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One of the foremost emerging artists in South Africa, Johannesburg based, Neill Wright might come across as a laid back individual but don’t be fooled by his demeanour, he is one of the hardest working artists in the nation. In 2007 Neill was co-awarded the Simon Gerson Prize for an outstanding body of work upon graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art (Honours), at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town. In 2009 he took his education one step further and graduated with a Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Art, majoring in printmaking. Since then his work has been showcased at various internationally renowned galleries and fairs including the Circa Gallery in Johannesburg, Sulger-Buel Lovell in London, which is the gallery that represents him, and the Sydney Contemporary fair in Australia.
A multi-disciplinary artist, adroit at painting, drawing, printing and sculpting, Neill conjures inspiration from society, specifically media and politics, and attempts to create a holistic view of the issues which are entrenched in global and more particularly, South African society. Here, we have a chat with him on the back of his successful installation at the 2017 Turbine Art Fair.
What led you to become a professional artist?
I've always had a huge passion for art and as a result decided to study fine art with the intention of doing something in the creative industry but to be honest, becoming a professional artist wasn't something I really considered until I had qualified. After university I did a lot of work for an interior designer as well as a few corporate projects while doing my own work on the side. I managed to sustain myself in this way and was gradually able to dedicate more time to my own work. It was during this phase of my life that I realised becoming a full time artist was a genuine possibility. The rest followed on from there and today I am fortunate enough to work as a professional fine artist.
What are some of the challenges you have faced as an emerging artist in South Africa?
I would say that the biggest challenge has been building my own artist brand and developing collector confidence in my work. The art scene in SA is quite smaller than some of the big European or American art industry but this can be both an advantage and disadvantage.
If your work is of high standard there are a number of great galleries that would be happy to work with you and the market here is perhaps less saturated than the international markets. That being said, it's rather difficult to break into the international market and it requires close collaborative work with my gallery. There has certainly been a rise in the number of platforms for up and coming artists to get the right exposure.
For an African based artist you have a rather unique style, which artists would you say you're inspired by?
From an aesthetic and stylistic point of view, I am very influenced by the superflat artists of Japan as well as traditional pop and neo-pop art. International artists that I admire are, Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, KAWS and Tom Wesselmann to name a few but I am also influenced by a number of South African and African artists such a Cameron Platter, Brett Murray, Claudette Schreuders and Kudzanai Chiurai. From a theoretical and conceptual standpoint, my work is very much rooted in the African continent.
What has the highlight of your career been thus far?
I would say the biggest highlight was one of my sculptures selling for the high estimate at a contemporary African Art auction in Paris last November.
Congratulations on your recent installation at the Turbine Art Fair, it was a hit amongst attendants. Can you share information about the process of showcasing such an installation?
Thank you very much, this was my first attempt at creating an installation and for the most part I found it to be a great success. As an artist you are always looking for ways to push yourself and the work further and therefore always find small things you want to improve and expand on. There is generally a submission process when it comes to creating installations for art fairs and as a result I submitted a number of drawings and plans for the space and was lucky enough to be accepted. The logistics, planning and problem solving around the space make up about 50% of the work and it's both challenging and exciting to work in such a spatially conscious way. So much more needs to be considered before you begin working on the individual elements that make up the work. It is definitely the most satisfying way of work when it all comes together at the end.
Your art has been acquired by patrons from far and wide, have you identified any noticeable differences between South African collectors and foreign collectors?
At the moment we haven't noticed much of a difference between collectors from different parts of the world. A large number of international collectors have bought my work while visiting South Africa, which has given us some insight into countries worth exploring for possible exhibition opportunities. Some of these include Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and the U.S.A. My biggest collector base is still South Africa but my gallery Sulger-Buel Lovell is working very hard to increase my international exposure.
So far your work has been showcased in various cities in South Africa and across the globe, are there any plans for exhibitions in other parts of Africa?
At the moment there aren't any plans for exhibitions in other parts of Africa but I’m open to exploring this in future. The international market for contemporary African art is certainly on the rise and as a result, a number of galleries that represent artists from the continent are focusing their energy on establishing themselves in the larger art centres of Europe, the U.S and East Asia whilst also exploring the African continent to tap into the huge amount of talent which is coming to the fore.
Is there any particular dream or goal you hope to achieve, over the course of your career?
There are a number of goals I have in mind for the course of my career. A major museum show is definitely something I am aiming for, as well as showcasing my work at some of the major international art fairs. Art Basel Miami is one I’m very particular about. I’m currently working on achieving these goals.