This month sees the celebration of National Women’s Day on 9 August, ushering in a month-long opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements and the important role that women of all races and religions have played and continue to play in South Africa. In addition, 21 August is the day that the winner, runner-up and merit award winners of Sasol New Signatures 2019 will be announced.
In honour of National Women’s Day, we shine the spotlight on the achievements of women in the Sasol New Signatures art competition, which is celebrating a milestone of 30 years of sponsorship from Sasol. Cate Terblanche, the curator of the Sasol Art Collection and herself a female powerhouse in the world of South African art, told us that ‘paging through past catalogues, it is notable to see how many female finalists have carved out exceptional careers; from running cutting-edge galleries to curating and exhibiting in international exhibitions and biennales, to providing educational opportunities and managing community projects.’
Following Terblanche’s modus operandi and looking through the past Sasol New Signatures records, names like Ingrid Bolton (2012); Dot Vermeulen (2013); Elizabeth Balcomb (2014) Nelmarie du Preez (2015); Zyma Amien (2016); Lebohang Kganye (2017) and Jessica Storm Kapp (2018) all catch the eye as they show that the past seven years have all heralded a female overall winner! On closer inspection, the number of female artists who have gained judges’ recognition in other categories and who have been selected for inclusion in the prestigious catalogue is striking.
Hanneke Benade, a full-time artist, who won the competition in 1993 while completing her final year at the University of Pretoria, acknowledges the impact Sasol New Signatures had on her career. ‘It was a big deal winning such a competition and it certainly gave me recognition.’ Benade can’t definitively answer the question of female dominance in this competition but puts forward her theory that she ‘was very determined to win the competition and be seen. I was very young and fearless.’ She suggests that other women entrants probably had the same attitude.
Liberty Battson, whose artworks are in the Sasol Art Collection as well as in the Telkom, University of Pretoria and Absa collections and numerous private collections, was a Sasol New Signatures Merit Award Winner in 2013. Her take on the proliferation of female winners is that ‘statistically more women study art than men do. Not to mention equality and the combination of attention to detail and confidence. These attributes provide a perfect winning candidate.’
Terblanche cautioned about stereotyping female winners, as their career paths all differ, but pointed out that passion and absolute dedication to their craft were common threads, as well as the ability to juggle several tasks at once.
‘I worked with Bronwyn Lace (2006 Certificate Winner) on a site-specific installation that she did for Sasol, and she is a case in point. Her commitment to her art is a priority for her and her work is regularly showcased in various exhibitions all while she seamlessly juggles home life and her position as director for The Centre for the Less Good Idea.’
Amita Makan was a runner up in the Sasol New Signatures art competition in 2009 and has since gone on to be the recipient of a number of international residencies, including the Artist Residence Programme at the Centre for World Exposition of Arts and Culture in Hyderabad, India (2010) and in 2014 she headed to France for a stint at Cité International des Arts in Paris. Interestingly, back in 1994, Makan was awarded a British Council Scholarship to study Gender Policy and Planning at the University College London in the United Kingdom. With her academic background, it was engaging to hear her perspective on the recurrent theme of female fortunes in Sasol New Signatures. She sums it up by saying, ‘Sasol New Signatures is a powerful platform to raise the profile of women artists. I admire the competition for not imposing age restrictions, which can also restrict women.’
The Sasol New Signatures art competition is underpinned by strong relationships with both The Association of Arts Pretoria and The City of Tshwane (under the auspices of the Pretoria Art Museum). Hannelie du Plessis and Gerda Guldemond are both curators at the museum and have worked together on the Sasol New Signatures exhibition for the past 15 years. These two share their analysis on the gender prevalence, by saying that recent past winners had a certain humility about their work and about winning. To du Plessis and Guldemond, this positioned them as excellent examples for future winners.
Another interesting aspect is the connection the female winners have with tertiary institutions. Three of the recent winners, Ingrid Bolton, Nelmarie du Preez and Zyma Amien, all lecture at a tertiary level while carving out their careers, emphasising the role of continued education as an indispensable part of an artist’s career and development.
Amien, who won the competition in 2016, held her solo in 2017 and went on to be a judge in 2018, shared her experience saying: ‘By winning this competition, my career in the art world has been launched. I am extremely grateful to Sasol for investing in the arts and helping start the careers of emerging artists. I would strongly encourage any artist wishing to be discovered to create work for Sasol New Signatures.’
Minette Vari who was a Merit Award Winner in 1990 echoes these reflections, ‘Winning a prestigious art prize certainly builds one’s confidence to strive for further success. It is a marvellous opportunity to get your work noticed. Platforms such as Sasol New Signatures can be so beneficial. Be curious. Make sure that you engage with the world. Get your work seen.’
Excitement is building as we count down to the announcement of honours in this year’s Sasol New Signatures art competition. Will we once again see a woman taking the top prize? The answer will remain a mystery until the judges make the final announcement on the night of 21 August at the Pretoria Art Museum.
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