The entrance of the Absa Art Hot Spot virtual world that houses all the art exhibitions, art masterclasses, and livestreamed events (among other art content). The site also introduces the Absa Money Museum and various Absa art sponsorships such as the Absa L’Atelier and the KKNK. Courtesy of Absa Art Hot Spot.

Dr Paul Bayliss, Absa Art Museum Curator, discuss the Future of the arts in Africa

The Absa Art Hotspot platform is curated providing opportunities for focused dialogue, networking, and insights sharing and showcases a variety of original artwork, as well as artwork from previous Absa L’Atelier winners and participants from across Africa. Visitors get a glimpse of how art across the continent has evolved, have an opportunity to revisit exhibitions previously hosted in the Absa Gallery, view previously hosted art masterclasses and artist interviews, or watch the latest art webinar in the virtual auditorium.

There has been significant investment into Absa’s digital platforms for Absa L’Atelier to the (KKNK) and exhibitions (Art Hot Spot). What transformations have been the most effective?

Dr Paul Bayliss: As a proudly African bank, Absa has a vested, long-term interest in supporting our continent’s visual artists, who have captured the world’s attention with their distinct and diverse styles.   

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic had a sudden and hugely negative impact on arts and culture. At the pandemic’s beginning, cultural institutions worldwide were forced to close indefinitely with exhibitions, events, and performances cancelled or postponed. As we came to the end of 2020, we hoped that in 2021, we would return to a life we once knew. Already three quarters into 2021 and there has been little or no change, the pandemic continues to impact all sectors of society negatively.

The main lobby of the Absa Art Hot Spot from which a person can navigate to the various areas of the virtual world or visit the ‘concierge’ desk for more information. Courtesy of Absa Art Hot Spot.The main lobby of the Absa Art Hot Spot from which a person can navigate to the various areas of the virtual world or visit the ‘concierge’ desk for more information. Courtesy of Absa Art Hot Spot.

The global crisis has dramatically affected artists right across the sector. Arts and culture organisations, festivals and fairs, to name but a few, try desperately to survive. They have been forced to evolve their business models and the way they operate as a community.

Though 2020 provided its challenges, it was likewise a period of innovation and technological progression. While it is hard to beat the experience of seeing an important piece of fine art, the digital age has made it possible, even easy, to visit some of the world’s most famous galleries and museums from the comfort of one’s own home.

In turn, the pandemic has allowed Absa to advance its digital art presence. Fortunately, the visual arts is a medium that can transcend the physical space. As a digitally enabled bank, Absa was the first art gallery in South Africa to offer “walkabout” 3D-tours more than three years ago… We also spearheaded the use of QR-coded exhibitions where people could virtually “meet” the artist. More recently, we have made advances in our digital art presence to make visual arts more accessible to more diverse audiences.

We saw an opportunity to launch the Absa Art Hotspot to host all our art exhibitions, masterclasses, and art education segments virtually, as well as migrate certain elements of our art-related sponsorships and partnerships to online platforms. As Absa, we are leading the charge on the African continent in being digitally progressive in the visual arts.

We are committed to helping young artists from across the African continent to reimagine their futures by bringing their possibilities to life and giving them a voice.

One such art-related sponsorship is the Absa L’Atelier. We are committed to helping young artists from across the African continent to reimagine their futures by bringing their possibilities to life and giving them a voice. Through the Absa L’Atelier, we are promoting the development of African artists through our partnerships with the South African National Association of the Visual Arts (SANAVA), the French Embassy in South Africa, Institut Français – South Africa, and the Alliance Francaise in South Africa.

Since its inception 35 years ago, Absa L’Atelier has showcased and continues to invest in some of the finest young artists from the various African countries where Absa has a presence. The success of the Absa L’Atelier can also be attributed to our continued partnerships with arts organisations, leaders within the visual arts and artists from across the African continent. For the first time in the competition’s history, it is an entirely digital event this year.

The Virtual Absa Kuierkamer at the KKNK 2021 is a hyper-realistic interpretation of the town of Oudtshoorn where the physical art festival has taken place since inception. People can experience a virtual KKNK festival environment in Oudtshoorn without going to Oudtshoorn. The Absa Gallery hosts an art exhibition in the Virtual Absa Kuierkamer. Art productions and events are livestreamed from the Theatre in the Virtual Absa Kuierkamer. Courtesy of Absa Art Hot Spot.The Virtual Absa Kuierkamer at the KKNK 2021 is a hyper-realistic interpretation of the town of Oudtshoorn where the physical art festival has taken place since inception. People can experience a virtual KKNK festival environment in Oudtshoorn without going to Oudtshoorn. The Absa Gallery hosts an art exhibition in the Virtual Absa Kuierkamer. Art productions and events are livestreamed from the Theatre in the Virtual Absa Kuierkamer. Courtesy of Absa Art Hot Spot.

One of our other sponsorship in the arts is our support of the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kustefees (KKNK), hosted annually in Oudtshoorn, South Africa. For the past 16 years, Absa has partnered with the KKNK in hosting the Arts Festival, supporting the local creative industry and providing them with a platform to showcase their talent. Through our continued support of the KKNK, we provide artists – both young and old – a platform to perform, thereby giving them a voice. Our ongoing support is especially relevant this year, as the pandemic has significantly impacted the arts, mirroring its impacts across all sectors.

With our KKNK partners, we agreed to extend the Absa Art Hot Spot to include this year’s festival. Like the Absa L’Atelier, the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of last year’s festival. In discussion with the KKNK organisers and all sponsors, it was agreed to host an entirely virtual event in 2021. Our virtual platform – the Virtual Absa Kuierkamer – mimics aspects of the host town of Oudtshoorn and will see Absa rolling out numerous online activities where visitors will be given access to a variety of multimedia content. A completely online festival is no longer restricted by geography – it is suddenly accessible for everyone to enjoy, thus crossing cultural, language, and ethnic groups.

This shift to a digital world has opened access to the arts, altering perceptions that art is elitist. This rings true for art competitions too.

How have digital platforms benefitted the planning and production of the events, and what impact has this digital approach had on the growth of new audiences?

This shift to a digital world has opened access to the arts, altering perceptions that art is elitist. This rings true for art competitions too. However, many art competitions today continue to ask artists to enter and submit their work manually or in person. This immediately excludes those who do not have funds to produce a portfolio of work or travel to the drop-off centres. By enabling artists to submit their portfolios online, the Absa L’Atelier has dramatically assisted in simplifying the process and levelling the playing field.

For galleries embracing the digital space, it should no longer just be about having a website and hosting exhibitions online. Using technology should not be considered a plug for a pesky short-term leak. It should be strategic and intentional.

By using technology, Absa has a long-term approach, thinking strategically about what digital can do for the commercial business aspect of the arts.  As a business that is heavily invested in the visual arts, we have a duty to provide access to art and the heritage and history of each work. And with physical access to art strictly limited, our mission has become to find new ways to support, enable and grow our African artists.

The Power of 35! exhibition features artworks from 35 years of the Absa L’Atelier in a cleverly designed virtual gallery. Split into two virtual gallery rooms, artworks in the Absa L’Atelier Power of 35! exhibition were carefully curated to allow for a fully optimized experience. What makes the virtual exhibitions in the Absa Art Hot Spot so realistic is how smoothly a person can navigate through the various spaces in the gallery, as well as how even the most subtle detail (such as light and depth) creates an authentic experience. The digital innovation is felt in how a person can interact with each artwork through video and other elements that bring the exhibition to life in a way that a physical exhibition may not be able to. Courtesy of Absa Art Hot Spot.The Power of 35! exhibition features artworks from 35 years of the Absa L’Atelier in a cleverly designed virtual gallery. Split into two virtual gallery rooms, artworks in the Absa L’Atelier Power of 35! exhibition were carefully curated to allow for a fully optimized experience. What makes the virtual exhibitions in the Absa Art Hot Spot so realistic is how smoothly a person can navigate through the various spaces in the gallery, as well as how even the most subtle detail (such as light and depth) creates an authentic experience. The digital innovation is felt in how a person can interact with each artwork through video and other elements that bring the exhibition to life in a way that a physical exhibition may not be able to. Courtesy of Absa Art Hot Spot.

Technology has removed the entry barrier to the art world by allowing previously excluded artists and audiences to enjoy the aesthetics of the art without relying on the controlled environment that a gallery presents.

Hybrid, digital and live events are now the norm. How have digital platforms assisted in empowering artists as far as learning new skills and exposure to their work is concerned.

The digital age has allowed artists to take greater control of their careers. Innovations in the digital space mean that both emerging and established artists can market and sell their work independently without relying on gallery spaces for exposure. Technology has removed the entry barrier to the art world by allowing previously excluded artists and audiences to enjoy the aesthetics of the art without relying on the controlled environment that a gallery presents.

Absa is passionate about empowering and enabling artists on the African continent. The growth that we want to achieve is inextricably linked to our firm commitment to be an active force for good in the communities in which we operate. The arts afford us the opportunity to play a shaping role in society by supporting fledgling and more established artists, honing their skills, and stimulating the economy at large.

Absa L’Atelier is another example of where evolving to a digital platform has benefited the participating artists.

The three 2019 Absa L’Atelier ambassadors were hugely impacted by the pandemic and could not take up their overseas and local residency prizes. This also affected the prizes on offer for the 2021 winners. The prizes, as with the entire competition was re-envisioned. Each of the winners received a new laptop, data, and exposure to intensive virtually hosted mentorship and masterclasses geared towards facilitating business skills and opportunities to develop their careers. This digitally-led approach provides the winning artists with access to highly skilled mentors from across the globe to support them in growing their brand while teaching them the relevant skills that would best position them as they establish themselves in the industry.

Through the KKNK, we supported the KKNK Virtual Gallery. This exciting new digital experience creates an essential platform for visual artists to exhibit and sell their work and potentially generate an income. Through the art documentaries hosted in the Virtual Absa Kuierkamer, we authentically speak about some of the more pertinent issues affecting the arts and the communities that we serve. Through these platforms, artists are given a voice and opportunity for the audience to engage in the comfort of their surroundings.

Walking through the “Fusion of Hues’ virtual exhibition is a journey through bright and beautiful artworks by Karin Mathebula. All works are oil on canvas, from left: Xilu’s beach, 2019; Nature’s valley, 2018 (top); Beach life, 2020 (bottom); and Jordy’s beach, 2020. Courtesy of Absa Art Hot Spot.Walking through the “Fusion of Hues’ virtual exhibition is a journey through bright and beautiful artworks by Karin Mathebula. All works are oil on canvas, from left: Xilu’s beach, 2019; Nature’s valley, 2018 (top); Beach life, 2020 (bottom); and Jordy’s beach, 2020. Courtesy of Absa Art Hot Spot.

Are galleries still relevant, and what are your thoughts on selling work online as opposed to being able to see and experience art in real life?

Art reflects the zeitgeist of the time, and galleries have long been the custodians of that social commentary. Brick and mortar galleries as we know them are at a crossroads, and the more traditional operating models are fast becoming less effective at exploring the way we appreciate art.

Recent advances in technology have allowed people to change the way that they experience art. Galleries are finding themselves at this crossroad as they cannot afford to ignore the potential of online and digital experiences to bring a new dimension to the works of artists and curators. And if they were to miss the opportunity to transform digitally, galleries today may soon find themselves irrelevant and unconnected.

I believe the future art gallery speaks to all art enthusiasts, no matter their age, pocket-size, or preference. By going digital, one is taking art to the people. Furthermore, augmented and virtual reality have set the foundation for art exhibitions, spaces, and trading evolution. Galleries that have failed to respond to this fast-evolving digital landscape, and embrace the change that comes with it, have found themselves at risk of losing their doors.

After the recent spate of gallery closures in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and international cities like London and New York, galleries are increasingly aware that sticking to what they know is no longer enough.

This became a reality due to the impact of Covid-19 and the need for social distancing and isolation to fight the pandemic. To prevent their demise, art galleries need to reinvent themselves using the power of technology to take art to wider audiences. The truth is that there is no option but to adapt because those in the art world who do not embrace change run a genuine risk of becoming irrelevant.

Technology has benefits in bringing art and virtual events to a broader audience. What strategies is Absa employing to grow audiences and educate about contemporary art from Africa?

We need to begin to think of galleries as spaces that have no borders and no physical boundaries. It should be accessible to all. This year the Absa L’Atelier was re-envisioned, adopting an entirely new format. The entire competition is taking place virtually. All entries and adjudication were done online, which meant any artist from the twelve countries across Africa that were eligible to participate in the competition, and who had access to the internet or a smartphone, could enter. The difference in the number and geographical diversity of artists that entered this year, compared to previous year’s, was tangible. The Awards event, planned for October, will also be hosted digitally and live-streamed, accessible to a global audience.

The entirely virtual Absa L’Atelier allows for the democratisation of art on the African continent and gives new entrants who may have faced challenges submitting their work in the past. Going digital meant that the competition has also reduced its carbon footprint: we did not need to transport art across Africa or fly in adjudicators.

What are the main themes artists have used during these times, and how have Absa’s digital platforms assisted in telling their stories?

By going fully virtual, we are gearing up for digital transformation, while also ensuring that we continue to provide young visual artists from across the African continent with the platform they need to explore and comment on issues that impact their lives; irrespective of where they are situated.

The Absa L’Atelier competition has, over the years, proven to not only provide a platform for artists from across Africa to showcase their work, but has often given a voice to the marginalised, in the process of addressing some of the continent’s social challenges. We find that where the arts thrive, even the most vulnerable members of society are given a voice.

The entrance to the latest exhibition, “Remnant” in the Absa Art Hot Spot. Courtesy of Absa Art Hot Spot.The entrance to the latest exhibition, “Remnant” in the Absa Art Hot Spot. Courtesy of Absa Art Hot Spot.

An example of such a social challenge is gender inequality or exclusion, which remains a stumbling block to the advancement of many women on the African continent. Absa L’Atelier has intentionally promoted the participation of women artists over the years.

One such artist was our 2016 winner, Nourhan Maayouf. She is an Egyptian visual artist whose mostly autobiographical work represents her generation of middle-class Egyptian females under socio-political influences. Using self-portraits, performances, and installations, she explores issues of gender and home, covering topics such as displacement, dreams for independence and contemporary relationship issues. As part of our ongoing relationship with our Absa L’Atelier ambassadors, we welcomed her back as part of the ‘Power of 35’ exhibition that we launched in May this year.

The virtual exhibition entitled ‘Emotion’, curated for this year’s KKNK, and hosted in the Absa Gallery, includes artworks by previous top 100 Absa L’Atelier participants and comprises a selection of photographic, audio and digital artworks.

When viewers engage with each of the works, their experience is largely influenced by the platforms they are viewed on (i.e. the screen of smartphones versus a large screen television). The topic makes the exhibition accessible to all. ‘Emotion’ is a universal language that we can all relate to in one form or another. Based on our unique circumstances, past experiences, upbringing, cultural background, to mention but a few, each of us will respond to an artwork in our unique way.  Furthermore, the creation of an artwork is also largely dependent on the artist’s emotion in work. Often, we might not fully understand a work, but we can feel the emotion from the artwork, thus enabling the viewer to respond in a particular manner.

Dr Paul Bayliss has served in the role of Absa Art and Museum Curator since January 2011. His role as Absa Art and Museum Curator includes the management of Absa’s art collection of approximately 18 000 artworks, coordinating the L’Atelier art competition across Africa; and, managing the Absa Gallery, The Money Museum, and Absa Archives.

FEATURED IMAGE: The entrance of the Absa Art Hot Spot virtual world that houses all the art exhibitions, art masterclasses, and livestreamed events (among other art content). The site also introduces the Absa Money Museum and various Absa art sponsorships such as the Absa L’Atelier and the KKNK. Courtesy of Absa Art Hot Spot.