Art site seeks SA faces

Read time 5min 00sec

A triptych of SA celebrity Gareth Cliff is the latest painting in the Facing a Century series, a collection of 100 portraits by artist Tafadzwa Mukwashi.

Following the creation of her Web-based art initiative, Sketchbooktrails, the 28-year-old Zimbabwean-born student aims to bring an awareness of art and its impact to a new, youthful audience.

According to Mukwashi, the response to Gareth Cliff's pop art-inspired portrait was extremely positive, featuring as Cliff's Facebook and Twitter profile pictures.

“As one of the most popular contemporary personalities in SA, Cliff has the greatest online following on Twitter for a South African, as well as a Facebook following of over 200 000 fans,” she notes.

The seventh in the series, the Gareth Cliff portrait also featured on Cliff's home page and in his 'Cliff Notes' postings.

He joins other local personalities featured, including music group Goldfish, Seth Rotherham of the 2oceansvibe blog, Just Jinjer front man Ard Matthews, rugby legend Bob Skinstad and Springbok captain John Smit, as well as opera singer Pretty Yende.

But Mukwashi insists the collection isn't merely a showcase for local stars. “Although the project has so far featured some famous faces, it is ultimately not about celebrities. The intention of the project is to capture people from all walks of life, showing their moments and emphasising our shared humanity.”

When people learn she can paint, says Mukwashi, she often gets requests to do portraits. “I realised the value of painting portraits of inspiring people, and convincing 'ordinary' people that they are also valuable and can be inspiring too.”

Mukwashi is looking for more faces to feature in the project, to help complete the century. She says everyone is of value and has worth. “Facing a Century is not merely a collection of posed portraits, but a celebration of 100 moments of life being lived.”

Freeing the palette

According to Mukwashi, the rise of the Web and social media has led to the emergence of the 'empowered online citizen', allowing artists more freedom. “The art world, at least here in SA and in Zimbabwe, has previously been dominated by a handful of art dealers.

“For artists, however, the conditions for signing up with art dealers are often limiting. The art industry is still very conservative. Online platforms allow artists to create the art we want, without having to be formally part of the contemporary art scene or being commercially tied to a corporate.”

Mukwashi explains that art lovers can now more freely choose which art to view and which artists to support. “The Internet does not have the limitations of the physical walls of galleries - an infinite amount of creative efforts can be uploaded and viewed by anyone with access to the Internet.” People who weren't originally art lovers can now more easily become ones, she adds.

“Online platforms give selling artists greater financial independence - hefty commissions paid out to galleries and art dealers can be omitted,” notes Mukwashi. The freedoms offered by being a part of the online community have also liberated African artists, regardless of race, who depend on the income from their art to survive and support their families, she explains.

However, Mukwashi stresses that physical galleries are unlikely to become redundant and says seeing an original work of art in reputable galleries will always trump seeing an image of it online. “What I do hope for is that the growing online art community and the traditional art community will eventually merge and complement one another.”

Blend and mix

Social networks have also been instrumental in growing Sketchbooktrails, and its Global Dialogue on Art, which features other artists and encourages the sharing of ideas.

“Facebook and the advent of pages meant I could direct initially just my friends to http://www.sketchbooktrails.com to see the Dialogue features and see and comment on my own work,” says Mukwashi. “With the majority of my friends and my family not living in SA, the Web was the only way to achieve this.”

She points to Twitter and Facebook's role in helping people engage with a wider, more diverse group. “Seeing the same thing from as many different views as possible and the constructive criticism that follows are great ways to achieve growth as an artist - or anything else for that matter.”

However, Mukwashi adds, some contemporary art galleries weren't willing to have their artists featured on the Dialogue and have them put up on a platform like Facebook, which they view as 'not serious enough'. “They have not fully realised the power of social media and the greater audience it attracts.”

She says Facing a Century has led to more people following Sketchbooktrails, with portraits of social media kings such as Gareth Cliff and John Smit resulting in people who weren't previously active supporters of visual art also joining the journey.

Mukwashi aims to complete the century, which began in April last year, by May 2012. Each portrait is sent straight to the individual portrayed, with no public exhibition of the paintings. However, the artworks are uploaded onto Sketchbooktrails, comprising a grid of 100 squares to be filled with paintings as the project progresses.

For Mukwashi, the project reflects people's shared journeys and common humanity. “The feeling behind Sketchbooktrails, and most of the projects I undertake, is this underlying connection, and the need to recognise it and each other.”

For more information, contact: info@sketchbooktrails.com.

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