Joburg 2020/2021 The Art Company Soweto’s exhibition is about artists shifting their gaze onto the pandemic

The exhibition featuring 25 prints by 25 participating artists from around Johannesburg, opens at No.120 Main Reef Road, Benrose 6-30 November 2021.

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

About almost 30 years ago I opened my first bank account at an FNB branch in this industrial suburban area of Johannesburg known as Benrose, East of Johannesburg, as a working young man hoping from one job to another after high school, still looking for a purpose in life.

But as it were, the opening of this account was also very important in different ways, as besides the need for my pathetic wages to be paid through the account, it was especially needed for the payment of something special. It was the first account into which my ever first writing gig’s cheque was deposit into. You can imagine the happiness to be receiving your first pay cheque for your creative work when you are still young and trying to find your foot as a writer.

That pay cheque was from New African magazine in the UK, for a very special article I speculatively submitted to this leading international pan African magazine, for consideration for publishing. Never mind the amount, and let me say, then it could pay my rent and I would be left with some change to go out for two weekends at least.The article was about the assassination of the late leader of the South African Communist Party, Chris Hani in 1993.

Well this week on Monday, October 25, I found myself back in Benrose, and those memories were triggered, as I noticed how this mainly industrial area has not changed that much, except that there are more empty buildings than before, and a good number of these industrial buildings have a for sale sign. It looks like unlike the Benrose of 1993 that I know, which was populated  by various industries, from engineering workshops to even having a full function branch of FNB, the area is actually now a shell of its former busy self, thanks to industries closing down,recently exacerbated by Covid-19 which has clearly taken its toll on the once memorable eastern Johannesburg suburb of Benrose.

But unlike the last time I was here to open my first bank account, this time I am here to speak to two innovative visual artists Molefe Thwala and Thabo Motseki, who run an art studio that also houses a printmaking workshop, operating under the auspices of The Art Company Soweto, started in 2016, but formalized in 2018.

Molefe and Thabo are in a building called Creative Collab, owned by fellow artist Mariapaola McGurk. It is a vibrant art hub which at its height housed about 10 other visual artists that had their studios there. That was before Covid-19 struck in 2020, disrupting especially the creative sector as it decimated many businesses in the creative sector. The building is on the market at the moment.

But ironically, the arrival of Covid-19, in 2020 fortunately created an opportunity for The Art Company Soweto.

“We moved here in 2020 at the height of Covid-19 during level 5 of lockdown as the building we used to house our printmaking workshop and studio in Mofolo, Soweto, was locked because it is a government building that could not operate during lockdown.

“It is then that we got in touch with Mariapaola and relocated our studio and the printmaking workshop here. In hindsight, the arrival of Covid-19 and our subsequent move from Mofolo to this building was a blessing in disguise. To start with, we worked hard during that time, creating work and putting up exhibitions online, reaching a global captive art market,” said Molefe. Mariapaola and Thabo had collaborated on a creative project before, smoothing the way for negotiations that followed The Art Company Soweto’s move into the building, renting a huge space to run the printmaking workshop and the studio.

During 2020 AND 2021,The Art company Soweto also had exhibitions at several venues, accessible online, such as in Pretoria, in Parkhurst at the Art Room Gallery and another one in Switzerland, and these exhibitions were well received.

“What happened during this time is that the art market was looking for new emerging art markets in Africa, South America and Asia. This was because the traditional art markets of the US and Europe were closed at the time, forcing art collectors to look elsewhere, Africa included,” Molefe added.

To date The Art company Soweto, which in its foundational stages had five members, Molefe, Thabo , Charles Kholobeng, Lebogang Motseki and Snomzi Seshoba, is a well consolidated art company with a number of successful exhibitions behind it, the most recent exhibitions being the one at Riboville Hotel in Waterfall, and another one currently on at Mangrove Galleryin Braamfontein.

Now only comprising the two artists, Thabo and Molefe, who are printmakers who honedd their skills at the famous Johannesburg art school Artist Proof Studio started by Professor Kim Berman and the late Nhlanhla Xaba, The Art Company Soweto, will next month put up what promises to be an exciting exhibition at Creavive Collab Hub.

Titled Joburg 2020/2021, this exhibition a collaboration involving 25 artists selected from Johannesburg, both professional printmakers and first time printmakers.  Each artist will have two work open to buyers in the market, but will exchange another art piece of their own with that of another participating artist. All linocuts, these works will be available in limited editions.

“This exhibition we have been working on for a year now. The initial idea was to have exchanges of works among artists as it is difficult for artists to afford collecting art including their own. But because they are in editions, we then decided that two editions from each artist’s works will be available to the market, and hence this exhibition.

“We sent out a call to artists to participate in this exhibition, selecting 15 artists who work in other media other than printmaking, and 10 artists who are professional printmakers. We held master classes with those artists who are doing printmaking for the first time to prepare them in creating linocuts. All these art pieces that will be part of the exhibition are linocuts, and the prices vary according to each artist’s market positioning,” said Molefe.

And significantly all the artworks have been inspired by the situation the artists found themselves in as a result of the world pandemic, and therefore, in the works there is lot of introspection and deep investigation and contemplation about the human conditions under existential threat as a result of Covid-19. In other words, this body of work is a mirror of the artists’ fears, thoughts and even vision of a post Covd-19 world.

“In this exhibition there are three things that dominated the artists’ narratives, and in the first instance, some artists are looking at the present situation that humanity finds itself in in relation to Covid-19. In the second instance there are those artists whose works look back into the past, the losses we have suffered as a result of Covid-19. In the third instance there are some works that look beyond Covoid-19, seeing a bright future after all what we have undergone as human beings due to the global pandemic,” says Molefe.

The current dominant conversation taking place in the arts market, is the question of the place of art produced during this period by artists in the market, with some hinting that the art works being produced right now, will soon be some of the most valuable artworks in the future

Molefe and Thabo emphasized that the formation of The Art Company Soweto, was based on the principle that artists must be independent completely of sponsors with vested interests who would like to direct the aesthetic narrative for their narrow agenda, instead of letting artists exercise the freedom to create their own narratives. As a result the Joburg 2020/2021 exhibition is sponsored from the pockets of the artists themselves with strategic collaborations with other arts organisations with a common vision.

“For example the framing has been sponsored by the Art room, while the rest of the cost has been covered from our own pockets and through collaborations with other artists.To put together this exhibition was hard work and dedication from us. All in all the exhibition has cost us in the region of R100 000,” Thabo revealed.

All the works are quite huge and are of the same size, 100cm x 70cm and all are linocuts.

“You are invited to the inaugural exhibition of The Arts Company Soweto’s Print Portfolio Exchange (TPPEE). Bringing together works created over the past year, during what we have come to know as unprecedented times, this unique exhibition of limited edition prints brings together amazing and creatively diverse 25 Johannesburg based artists exhibiting at the highest level.

This process set strict parameters to artists, one theme, one medium, one size, one city. Using one medium of linocut, artists responded and archived the moments we are in right now. One theme: Joburg 2020/2021. All works are printed on 100x70cm archival paper. All artists are based or their practice is based in the city of Johannesburg. The playing or in our case, the creative field is level.

This brought to the fore personal and collective experiences, socio-economic issues, envisaged from reflective, abstract and process-based perspectives. All of this captured and presented in this exhibition,”  the company says in its write up ahead of the exhibition.

 The two artists invite to the exhibition collectors, art enthusiasts and those curious to see what the participating artists have produced as they put their painterly gaze on the pandemic situation.

Participating artists

Baba Tjeko  /  Jan Tshikuthula /  Hiten Bawa/   Lehlohonolo Dhlamini  / Lehlogonolo Mashaba  /  Lerato Motau  /  Lloyd Maluleke  /  Mbali Tshabalala  / Mariapaola McGurk  / Molefe Thwala /    Nkhensani Rihlampfu  / Paul Molete   /   Phillip Mabote  / Phumzile Buthelezi   /   Senzo Shabangu Sthembiso Zwane   /   Tebogo Moerane  / Thabo Motseki  / Thabang Lehobye  /  Thea Castro  /  Themba Khumalo  / Thokozani Madonsela   /   Vivien Kohler  / Zandile Tshabalala  /  Zanele Mashinini

.Joburg 2030/2021, will open at No. 120 Main Reef Road, Benrose, on November 6 to November 30, 2021 at 12noon and all are welcome.

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