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Viva L’Atelier

With 30 years now to its credit, the Barclays L’Atelier has an established history of broadening young artists’ horizons.

In 1986, Penny Siopis was the first winner of an exciting new art competition with Melancholia – a baroque feast of overripe fruit, greek statuary, lilies and chandeliers, presided over by a vervet monkey and the artist’s shadowy reflection.

Melancholia was subsequently acquired by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, and replicated in a multitude of grainy, black and white photocopies as part of the matric art syllabus. Siopis built a career as one of the country’s best-known artists; and the new competition became an anticipated fixture on the South African art scene. To this day, the L’Atelier offers perhaps the most coveted prizes up for grabs. Back in the ‘80s, it offered the winning artists an unprecedented glimpse of a world beyond their own.

Originally known as the Volkskas Atelier, the competition represented a partnership between SANAVA and Volkskas, and presented the winner with a six-month residency in Paris at the Cité Internationale des Arts. ‘Volkskas always had an interest in art,’ notes Bayliss. ‘If you think of the Absa art collection, it was forged from the collections of our forerunners. Probably the two banks that had the two biggest art collections were United and Volkskas; they were combined to form Absa. In the ‘80s, when the whole advent of sports sponsorship was opening up, suddenly there were other opportunities. Art was one of them, although very much more a niche focused area… But it allowed you to service your clients in a certain way, as a financial institution.’

At the time, notes Dr Paul Bayliss, present day curator for the Absa Gallery and Barclays L’Atelier competition, South Africa was isolated, mired in apartheid. Consequently, artists were largely cut off from the international art scene. The Paris residency offered a local artist exposure to the riches of the galleries and museums of Paris, along with extensive contact with other artists from around the globe.

Thirty years on, and much has changed. ‘Today, the residency is more about the artists gaining exposure, that interaction with peers; very much to say that for the artists, experience influences your work,’ says Bayliss. ‘The residency then was very much a response to the isolation of South African artists – there just weren’t many opportunities available.’

Changes in the competition (of which there have been many, of late) reflect a broader revolution: ‘I believe the art world has changed quite radically,’ says Bayliss. ‘There are more opportunities both locally and abroad for South African artists: biennales, art fairs, festivals, more competitions; local galleries that have formed networks and working partnerships with overseas galleries, things like that.’

One of the first big developments in the L’Atelier’s ongoing evolution came in 2004, when the Alliance Francaise came on board to offer the Gerhard Sekoto award to a promising artist with an annual income below a specified amount. The prize included a three-month residency at the Cité, and a travelling exhibition following the artist’s return (the L’Atelier winner, in contrast, has a solo exhibition at the Absa Gallery). In 2005, this was won for the first time by Lawrence Lemoaona.

In 2011, the Gerard Sekoto award’s travelling exhibition circuit, formerly limited to the offices of the Alliance Francaise, was extended to include a number of galleries. The 2012 winner of the award, Isabel Mertz, thus had her work exhibited in galleries around the country, as did the 2013 winner Bambo Sibiya.

In the last five years, a barrage of exciting developments have taken place. ‘The first change we made was to do away with the cash prize awarded to the top ten,’ notes Bayliss. ‘We acknowledge them, they get a certificate, but no cash prize.’ Since 2013, merit winners instead win a two-day workshop in art professionalism offered by Art Source. ‘I could see, working with the artists, that there was a need for this… The workshop is tailored specifically to our needs, so the winners receive media training; training in how to prepare for a residency; or interact with a gallery. We also include financial training. As an artist, if you sell R200 000 worth of work this month, and nothing for the next six months, how do you plan for that?’ says Bayliss.

Bayliss has also linked the L’Atelier firmly to the work of the Absa Gallery. Unlike in the past, the Gallery now solely exhibits the work of artists to have come through the L’Atelier or been in some way associated with it – the latter including artists such as Michael Meyersfeld, who has served as an adjudicator for the competition, and Artist Proof Studio, which has fielded a large number of winning entrants over the years. Promising artists that make their mark on the competition are sometimes offered spots in curated group shows, held at the gallery or further afield, at the Absa KKNK. (Last year’s Post Colonial Africa; 2013’s the Seven Deadly Virtues, and 2012’s Hanging Gardens, for example, were all curated group exhibitions of former finalists’ work). Finalists are also occasionally selected to take on some of the many commissions to come in through the Gallery; visitors may well have been struck by the gigantic mural by Lehlogonolo Mashaba, or the work of Maja Marx.

‘The other thing is that as a gallery, we don’t take any commission,’ adds Bayliss.

In other words, the L’Atelier now goes much further in championing successful entrants (i.e. those who make it into the top 100) and working with them.

In 2013, the competition introduced a further two new residencies. The first, a two-month stay at the Sylt Foundation on the Island of Sylt in Germany, with flights, accommodation and monthly stipend all provided, was won for the first time by Jaco van Schalkwyk. The second, a one-month residency at the Ampersand Foundation in New York City, with accommodation, return flight and a stipend, went to Kathleen Sawyer. Her win also saw her become a Fellow of the Ampersand Foundation. Armed with an AAM (American Association of Museums) card, she and future winners enjoy free access to most museums in New York City during their residency.

Which brings us to 2015: What was once the Volkskas Atelier and later the Absa L’Atelier, is now known as the Barclays L’Atelier, and, in keeping with bank’s presence in Africa, the competition is gradually being rolled out into the greater continent. This year’s L’Atelier therefore included entries from Kenya, Botswana, Ghana and Zambia, with yet another residency added to an already thrilling set of possibilities: one non South African merit award winner will earn a three month residency at Johannesburg’s Bag Factory, bringing him or her into contact with some of our own most exciting talents.

Thirty years on, and the L’Atelier has given a significant number of artists much to celebrate, most especially the chance to widen their horizons and bring their work to the attention of a greater audience. It’s come a long way since Melancholia…

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