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​At 21, Artist Proof Studio shows the past two decades of its work as it enters a good place "to create a space for the next generation to drive it forward".
THE groundbreaking Artist Proof Studio (APS) has turned 21, and to celebrate, has opened a coming of age retrospective exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), showcasing a huge collection of artworks.

Charles Kholobeng (left) and Motsamai Thabane (right), both full time professional printmakers at APSCharles Kholobeng (left) and Motsamai Thabane (right), both full time professional printmakers at APSThe studio specialises in teaching printmaking techniques, turning out artists after a three-year course with a range of specialised skills.

The exhibition, entitled "Coming of Age – 21 years of Artist Proof Studio", opened at JAG on Sunday, with hundreds of people thronging the Philips Gallery to hear renowned artist William Kentridge speak about printmaking, while diva Sibongile Khumalo opened the exhibition.

There are literally hundreds of works on display at JAG, ranging from art by the big guns like Kentridge, Norman Catherine, Walter Oltman, Diane Victor, Gerhard Marx, Colbert Mashile and Kudzanai Chiurai, to the APS's rising stars like Phillemon Hlungwani, Nelson Makamo, Lehlogonolo Mashaba and Lucas Nkgweng.

"We hope this coming of age will mean we can stand up and be counted," says the APS co-founder, Kim Berman, who is the associate professor in visual arts at the University of Johannesburg.

With the pay-off line "Excellence through possibility", the studio has turned out about 600 artists over the past 21 years, with skills in more than just making art.

Jan Tshihuthula showing a print he has just made, with watertank and gatepostJan Tshikhuthula showing a print he has just made, with watertank and gatepostThe vision was always to allow students to achieve self-actualisation by creating an "ubuntu or shared space", explains Berman. What has distinguished APS is that is has always been a place that caters for "artists for survival". Coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, none of them could pay for tuition, so any skills they learnt were vital for their survival.

"Those with passion and talent are given a place to become professionals, to make them become self-actualised and excel in what they do."

A quiet creativity and passion pervades the light and airy space they share with the Johannesburg Development Agency in the Bus Factory. At present some 80 students are registered over its three-year course, including a Saturday morning class.

Students, who have to produce a portfolio before they are accepted at APS, are offered bursaries and scholarships, and APS will produce "professional artists and well-rounded citizens who make a difference in their communities and society as a whole", according to its website.

The philosophy inculcated in students at the APS is one of "artist as active citizen", explains business manager Janet Watts. "They are taught that they work as a team, and play a role in the final product." In addition, they are expected to play an active role in their communities.

A wall of portraits from APS students at the exhibitionA wall of portraits from APS students at the exhibitionOther skills given to students are problem-solving in communities, basic maths and literacy, computer literacy, and business development and product design.

Section 21 company
A section 21 company, APS has a range of sponsors including Bell Dewar, the Telkom Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Deloittes, Weber Wentzel, the National Arts Council, the Lotto, Business and Arts South Africa, the Arts and Culture Trust, and the Gauteng department of sport, recreation, arts and culture.

Printmaking involves various techniques: creating an image on linoleum sheeting, called linocuts; creating an image by carving wood, called woodcuts; and creating an image on metal. Once these images have been created, they are produced as an artwork by placing a sheet of paper over the mediums and rolling a weight over the paper, thus producing the image on the paper. The studio also teaches silkscreening methods.

By this means more than one original artwork can be produced, making it an accessible, affordable art form, confirms Watts. "It is democratic, a people's art form."

The studio's major source of funding comes from its professional print studio, where established artists bring their work for printing. The studio has state-of-the-art equipment, with one of the largest etching presses in the country, providing a resource for some of the country's top artists.

The art in the gallery in the foyer of the studio is another source of funding for APS.

Shed the baggage
Berman says that turning 21 would be a good time for APS to shed the baggage of being an NGO, and create "a space for the next generation to drive it forward". She adds that the APS board is very business focused and that's the direction in which it wants to see APS moving.

William Kentridge's works at the Coming of Age exhibition at JAGWilliam Kentridge's works at the Coming of Age exhibition at JAGThe company wants to diversify its sources of income with more partnerships with corporates, in addition to its outreach programmes. More students are getting art commissions.

She says that the new model encourages partnerships and mutual exchange with sponsors, in which corporates provide bursaries in exchange for artworks and interactive projects.

The exchanges encourage other skills in the artists – diplomacy, leadership, patience, optimism, and "a love for the unpredictable and complex nature of community arts work".

History of APS
Together with the late artist Nhlanhla Xaba, Berman began the studio in 1991 in Jeppe Street, Newtown. She had been in self-imposed exile in Boston for seven years but when Nelson Mandela made a call to South Africans to return to help build a democracy, she packed up her life there and returned.

Inspired by her experience at Artist's Proof in Boston, and by the tradition of community arts organisations in South Africa, she wanted to start a co-operative in Joburg. While looking for artists to join her, she met Xaba, who was exhibiting work at her mother's gallery in Braamfontein.

They struck a chord, despite the fact, she says, that he was a Black Consciousness Movement member who wasn't sure about working with a white woman. But while Berman fundraised and taught evening classes, later joining the Wits Technikon – now part of the University of Johannesburg – as a full-time lecturer, Xaba ran the studio.

"Our early years were characterised by passion and idealism. Artists were seeking a community, camaraderie, a welcoming enclave to make ends meet through their artwork," writes Berman in a 2011 Art South Africa article. "We experienced the magic of working cross-racially, side by side in the new South Africa."

Berman worked part time, helping to fund APS. The studio began to pull in the work – illustrations for literacy books, street prints for Arts Alive festivals, prints for the foyer of opening of the Gauteng legislature, and editions for Joburg's first biennale in 1995.

APS established the Paper Prayers Campaign in 1997, a project that took HIV/Aids education around the country by means of printmaking. On the back of Paper Prayers, Berman started Phumani Paper, a national poverty-alleviation programme funded by the government to create jobs. It consisted of a paper mill and research unit in archival paper making at the University of Johannesburg.

"From the beginning, art production at Artist Proof Studio has explored collaboration through working in teams," writes Berman. The very nature of printmaking is a collaboration, with the printmaker transposing the artist's work from the original medium to a piece of paper, in a relationship that by necessity must be built on trust and confidence.

One of the challenges was to overcome the "racial distrust fostered during the apartheid years".

"Despite this legacy, teachers and students alike were determined and energised by the vision of being a part of building a democratic co-operative studio that reflected the magical energy of Mandela's vision of a new South Africa," she states.

President Street
In March 1995, the studio moved to premises in President Street, a sign of its success. But tragedy struck in 2003 – a fire devastated the building, claiming the life of Xaba, who was asleep on the couch that night.

Jan Tshikhuthula
Jan, who has completed the 3-year APS course, is originally from Venda in Limpopo and finds his inspiration from his grandfather, who died before he was born. His grandfather used to fix wooden barrels and make tool boxes, he was told by people when he grew up.

He recounts a story that he went with his mother to the local Pep store to buy him shoes. He asked for a box of water colour paints, but his mother said that only women used water colours. She relented after a Pep employee rebuked her. He took them home and started painting, and his mother loved his art and encouraged him. In 2004, he won a competition, and that decided him on his chosen career.

He creates black and white landscapes that depict windmills, large trees, gateposts and watertanks. He sees the windmills as his grandfather, and himself as the watertank. "I want to open my heart for my grandfather for that spirit to come to me," he says.

He was selected to produce art for one of the Rea Vaya bus stations, and has been a finalist in the Absa Atelier art competition. "There is nothing I can do without art," he says.

A year later Berman opened a new studio in the Bus Factory. "The fire gave us the opportunity to imagine a new model – an NGO built on the lessons of 10 years of democracy. The struggle for positive change is ongoing, evolving and transforming."

And that change has gone a long way. "Since then, we have been sustained by two fundamental concepts: imagination and resilience – that guide our efforts to construct our future," she wrote in the May 2012 South African Art Times.

Xaba's memory and the destroyed studio have been remembered in the Bus Factory studio. His linocuts decorate the wooden doors, and a gallery has been named after him. Several of his collages are on display in the exhibition. Poignant remnants of metal from the fire decorate the staircase at the studio.

It hosts international artists and educators who come to impart their skills. Exchanges with printmaking and papermaking studios around the world have taken place, all adding to the richness of the experience for the artists. Three graduates were selected to attend the Elizabeth Pons Lithography studio in Paris in 2010. Some 15 students have been on overseas exchange programmes over the years.

"We pride ourselves on graduating young people who can think about our world in new ways, plan for their own economic sustenance, and who understand the quest for self-actualisation," states Berman.

She continues: "Each of these artists, in his own way, uses art to communicate his emotional reaction to or social commentary on the realities of life in South Africa. Their various approaches to art and society strongly reflect the values and commitment developed during their studies and work at Artist Proof Studio – caring for others, protecting human rights, bringing crucial issues into the light for debate, learning and most importantly, ensuring that the issues are addressed and people's lives improved."

The intriguing aspect of printmaking is that artists have to think in the negative, as their art lies flat and is then reversed in the printing process, to give the positive image. Watts says of Berman: "Kim is a great visionary. Kentridge described it best when he said in his talk on Sunday that printmakers are able to look at the world in a different way. Because they work in negative images, and are used to having to imagine what their final product will look like when eventually transferred to paper, they do not take things for what they are. They have the skills to see one world and imagine another, better one. Kim is one of those people."

Watts talks of Berman's dream: "Artist Proof Studio has now come of age and is a fully fledged centre of printmaking excellence that can hold its own as a gallery, professional studio and educational centre. This was Kim's dream, which has been realised through a continuous, democratic community process that has always been dynamic and inclusive. It embodies all that is imagined in ubuntu."

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