It’s always tempting, when looking at the work of the 80 finalists of the Sasol New Signatures competition, to try and guess at the direction that contemporary art is going. You can play a game with yourself in which you try and spot the next big thing. You’re almost guaranteed to be wrong, go off on a tangent or miss something obvious right under your nose, but as Sasol New Signatures chair Pieter Binsbergen says: “These are works that stand as barometers or signs of our time in terms of contemporary visual communication.” Trying to tease out the trends can be almost as satisfying as looking at the artworks themselves.

They’re sometimes astoundingly original, sometimes naive or derivative – you can play another game spotting who loves William Kentridge the most, or Willem Boshoff or Mary Sibande or Kendell Geers or Nelson Makamo – but always fascinating. Regardless of talent, the exhibition is also a window onto the issues that preoccupy the predominantly young (and sometimes mature, but new) artists: the “environmental issues, land issues, identity issues, gender issues” that assert themselves again and again. Binsbergen points out the way in which this year’s finalists tended to personalise issues. “These artists are offering us very close encounters of situations that affect them personally. So the message becomes so much stronger and so much laden with intent.”

This year’s winner is an oil painting by Pretoria art student Patrick Rulore depicting the artist’s family at home during stage 4 load-shedding earlier this year. It’s tempting, especially seeing as runner-up Luyanda Zindela’s entry is a portrait in pen, ink and graphite on pine board, to hail the return of traditional media, but Binsbergen warns off any such simplistic inferences.

Sasol New Signatures tends to place quite a bit of emphasis on the appropriateness of the medium to the message. “Theme dictating medium is very important,” says Binsbergen. It’s how the competition has saved itself from falling for mere trends for years.

He points out how well the romanticising effects of the medium – its ability to depict light and shadow and capture “the natural moment”  – expresses the welcome, if enforced, intimacy and sense of community depicted in the image. “This painting does not complain about load-shedding; it rather celebrates dark moments given into by these circumstances,” says Rulore. “As soon as the electricity comes back, we resume our earlier activities in isolation.”

Binsbergen also points out the history of the image in oil, and traces a line of influence that can be drawn as far back as Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, while Pfunzo Sidogi, another of the judges on the panel and Binsbergen’s successor as chair, notes the local precedent in the works of black SA mid-century artists, perhaps with something like Gerard Sekoto’s Family with Candle in mind. “It’s fascinating that [these images] are recycling themselves again in the 21st century context,” says Sidogi.

“How well would this have worked as a digital print?” Binsbergen asks rhetorically.

So, while this year’s winner might “benchmark where contemporary painting is”, it doesn’t necessarily herald the return of traditional media. It does, however, reveal that traditional media have as much relevance as anything, provided they dovetail effectively with their themes. 

The exhibition is on at the Pretoria Art Museum until September 29.