Emily Crane is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia. Her PhD focuses on the contemporary artist exchanges within the Triangle Network, with specific focus on Africa and South Asia and is entitled Navigating the void: The Triangle Network of artist-led initiatives. Crane has become a contributor to the Triangle blog. In her second blog post Crane shares her experience of her research trip to South Africa:
South Africa has many famous artist names appearing in contemporary art biennials and exhibitions around the world, and the country is well known for its recent political and social history. My research in South Africa wanted to probe how artist studio spaces, residencies, and workshops were enabling new artists to consolidate and build their careers. How might these spaces and initiatives be written into the history of contemporary art? And how can experiences in South Africa be compared to other artist-initiatives around the world?
I visited Bag Factory in Johannesburg and Greatmore Studios in Cape Town, both part of the Triangle Network, talking to many artists connected with the studios and Thupelo workshops. The Thupelo workshop particularly interested me as it was the first workshop to manifest as a result of artists experiencing Triangle in New York. As always, these encounters demonstrated to me the continual battle for artists to construct a career, and the many associated strategies and activities that are undertaken to survive as an artist. In the conversations I had in South Africa, it was clear that the opportunity to build relationships with other artists and travel through the workshops was of fundamental importance to the careers and outlooks of the artists in question.
As I entered the Bag Factory I felt a huge sense of history, knowing the importance of the institution for artists at the end of Apartheid and the phenomenal work it continues to do supporting artists in Johannesburg. The studios, set out around a large exhibition space, are accompanied by the smell of the wooden and tin roof and the heat this generates. It was amazing to meet many of the original Thupelo workshop artists and those that have played such an important part in establishing the Bag Factory and the Triangle Network. It was not just the artists that expressed the importance of such initiatives to me, but prestigious gallery owners also spoke of the need for these spaces in generating and supporting fresh thinking artists. Now there are similar institutions in the city, with Artist Proof Studios and Assemblage & NewArc Studios both not far from Bag Factory at Fordsburg . As with many similar artist-focused spaces it is still a daily struggle to find the funding and long term investment. With more pressing demands on the public purse, I wondered how private patrons might be encouraged to support such places and how the art market might give back to the institutions that help to sustain it.
In Cape Town my experience was quiet different; one of the remarkable facts about South Africa is the diversity of the different metropolises across the country. Greatmore studios are perhaps not as widely known, especially internationally, as Bag Factory, coming into existence a little later and therefore not as immediately linked with the end of Apartheid. I was similarly blown away with the set-up at Greatmore, not this time for its heritage but for the alive and youthful atmosphere of the artists in the studios and the phenomenal work being produced there. During my visit, two artists particularly drew my attention for their urgent and commitment work interrogating the political and social fabric of the city and nation. Ayanda Kilimane was working on a large painting titled, ‘Izwe Lethu’ meaning ‘The Land is Ours’, the title of a liberation song. The work took up a whole wall of his studio and mocked the genre of religious and history painting by take the format of Christ’s last supper and transposing caricatures of recent leaders in South Africa such as Mandela, Tutu, Mandela, De Klerk, Zumba, Mbeki etc. The figures, grotesque and compromised in their actions, suggested the artist’s dissatisfaction with the contemporary political and social situation.
Dathini Mzayiya was another artist at Greatmore making work that critiqued the contemporary situation. He had come to the end of his time at Greatmore, having participated in many Thupelo Cape Town workshops and be a proactive member of the community of artists. To mark the occasion, there was a solo show being opened in the gallery space to the back of the studio complex during my stay. On my arrival the artist had spilled out of his studio into the gallery space, where large works on paper were strewn on the walls and the floor accompanied with the residues of the artists work with charcoal, paint and paper. In a couple of days the space had been cleaned and repainted by Wendy, Zipho and Alberta, and the works hung by the Director Mark O’Donovan. The Greatmore team worked tirelessly to assist the artist with the show, and in return the artist produce astounding works accompanied by a moving performance piece enacted during the bustling opening events. The work felt alive, engaged and raw, and reflected the continuing struggles faced for many young artists in South Africa. The work of these artists differs in many ways to that encountered on the international art circuits, and was exciting to see.
Aside from talking to artists and looking at work, the rest of my time in South Africa was taken up tracking down any potentially interesting archival documents. As I have written about before, I have a keen interest in the archival remnants of these types of spaces and initiatives, such as Thupelo, Bag Factory and Greatmore. I have already been through many documents pertaining to South African workshops and studio buildings at Gasworks in London, and these had given me a sense of some of the names, places and issues associated with them. I wondered if in South Africa there were any similar archival boxes or files that I might look through, partly as a comparison to see what material has been held on to, but also to see if it would shed light on gaps in my knowledge. Jill Trapler in Cape Town was very kind in giving me access to the archives she had kept, partly in relationship to her cousin Bill Ainslie who started Thupelo with David Kolane. More like a personal archive, there were many interesting letters and documents which certainly did given me a better sense of Bill and the Johannesburg Art Foundation which was in many ways the precursor the both Thupelo and Bag Factory. In Johannesburg I was less successful, although Bongi Dhlomo, the first coordinator of Thupelo, did suggest she had some archival documents that at some point she felt she must attend to in her garage. It is clear that the nature of these phenomenon tend to create little time or need to create archives from the materials generated. If such documents do survive it is mostly due to a few individuals who felt it necessary and have space at home for a few boxes. The Johannesburg Art Gallery was very helpful, and their Librarian helped me source some related documents held in their library, although these were limited to flyers and less intimate documents and particularly linked to work held in their collections. It was encouraging to see museums take responsibility for actively collecting contemporary archives.
The Thupelo workshops, and to some extent Bag Factory, have now been written into the history of contemporary art in South Africa. Much of this writing has been undertaken by David Kolane himself, as he was asked to curate exhibitions and write corresponding catalogue essays for major museums in the Uk and USA over the last twenty years. In several exhibition catalogues, Kolane boldly writes of the importance of the workshops and studio buildings in addressing the inequalities black artists faced in South Africa and the importance of community and space for young artists. Similarly, John Peffer wrote a detailed account of Thupelo and the Johannesburg artists in his well researched book ‘Art at the End of Apartheid’, published in 2009. Given these historical accounts it is surprising that the associated archival material is not better managed and has lead me to reflect on the nature of writing contemporary art history in relation to the creation of and care of archival materials. For me it is encouraging to see these humble initiatives being acknowledged for the extraordinary impact they have had on artists and subsequently the art world; a bottom up approach to art history that is so often neglected in the rush to speak of large biennials and a limited range of celebrity artists. However it cannot be said the Network itself has received similar treatment, despite direct links between the Triangle Network and many exhibitions and now famous artists, for example research that went into ‘Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa’ exhibition held at the Whitechapel gallery as part of the Africa 95 festival. In a recent talk at the Courtauld in London, Subodh Gupta proudly spoke of the importance of the Triangle Network and the Khoj workshop in India, for his career and artistic thinking. Although the workshops are short lived, and studios and residencies can only tell part of the story, it would be nice if these inputs into the creative development of artists were more commonly acknowledged.