30 Year History

Celebrating more than 30 years of Sasol New Signatures

Sasol New Signatures was established by the South African Association of the Arts Northern Transvaal (now Association of Arts Pretoria since 1997) to provide a career building platform for emerging artists. The competition has always been closely aligned with various university art conservatories, giving students and staff an opportunity to showcase and benchmark their work. Thus the New Signatures competition has and continues to contribute, albeit indirectly, to the growth and development of art academies throughout South Africa.

Despite its original Afrikaans name, “Nuwe Handtekeninge”,  the competition has always welcomed artists of all races, ethnicities, languages and gender. Art reflects the broader socio-political zeitgeist, and this has been true throughout the 1970s till the late 1990s when black, coloured and Indian artists participated in the competition in moderate numbers. Since the 2000s however, the entrants have been fully representative of South Africa’s diverse and colourful demographics.

Although the competition initially began as a provincial event, it grew to become the premier national competition for emerging artists. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was a semi-national event. In 1996 the competition introduced the Pietersburg (now Polokwane) Art Museum, Funda Art Centre and Katlehong Art centre as additional collection points.  New Signatures’ status as a pre-eminent competition was further solidified when Stuttaford Van Lined joined as one of the sponsors in 1998.  Further collection points were introduced at their Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Polokwane offices.

The new millennium saw a series of exciting developments. In 2005 the first catalogue was printed making Sasol New Signatures the most extensive legal deposit of artworks created by emerging artists with thousands of artworks digitally catalogued. This was followed by another milestone in 2006 when the first information sessions were introduced. This year our Chairperson continued the practice by visiting six cities across South Africa.

Sasol New Signatures provides winners with the springboard to launch their art to a local and global audience.  Since 2011 the overall winner of the competition has an opportunity to hold a solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum the year after. The first recipient was Mohau Modisakeng, whose solo was held in 2012. Modisakeng’s success as a professional artist since winning the competition attests to the importance of this approach in building artistic careers. Modisakeng, together with Candice Breitz, who received a Sasol New Signatures merit prize in 1992, were both part of the South African pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale in Italy, which is universally recognised as the most significant art event in the world.

Before Sasol’s sponsorship, financial support for the competition came via contributions from benefactors of the Association of Arts Pretoria. Throughout the 1980s various prizes were named after patrons, and in 1986  the “best overall exhibitor” award was introduced with R500 prize money.

In 1990 Sasol committed to sponsor the competition and gained naming rights for the first time. The first Sasol New Signatures exhibition was held at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) Conference centre in Pretoria, and the show was opened by the MD of Sasol at the time, Mr Paul Kruger.  In 1991 and 1992, the exhibition took place at the premises of the South African Association of Arts Northern Transvaal (where the Association of Arts Pretoria currently resides). In 1993 the exhibition was held at the University of Pretoria, and again at the South African Association of Arts Northern Transvaal Gallery in 1994 before eventually moving to the Pretoria Art Museum in 1995 where it remains to this day.

The involvement of Sasol also signalled a shift in the language policy of the competition.  By the 2000s all communication related to the competition was in English, which made it more easily accessible, not just linguistically, but ideologically as well.

Another significant change that emerged with Sasol’s involvement was the nature of the prizes. Previously prizes were awarded across categories based on traditional fine art mediums. These categories were scrapped in favour of an overall winner and a series of merit awards.

Sasol’s sponsorship heralded a gradual improvement in the prize money. In 1992, the total prize money for the competition was R3000: R1000 for the overall winner and R500 for the four merit awards. By 1995 the winners each received a cash prize of R2500, and in 1999, the amount had been increased to R10 000 for the overall winner.

In 2001, under the stewardship of Mr Pieter Cox, CEO of Sasol at the time,  some substantive changes in the competition prize structure and an overhaul of operations were introduced.  By 2003 the first prize jumped from R10 000 to R25 000 and again to R60 000 in 2006. In 2019 our winners will receive prize money of R100 000 (winner), R25 000 (runner-up) and R10 000 (5 merit winners).

Reflecting back on the history of Sasol New Signatures it is fitting to also acknowledge all the emerging artists who have participated over the past 30 years. The majority of winners and merit award winners have gone on to carve illustrious careers in the visual arts and have made significant contributions to our country’s artistic heritage. However, it is also worth highlighting that the competition has also launched sustainable careers for artists who entered but did not eventually win nor obtain a merit prize. There are numerous professional practitioners within the visual arts industry such as academics, curators, arts administrators, gallerists, writers etc., who have used the competition as a vehicle to improve their career prospects. Here’s to the next 30 years of breathing new creative life into the South African landscape.