Founded in 1925, the Fine Arts department of the University of Cape Town is better known as the Michaelis School of Fine Art, and has a long and proud tradition of producing outstanding graduates. Today Michaelis is staffed by some of South Africa’s leading fine artists, curators and art academics. Internationally the school is recognised as one of South Africa’s foremost institutions for the study of fine art and new media at an advanced level.
Special recognition is given to the school’s place in Africa, and the School strives to provide a stimulating and supportive environment in which both undergraduate and postgraduate students can achieve their full potential.
During their studies students have access to an impressive range of resources and facilities and Michaelis’s location on UCT’s Hiddingh Campus – adjacent to the historic Company’s Garden – ensures that students have access to many cultural institutions and heritage resources. These include the Iziko South African National Gallery, the South African Museum and the National Library of South Africa, as well as some of the country’s leading commercial art galleries and creative hubs.
The School houses the Michaelis Galleries at which visitors to the campus can view regular exhibitions by local and international artists. It also hosts an annual end-of-the-year exhibition of fourth-year student works, which has become a highlight of the South African arts calendar.
Visual and Art History (VAH) is a six-course programme that forms part of the Fine Art degree while also serving as an independent major available to general Humanities students. The VAH courses provide an opportunity to study both the history of the fine arts (painting, sculpture, drawings, prints and photography) and the history of other key visual traditions and cultures, including architecture, interior and industrial design, and dress.
Courses vary in their historical reach: some examine in detail the art of past cultures while others focus upon the contemporary period. Whatever the focus, the aim of the courses is to scrutinise the aims, social role and future directions of art practices in ways that will benefit students from both studiowork and general Humanities backgrounds. The thematic breadth and historical emphasis of the VAH major gives it an exceptionally wide reference in relation to other Humanities subjects, and positions it as an ideal choice for those studying film and media, English literature, classics and foreign languages, sociology, political studies, philosophy and social anthropology.
Contemporary painting is a vibrant and challenging discipline. The painting course at Michaelis both honours tradition whilst interrogating new and current practice.
Painting in first year is thus exploratory and experimental while in the second year of study there is a greater bias towards the building of skills in a range of painting techniques and a variety of media such as acrylic and oil. Students are also instructed in the preparation of surfaces and grounds. Third year emphasises the materiality of painting and encourages students to think beyond the frame of traditional painting and open up their conception of what painting might be. Throughout the courses the history of the genre and its place in contemporary art is engaged.
Our fourth year approach is strongly theoretical. Critique, dialogue and interrogation of painting as a discipline are promoted, as is innovative and independent thinking in approaching the medium. Studio practice at this level is non-discipline specific and students have the opportunity to extend their work into areas such as video and installation.
In conceptualising their practice students are directed to view painting as a medium essentially bound to other areas of humanities research. The discursive aspect of contemporary practice is key to the discipline. Regular visits to galleries and exhibitions form a core component of the course. Debate and discussion are encouraged. Cape Town has many of the country’s top galleries and the school has strong links with the profession.
Stress is placed on ‘life after Michaelis’. We encourage students to view fourth year as preparation for a solo exhibition of a professional standard. Career guidance is deemed important and students’ abilities are reviewed in that respect. Throughout the year visiting artists contribute to both teaching and critique in the school.
Painting has well-equipped, well-lit and spacious studios, resourced with a workshop for the production of canvases and painting supports. A dedicated technician assists students in the preparation of grounds and primers.
The sculpture section of Michaelis offers a four-year degree stream in the programme. The course introduces traditional and non-traditional techniques and materials in relation to African and international art history and contemporary art.
In first year, participants are introduced to traditional clay modelling and construction techniques in the areas of portraiture, hybrid invention and public sculpture. Second year and the first semester of third year are method and technical project based including traditional techniques of wood and metal construction, and bronze casting as well as contemporary approaches to assemblage and installation. The application of computer aided design and manufacturing is also available as part of elective offerings. In the second semester of third year students produce self-motivated projects developed from their own research. During their fourth-year, students work towards one distinct exhibition with a focussed research theme, developed over the course of the year within an interdisciplinary framework.
The courses offer participants the opportunity to work, under supervision, in the wood, metal, clay or bronze workshops and provide the student with a range of skills with various applications. Many Michaelis graduates have forged distinctive careers for themselves after completing the degree and have in addition also chosen to complete an MFA in sculpture. The sculpture section aims to be an enabling environment committed to creative, artistic, critical and professional excellence in African and the global contexts.
Photography holds much currency in contemporary visual art as many artists use photography as part of their art-making processes and final production.
Photography at Michaelis (MSFA) is taught through a curriculum which encourages social consciousness, without being documentary. As a university we are primarily interested in the world of ideas, but we do impart technical skills as part of the induction into the discipline of photography. These include largely digital skills, but also analogue, and through these students are exposed to historical and contemporary modes of photographic image-generation, including studio practice. Students are taught through self-motivated and project-based assignments. In terms of resources the photography section at the MSFA is the among the most well-resourced on the continent.
Jean Brundrit and Svea Josephy, who head the Photo section at the MSFA have been proactive in trying to grow a generation of young black photographers, for example Hasan and Husein Essop, Ashley Walters and Thero Makepe and have a strong interest in growing women photographers in South Africa. We have mentored woman artists working in photography such as Sethembile Msezane, Thuli Gamedze, Lauren Theunissen, Thandiwe Msebenzi, Nobukho Nqaba, Sitaara Stodel and others, who have gone on to have significant careers as artists. Other alumni who majored in Photography include Mikhael Subotzky, Nicole Fraser, Vincent Bezuidenhout and Alice Mann.
The photography section has been involved in a number of international initiatives in the last decades including partnerships: with the Roger Ballen Foundation; California College of Arts; a partnership on Women’s Photographies with the University of Loughborough; World Visions: Emerging photographers, an online exhibition curated by Michelle Bogre of Parsons School of Art, NY, shown on the New York Photo Festival 2010, a long-term partnership in the Tierney Fellowship and more recently Global Photographies. We have a regular programme of lectures, talks and seminars and we have been privileged to host a number of guests from the world of photography, including the editorial team of Colours magazine, Stephen Shore, Rineke Dijkstra, Allison Rossiter, Matthew Brandt and Michael Mack of Mack Books.
Our graduates work in a number of fields, not only as professional fine artists and curators but also as professional photographers working in fashion, in the film and television industry, advertising, publications, printmedia and teaching.
Printmaking continues to inform and shape the visual field, providing not only a means for the transfer of information, but also a resource for the exploration and communication of ideas. While most contemporary artists use print as a part of their practice, printmaking also enjoys rich cultural and political traditions and both of these are explored in the teaching programme. Attention is drawn to current technical and conceptual developments in printmaking as well as to the deep history of printmaking and printmaking workshops in South Africa. Printmaking is approached through its theoretical tenets and attention is drawn to those aspects of the discipline that distinguish it from other visual practices.
Intensive workshops in intaglio, lithography, screen-printing, relief print and book arts are introduced at an early stage, and complemented by lectures and seminars on the historical development and contemporary reach of the print. We regard all print media from the traditional to digital technologies as equally valid. The first two years of study are project-based and crucial to the discovery and assimilation of conceptual, technical and critical skills in the development of personal expression. The third year develops technique and practice at a more advanced level and students are required to develop a self-motivated proposal in the second semester, whereas the final year of the course sees the student work through an individually negotiated programme of study towards a self-motivated professional practice. In addition to using printmaking as their major means of expression, students are encouraged to challenge the foundational principles of printmaking in their approach to their work.
The workshops are well equipped for all kinds of lithography, intaglio, relief, screen-printing and digital technologies. They are staffed with a full-time highly experienced technical instructor. There is an exciting and challenging teaching programme of regular academic staff, complemented by visiting artists who are invited to produce prints in the workshops.
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