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Art as a catalyst for change: Works from the Spier Collection celebrate 25 years of democracy

On Wednesday 26 June, I See U: Imagining a Space for Freedom launched at the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill in Braamfontein. The exhibition, which runs until 31 July 2019, will showcase more than 35 works from the Spier Collection — one of the country’s largest. Encompassing painting, sculpture, photography, beadwork and drawing, the works powerfully illustrate the importance of art to catalyse change, hold the powerful to account, and give a voice to the voiceless. A stunning showcase of South Africa’s vibrant creative talent, I See U’s featured artists include Athi-Patra Ruga, Helen Sebidi, Ricky Ayanda Dyaloyi, and Diane Victor.

Athi-Patra__Ruga_Escape_to_the_End_of_History (LR)

“It is highly fitting that this venue is hosting artworks which celebrate South Africa’s democracy,” says Gaisang Sathekge, the Exhibitions and Events Coordinator at Constitution Hill, and I See U’s co-curator. “As a former prison, Constitution Hill reminds the viewer of our nation’s painful past and the price that was paid for our liberation. But, even more importantly — as home, today, of the Constitutional Court — this heritage site symbolises the many freedoms we have obtained through our democracy. This includes the constitutionally-enshrined right to creative freedom.”

Containing more than 3,200 works in total, the Spier Collection is one of the largest contemporary art collections in the country. Roughly 900 sculptures and artworks can be found throughout the historic Stellenbosch wine farm. The works are frequently rotated, to keep things fresh and expose visitors to a wide range of both emerging and established artists.

“We’ve been a longstanding supporter of the arts because we believe they are a powerful tool for transformation – sparking new insights and inspiring us to engage with our world in new and imaginative ways,” says Spier CEO Andrew Milne.

Helen Sebidi

When selecting the works, I See U’s curator Olga Speakes — a lecturer at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town and an independent curator — was guided by the insight that, while much has been achieved over 25 years of democracy, much more needs to be done. The artists she has selected each honour the struggles of the past and take stock of our tumultuous present, while inviting the viewers to imagine a more equal, prosperous and just South African future.

“By imagining the possibilities of freedom, artists open the door to real change,” says Speakes. “Artists hold a mirror to our society and our history and to speak back to us through their creations. They are the ones who are able to see our world in a way that opens different, deeper ways of knowing it. And so, by supporting artists we support our freedom.”

The phrase “I see U” has become a short form often used on social media to give recognition, support — to connect and to acknowledge someone’s achievements in spite of the challenges they face. By using this youthful colloquialism points, the exhibition offers a reminder of the young age of our democracy.

This is the second time that an external curator has put together a show of Spier works — in 2018, Candice Allison, director of the Bag Factory, curated Material Gains, a show exhibited at the Stellenbosch University Art Museum. 

“Spier’s commitment to the arts extends to beyond nurturing artists — we are keen to develop curatorial talent too. That’s why, for public exhibitions we invite young South African curators to access this significant collection — thus building on their own career development and portfolio as curators,” Mirna Wessels, CEO of the Spier Arts Trust explains.

The Spier Arts Trust first worked with Speakes in 2016 when she co-curated Women’s Work: Crafting Stories, Subverting Narratives in 2016. Spier loaned nine works to this exhibition, which was shown at the Iziko South African National Gallery.

“Recognising that this is someone who has their finger on the pulse of South African creativity and is highly attuned to the complex issues that our artists engage with, we were delighted when Olga expressed the desire to work with us again,” Wessels says. “For I See U, we gave her full access to the sites where artworks are hanging at Spier, as well as to our digital archive, allowing her to shape the exhibition accordingly.”