Next Chapter: Rowan Smith on distinguishing a new generation of practicing artists

Employing a multi-disciplinary approach to his artistic practice that includes sculpture, painting and photography, Smith’s work examines the complexities of 21st century South Africa, through the acts of appropriation, defacement and reparation.

© Rowan Smith, Nothing Lasts Forever Cecil, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town.

© Rowan Smith, Nothing Lasts Forever Cecil (Detail), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town.

 

Following the success of his exhibition, No Everything at Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town; we caught up with Rowan Smith, a recent South African graduate of the California Art Institute, to chat about his views on working in South Africa, studying abroad and his impressions on developing as a young emerging artist in 21st century South Africa.

Houghton Kinsman | As someone who has spent time living and working abroad, what does it mean to you, to be an emerging South African artist?

Rowan Smith | I think one can approach this question in two ways. On the one hand I think the term ’emerging’ is used within the vocabulary of Contemporary art in an attempt to signal to dealers and collectors etc of the ‘next hot thing’. The term ’emerging’ seems to me to be a fairly recent occurrence, one that developed in tandem with a globalized, expanding art market. From within the art market specifically then, it denotes- ‘the next hot thing at still reasonable prices’.

On the other hand, I think specifically from a South African context, the term ’emerging’ could be seen as a means to distinguish a new generation of practicing artists. And I say this because in our very recent history we’ve had a distinguishing socio-political shift- the transition into a post-apartheid nation- which requires an ’emerging’ set of visual vocabularies with which to interpret this transition. Under apartheid, Resistance art maintained a clear and important precedent. I think the precedent today for ’emerging’ artists is far less clear and far more blurry, ambiguous and harder to define. But this also means it is very exciting/challenging to be an ’emerging’ artist in South Africa where cultural identities are constantly shifting.

© Rowan Smith, Nothing Lasts Forever Cecil, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town.

© Rowan Smith, Nothing Lasts Forever Cecil, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town.

 

Do you feel that South Africa offers young emerging artists the necessary conditions/resources in order to develop a critical and mature practice?

Absolutely. During my time in the United States I was often reminded of the high level of critical engagement and quality of work in SA. One thing I did notice was that within the gallery landscape of Los Angeles there are far more artist run project spaces. These kinds of spaces are important alternatives to commercial galleries and museums and provide ’emerging’ artists with a different platform to develop their own practices and initiatives, instead of waiting around hoping to be picked up by a gallery. The nature of these kinds of spaces is ephemeral, and temporary. We’ve had many in the past in SA and I’m sure we’ll have many more in the future.

© Rowan Smith, Oh Nationalism! - Oh Nationalism! You looks so beautiful in ruin; but we never really loved you and chicken just tastes better, 2013 - 2014. [Installation view]. Courtesy of the artist and Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town.

© Rowan Smith, Oh Nationalism! – Oh Nationalism! You looks so beautiful in ruin; but we never really loved you and
chicken just tastes better, 2013 – 2014. [Installation view].
Courtesy of the artist and Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town.

 

That being said, did you find a difference between the education you received in South Africa at the Michaelis School of Fine Art and in California at the California Art Institute?

There are some primary differences relating to each institution’s structure that make them very different from the get go. Firstly, the California Institute of the Arts is a private institution, whereas Michaelis is part of UCT, a public institution. This means where Michaelis has to subscribe to government standards, structures, funding etc; as a private institution CalArts is somewhat freer in the conceptualization of their programs. So for instance the masters program at CalArts allows you to completely develop your own course structure (of course with consultation from faculty). From a birds eye perspective the main differences are that at CalArts the courses are largely student driven and there is an overt focus on concept and criticality over technique, skill or presentation. This is somewhat true for Michaelis as well, but there was far more critical discussion between students at CalArts, which I found hugely beneficial and which I think is very important.

That said both institutions maintain an extremely high standard of education. And my time at each institution was equally formative and beneficial to the development of my artistic practice.

© Rowan Smith, Emptiness (Salt and Vinegar I), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town.

© Rowan Smith, Emptiness (Salt and Vinegar I), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town.

 

Rowan Smith was born in 1983 and is represented by Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town. No Everything, his third solo exhibition at Whatiftheworld, “utilized mixed media sculpture and found objects in order to examine the tension between South Africa’s past and present in relation to shifting class identities, globalized economy, and the experience of the everyday.”

Having graduate with a BA from the Michaelis School of Fine Art and an MFA from the Calfornia Art Institute, his work has appeared in exhibitions at Daimler Contemporary, Berlin; Instanbul Biennale Off, Istanbul and the University of California, Los Angeles and he is a recipient of the prestigious Joan Mitchell Grant.


This article forms part of the series Next Chapter:Inquiries into emerging art practices


 

Written by Houghton Kinsman

South Africa | Doing our part to combat immappancy

Correction: September 23, 2014  | An earlier version of this article incorrectly described No Everything as artist Rowan Smith’s second solo exhibition, it was his third.

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