31 October 2021 | Story Rulanzen Martin | Photo Stephen Collett
Stegmann Gallery - Stephen Collett
The Johannes Stegmann Gallery.

Digital and online art exhibitions are no novelty. However, for the Art Gallery at the University of the Free State (UFS), it was a way of keeping the art scene alive, as many promising young artists and students depend on the exhibition opportunities UFS Art Galleries offer to debut and exhibit their works.

“The situation surrounding COVID-19 necessitated a very rapid migration into the virtual space,” says Angela de Jesus, Curator of the UFS Art Gallery. In 2020, the gallery presented its first virtual exhibition tour, creating an opportunity to reach a global audience. The exhibition hosted by the Johannes Stegmann Gallery was Leeto: a Sam Nhlengethwa Print Retrospective. (It was the second virtual exhibition for the Sam Nhlengethwa collection.)

The UFS Art Galleries comprise the Johannes Stegmann Gallery in the UFS Sasol Library on the Bloemfontein Campus and the Centenary Complex, boasting an art gallery that hosts the UFS permanent collection of about 1 000 artworks, including paintings, sculptural works, murals, prints, and ceramic works.

“The situation surrounding COVID-19
necessitated a very rapid migration
into the virtual space.”
—Angela de Jesus

Challenging times called for an adaptive attitude

In 2021, the gallery approached a hybrid model with a blended approach of an in-person and virtual exhibition being launched simultaneously. “The virtual tours allow audiences to digitally navigate (‘walk through’) the gallery space as they would in real space,” says De Jesus.

The Liminality: Student Exhibition, which saw works from first-, second, - and third-year students from 2019 and 2020 exhibited, and the Folds & Faults: An Exhibition of African Women Artists Examining Identity, Culture, and Heritage , and The Annual Final-Year Student Exhibition of the Department of Fine Arts exhibitions were just some of the 2021 exhibitions using the hybrid model.

“Every project is different, and each one comes with its own challenges and difficulties, but we learn new ways through its complexities,” says De Jesus. However, she is optimistic that the gallery will soon be able to host its signature opening events and welcome back large crowds.

 The limitation on in-person gatherings meant that traditional exhibitions were in a hiatus. The value and quality of the arts programme had to be maintained, using creative arts to navigate the pandemic. “Projects have been reimagined into the digital space through virtual tours or through the activation of social media platforms, Zoom, app development, webinars and dedicated project websites,” De Jesus says. New and exciting projects in response to the pandemic and feelings of “isolation, uncertainty, violence, and the digital overload” were initiated.

Although viewing art virtually cannot replace the experience of engaging with the art first-hand; the shift to the digital space presented the opportunity for a wider audience beyond the UFS to access the Art Gallery and its projects.

PIAD projects rejuvenate artistic creativity

Through the Programme for Innovation in Artform Development (PIAD) and funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a number of digital artistic projects consisting of short stories, a theatrical performance, and a satirical e-commerce website, amongst others, were made possible.

The projects are still accessible and are available to view here:

Stories in die Wind, a short film animation web series about a young girl finding her purpose, based on the Nama story |!hûni //gāres |(The Rain Flower) Die reën blom: /Nanub !Khas.

WATCH THE ANIMATED SERIES HERE: https://www.storiesindiewind.co.za/

Digi-Cleanse, a satirical artwork disguised as an e-commerce website that mimics and critiques the contemporary wellness industry and its reliance on marketing and advertising.

SEE DIGI-CLEANSE HERE: https://digicleanse.co.za/

My Internal Oppression, a musical theatrical performance of emotionally content dedicated women who have toiled with internal oppression as a result of the psychological and emotional trauma of Gender-Based Violence caused by intimate partners.

SEE PERFORMANCE HERE: https://vimeo.com/468883494/376f3573d4

Sonic Re-Dress is a collaborative meeting point between music, visual art, science and art therapy, the project specifically acknowledges the insecurity, fragility and discord within our current global pandemic context by working with ‘universal’ human emotions.

SEE PROJECT HERE: https://www.sonic-redress.com/

Imaginary Futures is an experimental project of live and participatory experiences with over 40 creative practitioners, consisting of sound and film mixing, drawing, animation, puppetry and performance.

SEE PROJECT HERE: https://imaginaryfutures.org/

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