Art in a Time of Viral Vulnerability
Reflections on the inaugural Social Impact Arts Prize 2020

They say just one meter makes all the difference between life and death.

One meter away from any other human being. No touching! No kissing! No coughing! No touching your face, or any other face, for that matter. Self-quarantine, isolation, and social disconnection results. Work from home. Learn from home. Home school, but not by choice. These are the characteristics of negative social cohesion which is now keeping us apart; broken social relations, remote work relations, community cohesion unity under pressure, now measured in approximate one-meter distances exacerbated by negative emotion and depression.

Nqweba Dam at Sunrise, Graaff-Reinet 2020, by Noncedo Gxekwa

While panic ensues, creative thinkers and problem-solvers are already thinking; how can an arts-based practice address a pressing social challenge, creatively?

If the coronavirus, or the Wuhan-flu, Wuhan seafood market pneumonia virus or the 2019-nCoV virus was in unpopular existence at the time when the Rupert Art Foundation and the Rupert Museum launched the Social Impact Arts prize 2020, then maybe one of the one-hundred-and-twenty-three submissions, would have tackled the virus and proposed a way towards taking it down, in some spectacular, yet creative, fashion.

Social impact arts practices are marked by participation. Primarily, participation of the artists in the life-worlds of the communities in which, with whom, and for whom, they imagine their art projects. Participation by members of said community, not only measurable in small and large numbers, but also in the intensity of their participation; the time spent and the knowledge gained, the skills learned and the inspiration manifested, and without conditions.

Untitled 007 Graaff-Reinet by Noncedo Gxekwa, 2020

The six finalist projects were scored by a panel of judges representative not only across race, gender and sexuality, but also originated from geographies under contemporary capitalist pressures of globalisation, defiant populist cultures or suffering from the disruptions of climate change. All the artists of the finalist projects attended an arts residency in the town of Graaff-Reinet, the site of the first awarded projects, getting under the proverbial skin of the Karoo town, and into the hearts of the people who make this town human. The photographs accompanying this article were inspired by Theaster Gates who simply wants artists to find ‘Where Beauty Lives’. The resultant photo essay is by Noncedo Gxekwa, resident documentarian of the Social Impact Arts Prize 2020.

Untitled 005 Graaff-Reinet by Noncedo Gxekwa, 2020


Untitled 004 Graaff-Reinet by Noncedo Gxekwa, 2020


Tears Become Rain by Brits and Hansmann.

Finally, following a rigorous and inspiring assessment of the submissions by an international panel of judges, WOLK, Tears become Rain and PLANTed were announced as the awarded projects:

WOLK! by studioMAS and Gustav Praekelt, is a water-scarcity focused project that begins as an artwork, provides a certain amount of water, whilst also connecting to the community digitally. The artwork will be built in the image of a rain cloud that collects water from the atmosphere which can be used to water a garden beneath the cloud structure.

The cloud will also operate as a symbol of the digital cloud – offering free community wifi and as a hub for community-based information. Young women living in the town will be taught to code, and update the cloud with Health, Education and Literacy content, as well as information the community feels, is needed.

TEARS BECOME RAIN, by David Brits & Raiven Hansmann, with Fiona du Plooy, is a mass choir project- singing for rain-in response to the thousand year water crisis. The creation of this choir aims to instil hope and unite a diverse community representing the town as a whole.
Drawing on the rich choral history of the greater region, this project uses song as a tool to educate people about our precious water resources– whilst uniting people in their shared predicament. The narrative is a story that follows the journey of a young San boy in a time of great drought. Crying, his tears of grief turn into rain and restore abundance to the world. Connecting contemporary lives to a story from our shared pasts is intended as an inspirational act.

WOLK by Swanepoel and Praekelt

PLANTed, by Lorenzo Nassimbeni, Andrew Brose & Casper Lundie, is a public space project which gives visibility to the demise of the transfer of knowledge of medicinal plants, and recognising the under-represented disciplines of craft, tech know-how, local food culture, architecture and indigenous languages.

This project will celebrate the indigenous plant life of Graaff-Reinet, whilst engaging local experts in the production and presentation of a central built shelter for artists, designers and the local community to explore plant knowledge and bring to light this overlooked archive of local knowledge.

PLANTed by Nassimbeni, Lundie and Brose