In November, Newtown’s Artist Proof Studio holds two important events. To raise money for their Education Endowment Fund, an art auction organised by Strauss & Co is set to take place on the 19th. This is followed by an exhibition of new work on 29 November, both happening at the Absa Gallery in Johannesburg. Natalie Watermeyer spoke to Artist Proof Studio Cofounder and Director, Dr Kim Berman about the upcoming events.
Artist Proof Studio (APS) in Newtown is a great place to visit if you’re a fan of printmaking and original prints. While students and staff go about their work upstairs, it’s possible to browse through a vast array of original artworks. Now, with their Endowment Auction coming up, APS has raided their archives for some of the rarest and most sought after works in their possession. This means that art collectors will soon have the chance to acquire pieces – including some that are otherwise unobtainable, along with work by some of the institution’s most successful alumni.
Browsing through some of the work set aside for the auction is particularly thrilling: the prints are beautiful, and the list of artists reads like a who’s who of the local art world. There are a few prints by Phillemon Hlungwani – himself a graduate of APS and now rapidly establishing himself as one of the country’s leading artists – along with work by other leading APS alumni and luminaries such as Walter Oltmann, Norman Catherine, Diane Victor, Gerhard Marx, Willem Boshoff, Colbert Mashile, Rosemary Marriott, David Koloane, Helen Mmakgabo Sebidi, Chris Diedericks, Paul Edmunds, Cameroonian artist Joel Mpah Doo, and Sandile Goje (and many others).
There are also a number of pieces by Handspring Puppet Company’s Adrian Kӧhler, including the studio proof of his War Horse print, which sold out last year through Rand Merchant Bank. Included is an unusual portfolio of work created during an exchange between San artists from the Kuru project in Botswana and the Crow Shadow Studio, an American Indian print workshop in the United States, coordinated by Master Printer Eileen Foti. All ten artists represent stories of their respective creation myths, which, says Berman, have ‘quite a lot in common.’
A number of high-end original drawings will also go under the hammer, donated by William Kentridge, Norman Catherine, Phillemon Hlungwani, Nelson Makamo, Lehlogonolo Mashaba, Colbert Mashile, Diane Victor, Mongezi Ncaphayi, Bambo Sibiya, and Samson Mnisi.
But the ‘game changer’, as Berman refers to it, is a piece entitled 8 Figures from William Kentridge’s Procession series. ‘This piece is extraordinary in that he’s hand-carved the entire lino-cut block himself,’ she notes. The edition sold out immediately, so the appearance of this work on auction is a rare opportunity for art collectors.
The point of the November auction is to raise money to establish an endowment trust fund for Artist Proof Studio. This is needed both to enable long-term planning, and to pay for student bursaries. APS takes in about 40 new students every year – between 60 and 70 students in total – very few of whom pay fees other than registration. ‘Most of the students get a place because they’re exceptionally talented and want to make a living as an artist,’ explains Berman. ‘We believe they have the potential, but they either don’t have the funds or necessary matric qualifications to take on university studies. This is a viable tertiary education option for them. So it is an unusual organisation, in that we subsidise all our students through corporate partnerships or our patron programme. Hence the need for the endowment fund, given that grant funding is very limited at the moment. We used to get a lot more funding from the government SETA learnership subsidies, which kept us going. Now more than 70 per cent of our income sustains the studio through sales of artwork… So we need continual support for our education programme, which is never going to be self sustaining – although our operations sustains itself.’
Graduates of Artist Proof Studio go through three years of training, with a fourth year post-graduate internship. ‘The internship is usually paid, so we try and raise money to provide a stipend,’ says Berman. Artist Proof Studio consists of five units – their education programme, a gallery, the proshop (where master printers work alongside artists to create printed works), special projects, and administration. ‘Fourth years get placed in all of those, to get work experience,’ says Berman. ‘Some of them rotate, but some really just find their niche. Interestingly, a lot of the ones that have made it, like Bambo [Sibiya], Mongezi [Ncaphayi], and Nelson [Makamo] – they all ran in the gallery… they used the network to market and sell their own work through APS.’
Some of the selected interns then go on to a fifth year working for the studio on contract. In this way APS is continually expanding and creating many job opportunities
Moreover, ‘training active citizens is part of our programme,’ says Berman. ‘Not only should the students be talented visual artists, but they engage in community and outreach programmes. For example, we partner with human and gender rights advocacy organisations, where students paint murals or volunteer in some of the “Arks” that provide after school art classes for orphans and vulnerable children in Soweto. A key part of our programme is special projects, which create opportunities for our students to get involved in addressing the problems of the city.’
Certain students have patrons, either corporations or individuals, who provide a stipend of about R12 000 to R15 000 a year for materials over and above their APS subsidy. ‘It gives a special impetus to the students,’ notes Berman. ‘Most of the students require extra financial assistance, and having someone invest in your career makes a huge difference in output and ability to buy extra materials over and above what we provide to the class.’
One of these patrons is Lauren Woolf, who also works closely with APS in a mentoring capacity. ‘The money raised during the auction goes towards the education of young, naturally talented artists and helps them make art a viable career,’ she says. ‘The proof really is in the alumni that have come out of here. The dream is to become a self-sustaining artist, to take your raw talent, fine tune it – in this case in printmaking – and make a living; in some cases, even to become “famous”. Already in second and third year, these guys have the opportunity to sell their work… You look at all the alumni coming out of APS, it’s incredible what they’ve been able to achieve – all these artists that are now influencing the South African art environment, and motivating, inspiring young people to take up art, to be part of that legacy.’
APS graduates seem to be everywhere. At the recent relaunch of August House, a huge downtown block that supplies artists with studio space, many of those taking up residence proved to be formerly of APS. For example: Lehlogonolo Mashaba, whose huge mural towers above visitors to the Absa Gallery; Nelson Makamo, who exhibits internationally and is represented by Everard Read; and a young graduate, Themba Khumalo, whose most recent work has sold out. Also Bambo Sibiya, who won the Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto award in 2012 – as did Mongezi Ncaphayi, in 2013. (APS students feature fairly regularly amongst the L’Atelier finalists). Several have gone on to set up their own printing studios, at both August House and Assemblage.
Other notable graduates include Sizwe Khoza, Senzo Shabangu, Jan Tshikuthula and Nicholas Hlobo, who studied at APS before going on to the University of Johannesburg.
Perhaps one of APS’s greatest success stories at present is Phillemon Hlungwani, who spent roughly nine years training and working at the studio. Hlungwani worked ‘on everything from cleaning floors to doing outreach, whatever he could do on a day-to-day basis,’ recalls Berman. ‘It took him time, but he was completely focused.’ At his first solo show in 2008 (also at the Absa Gallery, and organised by APS), Hlungwani was noticed by Trent Read of the Everard Read Gallery, and subsequently taken on as one of their stable of artists.
In a review of a recent show by Hlungwani (which sold out before it even opened), Berman notes that ‘Read has given Phillemon at least six solo shows, many of them sell-outs. The success of this artist is incredible, and the mentorship by Read is an artist’s dream come true. Phillemon’s prices rocketed from the modest R2 000 to R5 000 for a print, to ten times the cost in a space of two years and now 20 to 30 times in five years. His limited edition prints sell for over R60 000 to R100 000, rivalling the values reached by the work of William Kentridge’. Read, in turn, describes Hlungwani as ‘a draughtsman of staggering capabilities and… no longer an emerging talent but one of our finest artists.’
Berman further remarks that while Hlungwani’s story ‘is extraordinary’, it ‘fits the profile of many aspiring artists arriving at APS with big dreams, lots of talent but minimal resources to support their pursuit of art.’ APS’s programme, and the opportunities made possible through its extensive network – for example, access to mentorship and inspiration from other, established artists, the support of patrons, residencies and exchanges – sometimes looks more effective and appealing than other, paid tertiary programmes.
The upcoming auction, then, will raise funds with a view to supporting the continuation of APS’s success story. Much of the work to be auctioned will be on show at the Absa Gallery from 12 November. Art will also be exhibited online through Strauss & Co (viewers will be able to enter online bids prior to the actual auction). There are roughly 120 lots, of which around 40 of the larger, higher value works will be sold at the final auction at the Absa Gallery on 19 November.
Ten days later, on Sunday 29 November, a big public opening launches an exhibition of new work from Artist Proof Studio, again at the Absa Gallery. All of the work on exhibition will be available for sale, and the exhibition will run until the end of January.
The Absa exhibition will feature new releases from both students and alumni. In addition, it will show works from some of the studio’s special projects. Multiple award-winning artist and APS master printer, Bevan de Wet (whose work will also appear on auction) has been collaborating on an embroidery project with a craft collective based at APS called Ikageng, in creating large fabric portraits that will be included in the show.
Also set for exhibition is paper-based work created in conjunction with the Phumani paper mill, which runs through Berman’s unit at the University of Johannesburg, where she is based full time as an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture. Master printmaker Nathi Ndladla, who is also an expert in making paper, has worked with a number of artists in creating pieces from paper pulp: ‘it’s a medium that’s new to South Africa, but it’s catching’, says Berman.
All in all, this is an incredibly busy season for the studio. With the auction and the subsequent exhibition hot on the heels of Rand Merchant Bank’s annual WineX, where several students had the opportunity to showcase their work and put forward ideas for wine labels, Artist Proof Studio’s year seems set to end in a flurry of activity.
Next year, Artist Proof Studio will celebrate their 25 year anniversary. If all goes well, they will be set to flourish long into the future.