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The work of Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto category winner Abongile Sidzumo. Picture: SUPPLIED/ABSA
The work of Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto category winner Abongile Sidzumo. Picture: SUPPLIED/ABSA

Absa, in partnership with the SA National Association for the Visual Arts (Sanava) announced the four category winners of the prestigious 2021 edition of the Absa L’Atelier at an online event hosted on the Absa Art Hotspot. The audience was enthralled by the music of the Mzansi Youth Choir, while dancers from Mzansi Ballet graced the platform. 

Since its inception 35 years ago, Absa L’Atelier has showcased and continues to invest in some of Africa’s finest young artists aged between 21 and 40. This year, the competition established itself as the first African art competition to be hosted completely virtually; from entry, submission and adjudication of the artworks, to hosting a series of masterclasses and a mentorship programme for the 2019 Absa L’Atelier ambassadors, culminating in the online awards ceremony.  

After receiving a record number of registrations, hundreds of eligible entries were judged by an independent panel of adjudicators, and one ambassador per group was chosen from the three groups of African countries. 

Absa L’Atelier Ambassador 2021 title-holders are:

Group A (Mozambique, SA, Uganda and Zambia)
Adelheid von Maltitz from SA

Group B (Mauritius, Nigeria, Seychelles and Tanzania)
WINNER: Ayobola Kekere-Ekun from Nigeria

Group C (Botswana, Ghana, Kenya and Namibia)
 Michael Jackson Blebo from Ghana 

The Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto category
Cape Town-based artist Abongile Sidzumo

The ambassadors received trophies that depict hands, symbolising the physical manifestation of creation, which were designed and produced by established SA artist Roberto Vaccaro , while the Gerard Sekoto trophy depicts a bull, representing prosperity and resilience.

The criteria for selecting the ambassador included:

* technical execution such as the artist’s handling of material and techniques;
conceptual and thematic engagement, such as how they revealed honest and intellectual reasoning or rationale;
* freshness of artistic vision within the context of the contemporary African art landscape, such as how the artist engaged with honest and fresh ways of seeing; and
* aesthetic appeal which implies that the artist must have shown great consideration for visual quality and conceptual concerns and whether the portfolio of artworks was a cohesive submission carrying the intended message or thematic idea. 

Von Maltitz, is studying towards her PhD in fine arts at the University of the Free State, where she also lectures primarily in sculpture and drawing. Her winning entry, presented in partial fulfilment of the requirement for her doctor of philosophy degree, is concerned with the transformative potential of dynamic threshold places such as roadside shrines. For her, making sculpture and installation art involves processes that allow her to constructively engage personal anxieties about death and loss.  

Adelheid von Maltitz's work. Picture: SUPPLIED/ABSA
Adelheid von Maltitz's work. Picture: SUPPLIED/ABSA

Her interest in roadside shrines was sparked when she observed what looked like a mother and sister continually, over months, rebuilding and maintaining a roadside shrine which she passed regularly on her daily commute. By initially examining the nature of roadside shrines in relation to her own art-making processes, she was struck by the similarities in the ways in which death and loss may be engaged with, constructively and in a healing manner, through art.

Kekere-Ekun, hails from Nigeria and, like Adelheid, is also pursuing a PhD in art and design from the University of Johannesburg.  Fascinated with lines, her brightly coloured work is driven by three foundation pillars: lines, the neutrality of paper and fabric. Kekere-Ekun transforms traditional Nigerian fabric and paper with a technique called quilling, whereby strips of material and paper are individually shaped, placed, and secured to capture pockets of light and shadow, giving her works a three-dimensional effect. It’s a methodical and labour-intensive process; a single piece can take her between three and seven weeks to complete.    

The work of Ayobola Kekere-Ekun. Picture: SUPPLIED/ABSA
The work of Ayobola Kekere-Ekun. Picture: SUPPLIED/ABSA

Blebo, also known as Troy, was born in Accra, Ghana. Specialising in sculpture, he is a fine arts graduate from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. His work combines sculpture, installation and drawing, and explores the environment and the decay of domestic architecture. As an emerging artist, he combines unconventional material such as white clay, charcoal, natural pigment, brown paper and chipboard to erect large-scale works. Scale plays a major role in his work and he is influenced by the works of US artists Richard Serra, Laurie Lipton and Adonna Khare and fellow Ghanaian Ibrahim Mahama.   

Blebo Michael Jackson's work. Picture: SUPPLIED/ABSA
Blebo Michael Jackson's work. Picture: SUPPLIED/ABSA

Established 17 years ago, the Gerard Sekoto award goes to a SA artist, aged between 25 and 35 years, who has continued to show integrity in the quality of their artwork. The award is made possible by the French embassy in SA, the French Institute of SA, which is the cultural arm of the embassy, and the Alliance Française network in SA. 

“With our partners Absa and Sanava, we are proud to support the Gerard Sekoto award and to accompany young artists to share their work both nationally and internationally. We believe in this award, which grants a talented young SA artist an amazing opportunity to expand his or her horizons with a three-month artistic residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, and, of course, gain greater exposure as a result,” says Aurelien Lechevallier, who is France’s ambassador to SA. 

“The artists are inspired and inspire. They learn, and they teach. They explore, and exhibit, allowing people in France and in SA to learn more about their individual style and vision.” 

A leather work by Abongile Sidzumo. Picture: SUPPLIED/ABSA
A leather work by Abongile Sidzumo. Picture: SUPPLIED/ABSA

Sidzumo was born in Cape Town, where he lives and works. Abongile completed his degree in fine arts at the Michaelis School of Fine Arts in 2019He works with leather offcuts and repurposed materials to create works that reflect and interrogate humanity, the way we coexist and our relationship with nature. He also revisits memories and connects them to spaces he has lived in as well as the everyday life of marginalised communities. 

Leather is often associated with luxury, wealth and power. Through his process of restitching and weaving leather, Abongile proposes that we start thinking about repurposed materials. By his process of stitching, he is connecting to notions of healing trauma and in a sense, his practice also functions as a manner of interrogating the continuous healing of black communities in postapartheid SA.  

The adjudicators for this award were acclaimed artist and director at BKhz, Banele Khoza, as well as Armelle Dakouo, independent curator and artistic director at AKAA Art & Design Fair. 

“Though Covid-19 proved challenging, the past two years were also a period of innovation and technological progression,” says Paul Bayliss, senior specialist art curator at Absa. 

“The pandemic has allowed us to advance our digital art presence with the launch of the Absa Art Hotspot. This virtual experience platform made it possible to host live events such as webinars, art exhibitions, art masterclasses and art auctions, while certain elements of our art-related sponsorships and partnerships such as this year’s awards event were also migrated to the platform.” 

Hosting the competition digitally allowed for the removal of any barriers to entry, all the artist required was a smartphone or access to the internet.

“With this year’s theme ‘The Act of Art’, we called our continent’s fearless creators to act and to enter. This years’ competition once again provided an opportunity for visual artists to respond and make their voices heard. We are committed to putting the basic building blocks in place to ensure young artists from across Africa can reimagine their futures and bring their possibilities to life,” says Bayliss.  

Sanava president Dr Avitha Sooful commended Absa for forging ahead and continuously seeking ways to make an impact on the African visual arts scene, even during the pandemic. 

“The pandemic derailed our plans for 2020 but through some innovative thinking, we were able to come back stronger this year and have more entries than we have ever had for this competition. I commend the work that our partners, Absa, have done in making sure that African artists continue to reap the rewards of their hard work,” says Sooful. 

“We look forward to working with this year’s ambassadors and Gerard Sekoto winner and providing the next generation of young African artists with the support, recognition and exposure they need to solidify their careers and build their brands,” says Bayliss.

Visit the website information about Absa L’Atelier winners.

This article was paid for by Absa.

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