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Covid has hit SA fine art hard: but created new opportunities too

Covid-19 has challenged the fine art business in fundamental ways. Moving online has allowed artists and galleries to keep showing work but earning the same living as pre-pandemic has proved to be a big challenge for an industry heavy reliant on tightly packed exhibition openings and art fairs.


Even so, new opportunities are opening for innovative thinkers. Long-time Jozi artist, Robyn Field, for example, is mixing up a range of new options to create a unique formulation.


Field is launched her solo show – Allow Me to Introduce You To… – at Melville’s Upstairs at Bamboo venue in March 2021, operating as an independent artist. But she’s also launching the show online at the same time to cater to new social distancing norms. And the digital show isn’t simply an upload of images into a viewing room. Field and her husband, writer and speaker Andrew Miller, have put together a carefully narrated digital tour to accompany the real thing.


Allow Me to Introduce You To… is a collection of large-scale canvases featuring Field’s signature use of colour and expressionism in addressing complex socio-political themes. Miller’s narration of the online exhibition talks to the audience about the ideas behind the work. An accomplished speaker, novelist and poet, his narration adds depth and warmth to show while also offering context through samples and snippets of some of the music, movies and media themes that have informed his wife’s creative process.


While Field’s real world and online exhibitions offer different lenses on her work, they also reinforce each other. Art lovers who have already viewed the online show can visit the venue to see the work in the real, socially-distanced world, while those experiencing the show at the venue for the first time can use their smart phones to follow the narration, effectively taking the artist’s voice with them as they keep a healthy social distance.


‘We love art openings because you get the opportunity to have a glass of wine and speak to the artist and hear the stories behind the art,’ says Field. ‘But with Covid uncertainty there’s no guarantee you can schedule a show and even make this happen. By combining online and offline events – and putting equal effort into both – we’re hoping to create the personal, contextual interaction the art world is missing so much now.’


The opening speaker offers a case in point. Allow Me to Introduce You To…  will be opened by one of South Africa’s most prominent artists, Blessing Ngobeni. But two months before the show launches, it’s still impossible to know whether he will speak virtually, or in real life, or both.


‘It’s a huge honour to have Blessing involved, and we want to ensure his presence is felt. With a carefully produced online structure, a virtual opening talk from him will fit right in and work well in the social media space,’ says Field. ‘And obviously if we can do a more traditional real-world opening event we’ll jump at the chance. Either way, the structure is flexible enough to cope.’


Of course, operating as an independent artist and controlling both the creation and showing of your work is not for the faint hearted, and requires industry knowledge and relationships. Field is in a fortunate position here, having been part of the Jozi arts scene for a long time. She was the owner and curator of the city’s Unity Gallery for over ten years and has worked with a wide range of the city’s artists and arts organisations.


‘Any creative in any genre will tell you going independent is a big step,’ she says. ‘You carry a lot of weight, but there are also a lot of benefits, and if you’ve been around the block a few times it’s definitely viable. I’ve found it rewarding. Especially because although my work is very colourful and looks good over the couch, it also has a lot to do with South African society and politics. It’s been empowering to be able to control communication of what the work is about, instead of having this resting in other, unfamiliar hands.’


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