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The Boston–Joburg Connection

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Pamela Allara reflects on thirty years of creative collaboration

Among fine art media, printmaking enjoys the distinction of being a multiple, and in that sense a 'democratic' medium. But it is also a collaborative one. Printmakers rarely work entirely alone, but instead are known for sharing their knowledge and technical expertise.

Printmaking collaborations can be one-on-one, or can involve more ambitious exchanges. Via networking, a small community arts organisation can contribute substantially to the artistic growth of its students, as has happened at Artist Proof Studio (APS) in Johannesburg. Since its founding by Kim Berman and Nhlanhla Xaba in 1991, APS has established connections between artists in Antwerp and Sint-Niklaas, Belgium, in Berlin, Germany, and in Brooklyn, New Brunswick and Boston in the United States. Collaborations between artists in Boston and the members of APS, in particular, exemplify the sorts of energies such exchanges release.1

 

Sokhaya Charles Nkosi, Wishful Thinking, 1995. Photo: Peter Scott



APS was founded on the belief that art can transform lives. At that time of historic change, Berman expressed her credo as follows:
I believe, as a printmaker, in the risks and rewards of exchange, and reaching into and across divides. It is important for me as a teacher to engage, exchange, and interact with the communities I work with. If it can happen on an individual level, it can happen on a community level, and therefore the exploration of art as a tool for social, economic, and political change in South Africa has been more than a belief, it is a mission.



Such an idealistic vision might strike some as naive, but the graduates of the three-year programme provide convincing evidence of its validity. These include Philemon Hlungwani, Lucas Nkgweng, Thabang Lehobye, Nelson Makamo, Lehlogonolo Mashaba, Paul Molete, Mongezi Ncaphayi, Pontsho Sikhosana, Motsamai Thabane and Molefe Twala, all of whom have participated in workshops led by Boston artists.



Berman's Boston connections run deep. Between 1983 and 1990, she lived in the city, earning her MFA in printmaking from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) and training as a printer at an artist-run facility in Cambridge, Artist's Proof Studio. The collegiality and professional management at the studio provided one model for the centre she planned to establish in Johannesburg. An intaglio and aquatint print by Jane Goldman, Green Street (1983) was one of the complex images editioned by Berman during her internship. That taxing work led her to understand the level of technical expertise required of the professionally trained printmaker, and also planted the seed of the future APS.



Berman's mentor at SMFA was Peter Scott. In 1995 Berman invited him to Johannesburg to conduct the first of many workshops, in this instance on collaborative, mural-scale printmaking. The previous year, APS had been commissioned to create five large prints for the new legislative assembly, and it became clear that a major role of the studio would consist of public murals addressing social issues. In his workshop with some of the earliest studio members, including Osiah Masekoameng, Simon Mthimkulu, Moleleki Frank Ledimo and Gordon Gabashane, Scott developed skills in creating images from multiple units, a technique refined in subsequent projects.
 
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Lehlogonolo Mashaba and Molefe Twala, Untitled, 2005, cyanotype and van Dyke brown collaged photograms. Photo: Birgit Blyth



Scott was also charged with hanging the first of the studio's international exchange projects, Volatile Alliances, a collaboration among forty artists from nine countries (twenty from South Africa). Displayed in the new studio quarters on President Street, the portfolio, with its wide range of stylistic approaches – from Dominic Tshabangu's township-based social-realism in Waiting to Vote (1995) to Sokhaya Charles Nkosi's modernist Wishful Thinking (1995) – demonstrated Berman's observation that when she apprenticed in Cambridge in 1984, she realised 'the potential of prints as a medium of communication, connection and cultural exchange.'2 Just as South Africa was opening itself to the international community after the first democratic elections, the students at APS understood that their work would address a local and an international audience.



In 1996, Birgit Blyth and Judy Quinn, who had met Berman at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the 1990s, arrived for the first of yearly workshops that would continue until 2007. Both used camera-less photographic processes in their work, and encouraged the students to experiment broadly. From prints made by etching with a car battery in their pinhole and alternative photography workshop, to life-sized cyanotype self-portraits incorporating objects of special significance, the students were encouraged to engage with personal subject matter. Lehlogonolo Mashaba and Molefe Twala's untitled collage from the cyanotype and van Dyke brown photogram workshop in 2005 demonstrates that the collaboration so central to APS's public projects need not hamper creativity.



These workshops were never a one-way street, but always an exchange involving both the art and the artists. In 1999, Jane Goldman and Catherine Kernan who, after Artist's Proof Studio closed in 1984, founded the Mixit Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, spearheaded the second international portfolio, Proof in Print, exhibited in 2001 at the Boston Public library. Between 2002 and 2008, SMFA faculty member Rhoda Rosenberg realised a series of three bookmaking workshops. In 2009, she hosted Philemon Hlungwani at her studio in Merrimac, MA during his Ampersand fellowship in New York.
 
Read more in the current issue of Art South Africa 11.2, on shelves now.

Pamela Allara
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN ART SOUTH AFRICA V11.2