The 2017 Absa L’Atelier: A bright future for African art

The Absa L’Atelier is one of Africa’s most prestigious and revered art competitions. Each year, it provides young visual artists aged 21 to 35 with the opportunity to develop their talents abroad and further develop their careers and personal brands.

L'Atelier
Elias Njora | Foot Prints | Kenya

With the winners of this year’s competition just announced, we speak with Absa Art and Museum Curator, Dr Paul Bayliss about the importance of art competitions and investments in the contemporary art world. Inside the Absa Gallery, things are exciting. Works are freshly hung on the walls, and installation pieces are being moved in. Bayliss is busy as usual. Besides curating Absa’s corporate collection, he’s also responsible for the Money Museum, Absa’s Archives and, of course, managing the Absa L’Atelier. This is Bayliss’ seventh year with the Absa L’Atelier, a competition that’s been running for 32 years now in partnership with the South African National Association for the Visual Arts (SANAVA). Since his appointment as Absa Art Curator in 2011, there have been several positive changes to the Absa L’Atelier. ‘When we celebrated the 30th year, we opened the competition up across the continent, inviting artists from Ghana, Kenya, Botswana and Zambia, in addition to South Africa. Now we’ve broadened it across the 10 countries we as Barclays Africa have a presence,’ he explains. Currently, the Absa L’Atelier extends itself to Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Seychelles, Mauritius, and South Africa. Each country has its own partnerships and curators on the ground, to ensure a smooth process.

To the visual arts community  it’s a sign of future talent. For all  artists who make it into the final exhibition, and specifically the top 10, the Absa Gallery will continue to partner with them in assisting them build their brand

L'Atelier
Ciara Struwig | Evidence | SA

‘Besides expanding the competition, we’ve brought on more partners,’ adds Bayliss. ‘We’ve increased the Merit Awards so we’ve brought on the three Merit Award Residencies with Ampersand, Bag Factory and Sylt Foundation in 2013. We’ve also brought in the two-day art professionalism course which is focused on the top 10 artists. That course involves helping them with managing their careers and building their own brands as artists.’ This is in addition to the Gerard Sekoto prize, as well as the overall prize of the competition, and those who crack the top 100. But besides validation and esteem, what does all of this mean for a winning artist? ‘I think for anyone who wins it, it assists in boosting their career, it definitely puts them on the map,’ he explains. ‘To the visual arts community, it’s a sign of future talent. For all other artists who make it into the final exhibition, and specifically the top 10, the Absa Gallery will continue to partner with them.’ And for an emerging African artist, support can prove to be invaluable. Artists who form part of the Absa family by way of The Absa L’Atelier are provided with ongoing support, be it in the way of advice, guidance, and even a chance to be included in Absa corporate art collection and commissioned work. ‘So suddenly they’re no longer feeling as if they’re in this world trying to make a name for themselves on their own. That they’re out there and there’s someone who is walking this journey with them. It’s really like a family in that way.’

L'Atelier
Dale Lawrence | Making Work | SA

Certainly, The Absa L’Atelier has helped many artists over the years, and continues to do so. Looking back at some of the first ever winners of the competition, you’ll come across names such as Penny Siopis, Diane Victor and Conrad Botes, all of whom went on to greatly influence South African art. More recent names include Pieter Hugo, Sethembile Msezane, Banele Khoza, Retha Ferguson, Bambo Sibiya, and more. It’s long been the case that artists benefit from investors, corporate backers, and financial institutions such as Absa. Besides helping to launch the careers of artists, support them in future projects, and provide them with a national and even global level of exposure, brands and institutions like Absa help to foster an ongoing curiosity and interest in art from the African continent. But why do they do it? Does it all stem from a natural passion for local art? Not only does Absa create a platform to showcase their work through this competition, but we have also been increasingly active in identifying, nurturing, promoting and sponsoring these artists through our gallery. Aligned with our ambition to leave things better than how we found it, the empowerment of these young artists through Absa L’Atelier has proven that investing in young arts professionals is critical in the development of the Arts sector on the continent. Teaching them through mentorship, the basics of building their arts brand and running an arts business, is a clear expression of our Shared Growth strategy.

It forms part of our shared growth strategy – to try and leave the world in a better state than when you found it. And it’s a way of investing in future talent

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Oliver Mayhew | Receipt Poem Shop right | SA

From a Barclays Africa perspective, this is really important to us especially in view of our pan-African programme called ReadyToWork which endeavours to help young people build the skills they need to make the critical transition from education into the world of work,’ says Bayliss. To take a cursory look at this year’s work, themes range from everyday struggles and celebrations, to contemporary politics and issues of social justice. ‘There’s some political work coming through, particularly from the Southern African artists. Up North too. A number of the artworks are also dealing with issues of women’s rights, women’s abuse and their status within society and things like that. But when you look at this year’s work, in terms of themes, those are the two strongest things you’ll notice.’ And what’s the future of African art looking like? If this year’s Absa L’Atelier is anything to go by, it’s looking bright. ‘I’m positive,’ says Bayliss. ‘It’s nice to see that there is a good take-up across the continent in each of the countries when it comes to The Absa L’Atelier. There’s a hunger amongst the young artists to get their names out there. There’s an improvement in the quality of the artworks that come through every year. It makes the competition worthwhile when you see that. I would like to close by thanking all the partners across the continent that assist us in the project. Also to the artists that continue to support the L’Atelier by entering it.’

L'Atelier
Bright Ackwerh | Selfication | Ghana

Read more about the 2017 Absa L’Atelier Competition winners here:

Overall winner, Maral Bolouri – Of Mothers and Others
Gerard Sekoto Award winner, Banele Khoza – Lonely Nights, Temporary Feelings and Note Making
First Merit Award winner, Priscilla Kennedy – Unpacking social stereotypes
Second Merit Award winner, Wilhelmina Nell – ‘A sickening symbol of sloth’
Third Merit Award winner, Manyatsa Monyamane – Powerful voices reclaiming their spaces

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