Art at its best
The Standard Bank Namibia Biennale
Published: Flamingo Magazine, September 2005
When we think of Namibia, we think of wide, open spaces, of wild animals, beautiful sunsets and the desert. But there is more to Namibia than game drives, camping and restaurants. Namibia’s contemporary art scene is a spectacular and unique gem often overlooked by tourists and locals alike. And September is the month when we can see a selection of the best Namibian visual art under one roof.
In September 2005 the National Art Gallery of Namibia will once again host the prestigious Standard Bank Namibia Biennale, the most important art competition in Namibia. Sponsored by Standard Bank Namibia the Biennale is held every two years and is the ideal platform for Namibian artists to showcase their best work and to compete for an award. For the public this is the perfect opportunity to see and buy the best art Namibia has to offer, get to know and buy from Namibia’s established artists and new emerging talent and to follow new developments and trends in the arts.
Since it’s inception in 1981 as the SBSWA Art Exhibition, the Biennale has undergone many significant changes, but has continually exhibited a good selection of the greatest Namibian art under one roof. It also never fails to generate strong interest from the public and artists alike and by its very nature it is usually clouded in controversy.
This year the National Art Gallery of Namibia and Standard Bank have once again introduced significant changes to the concept of the Biennale, in an attempt to improve on the existing framework. At the official launch it was announced that there would be no regional preliminary selections as was customary in the past. All work will be transported from the regions to Windhoek and thus all works will be seen and judged in Windhoek. This serves to prevent works from being overlooked by regional selectors and consequently never have a chance to be judged by the official judges.
For the 2005 Biennale, Standard Bank Namibia has offered generous prizes to the value of N$ 60 000.00. This is an N$ 18 000.00 increase from the previous Biennale. While in 2003 the organizers still made provisions for twelve categories in which prizes could be awarded, this year there will only be three categories namely two-dimensional work, three-dimensional work and a newly established category: “Digital/ Electronic/ Technical-Photographic/ Television material with regard to visual and animation series.” (Quoted from Biennale entry form). As customary there will also be a New Signatory Award for newcomers to the art scene. To qualify for this award, an artist needs to be between eighteen and twenty-five years of age and not have had a solo exhibition or won an award at any previous Biennale. The Young Signatory Award winner will get a solo exhibition at the National Art Gallery of Namibia as part of their prize.
Another change, which will have to prove its value, is the fact that all works will be available to view and buy by the public, no matter if they were selected for the final exhibition or not. This is no new concept in the art world, with the most famous predecessor being the Salon des Refusés in Paris. Since the 17th century the French Royal Academy exhibited selected works in the Salon d’Apollon in the Louvre and there was no other public exhibition of similar high standing. The jury would be mostly composed from members of the Academy and they used their power to exclude any painter of whom they did not approve. In 1863 the scandal and the protest over the works refused were so great that Napoleon III ordered a special exhibition for them, known as the Salon des Refusés. According to the Dictionary of Art and Artists by P. & L. Murray, it was not well received and I quote: “So bitter was the official opposition and so uncomprehending was the mass of the public, incapable of independent judgement, that no such exhibition was held again, nor was the rigour of the jury modified.” It remains to be seen if this concept will work for the Namibian Biennale almost a 150 years later.
The last Biennale winner, Jost Kirsten, has mixed feelings about the effectiveness of the Biennale. In light of the announcement that the jury will consist of only one Namibian judge and two judges from the SADC region he comments that “[it] is about time that Namibian art is measured against global standards”. Previously the Namibian judges outnumbered the outside judges and this unfailingly led to debates about partiality and appropriateness of prizes awarded. Although the National Art Gallery did not want to reveal the identity of the judges at the time of writing this article, it was assured by the Director that “All judges will be selected on the ability to interpret, analyse and deconstruct a work of art and not necessarily on a track record with regards to the number of exhibitions they have showcased over the years.”
According to the National Art Gallery the last Biennale attracted a total of 755 visitors of which 187 were tourists. Fifty-four artworks were sold for a total amount of almost N$ 30 000.00. One of the buyers, Mr Abraham Quintero who was at the time the Chargé d’Affaires of Venezuela in Namibia, says: “Namibians should support their own artists. Businesses, politicians and professional individuals should set the example by investing in art, which forms an important part of the national patrimony. We should embrace the modern culture as well as the traditional one. Today’s artists play an important role in the creation of Namibia’s unique identity.”
Undeniably this is the most prominent highlight on the cultural events calendar and also an ideal opportunity for art lovers and collectors to find some extraordinary art pieces for their collections. First time buyers can also use this opportunity to find affordable art from emerging young artists and be guided by the expertise of the judge’s selection.
(c) Imke Rust