#LAChats With Phoka Nyokong & Absa L’Atelier Senior Art Curator

The annual Absa L’ Atelier art competition brings together some of Africa’s’ most notable artists. It is one of the most prestigious art events in the world. The competition encourages artists to explore their creativity and to create work that speaks to contemporary issues. Artists who are citizens or permanent residents of any of the following countries were eligible to enter this year:

After a break due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the competition is back with full force to ensure that the Arts industry is continuously supported – now more than ever in the current economy. With a presence of 35 years, there is no doubt that a high level of support will continue being kept by the team.

We had a chat with one of the winning artists, Phoka Nyokong as well as Dr Paul Bayliss, Absa’s Senior Specialist Art Curator, to get some more insight on not only what its like winning an Absa L’Atelier award but what takes to run such a project. Here’s what they had to say:

#LAChats with Artist & 2019 Winner Phoka Nyokong

Life - Meet Absa L'Atelier winner Phoka Nyokong

Please give our readers a bit of insight as to who you are, what you do and your title in the Absa L’atelier competition (focus on being the rep for your country as the 2019 winner).

Phoka: I’m an artist, writer, cultural worker and humanist. I was born in the North West province, grew up there and started my art there. I am the recipient of the esteemed Gerard Sekoto award 2019.

What made you enter Absa L’atelier and what did you hope the competition does for you?

Phoka: I entered to win. I knew that winning would provide the biggest incentive to growing my career as an artist. 

Tell us a bit about the piece you submitted. What’s the background story on what inspired the piece & the creative process you went through to bring it to life? 

Phoka: I actually submitted five pieces, which formed a long series of photographs titled “Gathering Footprints, Collecting Memories”. 

The work originated from a performance art piece that I made in 2018. At this time I was in my last year at art school, and the work was my biggest research that year. It was informed by my interest in issues of the complexity of gender and race relations, which tend to override one another. By creating a character that owed it’s essence to no easy gender or race association, I was attempting to argue that all humans are meant to be equal. The creative process, as I said, began with a public performance work. I then went into studio to photographically recreate the performance , with the help of a photographer and a model.  

What was your reaction when you found out you were one of the winners?

Phoka: I said to myself, “I can’t believe this! Yet It’s been a long time coming…”, because I believed I deserved the recognition.

As you didn’t have the opportunity to take up your prize due to the pandemic, have you thought about how you will be maximizing the opportunity this year (taking into consideration the climate of opportunities for the Arts & creative  industry currently)?

Phoka: Thinking about what one may do to be active in times of a pandemic is a work that is often collective. You can’t do it all alone. It helps that there are institutions that have been willing to help artists keep active, and part of my success during the pandemic is owed to those. So there is still a chance that I may in fact still be able top take up my prize, because it would be a big missing crowning glory. I am prepared to wait for however long it takes…

What advice would you give someone who’s looking to enter this year’s competition?

Phoka: Enjoy making art, and half the job is done!

We’re currently celebrating Africa Month, what are your top 5 tracks that sum up how proud you are to be an African right now (old or new tracks, really up to you)?

  1. Jikijela by Letta Mbulu
  2. Mama Africa by Peter Tosh
  3. Let The Band Play On by Lucky Dube
  4. Zimbabwe by Bob Marley
  5. Mhani by Umanji

Featured image on this post is by Phoka.

#LAChats with Dr Paul Bayliss, Absa Senior Art Curator 

Last year’s leg of the competition was cancelled due to the pandemic. What are some of the challenges you hit before making that official call?

Dr Paul Bayliss: A lot was at stake for us as a brand but the lives of our people and those of the artists is paramount to every decision we make. It was sad that we had to cancel last year’s event, but you would agree that it was for the greater good.  We did not arrive at the decision lightly and encountered numerous challenges, but we are satisfied that it was done for the right reasons.

What were the opportunities spotted (in 2020) that would make the competition reach better heights now that it’s back, virtually?

Dr Paul Bayliss: The Absa L’Atelier is a competition that takes place in 12 countries across the African continent where Absa has a presence. Artists aged 21 to 40, who are citizens and permanent residents of Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, the Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia (and who reside in these countries), are eligible to enter the Absa L’Atelier. Due to the continued impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, this year’s competition is completely virtual, from the uploading and submission of entries, the adjudication, and the announcement of the winners in September. With a completely virtual Absa L’Atelier, it firstly, allows for any artist that has a computer and / or smartphone and access to the internet to be able to enter. Secondly, the adjudicators are leading authorities from across the globe with knowledge of the African diaspora and regardless of where they might be located, they will be able to adjudicate. No longer are we reliant on a person been in a particular geographical region to serve as an adjudicator. With the Absa L’Atelier been completely virtual, we can tap into the global village of expertise. Lastly, the awards ceremony will be livestreamed in September allowing for all participating artists across Africa to join in the celebrations.

How important is it for Absa L’Atelier to keep the Arts industry alive and shining especially during such tough times when artists must rely on digital avenues to make a living?

Dr Paul Bayliss: It is particularly important. This year’s Absa L’Atelier will once again provide an opportunity for visual artists to respond and make their voices heard. With this year’s theme ‘The Act of Art’, we are calling on our continent’s fearless creators to act now and enter. Through ‘The Act of Art’ artists can respond by allowing their voices to be heard, for their passion to come through, to showcase their potential, and to demonstrate their hunger for the arts. As Absa and SANAVA, we are committed to continue putting the basic building blocks in place to ensure that young artists from across the African continent can reimagine their futures and bring their possibility to life.

What are you hoping to see from entrants this year with the theme like ‘The Act of Art’?

Dr Paul Bayliss: The depth and breadth of the entries to the Absa L’Atelier are so diverse; there is almost room to argue any point about expression from these rising creatives. Through the entries we find that personal impulses continue to inform art and are its main currency. We are presently finding ourselves in a time in which emerging artists are trying to establish their practice within the cultural and historical context in which they operate. Similarly, these artists are discovering that their work needs to be relevant internationally while remaining central to the local histories, connected to their immediate environment and, first and foremost, true to whom they are as individuals. Political protest and social commentary have over the years featured predominantly. Some of the artworks offer insight into the particular conditions and contexts from the artist’s countries of origin. Others highlight pressing political issues. More recently, there has been an increased number of photographic works, which is reflective of the dominance of this medium across the continent. What I believe makes the Absa L’Atelier unique, is not what we might necessary see in the past and current entrants artworks but instead the work that will follow by not only the award recipients, but all other entrants into the competition as they continue to use the opportunity and platform the Absa L’Atelier provides.

We’re currently celebrating Africa Month, what are your top 5 tracks that sum up how proud you are to be an African right now (old or new tracks, really up to you)?

  1. Pata Pata – Mirriam Makeba
  2. African Dream – Vicky Samson
  3. Home Talk – Mango Groove
  4. Scatterlings of Africa – Johnny Clegg
  5. Stimela – Hugh Masekela

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