national Arts Festival Banner

Sunday, November 3, 2013


(Donna Kukama. Pic: Timmy Henny)

The National Arts Festival has named an unprecedented eight young South Africans winners of the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award, bringing to 125 the total number honoured since Standard Bank began sponsoring the Awards three decades ago.

The Award is made annually to young South African artists who are either on the threshold of national acclaim, or whose artistic excellence has enabled them to make international breakthroughs. “Celebrating excellence, innovation and a refined technical skill and artistry rests at the heart of the Standard Bank Young Artist Awards. Each of this year’s winners represent the vibrancy and sophistication with which South Africa’s artistic and cultural legacy continues to be enriched” said Festival Artistic Director, Ismail Mahomed.

The National Arts Festival’s 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art is Johannesburg-based public artist and lecturer, Donna Kukama.

Born in 1981 in Mafikeng; Kukama completed her postgraduate studies at the Ecole Cantonale d’Art du Valais in Sierre (Switzerland) in 2008, under MAPS (Master of Arts in the Public Sphere), and is currently a faculty member at the WITS School of Arts (University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg).

Despite her formal education, for which she acknowledges she is most grateful, Kukama’s approach to her practice is experimental and she mostly applies methods she describes as ‘deliberately undisciplined’ as she navigates between spaces of performance, video, text, and sound installations.

Kukama has participated and performed in various exhibitions and art fairs, including the Joburg Art Fair in 2009 and 2012, Art Miami 2009, ARCO Madrid 2010, SUPERMARKET ART FAIR in 2012, and has been selected to perform during the Lyon Biennale as well as the South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013. She has performed and participated in exhibitions at various public spaces and museums internationally, including the New Museum in New York, the South African National Gallery, The Kunsthalle Luzern and the Kunsthaus Graz.

Award nominations for her work include the MTN New Contemporaries Award (2010), the Ernst Schering Award (2011), and the Visible Award (NON NON Collective, 2011). Kukama is one of the founding members of the Centre for Historical Re-enactments, a Johannesburg-based independent platform that died by means of institutional suicide on the 12th day of the 12th month in 2012 following a two-year existence between 2010 and 2012.

As an artist whose interest is in occupying an existing canon, Kukama uses performance as a strategy that allows her to invent - as well as apply - methods that are outside of what is predictable or expected. Explaining that winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award means a great deal on paper, and acknowledging that ‘things on paper’ mean a great deal to a lot of people, including herself, she admits: “It just allows for the way my work is viewed and perceived to shift slightly, especially in those spaces where it is not perceivable as ‘work’.”

“Being an artist was not a decision I made”, elaborates the diminutive 32 year old, “I was always a creative person as far back as I can remember. As a kid in Grade One, I made and sold paper-dolls and paper-clothes, for extra lunch-money. In early high school, I toyi-toyied and delivered a “memorandum of complaints” to my mother regarding a domestic issue (I think a friend and I were asking for more pre-bedtime hours). I carried a brown briefcase every day from Standard 9 until I completed Matric. Come to think of it, I’ve always had odd habits, which have come to filter into my work.”

Kukama applies performance as a medium of resistance against already established “ways of doing”, and also as a strategy for inserting an alien voice and presence into various moments in history, as much as in existing public territories. Weaving major with minor aspects of histories, she introduces fragile and brief moments of ‘strangeness’ within socio-political settings - gestures of poetry with political intent, intended to destabilize existing perspectives of reality.

Kukama remembers her first independent trip to the National Arts Festival, in 2003 - the year Berni Searle won the Award for Visual Arts, and the first time she had come across the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Arts (she had previously only been aware of Drama and Dance). She says she dreamt of getting the Award herself, but “needless to say, soon realised that the work I was making did not fit comfortably into the Visual Arts category.”

She goes on to describe that “During that Festival I wore my clothes until they were so dirty that, when I returned home I washed them all in a bathtub, and produced a series of photographs of the residue, entitled “mud slut”. Through the creation of deliberately “aesthetic objects” out of the dirt and stains left in the bathtub, the photographs acted as a conceptual document of that journey. I only have one image left over from that series at my home - the rest were sold to a collector.

“I think there is generally not enough attention paid to performance art locally,” she adds, “and winning the Young Artist Award is a heck of a confidence boost for me, and hopefully others working in the same field. It’s taken me ten years of performing to public audiences both inside and outside of the art world to arrive at this level of recognition, and I hope that ten years from now, this art form will be as populated as the other traditional forms of art, if not more”