Essay on Thupelo by Garth Erasmus

Thupelo 1996 participating artists
Thupelo 1996 participating artists

South Africa was indeed a society desperately in need of healing and therapy. In this context the workshop functions as a metaphor for healing in a society deeply in need of healing. Through the workshop process with its emphasis on the creation of supportive environments in which to work and the sharing of ideas, experiences, techniques and disciplines, artists essentially became the beneficiaries of a blueprint for a new society and that creative responses and approaches are the way to negotiate the traps that inhibit progress.

“The concentration of so much energy and commitment into a short period of time encourages risk taking and experimentation and might not happen in the artist’s studio. At the same time the process of exchange that lies at the heart of the workshop model often has a long-term influence on the practice and sometimes the lives of the participants”. (Robert Loder)

The workshops were very successful and continued annually in the Johannesburg area until 1992 and in that time cumulatively attracting over a hundred artists from all the major centres of Southern Africa and also a few from overseas. But the sudden and tragic death of Bill Ainslie in 1989 required an organisational shift and strategic realignment. Talks were afoot in 1990 for setting up regional structures and so spreading the workshop ethos. Lionel Davis was nominated as the Cape Town representative but no other regional structures materialized.

By the time the Johannesburg workshops ceased in 1992 many artists from Cape Town had attended over the years with some even having been multiple times. The general consensus amongst the Cape Town-based artists was that the workshop experience had been inspiring, uplifting and beneficial to their personal artistic growth. Of these Lionel Davis, Jill Trappler and Garth Erasmus quickly established a core group of workshop alumni dedicated to keeping the Thupelo idea alive by establishing a presence in Cape Town. This group was later expanded to include Velile Soha and Keith Nunn to form the first working committee. The demise of the Johannesburg chapter of Thupelo had created a vacuum but the experiences gained were too profound to abandon. These artists all shared experiences in local community arts activism and teaching institutions and were perfectly placed to appreciate the fractured and divided character of the Cape Town arts community and what a well organized workshop could bring to the scene… opportunities for dialogue, cultural exchange and cross-fertilization through art.

At first, and with the express purpose of maintaining contact with each other, the working group began to organize small informal gatherings of artist friends for a series of “weekend workshops” which took place during 1992-3 with the support of the Community Arts Project (CAP) who offered their premises for this purpose. An important early patron of these workshops was local artist and Michaelis lecturer Kevin Atkinson who participated in a few of these weekends.

Following on the energy of the success of these informal mini workshops the working committee took the inevitable first steps to establishing an independent entity in Cape Town dedicated to the organising of regional, national and international artist’s workshops at least once a year… so in 1993 Thupelo Cape Town was born as an NPO (Non Profit Organisation).

“Responding to the materials is almost like responding to the needs of the community and that’s why the workshops happened, so you’re actually working from your heart” (Jill Trappler)

“Thupelo taught me that there are other ways to be creative. From that point I was totally convinced that this is the way to go for me… because I could just be free and paint… with my whole body. And this is the reason I found it necessary for us to start things in Cape Town” (Lionel Davis)

The first workshop was an international workshop and was held in 1995 at St John’s Conference Centre on the slopes of Table Mountain and ever since then despite constant funding issues and other obstacles there has been an annual (except for 1997) Thupelo workshop event in and around Cape Town, indeed, there have been two or even three a year sometimes and in the 18 years of its existence (and still going strong in 2013) a few hundred artists have attended. There have been urban and rural workshops at venues as diverse as Robben Island, SA National Gallery Annexe, Greatmore Studios, Goedgedacht farm (Malmesbury), Koekenaap (Northern Cape), Rorke`s Drift and Bag Factory, to name a few. Artists have come from all parts of the country and from all over Africa and the world.

The success of the workshop concept was there for all to see and appreciate… that a community-based, artists-run organisation could survive based on three simple ingredients: individual commitment, a little money and an uncomplicated organisational ethic. A glowing example of self-determination and transformation Thupelo Cape Town is a unique and an exemplary model of survival of a community-based arts initiative.

In conclusion, I would argue that by the very fact of its longevity… having survived the Apartheid era and transformed and adapted to a new society and having touched and affected so many artists` lives, and still continuing to do so, Thupelo Workshop has made an invaluable contribution to the History of South African art but the impact of Thupelo is difficult to quantify in academic terms and so the historical role of Thupelo has gone largely unnoticed. On occasion, there had been significant criticism from elements within the local art establishment… but these have been based on aesthetic considerations only. In our appreciation of art or creativity in general we are obsessed with the end product in the context of its exhibition… the spaces of galleries, the stage, and the pages of books and so on… it is hard to evaluate the impact of what is essentially a “work-in-progress”, a process… because this is what Thupelo is.