“The invitation for me to moderate a series of panel discussions called ‘Transformations’ with both U.S. artists and South African artists also inspired me to think about my memory of activist art of the past and my first visit to South Africa in 2005. As I drafted questions for the artists in order to discuss their works during my intensive, three-day visit, and engage in a public dialogue with local audiences in each location I wanted to construct questions that informed their art making process as well as what each artist wanted to explore within their social practice. “ – Deb Willis
‘Transformations’ was a cross cultural Artist Exchange program, sponsored by Art in Embassies (AIE) and U.S. Embassy, South Africa, with the goal to engage U.S. artists and South African artists with local communities through the medium of art. Participants in this three-day outreach series, which took place in different townships and cities within South Africa, included Deborah Willis, Ph.D. and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, U.S. artists Sanford Biggers and Robert Pruitt, and South African artists Mary Sibande, Lawrence Lemaoana and Nicholas Hlobo.
The program began with an appearance by Ambassador Gaspard, Sanford Biggers, and Robert Pruitt on the SABC Morning Live TV show to discuss the upcoming events. The official launch followed in the evening with a reception at the U.S. Embassy Residence in Pretoria. Comments were made by Ambassador Gaspard, Director of Art in Embassies Ellen Susman, and Deb Willis, followed by a walk-through of the AIE exhibition in the Ambassador’s Residence.
The following day was spent in Cape Town. The group visited the Maboneng Township Art Experience, a national public arts initiative and World Design Capital Project that transforms township homes into galleries. The participating artists collaborated with local artists, students, and residents to produce permanent murals in two homes. In the evening, a panel discussion was held at The AVA Gallery. The discussion, entitled Transformations: a conversation on identity, race and history in contemporary art included Biggers, Hlobo, Puitt, and Sibande, and was moderated by Willis. As Willis noted “The work discussed provoked an understanding as to how special it was for all of us to be there to discuss the possibilities of art and the importance of visual arts to explore not only the aesthetical concerns of displaying art in a small living room but also to look at how politics, music, family life, and representation of the body, as well as home and land.”
The last day, Mrs. Susman, Pruitt and Sibande traveled to Johannesburg for programs at the National School of the Arts, a public high school that boards talented youth from around the country. Willis, Biggers and Lemaoana traveled back to Pretoria for a masterclass and discussion at TUT Tshwane University of Technology’s Department of Fine and Applied Arts, a longstanding institution currently serving nearly 60,000 students. Deb Willis “… was intrigued by the artists’ responses to the questions and range of interests based on the audience response and what I discovered was that historical memory is central to all of the artists’ works as well as to the people who attended our talks.” Later that day, at the Meetse Bopholo Elementary School, a public school with a vibrant fledgling arts program for children, located in a township outside of Pretoria, the artists conducted a workshop with the students, before heading back to Johannesburg for the second panel discussion at Wits Arts Museum, which concluded the three day series.