Cobi Labuscagne has been a participant in the art world for most of her adult life. She was also part of the founding team of Africa’s first art fair, the Joburg Art Fair (now FNB Art Joburg), yet explains that this wasn’t the original motivation to write Explore! Awesome South African Artists. As the mother of two “on an endless search for books with substance for Lunga, 10, and Ellen, 7, particularly with relevance to the South African context,” she discovered that there were even fewer art books for kids.
“I’ve read like a million children’s books and they are so thin on content. So, I actually started out with the aim to write a children’s book that would have been about South African life, all kinds of lives and the diversity. I wanted to go into granular detail about what is it about living in South Africa, and the different stories,” Labuscagne explains.
The art book, however, came most naturally to Labuscagne because she knows the artists personally and has been so immersed in the industry for so long. Art is also a wonderful mirror to the complexities of society; a reflection of our evolving civilisation. As a storytelling medium, it is able to capture visually the rich narratives around our diverse cultures, challenges, lifestyle, sexual identity, and political thought.
Beautifully illustrated by Lauren Mulligan, with supplementary photography of works, the selection of artists and industry players includes Athi-Patra Ruga, William Kentridge, Nandipha Mntambo, Robin Rhode, Igshaan Adams, Santu Mofokeng, Lady Skollie — and many more. The book presents very open, honest conversations on the profession, on race — “it’s quite raw on race” — sexuality, spirituality, as well as associated career opportunities. “The artists share what it was like to be a kid, where they were, what they were experiencing, what they dreamt about, and what they thought they’d become when they got older,” she says. “It’s really human in that way.”
The release of her book couldn’t have come at a better time. Despite the growing global interest in African art, there are huge gaps in our education. Added to this, art has almost entirely disappeared from the government school curriculum. “Even the private schools are still teaching about Monet, Van Gogh… maybe Kentridge gets in there, but then it’s straight on to Andy Warhol and the global art movements,” she says, adding that there is very little that teaches you about South African art. “But again, this also teaches you about our stories and not just about art. It’s about identity, belonging… who am I?”
“When you’ve read Nandipha’s story in just 300 words, you feel like, ‘I know this person’, so it’s a little bit easier to have a conversation. It’s not just about this beautiful person I see in magazines. It’s a human story. It’s inspirational.”
Labuscagne never set out to make this a pedagogic exercise, to teach art: “Kids are very suspicious of that.” Instead, she wanted it to be a bedtime book, an accessible way to read about people’s lives and then about art. And, although it’s meant for ages nine to 15, much like a DreamWorks animation, the success of the book will be in that it’s accessible for all ages.
“Art is all of us,” says Labuscagne, who views success as her book making it onto school library shelves, new audiences embracing the arts, and seeing younger visitors at the fairs.
• Explore! Awesome South African Artists, R195, is available at all good bookstores.