Hall of fame | Jennifer Kopping

In 1991, the Overall Winner of the Sasol New Signatures competition, Jennifer Kopping entered a work which explored the use of embroidery in relation to the traditional art mediums. The work is a beautiful cacophony of colours, textures and symbols reflecting some of the chaotic turmoil of South African society at the time. Nearly 30 years later, the work is still relevant, as it speaks of the burdens women still have to shoulder in a contemporary society.  We were fortunate to catch up with the artist who shared some of her memories of the event, as well as insights into what it takes to establish a career in the arts.

It’s been nearly 30 years since being awarded the winning prize in the Sasol New Signatures competition.  Much has happened since then. Tell us what you’ve been up to since 1991…

My creative journey has always been circuitous. I trained initially and qualified as a primary school teacher after I matriculated. Art in those days was perceived as a career you wouldn’t want to pursue due to its precarious nature. Teaching was a pragmatic option and I taught immigrants and children with learning difficulties. Although I found my career rewarding I truly wanted to study art and felt passionate about developing my artistic abilities. I enrolled at the University of South Africa and it was in my last year of the Fine Arts Honours degree programme, when I won the competition. This was amidst running a household and raising young children at the time. Following this period I continued making art, entering competitions and running art classes from my home and exhibiting where the opportunities presented themselves. I eventually found myself in a formal tertiary environment, where I developed and headed a foundation programme in Art and Design at Greenside Design Centre in Johannesburg. I continued studying art part time and completed a Master’s degree in Fine Art from WITS, again amidst raising my children and making a living. I have been fortunate to have travelled the world through my academic career promoting Design education and visual culture, through papers, presentations, workshops and many community engagement projects. My passion for artmaking has been life long and this year I am now fulfilling my dream to work as a fulltime artist and also studying for a PhD in practice led research in visual arts at my old alma mater the University of South Africa. I have just returned from an exhibition in New York as part of my PhD studies. I will be exhibiting the development of this body of work at the Johannesburg Holocaust Centre in 2020. I have not followed trends and have tried to stick to my own personal authentic creative vision. Art making for me is a deeply personal expression in the drive to lead a curious, creative and fulfilling life.

Your winning work Tower of Babel was purchased by Sasol at the time and is on permanent display in Sasol Place as part of the collection. Tell us a bit about this work, your conceptual concerns and processes.  

The Tower of Babel was a continuation of a theme that I was working on at the time during my final year at UNISA.I had been specifically exploring biblical narratives and transposing them metaphorically and figuratively onto the then current political and cultural context of South Africa at the time. The Hebrew word for “Babel” means “confused” or “mixed”. I was concerned with expressing the cultural and political context of South African society. A woman wearily carries a child with the whole world literally on her back .She is tired of the status quo and wants change. The desires and hopes for an integrated fair society are expressed in the totemic character of the composition which alludes to a toppling and precarious regime. I was also exploring the use of craft within the fine art context. Post Modernism gave me the freedom to lose the inhibitions of Modernist purism. I could experiment with mixing high and low art. I thus integrated small tapestries within the paper format. I think the innovative use of materials and embroidery was what made the work perhaps appealing to the judges. It was something very unique at the time. Today artists are exploring as do I the use of embroidery within art works all the time.

Do you have any special memories about that evening? 

I was very excited and strangely enough I knew I would win. This premonition of winning the competition is something I have never spoken of before. I knew the minute I finished the work that it would win the New Signatures. I cannot explain this experience. When the names of the winners were called out a quiet calm came over me as I waited for my name to be called.

How did winning the competition affect your career as an artist?

It was a very rewarding and a wonderful opportunity. I think it validated my belief in myself and gave me the confidence to express my own artistic vision. It has added to my career in that people respect the prestige of the competition and hence winning forms an aspect of validation of my work.

What is your opinion of art competitions such as Sasol New Signatures? Would you advise young artists to enter competitions?

I would advise young people to enter competitions. It gives you exposure to the wider public and provides a platform to express what is current and reflective of society.

How has your art making changed over the years?

I think my art making has evolved over the years, but I still regard myself as story teller who  explores the world of universal symbolism where reality, fantasy, memory, the unconscious, the dream-like, and the imaginative converge to form an assemblage of images. My visual language is punctuated by symbolic and cultural juxtapositions which span and conflate both time and place. My artworks are narratives of fragments of multicultural and personal iconography and history which includes the use of architecture, fauna and flora, the human subject, textiles and patterns. Certain works exude a gentle naivety and quirkiness which belies the more complex realities of the human condition. I am also preoccupied with the mapping of cultural and diasporic journeys, both personal and universal. Hence maps form an important part of my oeuvre. My love of a variety of media is still evident in the rich, multi layered and dense surfaces of my artworks where collage, painting, papercutting, embossed metal, embroidery and drawing form an imaginative coloured tapestry of imagery.

What is your greatest achievement since the competition?

I am proud to have many artworks in corporate collections such as Sasol, MTN, UNISA, Liberty Life and ABSA. I am also proud that I have continued studying art as it has enriched my life immeasurably and keeps me curious. One of the highlights has been a recent exhibition that I held in New York at the Dr Heller Museum in Manhattan.

What are you currently working on?

I have recently completed a visual narrative, which maps my family’s diasporic journey beginning in Eastern Europe, through the Holocaust and ultimately ending in America and South Africa. This is entitled Scattered Breath; the Red Thread. A work that comprises of three panels and is approximately 12m x 1,4 m in dimension. This is the work that was exhibited in New York. A continuation of this exhibition will be held in 2020 at the Johannesburg Holocaust Centre. I am working on a piece for the reunion exhibition which is a portrait of a family member, one of the central characters of my family’s narrative.

The creative life is fraught with challenges, and probably not the easiest of career choices.  How do you keep yourself motivated?

I think I am a goal orientated person and having goals creates the opportunity for motivation to drive those goals to reality. I also believe in having a balance in life to enjoy other pursuits and hobbies or interests which in turn feeds your artmaking and the process as well. I don’t think either that age should be a barrier to making or starting an art career. Art is a way of life for me.

Are you involved in any mentorships, community projects or other developmental opportunities? Do you think this is an important aspect of a person’s artistic development? 

I have in my academic career mentored many young people and been involved in many community development projects within the design and visual arts context. These have ranged from issues around Mental Health, the elderly to Museums and Education. I think it is important to be exposed and experience many ways of being in the world which enriches your artistic vision and allows for a more empathic and caring understanding of society. Community projects are about problem solving and resourcefulness in achieving and meeting needs and wants. This has helped me in my own artmaking practice. Being able to find solutions or finding innovative ways of making.

What advice do you have for other artists young or old wanting to make their career as an artist?

Art is a bit like life, you never know what is around the corner, unexpected blows or disappointments and exceptional highs may confront you. The important thing is to be true to yourself and to believe in your own unique artistic vision and this will create a resilience in you. This will make you stand out in the art market. Be curious and passionate, don’t settle for mediocrity. Be business smart and look for innovative ways to share your art with the world. The white cube is not the only way to share your work.