AiW note: Last year, Africa in Words published a fascinating Words on the Times feature with the South African artist and poet, Dolla Sapeta. During his responses Dolla spoke of his vision of “bringing to life an art school in New Brighton”, a township in the country’s Eastern Cape.
Now, in a new and exclusive series with Africa in Words, we preview this initiative and feature the work of some of South Africa’s brightest emerging artists. Over the next several weeks, we will publish Q+As with several artists who have attended the New Brighton Art School and feature a slide show of some of their best works.
First, is Dolla Sapeta himself who spoke to Tom Penfold about the New Brighton Art School, the ideas behind it and his hopes for the future.
Tom Penfold: Hi Dolla. What can you say about the New Brighton Art School as a way of introduction? Who is involved and what are they doing?
Dolla Sapeta: Hi Tom… the initiative started taking form in 2014 when I collaborated with Bhongo Mei who represented Basement Projects in the township as we both visited surrounding schools in and around New Brighton. Our primary goal was to promote art education in the township schools and looked for a space to host art classes within the school compounds. During this period we had a few primary and high schools we frequented, offering art classes.
But because the school-teachers and administration were sometimes reluctant to participate and did not always keep the students organized to allow the art classes to run smoothly, we struggled. Sometimes the teachers would just allow uncontrollable numbers to come to the art class. It all became uncomfortable and unbearable towards the end of each class.
The Art School approach tries to overcome these problems by only inviting interested students who want to be part of the art class that now runs in my studio. Nonetheless, after the pandemic kicked-in, the only functional aspect of the art school are the mentorship programs with individual artists. Right now I am constantly mentoring about six young artists being Phumlile Rawana, Mxolisi Paul Madela, Madoda Honi, Mthetheleli Williams, Monwabisi Gqunta and Khaya Gqomo. The arrangement of the mentorship program is not strictly formal: we do not maintain long lasting schedules consistently with each of the mentored artists. This is because at some point they also have to engage in their individual art projects so to make ends meet. Beyond that, the primary focus of the mentorship program is to assist and equip the artists on how to manage being an artist right now (i.e. in the pandemic era) and doing so inside black townships where there are no art galleries and mainstream art audiences. The focus of the progam is to define the realities of being an artist in a black township. Also the fact that maintaining a professional progression in each individual artists’ practice is no more about only having a pallet, easel, brushes and some paint tubes. Artists’ tools have broadened over the years and more importantly include a good cellphone, laptop and a permanent data supply. Nevertheless, I use painting classes as the centre of our relationship in the mentorship program.
To help all this, we definitely ache for some assistance and a permanent administrator who can follow up on the procedures, constantly representing the art school and linking the initiative with its allies in relative gatherings and keeping a fresh update on the gatherings and online presence. Our mentorship is continuing but it gets fragmented from time to time because I also have to engage in my individualistic creative processes from time to time. Indeed, our normal art classes are currently on hold because I have an upcoming collaboration show with two other artists in April. Already, I can’t dedicate enough time to the artists I’m mentoring.
You speak about the background of the initiative there and the time that it has taken to get things moving. But what was your primary motivation for setting this up? What encouraged you to first go into schools and then to offer more formal mentorship?
In a black township situation – indeed, in the realities of modern-day South Africa – the general unemployment rate is higher than anywhere. And don’t forget, I am talking about the Eastern Cape, the most poverty-stricken province in the country. It is an obligation to carry younger willing talent in your field of work on your shoulders. You have to give guidance where necessary. For me, this has been going on for as long as I have been showing work in galleries and teaching art.
There will always be that one young talent… two or even more sometimes… that can be encouraged, and we need to encourage them. Yes, I might say that the Art School is not 100% formal right now but it is definitely a bit more significant than in the past years.
How does this mentorship work on a day-to-day basis? Has your approach changed much over the years?
I work on a one-on-one arrangement with the mentored artists where we always attempt to develop a working schedule that will suit both of us. Fortunately, none of the mentored artists live very far from my studio, so it is possible for us to meet often. It really becomes more interesting when I have about two, or three mentored artists at the same time, but we have to be vigilant in our interactions and keep sanitizers and social distancing in mind at all times. Over the years I have gathered a few books on artists, art practices and theory. I have also gathered documentaries and films on art and artists. I have found that showing these documentaries and films to the artists from time to time helps develop curiosity towards the books, and the books, in turn, help us to know more about what we are on about.
Have you had any support from anybody else in setting this up?
I did receive funding from the Nelson Mandela Bay’s Local Artists Funding Scheme in 2018 and used the money to revamp my studio and buy furniture that is suitable for a teaching atmosphere. After I came back from studying at Rhodes University in 2016, I began to dedicate a lot of time to developing this initiative. I decided to rather invite young willing talent for the teaching program to my studio instead of going to the schools and endure being conspicuous and overwhelmed by the reluctant school-teachers. Besides, I have more control of the numbers that come in the classes in my studio.
At least in my studio I can maintain a disciplined art class since I can enjoy being the authority.
You mention funding from the Nelson Mandela Bay authorities. Have they supported you in any other way? How does your location in New Brighton influence what you are able to do?
New Brighton has always been open and welcoming to most of my initiatives. People always encourage young talented people with an artistic potential to come to my studio. And most of the artists do come from the surrounding area. Nonetheless, there has never been firm interest into the actual initiative by the community. For instance, my main problem is assistance… at some point The Mandela Bay Development Agency promised to assist the initiative by offering a monthly stipend to the administrative youths I gathered in 2017/18…at that time I really managed to get hold of some bright newly graduated youths who were really willing to work for the initiative…the stipend sponsorship never happened… and the assisting youths realizing that the promised incentive was not coming to reality… they all left.
The pandemic has also made things more complicated. I now have to make firmer individual arrangements with the artists through WhatsApp before being able to set a time to meet them in the studio. But as time goes we try to push forward with the developments of the mentorship programs around the stalking pandemic and economic declines of the day.
Has the pandemic affected things in other ways?
The main challenge was to shift the initiative from visiting local schools toward establishing it within my own studio: the revamping for instance. The pandemic specifically derailed the new Art School approach just after I finished revamping the studio to accommodate classes from within.
Finally, can you tell us a bit more about the artists you’re working with and promoting? What should our readers look out for when we preview their work in more detail over the coming weeks?
Most of the artists I mentor are practicing artists in their own right. They are often already exhibiting. Most of them have not been formally trained in an art school environment. The growth for artistic practices in New Brighton is systemically muffled by the dysfunctional municipality art initiatives that are purported to serve the communities. The Mendi Cultural Centre and the Red Location Cultural Precinct are good examples. They both remain closed with overgrown weeds and broken windows…hence the New Brighton Art School tries to give an alternative space to artistically challenged youths and people. So the artists I work with, including myself are suffering from that misrepresentation by the authorities while enduring practicing art in a black township of the poorest province in South Africa.
And what are your hopes for the future? Is there anything our readers can do?
Based on the few signifiers of the situation here in New Brighton right now, I am not so sure how to even define the word “hope”. As for a better future; trying to be strong and look deep inside the situation… continue to define and redefine it by means of art making is the future itself. And once we stop attempting to do that as artists is when the reason for existence of a future stops. I mean what is a point of a future without art, or a community without art. The initiative has suffered a blow from Covid-19 before I could even realize a fully functional program for the new approach of the Art School. And then there is my constant absence from the initiative because of my own individualistic art practices and personal responsibilities. I am always hunting for a sponsor who can maintain a sound monthly stipend for some administration assistance to the initiative.
Each of the upcoming posts in the New Brighton Art School series includes a slideshow featuring a range of each selected artists’ work. Scroll these the following images to see more of Dolla’s own work and some images of his studio.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has also hit the Art School just as it began its new life. If you feel you can support the artists and the project in any way, please contact Dolla Sapeta directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or leave your details in a comment here and we can be in touch with you. No help is too much or too little.
We hope you enjoy this series on the New Brighton Art School and the individuals involved.
There is always young talent. It just needs support!