This year’s Turbine Art Fair features an innovative new component – a show of graduate artwork from several of the country’s universities. Creative Feel spoke to curator of the graduate show, Hentie van der Merwe, about this venture, the first of its kind in a very long time.
When the Turbine Art Fair’s founder, Glynis Hyslop approached Hentie van der Merwe – head of Fine Arts at the Visual Arts department at Stellenbosch University – to put together an exhibition of exciting new work coming out at both an undergraduate and graduate level, he chose to focus on a single medium. ‘It makes much more sense to focus on one medium, it just holds together nicely,’ he explains, adding that the painting work being produced is often more ‘nuanced’, seeking less to illustrate a particular message or agenda than is often the case in other media. In the course of his work as an external examiner for several art departments across the country, van der Merwe has been exposed to a range of student work, and from this he decided to focus on painting. ‘I think this choice speaks of my own interest – I’m very interested in painting – and I’m also quite confident in saying that some of the most interesting student work being produced at the moment is in the medium of painting,’ he says. ‘Although having said that, I’m not going to claim that painting is absolutely “where it’s at”, because there is very interesting work being done in other media – sculpture, photography.’
Van der Merwe thus compiled a list of some of the painting being done at the moment, drawing from Stellenbosch University, Michaelis School of Fine Art, the Fine Art Department of the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University in Grahamstown and the Wits School of Arts at University of the Witwatersrand. The works selected for exhibition include a wide variety of both subject matter and approaches. ‘So there is abstraction, there is Photorealism, there is figurative work that is quite loose, in a Marlene Dumas kind of style – a wide variety, in terms of painting styles, he says.’ Although all the work is drawn from South African universities, the artists include both homegrown talent and individuals from further afield, including Iran and several countries in Africa – ‘a really nice mix of race and cultural background, which is exciting,’ says van der Merwe. The works are predominantly oil on canvas, with one notable exception in the form of a video piece from Rory Emmet (which incorporates painting in its subject matter/ execution). There is much talk of ‘the return of painting’, which van der Merwe notes is a theme that has informed numerous exhibitions over the last decade. ‘For a while, people saw painting as “dead”, if you like… but I think painting never really went away. I think this exhibition goes to show that young people are very much interested in the medium of painting, more so than one would imagine.’ The show is unusual in that it brings together the work of students from several universities, something that hasn’t been done in several decades. ‘The whole focus of the Turbine Art Fair is on growing a young generation of collectors, and so it makes perfect sense to put together a show of what I think will be important artists in ten, 20 years’ time, in South Africa. If anything, this would be a show for young collectors to go and look at, and maybe even buy from: Because who knows? They might just buy a work of the next big important South African painter, at a very decent price,’ he says.