The longest-running South African art competition is celebrating 50 years of existence since it was started by the Association of Arts Pretoria in 1967.
2017 also marks 28 years of Sasol’s sponsorship of the competition; 28 years of discovering and promoting South Africa’s artistic talent. Sasol New Signatures has played a pivotal role over the past five decades in unearthing local artistic talent and promoting them to the art-loving public. This year’s competition remains true to this legacy by searching for those hidden artists who want to break into the mainstream. It often happens that projects which are invested in with great passion become long-lasting ventures. This is certainly the case with Sasol’s sponsorship of the New Signatures art competition, which basically grew out of the efforts of form Sasol Chairman, Johannes Stegmann. He worked tirelessly to assemble a great art collection for Sasol, one which gives enjoyment, inspires, enriches and occasionally perplexes. His influence initiated a period of many years where young South Africans were given the opportunity to excel in the visual and performing arts. According to Stegmann, ‘What touches the spirit of man more than art? From the earliest times, it was literature, music and the visual arts which distinguished man from other beings. Art is a mystery which communicates through languages which cannot easily be translated into words. Art is also often controversial, especially when it is contemporary.’
At the launch of this year’s competition, Elton Fortuin, Vice President: Group Communication and Brand Management, reaffirmed Sasol’s commitment to the arts. ‘As a collector and corporate supporter of the arts, Sasol understands the importance of discovering new talent and providing a platform to showcase it. For us, this is one of the many ways we contribute to meaningfully celebrating South Africa’s heritage and capturing its essence for the benefit of current and future generations.’ Some of this year’s judges, who are made up of talented arts practitioners and respected academics, shared what they are expecting from the competition this year, and why the competition is important to the country. Prof Raimi Gbadamosi, from the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Pretoria, feels that ‘“Breaking” into the art world can be difficult for artists at all stages of their careers, but compounded for the younger artist seeking to make their initial inroads, Sasol New Signatures functions as both a filter and a showcase for the selected artists. Being one of the chosen artists for the exhibition also bolsters the confidence of these practitioners, telling them they have something to offer, and have the potential to make it as artists.’
Art plays an important part in the cultural fabric of our nation and competitions serve to encourage greater creativity across age, gender and education, as well as to acknowledge the wealth of talent that we have in our country
Nelmarie du Preez, who was the overall winner of the competition in 2015 and is a lecturer in Visual Arts and New Media at Unisa, feels strongly that, ‘For any emerging South African artist it is essential to apply to the Sasol New Signatures. It offers high-profile exposure to artists looking to break into the art world and is a great platform to create consciousness around what contemporary art is and can be. It has given me a kind of “stamp of approval” and a launch pad for my artistic career. I have since had numerous exhibition opportunities and also the chance to sell some of my videos.’ Sasol New Signatures has had many interesting winners over the past 50 years and we caught up with some of these artists to find out how this competition helped them advance their career. Zyma Amien, who was the winner in 2016, says that ‘Winning the Sasol New Signatures Art Competition has given me the opportunity to highlight the problem of the garment and textile workers in a public space. The publicity that this competition has given me via the press, radio, art magazines, etc. has ensured that the plights of these workers are heard. The prize money has been well received and has been used to create artworks for my solo exhibition. By winning the competition, my career in the art world has been launched.’
We recognise that art is one of the most fundamental expressions of human behaviour, and Sasol has thus been assembling a collection of contemporary South African art since the 1960s
‘Winning the Sasol New Signatures has been extremely beneficial to me as an artist starting their art career,’ says winner for 2012, Ingrid Bolton. ‘The exposure and experience of producing a solo show for the Pretoria Art Museum enabled me to move forward with confidence. You meet amazing people along the way and it is a journey not to be forgotten. As the 2011 runner up winner, it helped broaden by network in the visual arts industry and my work received coverage through marketing,’ says Sikhumbuzo Makandula. Liberty Battson (a 2013 merit winner) says that ‘being a merit award winner justified my later win. Scouts, competition judges, gallerists and influential artists were able to see my work on the platform Sasol New Signatures created to do so. The competition is successful in promoting young artists to the right audience. The stature and weight of putting my merit award onto my CV substantiated my effort as I tried to show my sustainability in the art word.’
Merit award winner for 2015, Sethembile Msezane, says that Sasol New Signatures ‘exposed new audiences to my practice, whilst recognising and rewarding work that is political, that alludes to social inequalities which are still present in the “New South Africa”. Young emerging artists need all the help they can get in the early stages of their career.’ Colleen Winter (merit winner 2015) says, ‘I became involved in the art world later in life and by winning a merit award in a prestigious competition such as Sasol New Signatures has been confirmation that I am doing the right thing at this stage of my life.’ The 2017 competition, which appears to have drawn in a record number of entries, will be a difficult task for the judges to choose just one overall winner. 2017’s new ‘hidden’ talent will join a long list of illustrious winners like Minette Vári, Marco Cianfanelli, Luan Nel, Nomthunzi Mashalaba, Hanneke Benadé, Mphapho Hlasane, Wim Botha and, of course, Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng who are representing South Africa at the Venice Biennale this year.