Meet the judges 2019: Wilhelm van Rensburg

Wilhelm is a Senior Art Specialist at Strauss & Co and is sitting on the panel of this year's Sasol New Signatures final judging. We reached out to him to find out what he expects from this year's entries.


Previously, you have been a regional judge. This year you sit on the final judging panel. What are you hoping to take away from this experience?

The regional judging gave me an indication of the best new talent in the Johannesburg area, mainly from the art schools. I am sure being part of the final judging panel will show me the best young talent from the rest  of the country.

The Sasol New Signatures judging is a transparent process and works on a jury system. Explain how collaboration allows the best works to come to the fore.

Judges are appointed on the basis of their role in the arts sector in the country. As such, they each have a specific interest in works of art, but also an appreciation of the arts in general. When judging, a wide range of opinions naturally surface and a wide variety of insights are offered, providing for dynamic interaction and, in the end, a final winner.

Sasol New Signatures is well-established as part of our national landscape - have you been a keen follower over the years?

I have often attended the opening of the winners’ exhibitions and have certainly collected all the catalogues from the exhibitions.

Name artists whose career trajectory has been accelerated by Sasol New Signatures.

Sasol New Signatures has been influential in many artistic careers. I can single out Richard Penn, 2004 winner; Sean Slemon, 2005 winner; Richard Strydom, 2008 winner; and the most well-known Mohau Modisakeng, who has is now globally acclaimed. He represented  South Africa at  the 2017 Venice Biennale, an event I was fortunate to attend.

It’s often said to win an art competition, you must think like a judge. Do you agree?

Artists should submit their best work when entering any  competition. It is impossible to know what judges think and, in any case, judges come and go and have very different ideas. Artists must just seek to make sure that their  work is conceptually rich and interesting, and that it is executed in the best possible manner. That is what judges are looking for.

Art competitions can be viewed as unfair; prejudicial or random. But they can also be seen as a huge motivator for artists. What would you say to entrants in terms of looking for the positives in the experience and not just focusing on the top prizes?

Sasol New Signatures presents tremendous opportunities. Try and talk to the judges before or during or even after the event and get them to talk about your particular work. They may offer valuable insights that could improve your own work in the future.

The stereotype of the “starving artist” is a dominant narrative. But art today is about developing a career and taking a professional approach. What role can mentorship play?

Career planning is essential today. It is a topic that should ideally be taken up by art education institutions in order to assist young artists to plan thoroughly for their future. Otherwise, they are going to starve in the proverbial attic. Mentorship is also important and can take on many forms such as older artists providing valuable input. But there are also organizations that offer courses on how to plan your career.

As an Art Specialist you are familiar with the Sasol art cCollection. Name your three favourite pieces from the collection and tell us why.

  1. Wim Botha, Carbon Copy (Madonna del Parto Bambino). He used a large piece of black coal to reproduce the famous Madonna and Child and, most shockingly, added a halo attached to a gas bottle, the idea being that the burning halo would consume the piece of coal, or the Madonna and Child, in other words, entirely. A truly iconoclastic work if ever there was one.
  2. Colin Richards, Almost Non-White, White, Almost White headstones, a watercolour triptych addressing issues of race, identity and power by using models as the broken stone heads of funereal angelic statuettes.
  3. Luan Nel, The Pool at the Stadio Dei Marmi. The basis of this photograph is the artist’s visit to the famous stadium in Rome, built by Mussolini during the 1920s. The mosaics, which form part of the wall decoration, fuse with actual swimmers in the pool. Time, history and memory are addressed in the blurry reality of the lightbox in which the photograph is encased.

You need to keep up to date with what’s going on internationally. Which international art events will you be attending in 2019 and what are you most excited about?

The 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House, London in October is a must. The 1:54 Fair has iterations in New York, and, recently, in Marrakesh. 1:54 coincides with Frieze Art Fair and Frieze Masters, in Regent’s Park, London.

About Wilhelm

Wilhelm van Rensburg (b.1958, Johannesburg) is a prolific champion of art whose output marries scholarly research and critical writing with curating. He has organised important exhibitions for Irma Stern, Judith Mason, JH Pierneef and, most recently, Christo Coetzee.
After completing his Bachelor of Arts at the University of Johannesburg in 1981, Wilhelm began teaching at high school, later moving to lecturing at universities and furthering his studies in education. He was a senior lecturer in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Johannesburg (2001–09), and has been a part-time lecturer in the Faculty of Art Design & Architecture at the same institution since 2010. Early on, though, Wilhelm decided to complement his academic career in education with writing, curating and dealing. He was the chief art critic for Beeld newspaper (1993–2003) and continues to write extensively about art.
Wilhelm has a long-standing relationship with Standard Bank Gallery, for whom he has organised major survey exhibitions for Irma Stern (2003), Judith Mason (2009), JH Pierneef (2015) and Christo Coetzee (2018), as well as curated the educational programme for the exhibition ‘Henri Matisse: Rhythm and Meaning’ (2016). He has played a key role in Strauss & Co’s client outreach, notably with his curated exhibitions at the Turbine Art Fair. ‘Life Force: The Still Lifes of Irma Stern’ (2018) was the first major survey of Stern’s enigmatic still lifes, while ‘Pierneef: A Collector’s Passion’ (2017) showcased the remarkable Pierneef holdings of collector Anton Taljaard. These projects contributed to Strauss & Co receiving the 2018 Chairman’s Premier Award from Business and Arts South Africa.
Wilhelm joined Strauss & Co as an Art Specialist in 2016