Just before Youth Day this year, RMB’s Think Precinct in Sandton welcomed Edoardo Villa’s thought-provoking landmark sculpture Confrontation (1978), a fitting tribute to South Africa’s history and future and one of our most prolific and important sculptors.
South Africa’s Creative Economy – that sector of the national economy derived from creative endeavours and the downstream businesses they create – represents around 3% of our GDP. While the sector formally employs only a small but important percentage of the workforce, its levels of informal employment are much larger, though not as measurable. Its low barriers to entry make the sector attractive to the most vulnerable parts of our society, in particular women and the youth. That accessibility feeds into the disproportionate richness of creative talent we have in South Africa – evident in galleries, museums and performance spaces all over the world.
In light of its potential for growth and upliftment in South African society, RMB has been and continues to be one of the Creative Economy’s biggest corporate supporters, in line with its credo of ‘solutionist thinking’. As Gert Kruger, Chief Risk Officer at RMB and the Executive Custodian of the RMB Art Collection, puts it, ‘RMB believes in art, in all its diverse forms, as a universal language. It has no boundaries and has the ability to capture the spirit of the time, transform lives, impact the economy and unite societies. Art is not a results game – here, everyone wins.’
Part of the greater FirstRand Foundation, the RMB Fund supports arts organisations across different disciplines. The bank also looks to create platforms to showcase artists and art. In one case, they have started this process close to home.
RMB’s Sandton headquarters feature a ‘Think Precinct’ – a space for reflection, engagement, conversation and interaction which opens up its corporate courtyard and street access to make it publically accessible. Now fully restored and relocated to the precinct, Edoardo Villa’s magnificent sculpture Confrontation (1978) forms an important centrepiece, courtesy, acquired by RMB in the mid-1990s.
Edoardo Villa (1915 – 2011) is widely regarded as one of South Africa’s most important and prolific sculptors. Born in Bergamo, Italy, where he began his studies, he was interned in a South African prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, and decided to settle in the country after his release. Throughout his long life, he produced a range of work mostly in steel and bronze, which expressed his enduring fascination and grappling with the mixed artistic traditions of his lived reality – a European modernist living in Africa. Also central to his practice was his choice to live and work in Johannesburg, which brought him face to face with the country’s many tensions, contradictions and resulting creative impetus.
Decades of daring sculptural experimentation with various forms and approaches led him to the point where he was able to produce the immense steel sculpture Confrontation (1978), undoubtedly among the best and most significant works Villa produced. Almost four metres high, the work marks a major conceptual departure in his approach in the late 1970s. Angular, cut steel, opposed and grouped vertical forms and sharp planes replaced the organic, sensual curvature of his earlier figural works, which were often far more explicit attempts to marry African sculptural traditions with the conceptual and formal paradigms of European art movements.
It is no accident that Confrontation appears as one of Villa’s major statements after the trauma of the Soweto uprising of 1976, which resonated around the world. While never an explicitly political artist, he did make several works that alluded to sociopolitical circumstance. The Prisoner series in the early 1980s is an example of this, but Confrontation is perhaps his most monumental comment on the racial conflict and dangerous anger of the high apartheid era, emblematised by 1976. Villa allowed the sculpture to rust, emphasising the idea of conflict in the piece as the grouped figures took on different shades of red-browns and oranges.
The restoration and relocation of the work to RMB’s Think Precinct reflects the company’s belief that art can engage people beyond the boundaries of the business, and incorporate the wider population. The timing of the relocation is significant, says Carolynne Waterhouse, Corporate Marketing and Art Ambassador at RMB: ‘We wanted the unveiling of the relocation and the integration of the sculpture with the more public and street-facing space to coincide with this time of Youth Day June 16 celebrations. It is an opportune moment to reflect on our tumultuous history over 40 years since the work was made. Confrontation’s changed position enables it to be viewed by a new generation of contemporary youth and art lovers. From our point of view at RMB, we consider the work to be a national treasure, which is our privilege to own and display.’
The new positioning of the work will spark engagement and a better understanding of the concepts that lie behind the inherent tensions among the grouped vertical figures; the harsh cuts and planes inclining aggressively towards each other or off at acute, dismissive angles. The implicit drama of one of South Africa’s most important conceptual and political sculptures can now be appreciated by all, and will hopefully lead to introspection and debate.
The repositioning of the work is part of RMB’s legacy commitment to the arts, which the company perceives as being inextricably linked to its business philosophy, one based on what it terms ‘ethical innovation’.
It is also consistent with RMB’s commitment to its corporate art collection, which totals in excess of 2 000 works. Concludes Kruger, ‘Our collection is a tangible example of deliberately sharing original creative energy across the workplace, which art naturally inspires. We’re proud of the inclusiveness of our collection, and the fact that the best pieces are not reserved for executive floors, but are casually accessible, and often personally chosen throughout the offices and spaces between – and now incorporating the street-facing space on the Think Precinct and its adjacent pavement.
‘Art is a powerful visual communicator, with the special ability to represent and comment on our multicultural reality. Through our sustained interest in and support of art, we look to celebrate and reward the unique depth of creative energy and talent that abounds in South Africa. Especially around this Youth Day celebration, the spirit of this time and the sacrifices of the past could be positively channelled into building a shared future for all, where solutionist thinkers are encouraged to change our world for the better.’
For art lovers and the general public alike, the sharing of this powerful, thought-provoking landmark sculpture is a worthy expression of these national aspirations. Visit Confrontation at RMB, 1 Merchant Place, Sandton.
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