Visual arts in South Africa: Driven by passion


How is the South African visual arts landscape structured?

South Africa’s visual arts sector is a buzzing hive of vibrant activity. Taking a trip to Rosebank’s Keyes Art Mile, the Maboneng Precinct, Lorentzville’s Victoria Yards in Johannesburg or Cape Town’s suburb of Woodstock, the Silo District or De Waterkant will bring you face-to-face with emerging and established artists, curators, galleries, studios and exhibition spaces, all of whom are powering the country’s creative dynamo despite stubborn obstacles.


The diverse kaleidoscope of South African visual art is on display all over the country. Modernist paintings from the early 20th century by artists such as Irma Stern, Gerard Sekoto, Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, Sydney Khumalo and Maggie Laubser regularly fetch record-breaking prices on the secondary market under the hammer of art auction houses like Aspire Art and Strauss & Co. World-renowned artists Zanele Muholi, William Kentridge and Phillemon Hlungwani are represented by STEVENSON, Goodman Gallery and Everard Read Gallery, respectively. Smaller art galleries are scattered across the suburbs of South Africa’s urban hubs, or found exclusively online. 


Unique to the world are South Africa’s numerous collaborative printmaking studios. Encompassing black-and-white linoleum cuts made at community art centres in the 1960s and 1970s, resistance posters and other political art of the 1980s, and the wide variety of subjects and techniques explored by artists in printshops over the last two decades, printmaking has been a driving force in contemporary South African artistic and political expression. Some of these studios include Caversham Press, Lovedale Press, Artist Proof Studio, David Krut Print Workshop, The Artists’ Press, South Atlantic Press, Warren Editions, and 50ty 50ty. 


Public and private museums hold and exhibit works by top South African, African and international artists. These include public-owned entities such as the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Iziko South African National Gallery, and private ones like Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa), the Norval Foundation, the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) and the recently opened Inside Out Centre for the Arts. 


South African corporates are big supporters of the visual arts, with Absa, MTN, the First Rand Group and Standard Bank holding some of the biggest corporate art collections.


Colourful street art adorns walls, bridges and shops. Art is everywhere, if you care to look, and is being kept alive by passionate stakeholders in the primary and secondary art markets. Their commitment to finding innovative solutions to the unique challenges facing the visual arts in South Africa is inspiring.


Tertiary institutions offering visual art training

South Africa is also home to several internationally recognised universities and tertiary education institutions that focus on the visual arts. The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits School of Arts), the University of Johannesburg (UJ), the University of Pretoria (UP), the University of Cape Town (Michaelis School of Fine Art). Each of these institutions house departments and staff dedicated to visual arts. Our research has shown that these centres of learning are doing excellent work and that, despite being under-resourced, are strong academic institutions that are forging the next generation of visual artists. 


Artist Proof Studio (co-founded by artist and Professor Kim Berman) and the Market Photo Workshop (founded by the late, internationally renowned fine art photographer David Goldblatt) are both financially more accessible alternatives to the university space that give potential artists a solid grounding in practical skills.


There is a gap, however, for curatorial training at a training institution or for would-be curators to gain experience through internships or other less formal learning opportunities. 


Additionally, practical bridging platforms are required to help close the gap between graduating from university and becoming a successful art entrepreneur. 


Art museums and galleries at the universities also play a role in providing students (and the public) with critical access to art. The Javett Art Centre at UP operates on a uniquely privatised model that allows it to connect to the university curriculum yet still be able to initiate its own exhibitions and activities. The Wits Art Museum (WAM), while operating on a very different model, is well-known for its exceptionally curated exhibitions, ranging from artefacts from the extensive Standard Bank African Art Collection to works by a range of artists, from Walter Battiss to Andy Warhol.


Smaller spaces offering incubation and support for visual artists

In Johannesburg, The Bag Factory Artist Studios, META Foundation, August House, Ellis House, Transwerke @ Con Hill and Asisibenze are viewed as experimental and supportive structures for emerging visual artists, many of them just out of university. Similar spaces in Cape Town include the A4 Arts Foundation, Studio Voop and Sidetrack Studios. 


On the other end of the spectrum, Business and Arts South Africa (BASA) uses its paid corporate membership model to create a link between the arts and private sector businesses to encourage the growth of creative projects. It provides a unique grant funding model in South Africa in that it funds projects or organisations that have managed to secure sponsorship from a business. 


Art fairs and festivals

Art festivals and fairs also play an important role in promoting the visibility of visual art and artists across South Africa. Art fairs in particular have played an important role in making art more accessible to the general public. 


The National Arts Festival in Makhanda, Eastern Cape, and the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) in the Western Cape are increasingly including more visual arts in their programming. 


FNB Art Joburg (previously branded as the Joburg Art Fair), the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, Turbine Art Fair and RMB Latitudes are viewed as structures that represent both experimental art and art that is more saleable or commercial. Interviews with stakeholders that have many years’ worth of exposure to art fairs indicate that they operate under these directives in a very clear way; representing both the primary and secondary art markets that underpin the visual arts ecosystem in South Africa. 


Turbine Art Fair makes space for established galleries, smaller galleries and artists who aren’t necessarily represented by formal galleries and who generate their own marketing and sales. This sometimes equates to work that is sold at a more accessible price point. FNB Art Joburg, on the other hand, only exhibits galleries by invitation, thus those that participate represent international artists and artists who are much more developed in their careers. 


Foreign institutions offering funding and support to the visual arts

The Goethe Institut, the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS), Pro Helvetia and the British Council are all examples of organisations that aim to support and fund the arts in South Africa by forging links with artists and art events. Our discussions with those working with visual artists daily indicate that these institutions will generally support projects that align with their cultural philosophies, or require that their home country is involved in some way – in both instances, this can cause the integrity of the project to suffer and result in issues on the ground not being addressed. In South Africa, with its multicultural blend of languages, religions, beliefs and ethnicities, there is scope to build partnerships with these institutions in a way that broadens and thickens definitions of culture. This can be a helpful tool in the ongoing battle against xenophobia in South Africa.


Visual art awards and prizes

South Africa has been gifted with many awards and prizes geared towards support of the visual arts. 


The Thami Mnyele Fine Arts Awards, the Sasol New Signatures and the Absa L’Atelier are just a selection of these awards and prizes, geared at emerging and young artists. For more established artists, there is the Standard Bank Young Artist Award, Social Impact Arts Prize and FNB Arts Prize. The Norval Sovereign African Arts Prize, which was initiated in 2021, is open to artists from the African continent, as is the Absa L’Atelier.


While not an art prize, the Abadali Art Development Programme, established by the South African office of J.P. Morgan, is focused on career enhancement through skills development and mentorship.


Female visual artists often struggle against ingrained social and cultural obstacles in South Africa. The ANNA Award, an annual contemporary art prize introduced by Latitudes (an online platform and art fair organised and founded by women) is dedicated to recognising the talent and importance of female-identifying artists in South Africa in order to tackle this problem. 


Where are the opportunities?

Our research indicates that visual arts education in South Africa has not yet been developed to its full potential. VANSA (Visual Arts Network of South Africa) is an independent arts support and development organisation that has implemented various toolkits to assist emerging artists and arts practitioners in honing their skill sets so that they are prepared for a competitive world outside of art school or university. 


Despite a seeming proliferation of art galleries in the urban centres of South Africa, there are still too few for the number of artists in South Africa – and those that exist are difficult to access for young artists and those just starting out in their careers.


A major step that is missing in the ecosystem is that the arts have been deprioritised (and in many schools, completely removed) in formal primary or secondary education. Those that we have specifically questioned on this point recognise the benefits that introducing arts education at a basic level in schools can have for developing confident artists and interested art audiences later in life. There is a feeling that, despite currently being neglected, education in the arts is a critical part of a young artist’s creative journey and that developing culturally engaged individuals who are well-rounded is a critical part of building a robust primary and secondary visual art ecosystem in the country.


Our research points to the fact that funding for the development and incubation of visual arts in South Africa is lacking, and is a huge area of opportunity. There is the impression that government departments often conflate fundamentally different forms of expression such as the arts and sports, when in fact they are different in important ways and require very specialised forms of financial support. Our findings indicate that it’s important to have representatives in government departments dedicated to arts and culture that understand the complexities of the sector. The National Arts Council (NAC) and the National Lotteries Commission (NLC) are targeted to provide funding to a wide range of arts in South Africa but, according to the feedback we received, often this funding is difficult to access due to excessive red tape, corruption and other administrative challenges.

Specific, sustainable funding or sponsorships that pay for artists’ studio space, business skills training and curatorial feedback would be an enormous support to the industry. As would a funded, but commercial exhibition space/gallery that is focused on emerging talent and doesn’t have the financial necessity to hang onto artists as they become more established.


Additionally, there needs to be support or incentives for black curators and arts practitioners to start and sustain successful art galleries. Without this, the sector can’t truly transform to the extent that it needs to.


Visual arts in South Africa works as an ecosystem, with various elements feeding into each other. While all parts of this ecosystem are in need of support, one aspect that is often neglected is arts writing and criticism. South Africa needs to be training and encouraging more arts writers, not only does arts journalism this support and elevate artists’ careers, but it creates an engaged art-buying audience. 


The South African visual arts also require a massive skills injection. There are simply not enough people trained in technical roles such as museum and collection management, and arts administration. Our panel of experts includes individuals that are working hard to ensure that business-oriented skills are baked into artists from early on in their careers, so that they understand the importance of visual art audiences who engage with and purchase art, and are invested in best practices in their career moving forward. This is a crucial part of artists being able to make a successful living. Our experts are of the view that tertiary institutions offering visual arts need to focus in particular on developing students’ professional practical skills, such as invoicing, price points, marketing and commission structures.


What are the solutions?

There are some bright lights on the horizon of the South African visual arts landscape. Our audit of this sector has isolated individuals who have spent their careers developing important platforms for emerging South African artistic talent by developing programmes situated within supportive organisations that they have founded and operated often with very little financial support. These organisations run programmes related to mentorship skills training, but also facilitate exhibition platforms and studio spaces where the visual arts community can gather together and share ideas. They have done this because there is a strong feeling that these initiatives are lacking. These same practitioners believe that the daily administration of arts organisations requires a steady stream of investment from sponsors and supporters of the arts. This financing is needed for the day-to-day running of an organisation, which is sometimes overlooked by funders searching for high-profile and overtly visible financing opportunities. Smaller grassroots initiatives such as these, driven by passionate South Africans in the visual arts sector, have been and are still making important and lasting changes to the local visual arts landscape.


A trend our research has isolated is the explosion of artists using social media to promote themselves and their work, particularly during the extended COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa. This has meant that emerging artists are able to hold their own against the historical dominance of the sector by established art galleries and museums. Through Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, these artists are able to direct their own narrative and how their work is represented. Many of the stakeholders we interviewed noticed a massive upswing of artists using social media to promote themselves and their work during this period. This is an important development because it has opened the visual arts sector to artists that might not have previously been visible to potential buyers and supporters.


So, is there a magic potion? A one-size-fits-all solution to the myriad of challenges facing the visual arts landscape in South Africa? The consensus reached through our consultations within this sector is that cross-collaboration, communication and partnership between different platforms, entities and individuals can breed new opportunities. A sharing of ideas, leveraging of strengths and support and recognising that the primary and secondary visual art markets in South Africa are inextricably linked is the path forward in making a lasting, meaningful and sustained impact.


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