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Giving a (virtual) voice to the arts: A Q&A with Dr Paul Bayliss on the 2021 Absa L’Atelier

With the 2021Absa L’Atelier art competition officially open for entries, artists from across the African continent are being called upon to embrace ‘The Act of Art’ and submit their works for consideration for the 35th iteration of the renowned art competition. As entries continue to flood in, we took the time to sit down with Specialist Art Curator at the Absa Group, Dr Paul Bayliss to discuss this year’s theme, the changing landscape of artmaking during a global pandemic, and what potential winners of this year’s Absa L’Atelier can look forward to. Read the full Q&A with Dr Bayliss below, and find out more about the L’Atelier over HERE.

Absa L'Atelier 2021

This year’s theme for the Absa L’Atelier is ‘The Act of Art’. What does this mean in the context of Africa’s emerging artists and how are you hoping to see it realised through the competition?
This year’s Absa L’Atelier will once again provide an opportunity for visual artists to respond and make their voices heard. With this year’s theme ‘The Act of Art’, we are calling on our continent’s fearless creators to act now and enter. Through ‘The Act of Art’ artists can respond by allowing their voices to be heard, for their passion to come through, to showcase their potential, and to demonstrate their hunger for the arts. As Absa and SANAVA, we are committed to continue putting the basic building blocks in place to ensure that young artists from across the African continent can reimagine their futures and bring their possibility to life.

This year’s competition and awards ceremony will be taking place virtually. In reimagining a competition, ceremony, and exhibition for the online realm, what are some of the new opportunities that have emerged?
The Absa L’Atelier is a competition that takes place in 12 countries across the African continent where Absa has a presence. Artists aged 21 to 40, who are citizens and permanent residents of Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, the Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia (and who reside in these countries), are eligible to enter the Absa L’Atelier. Due to the continued impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, this year’s competition is completely virtual, from the uploading and submission of entries, the adjudication, and the announcement of the winners in September. With a completely virtual Absa L’Atelier, it firstly allows for any artist that has a computer and / or smartphone and access to the internet to be able to enter. Secondly, the adjudicators are leading authorities from across the globe with knowledge of the African diaspora and regardless of where they might be located, they will be able to adjudicate. No longer are we reliant on a person being in a particular geographical region to serve as an adjudicator. With the Absa L’Atelier being completely virtual, we can tap into the global village of expertise. Lastly, the awards ceremony will be livestreamed in September allowing for all participating artists across Africa to join in the celebrations.

Paul Bayliss Specialist Art Curator

Similarly, what can the winners and finalists of the year’s competition look forward to?
The prize for the 2021 Absa L’Atelier has been re-envisioned in line with the global challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic while still in line with our ethos to nurture and support these artists, while empowering them with the necessary skills to grow and manage their careers.

  • A new laptop as well as the provision of sufficient data to enable required online activities.
  • Ten virtual masterclasses with leading experts from across the globe.
  • Mentorship by a leading local authority in the visual art industry from the winning artist’s respective country of residence.
  • Winning artists will work together towards a group exhibition consisting of both individual and collaborative artworks.
  • The winning artists’ exhibition will open in the Absa Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa within a year of winning the prize. All materials required for putting together this exhibition will be covered, within reason, by Absa. If a physical exhibition in the Absa Gallery is not possible, the exhibition will be hosted virtually.
  • In the following year, the exhibition will travel to each of the Ambassadors’ respective countries.
  • Each Ambassador will have the option of hosting a solo exhibition by the Absa Gallery within a five-year period of winning the prize.


The Absa L’Atelier has enjoyed a long partnership with SANAVA over the years. Why are partnerships across the arts and other industries so vital, and how does this serve to further the arts?
As an organisation, we bring possibilities to life and through Africanacity, we give a voice to the arts and culture in the communities where we are active on the continent. Partnerships are important; not only do they give weight, but through partnerships each partner brings both resources and their expertise. In addition to Absa and SANAVA, the Absa L’Atelier has enjoyed a long partnership with the French Embassy in South Africa, the Institut Français d’Afrique du Sud and the Alliance Francaise in South Africa through the Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award. Through our partnerships on the Absa L’Atelier we remain true to the overall strategic focus to identify, nurture, uplift and support young artistic talent from across the African continent.

Paul Bayliss Specialist Art Curator

Absa’s presence in several African countries ensures that the L’Atelier extends to artists across the continent. Are there any commonalities you’ve seen in the overall submissions over the years in terms of the themes and ideas being presented or grappled with?
The depth and breadth of the entries to the Absa L’Atelier are so diverse; there is almost room to argue any point about expression from these rising creatives. Through the entries we find that personal impulses continue to inform art and are its main currency. We are presently finding ourselves in a time in which emerging artists are trying to establish their practice within the cultural and historical context in which they operate. Similarly, these artists are discovering that their work needs to be relevant internationally while remaining central to the local histories, connected to their immediate environment and, first and foremost, true to whom they are as individuals. Political protest and social commentary have over the years featured predominantly. Some of the artworks offer insight into the conditions and contexts from the artist’s countries of origin. Others highlight pressing political issues. More recently, there has been an increased number of photographic works, which is reflective of the dominance of this medium across the continent. What I believe makes the Absa L’Atelier unique, is not what we might necessarily see in the past and current entrants’ artworks but instead the work that will follow by not only the award recipients, but all other entrants into the competition as they continue to use the opportunity and platform the Absa L’Atelier provides.

In many ways, our recent increased migration to digital modes of operation have allowed us to both explore the work being done by artists across the globe as well as showcase the work of African artists to the world on a larger scale. What does this mean for competitions like the Absa L’Atelier?
Through the increased migration to digital modes, it has made the work produced by visual artists more accessible to a potentially much larger audience. For the Absa L’Atelier, it means we can showcase and celebrate the rich artistic talent that we have on the African continent. Suddenly, the work by these artists can be positioned on the global stage and be more accessible to galleries, institutions, and investors wanting to showcase and / or acquire these artworks. Historically, the announcement of the winners and final exhibition of the artworks submitted to the Absa L’Atelier took place in Johannesburg. Using technology, all our colleagues in Absa and partnering organisations across Absa, artists and those interested in the visual arts can now be part of the celebrations while also having an opportunity to view the final exhibition, virtually.

Entries for the 2021 Absa L’Atelier close on 31 May 2021. For more details about the competition, visit the Absa L’Atelier website.

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