Artist Phoka Nyokong wins Gerard Sekoto award at prestigious Absa L’Atelier competition

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Phoka Nyokong

The 34th Absa L’Atelier visual arts competition, in partnership with the South African National Association for the Visual Arts (SANAVA), saw rich and diverse talent emerge from across the continent, with Raji Bamidele, Nkhensani Rihlampfu, Winifrid Luena and Phoka Nyokong crowned this year’s winners.

The extravagant event took place at the Absa Dome in Cape Town during the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa in September.

Nyokong walked away with the esteemed Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award, which is awarded to the most promising emerging South African artist aged 25 to 35. Absa and SANAVA in partnership with the Embassy of France, IFAS and the Alliance Française in South Africa, introduced the award in 2004 to honour Sekoto’s legacy, which changed the narrative of how the work and lives of black South African artists is perceived, valued and documented.

Nyokong was selected as the Gerard Sekoto winner because his photography brought through the themes of gender (mis)identity, collective social anxiety and the temporality of the human material experience.

As part of the award he will enjoy a three-month residency at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris in 2020 and a travelling exhibition through the Alliance Française network in South Africa in 2021.

Phoka tells more about how it feels to be honoured for his work.

Phoka, congratulations on being awarded the Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto award! What does this award mean to you and your career?

Thank you very much Marli, I appreciate that. Thanks to Absa L’Atelier for the recognition – it is a humbling honour that I am sincerely proud of. I also appreciate the assistance of everyone involved in realising the work.

This award means an honour beyond words. A life-changing chapter that offers me a chance to transform my stature as an artist. The biggest incentive for me is the prestigious platform to produce work for a solo exhibition. That is a dream come true.

You were named most promising emerging artist between the ages of 25 and 35. Do you think it is important for young artists to get recognition for their work and receive a platform to further their career?

It is absolutely important to get recognition for one’s contribution to one’s chosen field of work. For a young artist the recognition becomes an incentive to invest your very self in what you do, because some of us came from a background that told us we’re not good enough to do great things. For young black artists it is especially encouraging, because cultural aspiration is fundamental to our identity.

What is your advice for the youth who wants to pursue a career in the fine arts?

I think it is fair to mention that more than other careers, a career in the fine arts is one of those that will always take double the effort to make a success of. One of the reasons for that is that the arts themselves are not like any other occupation that is exclusively connected to commercial or financial aspiration. They are, rather, connected to a certain human need that you cannot necessarily explain in simple language. Therefore, for any young person it is important to go into it with a genuine love for it, discipline and staying true to one’s individuality.

Please tell us more about yourself and your background – where does your love for art come from?

I grew up in the North-West in Klerksdorp, where I also had my very first encounters with art. My most vivid earliest memories of art-making include seeing my two brothers’ amazing pen drawings, and them making clay oxen with my friends, from clay that had been mined from a stream on the outskirts of our township.

After many years of working as a self-taught painter and sculptor I trained for four years as a printmaker and ceramicist. By the end of my graduate year I was working in multimedia installation, photography, video and performance, which I have gravitated more towards until in my current practice.

Why did you decide to pursue fine arts as a career?

I just love art. In fact, the irony is that my first love is literature, which I still have big plans of pursuing and doing well in, creating literary works – novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction works. Of course, at this point my focus has fallen totally on my visual art, and I am enjoying myself in my self-bestowed role of not only image-maker but also myth-maker for our nation.

Tell us more about your art – where do you draw inspiration from?

My art is in the truest sense what I refer to as long “visual essays” drawn from my absolute love for oral-storytelling, a love for indigenous cultures, current affairs, urban and popular culture. I also draw inspiration from literary traditions – the art of storytelling itself.

I work conceptually, which is one of the ways in which I have surprised myself, because as my friends at art school would tell you, I used to hate conceptual art. I used to not understand the idea of art that is about ideas more than it is about aesthetics or any other thing.

I must say that aesthetics remains important in my work, and when I create work, I move from an aesthetical and storytelling place rather than from concepts. It is only later on in the work that I develop the conceptual value. A lot of my work starts with titles even before the work is created – that is how much I love words.

What themes are most prevalent in your art and why?

Themes in my work relate to a concern with the construction of a range of identities – racial, gender, cultural and personal. I am interested in how these have become the contested terrain of everyone from government to scholars, theorists and societies.

In addition how, furthermore, the actual societies tend to be excluded from their place as producers of their own identities. All has become the preserve of bureaucracy and their media devices. Therefore, my work is preoccupied with the addressing of these through the reconstruction of past and current histories.

The current work itself deals with issues of racial and gender (mis)identity through the celebration of the traditions of masquerade. It plays on the human tendency to associate a human being with his or her race or gender, asking the question whether it really matters what one’s race or gender is. Does it make one any less or more human?

Is it important for art to bring a message across or to comment on social issues?

A nation tells its own stories in many ways. There is music, visual art, poetry, dance and theatre – all these forms have been used for centuries by civilisations to form and convey messages on social issues.

While I think it is useful for an artist to address nascent issues with their work, I do not know whether it is a burden that art and artists should carry beyond what they are willing to do. Forming concepts through art does not always have to render those concepts social issues; they could well be personal or playful issues. The important condition is you expressing your most honest intimate emotions and thoughts.

Tell us about your journey as an artist – what have been some of your career highlights?

My journey with art has been most difficult at times. There has been a considerable amount of doubt and opposition. The feeling of being misunderstood has also been a factor.

However, the love to create has been a mainstay of my journey. Some of my highlights include my first ever solo show in 2016, presentation of work at the Pretoria Art Museum (2018) and Turbine Art Fair (2018 and 2019). I presented video work in the Joburg Fringe (2018) and in Cape Town (2019), plus an installation/performance for ArtWeek Cape Town 2019. I also enjoyed curating two group shows in Pretoria In 2017 and 2018.

What does the future hold for you?

The future holds dreams, work, growth, abundance, art, art and more art.

  • Photos: provided
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