I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.
– Marcelle Duchamp –
It’s not an easy thing to explain what an artist is. In 2009 Sarah Thornton started investigating how artists see themselves. Interviewing over a hundred artists Thornton explored ways in which artists ‘command belief in their work’ and ‘what artistic myths [artists] enliven or reject.’ Her ethnographic research culminated in an insightful book 33 Artists in 3 Acts (2014) which I have just has the pleasure of reading.
For some reason I have always thought that well-established and high-profile artists have clarity when it comes to this issue. Thornton’s digging into creatives’ thinking, value systems and beliefs uncover quite the opposite. It would appear that we all struggle with expressing what the essence of being an artist might be. This includes those of celebrity status such as the ever-polished Jeff Koons.
The famous Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco offers perhaps the most un-hidden and insightful interpretation to Thornton:
There are moments when artists are artists and then they are not anymore.
For Orozco an artist moves away from being an artist when art-making is disconnected to thinking. A South African artist whose conceptual thinking is evident in his painting is the Durban-based artist Themba Shibase. His current show at SMAC (Stellenbosch) clearly exhibits that each work is conceptually considered.
An activist, Shibase is certainly the type of artist that Orozco alludes to as his thinking is continuously revealed through his image making. Tackling huge issues relating to African power structures on the continent, Shibase is fearless as he exposes African leaders for their lack of leadership, their self-enrichment and their tyrannical will which ultimately is imposed on the vulnerable.
The exhibition titled Slightly Off Centre directly refers to male sexuality and dominance, where, according to the exhibition pamphlet ‘the black phallus can be equated with the ceremonial staff’ which is generally part of the exhibition of display with regards to the endowed power of African leaders. However, in this instance the phallus has been replaced by a screw:
Screws are known to hold things together, but this bent, used screw serves as an icon of disintegration, and a blatant phallic symbol that reinforces Shibase’s equation between masculinity, dominance and exploitation as it most obviously alludes to a government screwing the people.
Like Duchamp, I can say that even if I don’t necessarily believe in the artwork, I certainly and wholeheartedly believe in Themba Shibase as an artist.