Holding onto Water with an Open Hand, Part I - Bubblegum Club

Holding onto Water with an Open Hand, Part I

“People get overwhelmed […] discouraged when their careers aren’t taking off or showing any trajectory [after] art school. [But you should] never stop making […] even if it’s something small or not going to be shown anywhere. It’s a long-term investment.”

Anyone who chooses a career in a creative field is acutely aware of the difficulties and barriers they will have to face. This is true for those pursuing careers within the visual arts. Apart from a few, all those who make this choice essentially start from a deficit. A deficit of resources, support, infrastructure and the interpersonal networks that for some speed up the journey to a ‘successful’ and sustainable career. Some challenges are more difficult than others to overcome, with more of them embedded in social, economic and political structures that appear overwhelming and intractable.

These barriers not only permeate on a local level but also a global level. Race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, age, nationality and other effective issues I have been remiss to note are deterrents affecting creative practitioners regardless of the stage of their career. “People have different circumstances. [Some] don’t have to work to pay their rent, they sell their paintings […] They come from wealthy backgrounds […]I just don’t have that access to, pursue my practice full-time.”

The achievement gaps are obvious. Too many ‘successful’ people are unable to realise that they are successful not only due to merit or that others have ‘failed’ because they lack merit. Someone took a chance and decided to give us an opportunity. “You think we’re all the same, […] you start to realise how much connection and […] wealth plays into other people’s careers.”

Open hand

Appearing in various parts of this article are artists working in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Harare and Lusaka addressing concerns regarding studios, career sustainability, navigating the professional art industry, mentorships, fees, social media and emigration. Understanding fundamentally from the artist’s perspective what is happening in their work environments is necessary, too often we hear from the organisers. These are not conclusive results of the entire arts landscape but a show of microcosms of the clobbered mess available for independent artists and practitioners now.

In no order or any semblance of importance, the artists are Kay-Leigh Fisher, Nyakallo Maleke, Puleng Mongale, Nukwase Tembo, Akshar Maganbeharie, Candice Myataza and Shalom Kufakwatenzi. The responses are anonymised to negotiate a degree of protection with visibility. I was trusted with honesty, something commonly unusual in an industry that thrives on opaqueness. Art communities are small, and people get weird. It is probable that the artists themselves have changed their minds about some opinions and positions. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on the perspective, the results here reflect what practising art is for these artists, as well as the state of their local arts and cultural landscapes.

Desires that are needs

Similarly to other creative fields, artists are in constant audition, they make, post, write, apply, maybe exhibit. They generally cover all costs, and may or may not have a studio, most likely not. Most of the time, they will lose money and not make any in return. All this they do without support, without representation. Contrary to the ‘run of your practice like a business’ rhetoric, they cannot do the work of a team and it will show.

Open hand
Kay-Leigh Fisher, Courtesy of the artist

Or maybe, without strings (hopefully), they have serendipitously made connections with individuals willing to part with knowledge and aid. “I do have a mentor[…] working together has been really amazing […] I’ve gotten to build and evolve my skill […] it’s new.” But not everyone’s intentions are truly benevolent. “I don’t have any mentors or coaches; I had a bit of a bad experience with those.”

The artists have no overhead or infrastructure to which to turn. “Because nobody tells and answers[…] even just simple business management, bookkeeping […] no resources, no support […] Literally just winging it […] Do I want to create merch? […] I am doing it because I’m starving right now.” There is a culture of obscurity instead of clearly communicating the methodologies and structures of this working environment. If you do not know how to work the funding systems, applications etc. the assumption is that being the best will get you success. That is what is implied, what is said too, but this is a false promise.

Artists may have access to limited but generous workshops, workbooks, seminars etc. provided by under-resourced, precarious non-profit organisations or state initiatives. The issue with some of these initiatives is that offers or solutions for artists are geared towards entrepreneurship. This approach also conflates the creative industries; a graphic designer’s work and a visual artist’s work cannot have the same solutions. There is also the presumption of available capital, the business model does not fit all artists “for [those] who are from struggling backgrounds[…]to create that requires budgets […] that burden only ever lies with Black working-class artists.” It is alone they must navigate the industry, overcome language (the subtext), obvious barriers and a severe lack of infrastructure.

“My studio is in my apartment. One room is […] dedicated to my work.” “I do want to feel like I am working. […] to build a routine […] I would love to go into a studio space in the morning like everybody going to work [with] a knockoff time.” They also must do the living; sustenance, bills, healthcare (double or more so for those with any chronic conditions), leisure (not luxury) and maintain healthy relationships; these are desires that are needs. “You have to be your own manager […] you market your work […] you go to networking events […]It’s not something that comes naturally to me, so it’s very much a challenge.”

Increasingly there is the added pressure of performing success given the optics-driven societies we live in now; dressing accordingly, and showing up at events to be looked at. Artists do not have 2000 years of automatic credibility to make them that automatic messiah, that Jesus Christ superstar of the art world. They must do so much more, even when they have representation. “There’s a lot of pressure […] I’ve had really good advice from people I’ve worked with […] I don’t have to be the flavour of the month […] other artists, they’re really popular for like two to five years […] I sort of want to stagger my practice and my [success].”

open hand
Akshar Maganbeharie, 29

This article was produced in the context of the David Koloane Award Mentorship Programme 2023 on behalf of the Bag Factory. The 2023 David Koloane Award was kindly funded by the National Arts Council, in support of Johannesburg-based aspiring critical arts writers (aged 21-35) working in the fields of exhibition curating, journalism and creative writing.

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