Philiswa Lila, a fine artist and scholar from Mthatha, Eastern Cape (now based in Pretoria, Gauteng) walked away with this year’s Gerard Sekoto Award whilst Marguerite Kirsten, a fine artist from Cape Town, fought off stiff competition from visual artists from across Africa to take top honours in the 2018 Absa L’Atelier awards.
Lila scooped the Gerard Sekoto Award for Self-Titled, a series of self-portraits related to her name, Philiswa, which means ‘be healed’. The artist used her name to explore the nuances of language, meaning and experiences of individualism as recognisable or familiar to collective frameworks of culture, mainly in isiXhosa.
The Gerard Sekoto Award for the most promising artist is sponsored by the French Embassy, Alliance Franciase and French Institute. It is only available to a South African artist who has previously entered the L’Atelier Awards and who has demonstrated continual improvement in their art-making.
According to Rhodes University: Philiswa Lila was in her second year of writing towards a MA degree in art history during 2017 as part of the NRF SARChI Chair research initiative: Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa at Rhodes University. She is an artist, writer and curator interested in history and criticism within the visual arts. Her research focuses on writings of visual art performances that make use of ritual, traditional and cultural practices of Africa while tackling issues of identity and self-identification, gender, sexuality, race, spirituality, etc. In her research she questions the role of the writer as an interpreter and creator of art discourse, particularly in relation to ‘Africa’ and ‘African art’.
Lila holds a BTech degree in Fine and Applied Arts from the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), majoring in art theory and painting (distinction), and an Honours Degree in Curatorship from the University of Cape Town. As an artist, she has shown her work in different art exhibitions, which include the Joburg Art Fair, Dialogue with the Masters (2014); Young ’14 at Bag Factory Artists’ Studios (2014); Beyond the Academy at Fried Contemporary (2015); and The Spaces Between Maps (2016) at ABSA KNKK Festival.
Lila participated in residency programmes and visual art workshops at The Bag Factory Artists’ Studios and Greatmore Studios based in South Africa. She has worked as an assistant lecturer at Tshwane University of Technology; Educational Assistant at Pretoria Art Museum; and facilitating workshops, working with different outreach organisations and as a guide and project administrator at Dikaletsa Creative Projects. She has worked as an assistant curator at the IZIKO South African National Gallery for the exhibition of painter Moses Tladi that travelled to the 2016 National Arts Festival, and recently co-curated at the NIROX Winter Sculpture Fair 2017 under the appointment of TUT, which brought together curators from six South African universities in conversation through sculpture and performance.
In 2009 she was awarded a merit award in the ABSA L’Atelier competition and in 2015 selected for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust Review Exhibition.
Mthatha born Lila attended Holy Cross School which aims high by saying; “This is the number one school in Umtata with students that are not afraid to go beyond the sky limit. Everyone runs to win and lives behind footsteps called legacies on the road. Warning do not challenge us because you will lose.”
Previous Gerard Sekoto award winners: Banele Khoza (2017), Matete Motubatse (2016), Natalie Moore (2015), Mbavhalelo Nekhavhambe (2014), Mongezi Ncaphayi (2013), Bambo Sibiya (2012), Isabel Mertz (2011), Bongumenzi Ngobese (2010), Nyaniso Lindi (2009), Retha Ferguson (2008), Nina Barnett (2007), Nomusa Makhubu (2006), Lawrence Lemoana (2005) and Billie Zangewa (2004).
Philiswa Lila’s artwork shines a new light on names, language and their impact on individualism. #GiveArtLight #absalatelier Creating a platform for Africa ‘s young artistic talent to shine. That’s #Africanacity https://t.co/Aish7BUHhQ pic.twitter.com/votTPTrnF3
— Absa South Africa (@AbsaSouthAfrica) September 12, 2018
Marguerite Kirsten won the overall Absa L’Atelier Award for her installation Embodiment. Having grown up, and continuing to live, with various medical conditions, Kirsten feels her body has become an instrument of the medical fraternity. This work, comprising various fluids that represent the ephemeral nature of her body, sought to strengthen and dignify the artist’s physical body in the face of this perceived objectification.
The three Merit Awards winners this year were Gillian Abe of Uganda (Seat of Honour), Henry Obeng of Ghana (Recycle Frame 2) and Kirsten Eksteen of South Africa (Patterns and Pattern Body) respectively.
These three artists, along with overall winner Marguerite Kirsten, Carli Bassin (SA) (Shaped), Lemmeze Davids (SA) (Thank you for my lunch), Christiaan Kritzinger (SA) (Meltdown: new aesthetics in old landscapes), Ayo Akinwande (Nigeria) (Shrine), Lodewyk Barkhuizen (SA) (Hat disguised as map), and Sikelele Damane (SA) (Toyi, Toyi, Act 1) were selected as the Top 10 finalists for 2018.
The Absa L’Atelier awards has become a touchstone for the concerns consuming young people on the continent. Works referencing hair styles as a form of expression, identity and a site of contestation were prominent in previous years and remained important to a number of this year’s entrants, such as Nonkululeko Sibande, Lebohang Motaung (both from South Africa) and Darlyne Komukama (Uganda).
Some artworks offered insights into the particular conditions and contexts from the artist’s countries of origin – constant power outages in Lagos, Nigeria, accounted for the unexpected metaphor between electricity generators and religious shrines by Ayo Akinwande, for example. Pressing political issues regarding land ownership in South Africa surfaced in works by Vianca Malan, Mhlonishwa Chiliza, Karla Nixon and Ciara Struwig, while forced removals and land ownership were mirrored in Bya’bazzukulu (For Grandchildren) by Donald Wasswa.
Challenging fixed gender roles was again a prominent theme, as seen in the work of Mzoxolo Mayongo and Matimu Lloyd Maluleke. These artworks affirm not only the dominance of sociopolitical discourse, but the artists’ perceptions that contemporary practice is irretrievably tied to addressing them.
Absa L’Atelier has been shining a light on promising young African artists’ work for over 33 years. Not only do the awards identify bright young talent but they provide a solid foundation for the further growth of these artist’s potential, giving them the opportunity to step into the spotlight on the world stage.
By highlighting the work of new artists from the African continent, Absa L’Atelier proves that they are committed to taking work from where it may have been unknown, in the dark, and presenting it to a global audience – bringing it to light. This essence reflects the 2019 L’Atelier theme, Give Art Light, which was unveiled at the Awards’ gala evening on Wednesday, 12 September 2018.
Dr Paul Bayliss, Absa Art and Museum Curator, says this idea is also in line with the ethos of Absa’s new Africanacity identity. “Bringing to light the best art on the continent, lighting up the careers of artists from all over Africa, putting the spotlight firmly on African artists for more than three decades, and investing in Africa’s creative economy for this length of time, all represent the spirit of Africanacity. These are the physical manifestations of the inspirational Africanacity idea in action,” he says.
The Absa L’Atelier art competition is jointly sponsored by Absa and the South African National Association for the Visual Arts (SANAVA), and is one of the longest-running and most prestigious visual arts competitions on the African continent. It was established in South Africa 33 years ago, but in recent years has been expanded to include a number of other African countries in order to reach more young artists and further the unparalleled opportunities it affords those who participate in the competition.
“The L’Atelier Awards embrace emerging artists from our continent. This competition has become the voice and lens through which we experience and access various societies, and has rendered the borders between our country and the rest of Africa, porous,” says Avitha Sooful, president of SANAVA.
This year was the first time that the awards were extended to include Nigeria and Namibia. The newcomers really shone, with a vast number of outstanding pieces catching the eye of the adjudicators, who appreciated their interpretation of ‘the contemporary’ with the African visual art context.
A total of 12 countries now participate in the competition which, aside from Nigeria and Namibia, include South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mauritius, Seychelles and Mozambique.