Inga Somdyala was recently named the winner of the 2022 MTN X UJ New Contemporary Awards. The awards, which returned this year after a number of years, saw four artists working under the guidance of the curator Khanya Mashabela to create new installations for the Subject: Object exhibition at UJ Art Gallery.
The process of curating the exhibition has taken place over the course of the year and has seen Mashabela working closely with each artist, as well as conducting considerable amounts of research.
We spoke with Mashabela about her research interests, curatorial process, the resultant artworks, and working with the knowledge and support of the New Contemporary Legacy Panel.
In taking up the role of curator earlier this year, you conducted a lot of your research online and through exhibitions and studio visits. Could you tell us a bit about how this process went?
I attended independent, artist-initiated projects located at platforms like Bubblegum Club and Instagram, and looked at university Fine Art programmes around the country. I wanted to use the MTN X UJ New Contemporary Awards as an opportunity to engage with artists that I had not had the opportunity to work with before. There was a fine balance between giving opportunities to artists who haven’t had large-scale commissioned projects before, but who were also ambitious and prepared to work on this scale. The process has been rewarding, and each artist pleasantly surprised me with their proposals.
MTN x UJ New Contemporary Awards focuses on the development of the digital arts sphere, what influence do you think this format has on the artistic practice?
While I wanted to engage with artistic practice online, I also did not want it to be an exhibition about the internet. The digital sphere has become ingrained in the ways that we think and work. I believe that it has already become intrinsic to most, if not all, contemporary artistic practice because it is where we find, create, and share information.
You speak about the relationship between selfhood and objecthood in the contemporary context as being ‘a relationship which is often mediated through technology.’ Is this a relationship that you’ve been able to reconcile or further contextualise through the curatorial process? Is it something that’s apparent in the artworks?
Each artist’s installation interweaves physical and virtual material in one way or another, sharing observations about their own subjectivity or about subjectivity in the wider social context. Our sense of self is manifested in the objects that we use to create our physical and virtual environments. The boundaries between the object world and our inner world are permeable. Natalie Paneng approaches this from the perspective of her individual psychology, Thandiwe Msebenzi explores familial psychology, Inga Somdyala navigates the psychology of nationhood, and Callan Grecia considers the almost globalised psychology created by the internet. Much of the exhibition utilises sound and video art, but it is placed alongside installation, painting, sculpture, and photography.
You’ve had the support of the legacy panel throughout this process, comprised of previous MTN New Contemporary curators. How has this impacted your research and curation for the New Contemporaries programme?
It is incredibly valuable to have the input of such experienced curators, and to hear the obstacles they faced during their own iterations of New Contemporaries. Though rewarding, it has also been a challenging journey. It was comforting to see how they overcame obstacles to execute successful outcomes, and that they believed that I could create a successful outcome as well – especially because this iteration of New Contemporary Awards is particularly significant as the relaunch after a prolonged break.
Could you speak a bit about the new works created by the four artists? How do each of them engage with the overarching curatorial theme?
Callan Grecia took the approach of installing his paintings and drawings to simulate the visual culture of the internet and the works demonstrate his established practice of smashing together ‘high’ and ‘low’ visual culture. Natalie Paneng uses her sense of humour to navigate the process of attempting to take possession of her physical body, and to reconcile her personal and cultural identities. Thandiwe Msebenzi’s installation is a continuation of her Radical Makazi project, which began on Instagram during the pandemic, where she uses video, photography, and installation to explore familial grief. Inga Somdyala also uses gestures and objects in a video performance which took place on Roeland Street between the fire station and the still gutted Parliament building, acting as commentary on the stagnation of the ‘national project’.