Greatmore's Winter Open Studios

Winter Open Studio Exhibition

The smell of cinnamon and a variety of spices being stewed up for a vegetable soup greet me as I enter Greatmore. Boiled red wine and lemons or Gluvine was the welcoming drink. Lionel Davis, one of the founders of Greatmore Studio and a self-confessed socio-political and cultural art activist, welcomed us all and highlighted the plight of the visual arts in South Africa. “14 years later and the visual arts are still not being supported by government. Music, drama and other arts get support ... But the Non-governmental sector has kept the visual arts alive,” said Davis, staying true to his fight for the arts and adding that, “Without art we are just robots in society.”

As I walked through the passages, trying not be a robot in society by not embracing the creative arts, I was engulfed with an overwhelming sense of euphoria – artists such as Garth Erasmus, Xolelani Pat Matshikiza, Ena Carstens, Norman O’Flynn, Nadja Daehnke, Madi Phala, Mandla Vanyaza, Velile Soha and Lionel Davis had all once upon a time and still upon this time graced these studios. However I was not there to peep into their studios but rather to grace the Winter Open Studio Exhibition which marked the 2nd collaborative opening at Greatmore Studios this year. Look I won’t lie the work was nice and reflected a variety of styles. Greatmore has a way in which it captures the spirit of all genres of arts whilst embracing both local and international artists in their residency programs. Sadly the greatness of Greatmore and its many talented artists and their open studios stole the limelight from the main artists on exhibit, namely: Steve Bandoma, Sadia Salim, Merid Tafesse and Mpho Ngwenya. “Focus, focus, focus,” I kept telling myself as I tried to stick to subject artists.

It would be criminal of anyone not to be in awe of Steve Bandoma’s works. Bandoma, a DRC-born artist who has been in South Africa since 2005 stood by the window ledge wearing camouflage gear. In our conversation, over a glass of gluvine, he casually told me that:

“My culture is my physique and my art is my spiritual level. So it doesn’t mean that because I am black I must show people directly my culture. I think this is globalization. We are in a time of exchanging cultures.” He then pointed me to his Cosmos piece as well as a long white rope hanging from the ceiling, with syringes infused into it and condoms at the end of it. He calls it the White Penis and says: “This work talks about education and for me White Penis is an educated penis because it knows how to protect itself with the HIV issues, you know?” he laughs and we change the subject to finding meaning in his Cosmos piece.

But seriously though, I’m tired of black artists being constantly placed in a category that is labelled: You-will-deal-with-identity-and-stick-to-navigating-your-culture-through-your-art-work-only. So to see Bandoma embracing the conceptual form is encouraging and a sign that black artists do not have to be stuck to painting and sculpture and that they are fully capable of smart conceptual work.

In the opposite room which looked like the kiddies room, in this house-turned-studio, I found Sadia Salim’s work which filled the floor. “I work with ceramics, I work with clay and here you are seeing various impressions that were formed whilst I was doing this residency in Cape Town,” she says as she welcomes me in, “The present work is made mainly by slip casting and throwing on a potter’s wheel and fired in an electric kiln.” The work resonates a feeling of serenity, beauty and meticulous craftsmanship. It is still a work-in-progress though and will be completed at the University of Johannesburg which is the second phase of Salim’s residency in South Africa.

The next room was Merid Tafesse where one was greeted by charcoal drawings that are very playful in nature. It almost feels as if they were drawn without any seriousness, but there they were – each captivatingly captioned appropriately and extracting contemporarily relevant themes such as xenophobia. When asked about the charcoal and monochrome nature of his work he replies: “Don’t ask me why black, black for a reason.” The response in itself says a lot on issues of identity and mapping out black experiences via charcoal drawings.

The last artist on exhibit was Mpho Ngwenya. Now here one tends to feel transcendence into a spiritual state of being. The pieces or let me say sculptures I paid attention to were made of corrugated iron and took no particularly fixed form, yet for him, had a meaning. “The corrugated iron as a medium of my expression was revealed to me by my underground movement or ancestors,” he says “It’s a fascinating medium and reflects the environment I come from.”

Still stuck on the gluvine I walk passed another open studio which had a lot of “oo’s” and “aah’s”. I’d profiled the four artists on exhibit, my job was done, but the “oo’s” and the “aah’s” was something I couldn’t miss. Turns out Nkoali Nkawa had put up five pieces of his work. “Oo!” I thought; I had never seen anything like it. The detail. The realness. It was real life vivified through charcoal and varnish. Born in Welkom, arrived in Cape Town in 2002 and took up his residency at Greatmore studios. Nkawa says: “You see I worked in the mines for six years of my life. So the black and white you see here is a reflection of my underground experiences where the only light was your light in that darkness. That showed that there was life in darkness,” as he explains his sharply dark black on black images. Nkoali Nkawa is, like Salim, moving to Johannesburg and is bound to captivate art audiences there. “The only place that will fully expose my work is Joburg,” Adds Nawa.

The gluvine had finally kicked in and it was time to go. Greatmore Studios is located on 47 – 49 Greatmore road in Woodstock, Cape Town. And I look forward to returning to the homely studios on the 14th of November 2008 when they will host a major 10th year celebration.

Text by Unathi Kondile