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.↑
Discourse of Art
Discourse of Art is a lecture-based, academic programme focusing on modern and contemporary art. In first year the courses provide an introduction to the appreciation and understanding of the visual image. Students are also introduced to the histories and theories of art, focusing mainly on art of the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century across the globe. A separate Foundation Course in the first year introduces students to basic critical visual literacy, with focused case studies on contemporary art and visual culture.
The second and third years intensify with the study of the art of contemporary South Africa, Africa and the African Diaspora in a global frame, starting from the onset of decolonization to the present. This includes those international trends in art and scholarship which have had a decisive impact in South Africa and Africa as well as Africa’s contribution to these international trends. The topics covered include major exhibitions that relate to a globalising Africa, international biennales, the advent of the contemporary curator, and an exploration of artistic responses to the city in the different parts of the world.
In the second part of third and in fourth year two additional half courses, Theory and Practice of Art III and IV, focus fully on independent research and writing. The emphasis here is on contemporary South African art in a global context and on the student’s own studio practice.
The Discourse of Art programme aims to provide students with a firm, rich grounding in visual analysis, and the histories and theories associated with art practice. Students become familiar in the modern period across the world and engage deeply with contemporary art practice and scholarship in and about Africa and South Africa over the last three decades. The programme encourages critical independence, creativity and self-motivated research, thinking and writing skills, all of which are essential for young graduates entering the contemporary artworld.↑
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. In first year participants are exposed to mould-making, modelling, casting and constructional techniques. Based on examples of image-making in an African context with an international reach, these technologies are taught in the context of individual problem solving and lateral thinking. The second and third year of study deepens the participant’s understanding of the creative industries and the role that three-dimensional design, aided by new digital technologies, can contribute to our powers of interpretation, and thus to world knowledge. In the fourth year of study students are encouraged to find solutions to their own research questions within an interdisciplinary framework.
Richly immersive, the courses offer participants the chance to work, under supervision, in the wood, metal, clay or bronze workshops. The courses feed into the postgraduate arena and many Michaelis graduates have forged distinctive careers for themselves after completing an MFA in sculpture. Currently taught by two full professors with strong national and international reputations, the sculpture section aims to be an enabling environment; one committed to creative, artistic and professional excellence in African and global contexts.↑
Photography holds much currency in contemporary visual art as many contemporary artists use photography as part of their art-making processes and final production.
Photography is taught thorough a curriculum combining traditional and digital skills in which students are exposed to historical and contemporary modes of photographic image-generation. Students are taught through self-motivated and project based assignments including pinhole, black and white film processing and printing, artificial light, digital capture, Photoshop, street photography, colour, medium and large format, fibre based printing, RAW processing, photographic studio and large format printing and historical techniques such as cyanotype and kallitype. The third year fieldtrip offers an opportunity for an exciting approach to hands-on training in advanced photographic techniques and an opportunity for intensive, closely supervised training in conceptual thinking in unusual environments.
In senior years the scope of self-motivated investigations are broad: history, identity, media, contemporary popular culture, violence, migration, naturists, land issues, social commentary, to name a few.
The photography section has been involved in a number of initiatives in recent years including partnerships and links with the Roger Ballen Foundation, California College of Arts, Photokina, the editorial team of COLOURS magazine, and is the recipient of the Tierney Fellowship Award.
Our graduates work in a number of fields, not only as professional fine artists but also as professional photographers working in fashion, in the film and television industry, advertising, publications, printmedia and teaching.↑
New Media discipline at Michaelis is an exciting and constantly developing area where we work with students to explore the creative opportunities offered by digital media. Our focus centres on fine art production and a constantly evolving digitally mediated social sphere. Within the course of study, students are encouraged to challenge accepted norms and standards of technology and digital interfacing. Our curriculum includes projects on interactivity in an expanded sense, that is, through physical interaction between viewer and artwork and new media installation. We also deal extensively with time-based media, such as animation, motion graphics, and video for internet and handheld devices. Also on offer in our curriculum are projects on problem solving in design and typography, text-based artworks, digital collage, and computer- aided design and manufacturing. Students are encouraged to familiarise themselves with all the technologies on offer, but then to undertake further self-motivated exploration and specialisation within a particular area of the field.
The lecturers in the discipline consistently produce and curate exhibitions at national and international level. Our facilities include new technologies that are covered in the course such as up-to-date computer and editing labs, laser cutting and physical computing hardware as well as a wide range of software applications. Dedicated studio space is available for students and technical support. We further have strong links with academics and artists working in the field both nationally and internationally, through visiting lecturers, conferences and participation in various projects.↑
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.