Don’t understand conceptual art, not your fault

Nkawana's winning installation piece titled The World At Night
Nkawana's winning installation piece titled The World At Night

During the advent of modern art, specifically in the 1960s, artist went out of their way and collected familiar items such as urinals, chairs, bricks and exhibited them in galleries as art.

There was uproar in the art industry, with all sorts of names hauled at artists such as Marcel Duchamp and others whose ready-mades had rattled the very definition of the work of art. This era marked the beginning of conceptual art.

Somebody remarked at the height of this art that ‘if you don’t understand conceptual art, it’s not your fault’. This statement today is still as relevant as it was then. A lot of us find it unpalatable and confusing to comprehend, a sentiment echoed by the 2016 Thapong Artist of the Year Award (TAYA) overall winner, Thato Nkawana. His winning installation piece is conceptual, with familiar items arranged to make a work of art.

Sitting down with Nkawana, an avid abstract painter of more than 15 years, it becomes apparent that the idea or concept behind the work is paramount. His installation of a dress inside a mosquito net, with an electric fan blowing the hanging dress in different directions, set in a black cloth with household saucers and cups lying around, is not at all easy to understand.

“I like challenging my audience. It is not obvious and it challenges the viewer,” he says. Nkawana says the work is however simple and straight forward. “But it is an abstract work which one has to look for the meaning or sit down with me to understand the concept behind it.”

To some the work may appear simple as the artist says, but he says it took a lot of hardwork to put it together. “I went through a lot of thinking, about a month to be precise. I put down notes, sketches and assembled other materials, removed those that I felt were not working until I was satisfied with this element,” he said. He said he went through challenges such as suffocating the fan with the dress and had to find another way of making the dress move. In the end he settled for hanging the dress above the fan and the results were satisfying because the dress was moving.

Nkawana, who hails from Bobonong, explains the work as a response to the problems in our society where women are abused. “The black dress depicts wickedness. The net is the protector because in our culture we treat the woman as a ‘glass’ that can easily break. The fan blows the woman represented by the dress and moves her around and this shows that the woman is always ‘shaken’ in her home,” he said. As to why the dress is not entirely black, he said the other colours are used to show that the woman is a beautiful being that deserves better treatment.

As for the saucers and the cups with figures inside, he said they depict men who care very little about their families. “The cups and saucers are empty with men relaxing inside them and not providing for their families,” he explained.

Nkawana, a Limkokwing marketing graduate, knows that this type of work does not sell easily when compared to the traditional art. He says he was not looking at selling the work but to communicate issues that are close to his heart or those that affect society.

He says he is working with his manager to find funds so that the work could travel the world and communicate the message.

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