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How creative digital solutions kept the arts alive during COVID-19

By Niel Nortje

MTN SA Foundation’s commitment to the arts took on a new focus as the nation navigated the COVID-19 pandemic. With unprecedented lockdowns impeding the sector and the livelihood of artists, plenty of creativity was needed to keep the MTN SA Foundation’s various support initiatives going.

Niel Nortje MTN Foundation
Niel Nortje is the Manager of the MTN Art Collection

The key for us was to ensure the rich art heritage and beautiful artworks of our country’s talented artists was able to flourish, despite the obstacles. It was imperative that we did everything we could to participate and contribute towards the national effort in keeping the arts alive and to bring some relief to the public, children and artists. 

Recent data shows how severe the impact of the crisis has been for artists and the art sector in general. Emerging and early-career creatives from nearly all arts and culture fields (performance, theatre, film, music, visual arts and crafts) have arguably been affected the worst. According to the South African Cultural Observatory, the cultural and creative industries’ (CCI’s) direct contribution to South African gross domestic product (GDP) fell from R84.3 billion in 2019 to R42.2 billion in 2020, a drop of 50%. While there has been a slow recovery in 2021, which is expected to continue, the contribution of the CCIs to South Africa’s GDP in 2021 is forecast to be R46.9 billion – still 44% less than in 2019.  

Furthermore, at least 45% of South Africa’s cultural and creative industry participants have applied for government funding.   

The main reason for this has been the fact that people were unable to visit art fairs, festivals, galleries, museums, and theatres to see art and performances. In response, it is estimated that at least 61% of the industry continued their exhibitions, creative pursuits, operations, initiatives and campaigns via online and digital platforms to bring these experiences to the public.  

The MTN SA Foundation moved fast to devise and harness digital solutions and partnerships to enable this growing trend.   

Blind Alphabet art exhibition Willem Boshoff South Africa 2021
Willem Boshoff, Blind Alphabet (Letter B)

One such initiative came about through our partnership with the UJ Art Gallery when the Foundation sponsored the establishment of the UJ’s first online gallery platform, the Moving Cube. The platform was created when the exhibition of Willem Boshoff’s Blind Alphabet (Letter B) body of work, owned by MTN, was cancelled at the UJ Art Gallery due to the restrictions.  

By October 2021, with restrictions slightly alleviated, the MTN/UJ partnership was able to open the physical exhibition Blind Alphabet: Babery to Bigeminate: Sculpture and Sound by Willem Boshoff and Jaco Meyer at the UJ Art Gallery through a hybrid-online-and-live event.   

B5 Balanoid from Willem Boshoff’s Blind Alphabet (Letter B)
B4 Baculiform, from Willem Boshoff’s Blind Alphabet (Letter B)

Supporting the youth, aspiring artists and women during the pandemic was an absolute priority. Our initiatives successfully harnessed digitisation and the power of technology to achieve these aims. 

The Voices of Women Museum’s (VoWM) first virtual exhibition of There Is No Silence Here, curated by director of the VoWM, Coral Bijoux, was accompanied by an internal awareness and external media campaign with a focus on Women’s Month and comprised of a live virtual walkabout, or guided tour, of the exhibition.  

there is no silence here voices of women exhibition
Voices of Women Museum, There Is No Silence Here

Meanwhile, further digital solutions in managing MTN’s Art Collection were rolled out by upgrading the CMD Humanities database and management system through Logos Flow and developing a QR Code system to facilitate access to information about the MTN Art Collection in the near future.  

A key focus for us was supporting all regions so that no child was left behind. A standout initiative was the MTN/WHAG Schools Outreach Programme with the William Humphreys Art Gallery (WHAG) in Kimberley. With physical activity not possible, we made sure art materials and illustrated worksheets were dropped off at the schools and that the exercises were conducted by the teachers.

Imbali art books teachers resources
Imbali Adventuring into Art resource books
Imbali art books teachers resources

Further to support of the Arts and Culture Education sector; the Imbali Adventuring into Art resource book website was launched via a webinar series, facilitated by Art Africa and Henley Business School, in August 2020.  

In November 2020, this project would also receive a BASA Award for Community Development through the Arts. The Adventuring into Art website, sponsored by the Foundation, has seen thousands of visitors, offering the practical content of the books to teachers who have not yet received the programme.

Imbali Artbooks Eastern Cape art teacher workshops
Imbali Adventuring into Art resource books (Eastern Cape rollout)

Among other highlights were a collaborative art exhibition titled Lefatshe Ke La (Mo)rena with the Constitutional Hill Trust at the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill for the Basha Uhuru Youth Arts Festival in November 2020.  

The Foundation team also partnered with MTN SA’s Human Resources department as part of the company’s staff volunteerism programme and facilitated an art therapy project at the Umvelinqani Safe Space and Youth Development Centre in Winterveld.  

MTN SA’s ‘Its Go Time’ brand campaign in 2021 allowed for an art component to pay homage to health care workers. Five emerging artists were invited to participate.  

To further increase awareness of the MTN Art Collection and its programmes among staff, an exhibition titled Faces, Places and Spaces, was installed, and opened at MTN’s Innovation Centre in September 2021.  

We are extremely proud to have played a role in keeping the arts alive over the past two years, but we realise the journey has only just begun. We intend building and expanding on these and other initiatives in 2022. 

Niel Nortje is the Manager of the MTN Art Collection. 

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