When six former Rhodes University fine arts classmates decided to revive their love of printmaking six years after graduating, they formed a collective and mounted a life-changing art exhibition at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda.
They called themselves The Printing Girls and, six years down the line, the network has 84 members of professional South African female artists — some based in the Eastern Cape — who work in print and exhibit internationally.
As a founder member, Amy Jane van den Bergh says she had needed a community of printmaker friends to rekindle her desire to be a printmaker.
And so she reached out to five former classmates to make it happen.
“I’d had the utter privilege to work with five of the most talented and fun women I’ve ever met while studying at Rhodes University,” she says.
“Carmen Ford, Claire Zinn, Lucy Stuart-Clark, Emma Honnibal and Cassey Delissen and I were at Rhodes from 2006 until 2009, and majored in printmaking.
“We bonded through late night doughnut feasts, post-crit tea parties, road trips to the beach and a shared love of print.
“As young printmakers, we relied on each other for moral support, inspiration and encouragement throughout our academic career.”
Once the women graduated they went their separate ways and for the most part lost touch with one another.
While Van den Bergh became an art teacher in Johannesburg, she returned to Makhanda every year to immerse herself in the National Arts Festival.
“In 2015, I returned home and was overcome by a feeling of longing to be more than just a spectator, to be part of the fest, to be part of the art world.
“However, after six years, I had no idea where to start and absolutely no confidence.
“It was at this point that I reached out to the other printmakers I had graduated with to see where they were all, what they were doing, and if they were pursuing careers in printmaking.
“To my surprise, none of us were. The story was the same for each of us: We wanted to, we didn’t know how to and we were scared to.
“I soon realised that if I was serious about pursuing a career in printmaking, I wouldn’t want to do it solo.
“I wanted a community. And what better community than the one I’d had at Rhodes.”
Touching base in this way triggered The Printing Girls’ (TPG) first exhibition at the 2016 Fringe.
“Carmen Ford, Lucy Stuart-Clark and I drove from Port Alfred, Cape Town and Johannesburg and put on the exhibition that would change our lives forever.
“The show was such a success that we went straight on to the Joburg Fringe Festival.
“Soon after that there was another show, and another, and before we knew it we were making art and selling art and calling ourselves artists!”
In 2017, the women invited a few more printmaker friends to join them and the collective has grown every year.
“Now, we take in applications at the start of every year for new members.
“Today we have 84 members from every corner of SA, celebrating diversity and representing every printmaking technique imaginable,” Van den Bergh says.
The women have made a conscious decision to limit membership to female printmakers to empower women artists and give them a collective voice in the art community.
“I felt strongly that women are still outnumbered in the artworld, and that there were so many female artists I knew who were struggling to break through into the market, or struggling to find the confidence to push their careers forward.
“I wanted to create a platform that gave these women strength, confidence and opportunities to get their careers to flourish.
“I’ve always loved working with women and wanted to focus my attention on making our voices loud and proud and at the forefront of the art community.
“ We became an empowered group of women who encourage and celebrate each other.
“We’re still waiting for The Printing Boys to start so we can have some great creative fun together!”
Because Van den Bergh has always been an avid attender of exhibitions, The Printing Girls entered as many art festivals or open calls they could find.
“I went to all my favourite galleries with proposals and before long we were showing on a number of galleries.”
Members took part in the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2018 and this year will participate in an exhibition in Sweden.
“We get around! In fact, we are so busy now, that we break our year up in two parts.
“The first six months we focus entirely on workshops and developing our individual body of works.
“The next six months of the year we have back-to-back exhibitions.”
At the moment, for example, some of The Printing Girls are showing their work at the Miniatures in Print exhibition running until the end of August at Gallery2 in Johannesburg.
They are also exhibiting at an online exhibition, Sense of Place, on Latitudes Online.
The artists also mount an annual show at The Art Room in Parkhurst, Johannesburg.
TPG 2000 will run from August 28 until September 24 and will include the work of 44 members.
“There will be a lovely interactive printmaking demo by Cloudia Rivett-Carnac and a number of workshops throughout the month.
“Later this year, we will be exhibiting a lithographic show in Sweden’s Lithographic Academy.
“We also have a showstopper planned for David Krut Galleries this year.
“With so many exhibitions on offer it’s really nice for our members to be able to plan their year in advance.
“They have creative deadlines they aim to meet, and it keeps everyone producing work.
“As artists, that’s what we need. We find joy and our reason for life, is tied to our art making.
“So, even if we’re going through tough personal situations, and can’t find the capacity to make art, we’re in a community where there is endless inspiration and action going on.
“We always feel connected to the buzzing artworld.”
Besides sharing exhibition space, the artists also connect and support each other in other ways.
“We have a busy WhatsApp group that never sleeps!
“We also have Instagram take-overs where one artist in the group takes over for a week and gives us all sorts of wonderful behind-the-scenes juicy information about their work and themselves.”
For East London printmaker Lisa Cloete, joining TPG two years ago has provided immense artistic support from a diverse group of talented and experienced women artist printmakers.
“Along with this support, the group has provided access to an invaluable wealth of information and inspiration and it has been amazing to witness the processes and artwork of others,” Cloete says.
“The administrator team have gone above and beyond to arrange and manage regular exhibitions for the artists handling every aspect from motivation and inspiration at the start to sales at the end as well as arranging art deals from art shops and a wonderful website.
“It has been wonderful to be a part of this team of women from across SA.”
Makhanda artist Ashton Dingle says being part of TPG helps her navigate the challenges of being a printmaker in the Eastern Cape.
“There are few people who are aware of printmaking and gallery opportunities for a growing artist are limited.
“Being a part of the TPGs has allowed me to grow as an artist and reach an audience I never would have been able to reach across the country on my own.
“It’s also given me a space to grow as a teacher through the workshops I can host through their network.
“I’ve been able to develop a social media analytics webinar geared towards artists looking to develop a social media strategy.
“This is a group of phenomenal female artists where sharing of knowledge, technique and skills abounds and I’m privileged to be a part of it,” she says.
Port Alfred artist Carmen Ford shares this sentiment, describing the collective as an excellent network of professional and aspiring printmakers.
“I’m grateful that I’ve got a group of fellow creators to bounce ideas off, get feedback from and also learn some useful printing tips.
“TPG, for me, offers accountability to keep printing whenever I can and it’s also a gateway to see new prints frequently and exhibit my work with some top local printmakers at galleries and art fares that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The women meet over Zoom monthly.
“The whole community is split into smaller groups, like home groups, that meet once a month and chat about their work, what they’re proud of for accomplishing the past month, what they might be struggling with, and so on.
“As we grow bigger, these small groups really hold us all together in the bigger community.
“Every year our groups shuffle so we can slowly get to know everyone.
“And of course, we all gather, as best we can, around our workshops and exhibitions.
“One of the best things about being a printmaker is the shared studio time.
“ Attending workshops together and making print alongside each other is priceless. You always walk away energised and buzzing with ideas.
“At every exhibition we also hold demos and workshops to educate and involve the public.
“Attending exhibition often feels like a family reunion of sorts, where we all get to see each other and drool over each other’s works. We are very fortunate to be a part of this.”
The Printing Girls is also an energetic, resourceful space for newer artist like Gqeberha’s Nomvula Hoko, who refers to herself as an emerging artist.
“Being part of TPG was the best opportunity I got as a printmaker because my career has changed and I have grown as a young woman.
“Meeting inspiring women in the team has been a great journey,” she says.
“I think the community grows itself,” Van den Bergh says.
“The printmakers within the community thrive and enjoy it and bring on their friends and so it grows.
“We also have a fair following on social media, and we get a lot of interest from there.
“We’ve been on the international podcast, ‘Hello Print Friend’ which really gave us a marketing boost. Thanks to them, we got our first sponsor, Speedball.
“It’s been an amazing journey watching the community grow and looking forward to it growing even more.
“My vision has always been to connect every single printmaker who identifies as female to be a part of our community.
“It’s so unique in the art world, and we’ve really carved out a special happy place for us all to work and grow and thrive together.”