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TAF and Sylt Emerging Artist Residency Award

An important aspect of the Turbine Art Fair (TAF) for emerging artists is the TAF and Sylt Emerging Artist Residency Award. Creative Feel spoke to the 2015 winner of the TAF and Sylt Emerging Artist Residency Award, as well as the Sylt Foundation.

Freedom requires space in which to be free. Freedom also necessitates that an agent – often a human being – carry out its innate duty as a free being. This can be an immense responsibility, as Voltaire once said; and Marvel Comic superhero Spiderman popularised. But the essence of freedom has to do with the blank page of life on which one can do what they chose to. At the Sylt Island in Germany, a particular kind of person is afforded the opportunity to exercise their freedom: the artist. The role of the artist in a free world has been explored at length in various literature and TED Talks, but it still cannot be overestimated. It is the infamously lone illustrator of the world who possesses the ability to paint a picture of humanity that can allow people to connect with themselves. And as the world moves faster and people are pummelled with information per diem, it may be one of the greatest contributions to present society to gift them with a space for contemplation. The artist residency sponsored by the Sylt Foundation is a key to solitude for an artist of proven worth. This year, in partnership with the Turbine Art Fair (TAF), the Sylt Foundation has handed over the key to the Island to Sarah Biggs as part of the new TAF and Sylt Emerging Artist Residency Award (TASA). But, as all members of newly independent nations know, freedom is not a simple equation of addition.

‘A figure and a space,’ is how Biggs describes the thematic content of her paintings. She is a fresh graduate (2013) from the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Arts and an emerging artist who is quickly garnering recognition for her work. She has been involved in a number of exhibitions and has received a number of positive critiques, these favourable reviews are the sine qua non of the TAF and Sylt Emerging Artist Residency Award, as an award for a young exhibitor at the art fair. Simple mathematics would say that Biggs should do very well in her time at Sylt. Biggs, however, recognises that she is still ‘figuring out what it means to be an artist.’ The freedom of the residency on the Island means that no output is required of the visiting artist. It is a unique residency precisely because it is not studio-based and the artist is actually not expected to have anything to show at the end of their tenure; in the case of the TAF and Sylt Emerging Artist Residency Award, this is two months.
The TAF and Sylt Emerging Artist Residency Award is another means by which the Turbine Art Fair creates a meaningful way to further progress the young artists of South Africa. Along with the Fresh Produce Exhibition and Emerging Painters graduate exhibition, the TAF and Sylt Emerging Artist Residency Award is significant in its recognition of a singular artist with the qualities of someone who may be able to become a really big name. Sarah Biggs is simply full of pep. She has an animated vivacity and yet she is also systematically spirited. This juxtaposition of energies makes her an interesting person and perhaps exceptionally suited for this residency – which is definitely not for just anyone, nor any artist. She likes ‘little road-trips and camping’ and works with keen discipline in a shared studio where she thrives on getting critical feedback from other artists. Her approach to painting is visceral and embraces chance. She says that painting is ‘a space that I sort of just lose myself in.’ And yet, she works like the methodical lone figure from The Little Prince, gathering information from different spaces of solitude to find answers in what she calls: ‘The field of origin’.

The Antoine de Saint-Exupery children’s story for adults is analogous to her and her work. She often paints gentle discoveries of life made by a solitary geologist in a vast
field. This truth-seeker is an everyday superhero, using their freedom to search for answers that connect them to all existence. When Tumi Mokgope, Project Manager says, ‘With Sylt it comes from the heart,’ he could also be speaking of Biggs’ work. Mokgope adds that freedom is the core thing. He says, ‘Because artists have been evaluated it’s an interesting thing; you go there because you know that you deserve it’. While Biggs is still in sheer awe that she is deserving of the award, she has busied herself with the creation of a completely new collection in preparation for the Fair so that she may truly feel that she has been worthy of it. For her, it was a huge surprise but one that has filled her with excitement about the future. She has been given the space to imagine herself exceed her expectations as a young artist in a difficult artistic landscape. Her work now, she says as she paints for TAF, is about ‘shifting it completely into the sublime and the political.’ With soft strokes or drips evoking new feelings she is painting ‘the moments in between or the moment of contemplation or being lost.’

The Little Prince, of the famous book, gets lost and seeks to return to his rose – which because he owns, he wants to take care of – and grow into a responsible adult in his homeland. He travels to different planets and encounters isolated adults on each of these who represent aspects of society. He is disappointed to learn that the Businessman, Drunkard and Geologist alike fail to comprehend their accountability to their world as free beings. The book ends with the hope of the author that the Little Prince should return with a happy story one day. Biggs’ hope is that she will come back with an open mind after travelling. For now she is just happy to have ‘recognition that comes from someone other than your mom.’ But, as Mokgope observes that on returning from the island, ‘People will tell different stories,’ just as The Little Prince is a kind of catalogue of disparate solitudes. ‘It’s like being a first-year student,’ Mokgope provides a useful analogy, ‘Suddenly you’ve got all this freedom and then you still have to choose to study.’

Poignantly, this is the difficulty with freedom: making the choice to continue to be better. Indra Wussow (Sylt Foundation Director) articulates it similarly as ‘a place of beginnings: of ideas.’ But why go on a residency at all, some might ask. Biggs happily and fruitfully shares a studio space; and Sylt does not offer a studio space. Her answer is, ‘I have quite a busy schedule for the next few months… So it offers a different kind of space to step outside the studio that I know so well.’ So the space can be an alluring respite from the business of producing. The artist is not expected to create. Space can also be used as a term synonymous with ‘freedom’. Couples often take space apart from each other in order to see the world and their lives through fresh eyes and return, hopefully, with a greater appreciation of each other. Going away on holiday is often an eye-opener for the little daily joys of living in a country, which one only realises by stepping away and experiencing another way of life. A residency means that a person gets to travel. They may meet other like-minded people with whom they may then reconnect at a later stage and return home with a new work-collaborator. They may expand their network in this way or simply take the opportunity to see art produced in a dissimilar environment. Mokgope acknowledges that the residency may simply be a quiet holiday for the artist. ‘Let’s say, for example, you have an artist who’s done a hectic show [like TAF] and he needs a break. We give that person a break: Freedom!’

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