Artists pore over their computers — drawing up work experience and not sketches — in a rigorous "boot camp" inspired by Nelson Mandela that combines practical business sense with talent.
The five students are in a six-week residency in the isolated hills of Qunu at the Nelson Mandela Museum, overlooking the icon’s childhood home where he has been living for the last four months.
The program is part of the museum’s outreach efforts and aims to give the artists, who are from the impoverished Eastern Cape, the business savvy they need for success while making better art.
Outreach all too often means "running into a disadvantaged area with a bag full of sandwiches and crayons and pencils and the kids have a sarmie (sandwich) and they scribble on a piece of paper and that is the end of your outreach," said University of Pretoria lecturer Peter Binsbergen.
He and other visiting mentors wanted this program to be different — and effective. It aims not only to make the five artists more visually literate but also to teach them skills like drawing up a press release and how to work with a gallery.
"This is the first program in the country where money is invested in students to perform, and they are put in residence," said Binsbergen.
He likened it to a "Big Brother house" — the television show where a group of people live together in a large house, isolated from the world and constantly filmed — "where they are grilled and drilled 24 hours a day. They eat, think, sleep art. They are almost … destroyed and bought back from the ground up."
Since the program began last year, one participant has been named runner-up prize in an emerging artists competition. Another finalist is in the current crop.
Surrounded by idyllic rural views, the sessions start in the morning and run to late at night with a gloves-off approach. In one workroom, the students’ sketches are displayed on opposite walls while their colleagues and lecturers pull their concepts apart.
"It’s tough but you have to accept it because it’s the way of growing, it’s the way of learning," said Monwabisi Ngcai, 30.
Make or break
The incubator project was developed by professional artist and consultant Churchill Madikida.
"I was born in the area, I grew up in this area and I struggled to gain access to art facilities or art institutions," he told AFP.
"I already knew the challenges that were facing artists from this area."
Nelson Mandela Museum project coordinator Bongiwe Qotoyi said the workshops were in line with the icon’s values.
"It is about developing an individual, instilling the leadership skills, so that at the end of the day this individual is able to plough back to the community."
The tranquility of the location, which plunges into isolation once the museum closes for the day, and the presence of 93-year-old Mandela a few hundred meters away are extra sources of inspiration.
"When I was in university I only learned how to paint," said participant Asanda Kupa.
"It’s no longer for me now a matter of practicing and doing artworks. It’s a matter of how I put my artworks conceptually and let them tell stories. I can say now I’m able to understand art better than when I was at school.
"I think that the six weeks that an artist will spend here will be better than the three years or four years that they will spend in a university. I’m absolutely positive about that. It’s so powerful."
Binsbergen says while better technical skills are being sought, the key aim of the "boot camp" is sustainability once the artists leave.
"What these guys realize faster than university students is this is the real deal, this is make or break, if I don’t pull finger, I’m going to starve," he said.
"The level of maturity we’re dealing here with is awesome. They’re literally like sponges."