Talking Art with Cape Town’s Alastair Whitton

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Tell us about your most recent work, ‘Patmos and the War at Sea’, dedicated to your late brother, Ronald James Whitton.

The Patmos Project is an intensely layered one that essentially considers the way in which we see or rather fail to see parallel worlds and landscapes. The works also contemplate processes of interpretation and on one level are an attempt to make sense of language.

Over the years you’ve also produced other inspiring artworks – Conversations with Thomas, Filter and others. Which ones have meant the most to you? Why?

Conversations with Thomas and The Patmos Project remain those closest to my heart. Both were ‘made in the fire’ and their residue makes for memory.

You were one of four South Africans selected for the Pan African Photography Biennale in Bamako, Mali in November 2009. Tell us about these photographs.

Paris based curator, Michket Krifa the artistic director of the 2009 biennale was in Johannesburg in April and came across examples from the Patmos Project at the 2nd Johannesburg Art Fair. She selected 5 works for inclusion in the Pan African Exhibition in Bamako which was curated to the theme of ‘Borders’.

Together with David Krut you established David Krut Publishing: Fine Art & Books, Cape Town in January 2007 where you continue to manage and oversee all Cape Town based projects. Take us through your role and the types of projects you oversee?

On the book side I am responsible for all distribution in the region. I also function as the company’s education officer responsible for nurturing our relationships within the secondary school arena. With regards to the art, I am David Krut’s main representative responsible for dealing with local and international collectors.

What do you love about living in Cape Town?

What’s not to like?! I have lived in a number of places and have been fortunate enough to visit various cities around the world and can honestly say that Cape Town has to be one of the most beautiful and diverse.
Dislike? That I don’t get to share it with good friends who are now dotted all over the globe (Actually mostly in Oz)!

After attending one of South Africa’s premier boarding schools, Michaelhouse, you went on to graduate with distinction from Natal Technikon School of Fine Arts. What are your fondest memories of those years.

At Michaelhouse—good friends and rugby. At Natal Technikon—an incredible mentor and friend in Mike McMeekan who encouraged me and helped show me the way in which to walk.

In 1995 you had a three-month stay at the studio of artist Marlene Dumas in Amsterdam. What did you gain from your time there?

Being exposed to such a famous contemporary artist was initially daunting but ultimately inspiring and her kindness and generosity I will not forget. We produce very different work and have contrasting world views but I respect her. She hails from an obscure South African town but has gone on to forge a formidable international career and amongst other accolades has made her mark on history for the highest amount paid on auction for a painting by a female artist!

You returned to the country of your birth in the 90’s to study at the Glasgow School of Art as part of an international post graduate exchange programme initiated by Roger Palmer and Jeremy Wafer. Tell us about this programme and your experiences in Scotland.

This was an opportunity that I had having won the Emma Smith Scholarship in 1994. I studied on the MFA at GSA and my tutors were Roger Palmer and Sam Ainsley. I had been trained at Natal Technikon School of Art in a sculpture department well known for producing strong ‘makers’ and found myself stretched and challenged at GSA where the core was strongly conceptual. So I guess that it had a balancing effect on me. The thing that left the biggest mark on my memory however was our travels in the Scottish Highlands.

You’ve also lectured at the Cheltenham College of Art and Design from 1997-1998 and lived in London until 2002. Tell us about your lecturing experience and what aspects you enjoyed about living in the UK?

Fortunately I had a great bunch of kids to teach. I did enjoy it, and at times have felt that I was perhaps selfish in not pursuing a path as an educator, especially given the considerable input I had received as a student myself. Anyway, hopefully I am giving something back in other ways. As for living in the UK, mixed feelings—they were times of great joy in the birth of our two children and privilege having access to some of the great art of history as well as the international contemporary art scene in both London and other nearby European cities. But they were also challenging times; London fast becomes an unforgiving place when your cash flow is limited. Also London is not a great place for bringing up children. We could live there again perhaps one day but not for now. We are where we’re meant to be right now.

Who has inspired you to keep your passion for art alive?

My dear wife and good friends Mike McMeekan and Philip Barlow.

What advice would you give to young, aspiring artists, looking to make a living out of their artwork?

If you are going to go the University route, do your home work and find a school that is balanced in its program re. technical and conceptual studies. Work hard—tertiary education is a privilege not a right. If you choose to go it alone i.e. self taught – make sure you familiarize yourself with the galleries in your city and find a way of connecting with the local art community. Art making cannot be sustained in a vacuum. Ideally find yourself a suitable mentor. No matter what route you opt for, get a job (where you are still able to continue with art making between shifts), aside from the benefits of an income it will ground you in reality.

What’s happening on the art front in South Africa? Any major exhibitions coming up in 2010?

Although relatively small, the best of SA art is focussed, ambitious and world class. Big Dada Show currently at the SA National Gallery with 2009 African Photography Biennale to come after its European tour. Also Kentridge at Krut—recent editions coinciding with his show at MOMA, New York.

Where to next?

Where Christ leads.

Alastair Whitton can be contacted at:

David Krut Fine Arts and Publishing
31 Newlands Avenue
Newlands, Cape Town, 7700, South Africa
(t) 021 685 0676
(i) David Krut Projects