are arranged on a light-table. The work makes the private public through a small digital microscope connected to a projector that allows the audience to view her private collection. Joubert states that she came upon the idea when she was doing her Masters in Fine Arts. She chose the scientific subject that had captured her curiosity since she was a child. She says she was keen in collecting these artifacts, creating sketches and notes on where it was found so that it would not become lost in her memory. The combination of scientific information and aesthetic colour arrangement made the work stand out as a contemporary interpretation of a "cabinet of rarities". As part of her prize, Joubert won R110 000 in cash and a six-month sabbatical at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, France courtesy of Absa. The international exposure and financial support granted by these awards allows young and emerging artists to make an impact on the world of arts and to bring back their talent to South Africa.
She is currently completing works for a collaborative exhibition in New York with Brian Culler. The exhibition consists of contrasting objects from the cityscape of New York and the farmlands of the Free State. She is planning to embrace Paris once she returns from New York in February next year.
Bambo Sibiya is no stranger to the Absa L’Atelier awards. He participated in the 2010 and in 2011 where he was a Top 10 Finalist. Sibiya was born in 1986 and studied a three-year course in Printmaking at the Artist Proof Studio. His work Mama Uyimbohodo III, comprising of linocut, drypoint and embossing depicts portraits of women who have had an impact on his life, won him a merit award as well as the coveted Gerard Sekoto Award. It is awarded to the most promising artist with an income of less than R60 000 per annum. He won a three-month sabbatical at the Cité, French language classes and nationwide touring exhibitions all valued at R80 000, sponsored by the French Embassy, French Institute and the Alliance Française. His work celebrates the power of women and how they challenge and contribute to society.
A total of five Merit Awards were awarded, each artist receiving R25 000. In addition to Joubert and Sibiya, these winners included Mandy Johnston (Coir), Nina Liebenberg (Forest) and Heidi Janice Mielke (Have you any wool?).
The 2013 entries were also opened and new additions to next year’s awards were also announced. New awards to be added include a two-month residency at Slith in Germany and a one-month residency in New York expanding the international scope of the awards. Bayliss emphasised that the gallery and its partners did not merely want to give the artists money but want to have an impact on the artist’s lives. The artist’s work is influenced by his/her experiences and the residencies would grant artists interaction with their international peers, positively impacting their work. The Absa Art Gallery is increasingly active in identifying and promoting artists through the gallery and its various sponsorships. Bayliss stated that the gallery aims to supports the artists in different ways through granting the winners solo exhibitions at the gallery once they return from their residencies, assisting them in promoting their work and possibly adding their works into Absa’s corporate collection giving the artists a wider audience. Bayliss aims to extend the reach of their corporate collection and possibly tour the collection throughout the country in the future.
An exhibition of the top works will be on public display from 19 July to 23 August 2012 at the Absa Gallery, Upper Ground Level, Absa Towers North. Members of the public are requested to bring their ID books along for parking and entry purposes.
Photographs courtesy of Absa L'Atelier and Rupert de Beer.