Meet Nolan Oswald Dennis, a young artist unimpressed by South Africa
By Nomali CeleNolan Oswald Dennis (28) is part of a new breed of young artists not impressed with the state of this country. He works in illustration, painting, and installation, spreading the message of we have not forgotten. This has been a big year for Dennis with his first solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, winning the FNB Art Fair Prize and currently studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for his master of science in art, culture, and technology.
We caught up with Dennis via email and this is what he had to share:
Please, could you tell us about your background and the path you took to get into the art world?
I am a South African born in Zambia, my family was in exile. I grew up in Midrand, I studied architecture at Wits. These places, along with Keleketla Library and VANSA, these are all very important places I call home. My path has mostly consisted of leaving these places, sharing ideas, energy and work with small groups of people that I trust. Friends whose work helps make sense of the difficult world. Always working together and, especially, putting energy into projects that we care deeply about. The art world is something else, my world is constructed out of solidarity, impatience and a determination to change it.
Memory is a recurring theme in your work, why do you think it’s important to remember in the South African context?
Imagine that all history is built on forgetting. Zero. And then Africa is, supposedly, a continent without history. Double zero. Paradoxically, Africa is also, supposedly, the cradle of all humankind. A reversal. And Africans belong to the historical category of the subhuman. A counteraction… History is a construct of power, and we have not had the power to construct anything for a very long time. I’m interested in memory because, in spite of this game, it survives, and we survive along with it.
You are dedicated when it comes to calling out, or shining a light on what you’ve termed “social fictions” (i.e the rainbow nation) what larger conversation are you hoping to start if any at all with your work?
I think we’ve reached the end of a particular social contract, we are in a time of radical non-fiction. We are forced to see ourselves as we really are. This is happening all around the world, from Trump to Brexit, to Brazil, to our own drama at home. The oversaturation of dreams was a mask for the extreme inequality being entrenched globally (racial, gender, economic, geopolitical), but this mask is failing.
It seems, there are no stories to believe in anymore, both the problem and its solution are equally unappealing. At the moment I’m reading Ali Mazrui’s Pax Africana and it feels like the more radically honest we become, the closer it appears as fictional space. African lives have never been fully accepted as real and so as we grow into a self-consciousness (black consciousness) we enter an unreality of being, we are the people who live somewhere besides the dream.
Do you think there’s a clearer path to practicing as an artist than there was, say, five years ago?
I really wouldn’t know; I think every historical moment produces conditions against which artists must struggle.
You won the 2016 FNB Art Fair prize. What do prizes, beyond accolades, mean for young artists like yourself?
There is sadness behind all prizes, their meaning is always ambiguous. The young South African writer Masande Ntshanga recently wrote on Twitter “Probably the saddest thing about the Nobel Prize for Literature is how artists have been made to earnestly care about prizes, I think.”
Does art mean as much as those who love it think it does, especially in South Africa where it happens three taxis – at most – away from the average South African?
I think contemporary art can only mean something within its own self-policed limits. This is why the task of many artists from places like ours is to break out of the boundaries of art as a discipline, a market, a lifestyle commodity and an academic field. Art means much more than it is allowed to mean.
Who are the young artists you believe the world should look out for?
My family: Bogosi Sekhukhuni, Tabita Rezaire, Lisolomzi Pikoli, also Mbali Khoza, FAKA, CUSS group