It has always struck me that one of the more popular definitions of what separates Homo Sapiens from other mammals is our ability to produce abstract art. More than 70 000 years ago, beach dwellers at Blombos on the southern coast, created a ‘cross-hatched pattern drawn with an ochre crayon on a ground silcrete flake’. In short: they created art. As I explain in Chapter 2 of Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom, the Blombos artwork suggests that these men and women, before they exited Africa to populate the world, had all the features of cognition and behaviour that we associate with ourselves today.

From then to now, the purpose of art is to illuminate the world around us. But when the world suffers a horrendous pandemic, that illumination grows dimmer. Covid-19 has shut down exhibits, closed galleries, and gutted demand. I asked Alastair Meredith, Senior Art Specialist at Strauss&co, an auction house, how the industry has coped with Covid-19.

‘The pandemic has certainly changed the face of the art world. With so many galleries and exhibition spaces closed, we’ve been denied the joy, temporarily at least, of standing eye-to-eye with a fantastic picture or sculpture. Artists have really had it tough, with residencies, studio collaborations, and exhibition programmes delayed or cancelled.

‘But the wheels of the art market have still been spinning: auction houses and galleries have found new ways to trade, and collectors have followed. When the reality of COVID dawned on us in March 2020, we shifted our sales online. In May 2020, Strauss&co hosted the country’s first-ever virtual sale, with auctioneers live-streamed from studios in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The two-day auction, which included modern and contemporary art, fine wine, jewellery, furniture, and decorative arts, was an enormous success, with 81% of the 640 lots finding buyers, and the sale earning R84m.  It might come as little surprise that Strauss&co handled more items in 2020 than in any other year in the company’s history.’

This positive news is not what I expected. I asked Neo Mahlangu, a Johannesburg-based artist who recently designed a coin for the South African Mint, what strategies she used to cope with Covid. ‘I began to provide prints of my work. Prints are a great entryway for an enthusiastic art collector who is just starting their collection. And while there are fewer public exhibitions, online exhibits have boomed.’

Michael Chandler, Winelands wallpaper

Michael Chandler, owner and curator of Chandler House in Cape Town, agrees. ‘While we have had a steep decline in physical visitors to our brick-and-mortar gallery, we have managed to do some robust business with online catalogues, Instagram posts, etc.’

Has Covid forced a permanent change in how we sell – and produce – art?

Says Chandler: ‘The process of selling and marketing art has been revolutionised with digital platforms. I don’t think we could really do what we do without them. As for how it has affected the actual work itself – I try and avoid art forms that are too digital in appearance. It simply doesn’t appeal to me; it’s a personal choice, and one that I feel aligns with the audience I have nursed over the past 10 years.’

Meredith shares Chandler’s taste for the traditional. ‘I’d always be happier standing in front of a monumental landscape painting, a moving portrait, or a gorgeous still life’. But the switch to digital also brings new opportunities: ‘With previews and exhibitions and cocktail parties on hold for the moment, we’ve experimented with immersive, virtual gallery spaces, and produced significantly more video and audio content to add to the experience. There is clearly a growing interest in digital art and NFTs. We’re keeping a close eye on these categories and have some exciting plans for them.’

‘The switch to digital’, says Mahlangu, ‘has made me realise how small the world is. In the past, connecting with other artists and organisations in other countries felt like a farfetched dream, but social media, especially, has brought our worlds so much closer. It has also made me realise how some topics are very universal. How I identify myself as a female can have South African nuances, but my experiences can be related to many other parts of the world.’

Neo Mahlangu, The disobedient ones I

Art is often considered a leading indicator of societal trends. I ask Meredith what South African art is currently saying about the future of South Africa.

‘Most South African artists are engaged with global trends and themes. Many of our artists – across all media – are responding to issues of gender and sexuality, for instance, and producing work in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. With our past in mind, many of our artists are also working within a post-colonial and revisionist framework. But I think it’s safe to say that our artists are part of global dialogues.’

Mahlangu expands on this topic: ‘I think the art that is being produced today is showing the idealistic vision of the black gaze. In the past, the way black artists used to depict their environments was a direct reflection of the hardships of apartheid. Now the mentality is more empowered. Young artists are much more visionary and are creating the futures that they want to see in the world.’

Is this change reflected in the demand from buyers?

‘The most exciting trend at the moment’, says Meredith, ‘is the exploding interest in modern and contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora. Major international collectors have turned a serious eye on this work, and African art celebrities have been made overnight. What is particularly exciting, however, is that the trend has been backed to some extent by institutions. Many prominent museums, galleries and universities have been re-assessing their holdings with Africa in mind.’

Africa, as the birthplace of art, is finally taking its rightful place in the global art industry. Let us hope the next generation of artists can illuminate a path towards a more prosperous future.