MTN and UJ collaborative exhibitions

One of the most exciting and challenging elements of the MTN SA Foundation and UJ Art Gallery collaboration since their first successful Shifting Conversations exhibition in 2017 has been the Emerging Artists Development Programme. This programme affords young artists the opportunity to showcase their talents and interpretations linked to a given theme relating to these MTN and UJ collaborative exhibitions.

The latest iteration – following on Shifting Conversations (2017), Continuing Conversations (2018), and Conversing the Land (2019) – will be an online documentary project due to the Covid-19 restrictions and will feature a fresh approach to Willem Boshoff’s The Blind Alphabet (1991), made of wood, steel and aluminium, and more specifically forty wooden forms representing the letter B in The Blind Alphabet as part of the extensive MTN Art Collection.

This digital experience is called The Blind Alphabet – Letter B: Babery to Bigeminate, curated by Annali Cabano-Dempsey, Curator of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Art Collection, and Niel Nortje, Manager of the MTN Art Collection.

Boshoff’s The Blind Alphabet is an ongoing project transcribing a myriad of complex words into tangible objects to be experienced by the blind and translated to the sighted. Though usually marginalised within society, here the visually challenged are afforded the privileged position.

After noting comments by visually impaired individuals on the outdated nature of the Braille type format, the forty works of the letter B within Boshoff’s The Blind Alphabet now enter the digital age. This online documentary project will form part of MTN Art Collection’s digital art archive to be made available for academic research, as well as teaching and learning opportunities.

In an open call for entries MTN and UJ invited emerging artists between the ages of 21 and 35 who have not held a solo exhibition at an established gallery or museum in South Africa or abroad, to submit artworks as a response or a form of conversation with the letter B in Boshoff’s The Blind Alphabet.

In preparation of submitting entries prospective artists were reminded to consider the ways in which The Blind Alphabet evokes societal inequality in relation to the visually challenged as well as the ways society employs to perceive and claim knowledge. Boshoff’s approach calls for new measures of meaning and value in a fragmented and insecure contemporary society. The Blind Alphabet contributes to the discourse on the consequences of a totalitarian reality by critiquing the accepted comprehension of traditional power structures.

From the more than forty entries received in response to the call the judges selected ten artworks to compete for the first prize of R30 000. The nine other finalists will receive a stipend of R3 500 each to further their careers.

The ten finalists in alphabetical order are Lana Combrinck, Neo Diseko, Xanthé Jackson, Miné Kleynhans, Tré Mkhabela, Oratile “Papi” Konopi, Franz Phooko, Alexa Pienaar, Tristin Roland and Selwyn Steyn.

The judges – Niel Nortjé (MTN), Katlego Lefine (MTN), Annali Cabano-Dempsey (UJ), Mia van Schalkwyk (UJ), and Mpho Mazibuko, Angelique Bougaard and Ndaya Kim Ilunga (three mentees in the current MTN & UJ Mentorship Programme) – were applying the use of innovative and creative ways of multi-disciplinary approaches as a dominant consideration in determining the list of finalists.

According to Cabano-Dempsey “the panel of judges was astounded by the sophisticated and innovative responses to Boshoff’s complex philosophies and physical renderings while simultaneously staying true to their own artistic identity and language”.

“I believe the MTN and UJ partnership’s Emerging Artists Developing Programme not only answers directly to a main objective for both our institutions – which is to offer skills and career development opportunities for our frustrated, unemployed and talented youth – it also allows us, who have worked with the permanent collections of our institutions for many years, an opportunity to continue learning by experiencing the interpretations and work of young artists,” says Niel Nortje. “A fresh eye from an emerging young talent is always extremely appreciated and well received,.” he concludes.

The winner of the 2020 Emerging Artists Development Programme will be announced at the opening of the online exhibition and the launch of the UJ Art Gallery’s online platform, the Moving Cube.

The artworks by the ten finalists will be exhibited in 2021 alongside the Willem Boshoff artworks as part of an envisaged actual space and time exhibition in the UJ Art Gallery.

This online documentary project was made possible by a generous sponsorship from the MTN SA Foundation and a supporting grant from Business and Arts South Africa (BASA).

For more information contact Annali Cabano-Dempsey at or Mia van Schalkwyk at