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Mentors & Protégés

The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative is a philanthropic programme that seeks out gifted young artists from all over the world and brings them together with artistic masters for a year of creative collaboration in a one-on-one mentoring relationship. Since the inauguration three South Africans have participated in this prestigious programme.

Engaging with a mentor as a way to learn and achieve full potential as an artist is an ancient and respected practice. The formalised process appears in the works of the great thinkers of the golden age of the Greeks.

In more recent history, famous mentoring pairs include German composer and conductor Christian Gottlieb Neefe who was a role model for the boy prodigy Ludwig van Beethoven and French impressionist painter Camille Pissarro who devoted his life to nurturing young painters such as Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne.

Only in relatively recent times has mentoring been neglected. However, it is once again gaining popularity as an effective learning approach in diverse fields beyond the arts, including business and education.

Over the past decade, Rolex has paired mentors and protégés in dance, film, literature, music, theatre, visual arts and – as of 2012 – architecture. In the decade since it was launched, the mentoring programme has evolved into an enriching dialogue between artists of different generations, cultures and disciplines, helping ensure that the world’s artistic heritage is passed on to the next generation.

Every two years, a new advisory board of distinguished artists and arts practitioners suggests and endorses potential mentors. Once the mentors have been approached and have agreed to take part, Rolex works with them to establish a profile of the protégé they would like to work with. Each mentorship is therefore tailor-made.

Young artists cannot apply directly to the programme. Rather, seven nominating panels – one panel for each artistic discipline – are assembled. The expert panel members identify suitable potential protégés, who are then invited by Rolex to submit applications. Panel members  study these applications and recommend three finalists from their respective discipline. Finally, Rolex arranges for the mentor to meet the finalists and choose his or her protégé.

Mentors and protégés are asked to spend a minimum of six weeks together, though many spend considerably more time. They agree on where and how they want to interact. This may mean a protégé is granted access to a master at work, or a mentor and protégé actually collaborating on a work.

After the mentoring year, Rolex stays in touch with the protégés and continues to promote their work. Many of the protégés have gone on to significant careers, have changed disciplines, collaborated with each other and have become mentors themselves.

During 2004/2005 Sir Peter Hall, titan of British theatre and one of the world’s great Shakespearean directors, spent the year mentoring Lara Foot, South African theatre director, writer and producer who is noted for her creative spirit. He assumed that he was going to work with a fellow director and soon discovered the Lara Foot was a talented playwright as well. Embarking on the Rolex Mentor Protégé Arts Initiative, Sir Peter Hall had a logical, coherent plan. His agenda for the year included several of his specialties: among them Shakespeare (As You Like It, for the first time in his career), Harold Pinter (a revival of Betrayal, of  which he directed the premiere in 1978), and opera (La Cenerentola, the Rossini version of Cinderella).

Wasting no time, Sir Peter summoned Lara Foot to rehearsals for his production of Shaw’s Man and Superman even before the programme had officially begun. But Sir Peter soon began to develop an intriguing theory about his new associate. ‘My hunch,’ he said within weeks, ‘is that Lara’s really a primary creator. Not an interpreter or a “recreator”, though she can do that, too. Writing plays, making films – that’s where she belongs.’ When Lara Foot was asked what the best part of being a Rolex protégée was, she summed it up: ‘The fact that people recognise my work and they believe in me. This is an amazing opportunity for me to  get a sense of the bigger picture of theatre. I have also had the opportunity of making good contacts. Sir Peter was keen for me to meet as many theatre people as possible.’

Anish Kapoor, Bombay born, living in London since the 1970s is one of the most versatile and celebrated visual artists of his generation and during 2011/2012 he was mentoring the young South African artist Nicholas Hlobo.

Year after year, Anish Kapoor astonishes the international arts community with his gigantic, enigmatic creations that fill the biggest exhibition spaces in the world’s best-known galleries. Nicholas Hlobo, a young artist from Johannesburg whose output is closely watched by collectors longing to buy, weaves together rubber, leather and fabric to produce intimate objects and performances that evoke an enticing but provocative beauty. Although there are few points of connection between the two artistic approaches, the ‘poetic dialogue’ of their mentorship year proved fruitful and inspiring. Hlobo explained what happened when Anish Kapoor met him during the process of choosing his protégé, ‘Meeting Anish Kapoor was very good. Before I went to meet him, I had decided to simply be myself and to take the opportunity to learn a little about him. He was interesting and exciting, and very comfortable and confident as an artist. He asked why I wanted to become a protégé when  I clearly had found a direction for my art. I explained that people in South Africa thought I had got what I wanted. But I felt personally that I had not achieved what I was looking for – that would take a lifetime. I wanted to learn wisdom from those like him who have a better understanding of the art world and of creating art.’

South Africa’s best known contemporary artist, William Kentridge is acclaimed for his compelling work that meshes the personal and political influences on his life in South Africa during and after apartheid. ‘I am interested in a political art… an art of ambiguity, contradiction,  uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings.’ In 2012/2013 he opened his studio to Mateo López, one of Colombia’s most promising artists.

During the mentoring year, William Kentridge wanted to show Mateo López how his work could expand and flower. In encounters in the United States and the Netherlands, and, most of all, for several weeks in Kentridge’s Johannesburg studio, the mentor encouraged his protégé to find radically new ways to create art. For López, Kentridge’s willingness to share his work space presented an extraordinary opportunity. ‘Talk is important, but the possibility of someone to work with is better,’ he said.

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