Making art accessible

Every few months, a carefully-curated art exhibition in bite-sized chunks pops up at the Alliance Française in Johannesburg.

The work is a great showcase for local artists, some of them who’ve had their talent nurtured by the organiser, art teacher Isa Schwartz Gesseau of iBi Art. The pop-up exhibitions give up-and-coming artists a public platform to display their work, and give visitors chance to spot emerging talent and buy a piece before fame hits and the prices spiral.

The Alliance Française itself is a lovely old building, so after you’ve admired the art you can admire the building and its grounds too. With a glass of wine in hand if you’re arrived during the official launch event, or with a pause in the on-site coffee shop if you go during the daytime.

I first met Isa after interviewing one of her most prolific students, Jonathan Stone. He’s a well-known architect who’s more accustomed to designing art galleries than having his work exhibited inside them.

Jonathan only revived his long-forgotten interest in painting after seeing how much fun his children were having at Isa’s classes. “The joy of painting regularly has been spectacular,” he says. “It’s surprised me how much I’m into it, and it’s become quite an important part of me now. It’s completely self-indulgent and therapeutic. I tend to paint with whacking great hardware brushes. It’s much more liberating. I also like to paint with a palette knife - I like the dynamics between something extremely thin that lets the background come through and really thick textures that drip into the painting.”

Isa says it’s a pleasure to have him in her classes, where the students drink wine and socialise while they paint, then enjoy supper together. “He has an artistic eye, obviously from his architecture background, and I’ve seen him develop in my studio,” she says. “Jonathan’s joy when using paint invites the viewer into the image instantaneously. He manages to create drama and excitement in his work through his use of colour, texture and mark making.”

If you feel a tinge of artistic flair you can join Isa's classes too, and let your creativity burst forth. I couldn’t resist having a try, although I’ve never had any artistic inclination. But I know how to drink wine and socialise over supper, so Isa’s class sounded perfect. The daunting part was standing in front of an easel with a selection of charcoal sticks to attack a pristine white sheet of paper, which was intimidating me with its blankness.

Isa invited me to stroll around her house looking for an item to inspire me, but suddenly all the everyday objects like flower arrangements and ornaments seemed to have too many tricky bits to capture.

I decided to paint the woman standing across the room from me, absorbed in her own painting. It was impossible. How do you get the scale and perspective right? How do you capture the glow of a lightbulb as the light around us fades, when all you have is a bit of charcoal? Did I draw her shoulders too large, because there’s no room left to draw her legs now?

Isa flitted around scattering compliments and encouragement, but I wasn’t feeling it. I topped up my wine, hoping it would wash away my self-consciousness and feelings of incompetence that were stilting my movements. Sheepishly I stood back as the others passed kind comments and encouraged me to go back for more lessons to improve the spark of talent that they pretended they could see.
I didn’t go back, but I do go to the exhibitions at the Alliance Française and admire the work of others.

* IbiArt usually stages a show every two or three months, but the show coming up in November is the first since the Covid lockdown put all our entertainment on hold. It will feature works by Jonathan Stone, Lynette Van Tonder, Marina Walsh, Isabell Valod, Said Eljama, Stompie Selibe and Diana Hyslop. Open daily from November 4 to December 4 from 9am-5pm on weekdays and 9-1pm on Saturdays, at the Alliance Française, 17 Lower Park Drive in Parkview, Johannesburg.

IbiArt Studio offers lessons for adults, young adults or children, with group classes or individual sessions. Lessons are also available online.
For details see or contact Isa on 083 6004030 or

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