Creative impact

Mary Corrigall reports on an art prize launched by the Rupert Museum that called for creative ideas with the potential to impact the community in which they are brought to life.

An installation image of David Brits & Raiven Hansmann’s
‘Tears Become Rain’ project. They spent a week in Graaff-Reinet doing research.

Are artists able to ‘change’ society? It’s a weighty question, and not one that the Rupert Museum’s Social Impact Arts Prize aims to address. However, by providing three groups of creatives with the resources to try to effect change in Graaff-Reinet, the award and its programme may contribute to our understanding of the role artists should – or can – play in society. 

Interestingly, this topic has been circulating in Stellenbosch since the inaugural Triennale was launched in February. An art prize with a focus on social impact therefore seems timely and will add to the discussion, even though its outcomes will be felt only in Graaff-Reinet. 

Launched at the Rupert Museum in early March, this novel award came to life as Hanneli Rupert was considering ways in which the museum could function as an institution “without walls”, as she explained on the day the winners were announced in Stellenbosch. Where once this local art museum may have appeared to some like an ‘impenetrable fortress’ of high art, the owners and staff are trying to broaden its reach. 

“We are turning this space into a place of learning. You can come and draw here and meet other artists. We also wanted to create a platform for all South African thinkers, from architects to painters or poets, so that they could come together and collaboratively think of art practices and apply them to the problems of the day,” observes Roelof van Wyk, director of the Social Impact Arts Prize. 

Hanneli’s initiative is also driven by personal interest. Her grandfather Anton Rupert was born in Graaff-Reinet and her childhood recollections of the town while visiting him have played a huge role in it being the focus of the inaugural and subsequent awards. 

David Brits & Raiven Hansmann aimed to connect all the choirs in the town
via a mass performance to sing for rain.

The third winning project, ‘PLANTed’, by Andrew Brose,
Casper Lundie and Lorenzo Nassimbeni proposes a medicinal plant garden.

“We would like to make Graaff-Reinet the new centre of social impact art,” says Roelof, implying that the award could encourage more artists to make art with a clear social outcome. Not that he has a clear definition of this form of artistic practice. “Together we are figuring out a field and what social art can be and we want to build this category like any other on the art landscape,” he adds. 

A call for proposals from artists and other creatives to generate a project that could have a positive social impact on this small town resulted in more than 120 entries from round South Africa. The judges work in different spheres across the globe, and included were Aliki Lampropoulos of the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Suhair Khan of Google Arts and Culture and Salma Tuqan of the Delfina Foundation in the UK, and Azu Nwagbogu, the founder of African Artists’ Foundation in Nigeria. 

Six projects were selected from the 120 entries and each of the finalists had to apply their idea in the town while staying there for a week. All their proposals shifted considerably once they came into contact with locals and were able to do research in situ. The proposals, which are on view at the Rupert Museum until April before they move to the Jan Rupert Art Centre in Graaff-Reinet, centred on bridging social divides by means of different activities.

Architecture firm studioMAS and Gustav Praekelt’s project,
‘Hello Wolk!’ proposes a tree-like contraption that functions as a virtual cloud. 

Pierre Swanepoel and Gustav Praekelt created one of the winning projects.

“Graaff-Reinet is a Petri dish of South Africa. It has all the embedded and systemic issues of a post-apartheid community. We were touched by the fact that there is a willingness in this town to reach out to each other. They all speak Afrikaans and not as the language of the oppressor,” notes Roelof. 

Three projects were declared ultimate winners of the Social Impact Arts Prize. In the one titled ‘Tears Become Rain’, David Brits and Raiven Hansmann aimed to connect all the choirs in the town via a mass performance to sing for rain. Referencing a lack of rain also informed the architecture firm studioMAS and Gustav Praekelt’s project ‘Hello Wolk!’ They proposed an attractive design for a sculptural cloud-like object that will also serve as a virtual cloud; locals standing below it can access free Wi-Fi and store virtual files. 

The third winner, ‘PLANTed’ by Lorenzo Nassimbeni, Andrew Brose and Casper Lundie, also pivots on life in the absence of water with the plan for a medicinal plant garden that can be maintained in this arid climate. “Some of the plants have become extinct, so we are also drawing attention to their conservation,” says Lorenzo. 

Roelof is adamant the winning projects need to be “owned” and maintained by the citizens of Graaff-Reinet in order for the prize to be viable. Can a week of research in Graaff-Reinet help creatives identify opportunities for change? And, indeed, is a panel of judges from other countries qualified to select projects to address a community and its social politics so far removed from their own? The Rupert Museum’s Social Impact Arts Prize perhaps raises more questions than can be answered in any simple way. This could either prove to be to its credit or overshadow its development and reception. As Roelof observes, this is just the start. “We had to begin somewhere. The prize will change and be adapted as we progress.” 

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