Mary corrigal on the Sasol Wax Art Awards 2007
The Sasol Wax Art Award 2007 exhibition might feature the crème de la crème of South Africa’s art world with Sue Williamson, Walter Oltmann, Wayne Barker, Usha Seejarim and Andrew Verster all presenting their art, but one remains acutely aware that it is ‘Competition Art’ that is on showArt created for the purpose of winning a contest, should be a genus of the visuals arts unto itself. It often results in a brand of art that parades empty shells that are often nothing more than spectacles that lack substance.While art has historically been shaped by the ideals of its patrons, the art competition sees the association between artists and their patrons intensify, engendering an environment where expression becomes premeditated and the criteria defining artistic value narrow in scope. That said, it is always intriguing to see art world heavyweights try to maintain their artistic integrity while integrating a theme into their artworks or complying with competition rules. The Sasol Wax Art Award demands that artists employ wax either in the conceptual impetus of the artwork or in the construction.Walter Oltmann’s array of golden sculpted hands stands out. And not just because they secured him the R130 000 reward but for the simple and surprising fact that his artistic practice seems to have flourished within the constrictions of the competition brief. Although renowned for his wire aluminium sculptures, employing wax in the construction of his artwork forced him to create artworks that are solid, resulting in a visual language that benefits his expression. Of course, this means that his art no longer alludes to the African craft genre, which is fundamental to his preoccupation with the interface between European and African cultures. However, during his acceptance speech he inferred that participating in a competition which forced him to approach his art making from a different perspective brought about some surprising insights into his modus operandi that may well have an impact on future endeavours. Seejarim, Williamson and Verster’s art on exhibit didn’t appear to have thrived in the competition. Their artworks were by no means one dimensional, but they lacked the weight and rounded flavour that distinguishes their art.Barker, however, pulled out all the stops; creating multilayered works that balanced the requirements of the competition while satisfying his impulse to establish concepts that transcend obvious associations with wax. Although his art referred to the healing qualities allied to bees and wax, he engaged with the ubiquitous compulsion to repair the damage wreaked by our violent, bigoted society – a trademark of the Rainbow Nation era. The words, “heal” and “dreaming”, appear in neon lights, suggesting not only that the impulse to ‘heal the wrongs of the past’ has become a staple feature of our culture but in so doing it has reduced the process into a trite affair that lacks significance and authenticity.