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Absa L’Atelier 2019 brings African artists’ possibilities to life

Absa, in partnership with the South African National Association for the Visual Arts (SANAVA), today announced the winners of the prestigious Absa L’Atelier competition, which celebrated its 34th year and saw rich and diverse talent emerge from across the continent.

Absa L'Atelier African art competition winner
Raji Bamidele

Raji Bamidele, Nkhensani Rihlampfu, Winifrid Luena and Phoka Nyokong, were the top winners at the lavish event that took place at the Absa Dome, Cape Town, during the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa, which is the first time the awards have been held outside of Johannesburg.
     Nigerian-based visual artist Raji Bamidele’s winning portfolio drew inspiration from the experiences that moulded him as a young man and wove in differing materials and methods of contemporary and modern art forms to call into question the existence of time and being.
     ‘My works examine the everyday innermost activities of mankind, exploring personal and political narratives, focusing mostly on the resilience of the human spirit,’ he says.
     South African multi-media artist Nkhensani Rihlampfu’s work aimed to expose the manipulation of communication through gesture and assumption by using fantastical figures to immerse viewers in a reality founded in perception.
     ‘The work exists in the overlapping margin between truth and ideology; it is in this space that we each discover our identity and acknowledge the importance of communication. We are presented with familiar structures and recognisable characteristics, but never definitive facts,’ he explains.

Absa L'Atelier African art competition winner
Phoka Nyokong

The third winner, Tanzanian visual artist Winifrid Luena’s work was a study of individuality over individualism. ‘There is a sense in the world at times that being an individual is a collective process – that it is part of a larger argument intended to bring some kind of human liberation, that it is an act of authority and power over the self – which is why I divide these two terms,’ he says. ‘If individualism is a process, then individuality is a state.’ His work strived to illustrate that dichotomy.
     Nyokong walked away with the esteemed Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award, which is bestowed on the most promising emerging South African artist aged 25 to 35 to enter the competition. Absa and SANAVA in partnership with the Embassy of France, IFAS and the Alliance Francaise in South Africa, introduced the award in 2004 to honour Sekoto’s legacy, which changed the narrative of how the work and lives of black South African artists are perceived, valued and documented.
     Nyokong was selected as the Gerard Sekoto winner because his photography brought through the themes of gender (mis)identity, collective social anxiety and the temporality of the human material experience.
     ‘The work, which uses the medium of studio photography to create a performative narrative, does this by imagining the human as a being whose social identity cannot be pinned down to mere rigid gender associations – a being whose socialised nature means that they may only negotiate even their most intimate emotions, particularly their fears, in the sociable structures within which they are born and bred,’ he says.

Absa L'Atelier African art competition winner
Winifrid Luena

Absa L’Atelier has always worked to provide the dynamic, inspiring and young visual artists from across the African continent the platform they need to explore these types of themes and contemporary issues and to bring their possibilities to life – and in its 34 years, it has built a strong legacy for achieving this.
     ‘We believe in giving art light by nurturing the talent that we have within the continent, and we find it deeply inspiring to witness the multifaceted works that are presented year on year,’ says Dr Paul Bayliss, Absa’s Senior Specialist Art Curator, Absa Art Museum.
     As a way of building on Absa L’Atelier’s legacy and to ensure that it remains at the cutting edge of the evolving art world to provide Africa’s promising up-and-coming artists with the right type of support, Absa L’Atelier introduced changes in the 34th installation of the competition where the entire adjudication process was for the first time streamlined through an online platform. The 4th Industrial Revolution signals a new era of shared prosperity, agility and driving a sustainable future, which is why the Absa L’Atelier has seen various adaptations this year.

Absa L'Atelier African art competition winner
Nkhensani Rihlampfu

Bamidele, Rihlampfu and Luena will become ambassadors and will get a simultaneous one-month residency in Paris in March 2020. Partners from Cité Internationale des Arts will offer critical support by mentoring the ambassadors and connecting them to other artists. Ambassadors will then be brought back to South Africa in April 2020 for a three-month residency which will be divided into two parts, one with the University of Pretoria for one month and the other with the Nirox Foundation for two months. The residencies will aim to expose them to the Johannesburg visual art scene, as well as provide them with eight masterclasses with industry professionals that will assist them in building and managing their career. The residency will also give them time to work towards an exhibition featuring their own work and work made in collaboration with each other, which will open at the Absa Gallery in Johannesburg and then travel to their respective home countries.

Absa L'Atelier African art competition winner
Phoka Nyokong

‘African artists contribute a unique aesthetic and cultural vision into a global arts industry. Artists remain an integral part of society’s conscious and a reservoir of cultural interpretations. This competition seeks to support the career of artists as ambassadors,’ says SANAVA President, Avitha Sooful.
     Nyokong, as the winner of the Gerard Sekoto award, will enjoy a three-month residency at the Cite Internationale des Arts in 2020 and a travelling exhibition through the Alliance Française network in South Africa in 2021.
     ‘This competition, which has been supported for more than a decade by the Embassy of France, the French Institute and the Alliance Française, has created a true cultural dialogue between our two countries. Through a vibrant experience in France, and reinforced international recognition, it has allowed young artists to inspire and be inspired, to teach and learn, to explore and exhibit in a broader way,’ says French Ambassador to South Africa, Aurélien Lechevallier.  ‘We strongly encourage Africa’s young artists to pursue the opportunity provided by Absa L’Atelier and use the rich culture and inspiration that the continent offers to hone their craft and tell truly African stories,’ concludes Dr Bayliss.

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