In its third presentation in 2017, the Sanlam Portrait Award has become a star feature on the biennial South African art competition calendar.
Launched in 2013 in collaboration with the Rust-en-Vrede Gallery in Durbanville, Cape Town, the Sanlam Portrait Award is modelled on the UK’s BP Portrait Award, presented in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery.
Unlike the BP Portrait Award, which invites worldwide entries and is restricted to paintings only, the Sanlam Portrait Award is open to entries of any two-dimensional work in any medium, excluding photography or lens-based media, but restricted to persons with permanent residence in South Africa.
The inaugural competition in 2013 exceeded expectations, with work of a high standard received from South African-based emerging, amateur and established artists. The relatively small Rust-en-Vrede Gallery had to call in all of its volunteers to assist with processing the entries – which were in excess of 1 800. This was a steep learning curve for the gallery, which now handles the entries with efficiency and ease.
Portrait of a Young Man by Heather Gourlay-Conyngham, the winning work for 2013, set a precedent for the next competition, which took place in 2015. The second run of the competition saw quality over quantity. While fewer entries were submitted than before, the work was of a markedly higher standard.
Much like its UK counterpart, the majority of the entries that the Sanlam Portrait Award receives are conventional interpretations of a portrait – where the head and shoulder, full-frontal view predominates. Yet, among these there are also images that manipulate the standard understanding of what a portrait is and grab the viewer’s imagination. The entries have grown more diverse as artists have explored combined media, compositional variations, odd formats and reworked iconic portraits from the past.
The 2015 winning portrait was of a young boy. In After the Match, John Pace eloquently captured the bedraggled face of disappointment on his son. The freshness of the paint and the uncomplicated presentation captured the judges’ attention and, after much discussion and argument, they awarded it the top prize.
In 2017, entries to the competition increased sharply again and the selection of artworks in the top 40, though dominated by paintings, included a greater proportion of drawings than ever before. Kate Arthur’s winning portrait Genna and Felix, also pushed the conventional with a group portrait featuring two individuals confronting the viewer head-on. Kate Arthur had made the top 40 in 2015 and in 2017 she not only won but also had another portrait, Kwena, included in the selection.
Judging such a competition is no easy feat. It requires stamina, knowledge and openness to difference, debate and conflicting visions. Since 2013, each winning work and the further 39 works that make up the Top 40 exhibition have been selected by a different panel of three judges – one of whom is invited from outside South Africa. On all three occasions, this person has been BP Portrait Award winner: Susanne Du Toit (2013), Craig Wylie (2008) and Peter Monkman (2009). Complemented by two local judges from academic and curatorial backgrounds, the three-headed judging panels have demonstrated an independence of mind and sagacity that makes the Sanlam Portrait Awards a credible reflection of some of the top talented artists in the country.
For any artist to have succeeded in being selected for the top 40 touring exhibition is a significant achievement and an acknowledgement of quality. As Peter Monkman pointed out, persistence and diligence eventually pay off – he had entered the BP Portrait Award some eleven times before having a work accepted for exhibition in the final round of judging.
The Sanlam Portrait Award 2017 exhibition begins its nationwide tour at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery in February 2018 and will be hosted in Durban, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Knysna and George during the course of the year.
For participating artists, this presents nationwide exposure. For Sanlam Private Wealth, the support of this exhibition and the R100 000 prize fits well with its philosophy of tailoring their services to individuals. For the Rust-en-Vrede Gallery, this competition has provided a very necessary source of funds and creative energy that is required by any NPO to remain active and relevant in its community.
The next Sanlam Portrait Award will be presented in 2019. If 2017 is anything to go by, the next award winner and exhibition will undoubtedly be something to look forward to.
The Sanlam Portrait Award 2017 Top 40 exhibition will be on view at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery from 8 February to 7 March. The opening event takes place on 7 February at 18:00.
KwaZulu-Natal Society of Arts Gallery, Bulwer, Durban, from 11 to 29 April 2018.
GFI Gallery, Port Elizabeth, May to June 2018 (exact dates TBC)
Centenary Gallery, Free State Festival, UFS, Bloemfontein, 8 to 27 July
Knysna Fine Arts, Knysna, August 2018 (exact dates TBC)
George Museum, George, September 2018 (exact dates TBC)