The Spier Contemporary 2010 is open for art

Written by: Brenda Vos, Cape Town

It’s the largest art biennale in South Africa and it’s been on exhibition at Cape Town’s City Hall since March. The open call for entries attracted over 2 700 submissions from artists across the country and a curatorial team had the task of taking all the work to Cape Town and making their final selection. As a snapshot of South African life some of the themes were all too familiar (crime, racism, political dissatisfaction) but some fresh new work has emerged as a result – on a platform that three months ago did not exist.

As it comes to the end we reflect with curator and one of the Spier Contemporary project managers, Farzanah Badsha on what Spier Contemporary was all about.

“It wasn’t easy,” she laughs. “It seems like a lifetime ago that we opened the call to entry and toured the country on our developmental workshops but the curatorial process is something that is still fresh in my mind as we – Jay Pather, Clive van den Berg, Meskerem Assegued, Mwenya Kabwe and I - travelled around the country arguing, debating, compromising and joking, deciding on which work should make it to the final selection and why”, she adds.

“Then of course, there was the massive task of building the exhibition space in the neglected City Hall and hanging all the work and, well, you can never please all the people all the time so we had to learn to ride and acknowledge the criticism once we opened. On the whole though, it’s been an exciting journey and one I am so honoured to have been able to take”.

The Spier Contemporary opened its doors to the public on 14 March and since then, over 16 000 people have viewed the exhibition: an impressive feat for a contemporary art exhibition in South Africa.

“The sheer size and scope of the project meant that it appealed to a larger audience than the one that usually sees art”, comments Farzanah, “and we pushed this idea out even further with a series of projects and events that captured the imagination of school-goers, students, music lovers and generally fired up the curiosity of the person on the street”.

The Spier Contemporary model is open from beginning to end – anyone can enter, there are no restrictions - so pieces in any medium can be submitted and admission to the exhibition is free. The team wanted as many people as possible to come and have a look and voice their thoughts and opinions – often times public appraisal directly countered the formal critical commentary and it was an interesting exercise in word-of-mouth news and citizen appraisal.

In a South Africa that is spending less and less resources on funding art and bringing up children in a diverse, culturally stimulating environment, the existence of the Spier Contemporary is an important starting point for a bigger picture of what art could do for our society. This was most evident in the reaction of the youth – students whose schools made a visit to the exhibition.

A group of boys from Bridge House High School in Cape Town commented that they had no idea that art was so relevant, gritty and real. Their perceptions had always been that it was something for adults and not something that younger people would find cool or interesting.

Adds Farzanah; “Their excitement was really palpable and many of them engaged in very thoughtful, fresh debate. Even if some of the kids didn’t take it on entirely, it broke down that mental barrier about art. Next time they see an art exhibition they might actually think about stopping and going in, which is half our battle won”.

The Spier Contemporary 2010 runs until 14 May, is open daily from 10am – 6pm and admission is free.

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