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Art as a reflection of the times

WORDS: Mark Read, Director of Everard Read Gallery

Despite the turmoil that South Africa seems to constantly be in, our art and our artists are world-class and thriving.

Everard Read CIRCA South African art gallery
Installation shot of Lady Skollie’s exhibition ‘Good & Evil’ at Everard Read’s CIRCA Gallery

The excellence of the visual arts in our lovely country most fortunately still remains an area of human endeavour that continues to fascinate art enthusiasts internationally. Let’s cast our minds back a mere two decades. South Africa was viewed as a beacon of hope for spiritual renewal from the global community. Our foreign policy was informed by a profound respect for human dignity emanating from our political leaders. A seat had our name on it at the UN Security Council. Our sports teams were feared by opponents and reliable electricity was cheap. Steinhoff was an optimistic, brash, young startup and Sahara Computers had recently been launched by an unknown family from Uttar Pradesh. What a difference a day makes. Sigh…
     The reality of this country is that the warm afterglow of the immediate post-apartheid years camouflaged deep lesions on the face of our beloved nation. In retrospect, it simply couldn’t last. Twenty years later, those now very much exposed wounds threaten to overwhelm any optimistic vision we cling to of a successful contemporary South Africa. The fact is that this fabulously biodiverse and mineral-rich extremity of the continent that begat humankind itself millions of years ago is now home to a vast, characterful and diverse population of people. This rambunctious collection of widely differing genetics is generating a lot of noise as we set about the task of making sense of the challenging cards dealt to this nation by malignant historical forces. South Africa is not a boring place. Certainties are few. Uncomfortable questions are numerous. There are certainly better countries to seek out a lengthy On Golden Pond. Canada and New Zealand spring to mind. Not so much South Africa, where we all exist on the shifting sands of a constantly evolving status quo. And who are the commentators of this cultural upheaval? Some of the most insightful contemporary artists alive today.

Everard Read CIRCA South African art gallery
Installation shot of Phillemon Hlungwani’s recent exhibition at Everard Read Gallery

     It’s difficult to be an artist committed to analysing the quirks and fragilities of the human condition in a society with no pressing challenges. So the ducks don’t begin to migrate on time. Maybe the mayor admits to smoking weed in college, but that’s about it. We have bigger issues. South Africa presents a veritable heaving smorgasbord of information for artists to endlessly pick through and comment upon. The best contemporary artists of this era provide a clear lens through which we may peer into the soul and bowels of our culture. Our fears and prejudices are the soil from which a powerful collection of South African artists derive their sustenance.
     I emphatically believe that these early tremulous decades of this millennia will be viewed as a purple patch for art in South Africa. The artists have catalysed the energy of dealers who have succeeded in illuminating astonishing work with exhibitions both locally and internationally. South African collectors have supported our artists and thereby allowed the maturation of a contemporary art market to a point where it now supports two world-class art fairs in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. This September, Art Joburg will, with renewed focus and energy, host a dazzling array of new work from the studios of many of Africa’s seminal artists. Now in its twelfth year, this fair has become a much-anticipated institution within the financial hub of South Africa. Certainly, as a dealer, I feel profoundly privileged to be a participant in this exciting era. To be associated with the growth and maturation of powerful artists over a long period has allowed our gallery to enhance its effectiveness in the international art arena. It is also deeply pleasurable to be involved in the discovery of incandescent young artists whose work will nourish and delight our intellects in the future.

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