The 25th of October is International Artists Day and the University of Pretoria (UP) Museums and the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (UP) are celebrating artists and the impact they have on society. Artworks do not only cover walls as mere decorative paintings, but tell a story, convey a message or comment on society, politics and current affairs. For centuries, artworks have documented a certain period or have been used as a form of archiving for historical events such as battles or to record natural history, for example, through botanical encyclopedias.
The UP Museum Curator of Art Exhibitions and Galleries, Lelani Nicolaisen relates her experience as an artist, “I wanted to become an artist since the age of 8 years old, never being without a pencil and paper at my side. Art has been a means to express myself, transcending one into a state where I become lost in my creative thoughts and the process of making. The notion that art is so powerful that it can convey a message without words always intrigues me and made me want to pursue a career as an artist”. Nicolaisen further curates the museum sculpture gallery in the Old Merensky, she launched the sculpture art route on UP Hatfield campus in 2019 and the institutions art collection has acquired four of her works into their permanent art collection.
As artworks transcend their role, so do artists. A common belief held by society is that artists are confined within their practice as makers. Increasingly, however, in South Africa as well as internationally, artists are fast becoming master multi-taskers. Their role in society is constantly evolving and expanding. In most cases, artists are never solely art makers - their expertise and creativity extend to other influential aspects that include research, teaching (from community workshops to academic lectures and seminars), writing, design, activism and curating.
These multiple dimensions of artists extend to serve by bettering the human experience as a form of therapy and growing and developing communities through creative play. Art is a form of communication and the artist provides a voice allowing for people from various cultures and generations to engage with each other through images, sounds and stories. South African artists often create works layered with metaphorical meaning. They explore themes of major events that occurred in the country, such as South African icon, Diane Victor. In her work, Victor often critiques violence, injustice and the legacies of colonialism and corruption.
The exploration of political themes and major events feeds into the trope of the tortured artist which is a favourite cliché and became a romanticized concept for creating good art. Whilst many artists lean towards this path, it does not necessarily imply suffering within their lives. Instead, it is rather a passion for topical issues that can be voiced, acknowledged and addressed. The artists role becomes amplified and a ripple effect is created that impacts discourse and understanding.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic which marks the year 2020, the South African and global art world are witnessing and experiencing a move in engagement with visual arts that leans towards a transdisciplinary nature. Due to lockdown, artists had to think out of the box to stay afloat and to reach a wider audience from home.
Artists started to explore meaningful ways beyond the norms and conventions of only one discipline where they combined their skills with other disciplines such as science, music and technology through digital and social media platforms. Virtual exhibitions have become a new norm. Even though transdisciplinary movements have been a notion before COVID-19, the pandemic developed this idea on a more public platform and became a much more inviting initiative. This in turn calls for an exciting further expansion of an artist’s role in society. Art will survive any pandemic or crisis as artists always find a way to stay creative and to keep people engaged.
For the Javett-UP Curatorial Assistant and Artist herself, Shenaz Mahomed, art was always a part of who she is today, “I initially chose art as a career to create visually appealing works and to work with my hands doing what I enjoy most - being creative! But the art sector and path taken has proven to be so much more fulfilling. It’s allowed me to have an authentic voice and add value to society in ways that I never considered possible”. Mahomed’s new art installation of laser-cut stainless steel, plywood and Perspex is titled Be Civil and is on view at the University of Pretoria’s state-of-the-art Engineering 4.0 building.
The UP Museums and the Javett Art Centre at UP greatly acknowledge and celebrate artists globally on this day. We are also celebrating Pablo Picasso’s birthday on this day, an artist that left a mark in almost every trend of modern art, especially the Cubism movement. Let us commemorate International Artists Day to recognize and appreciate the many contributions made by artists in various fields and know that they are indeed a jack or jane of all trades and masters of every one of them.