It all started with an email inviting Sujay Sanan for a secret briefing on the new currency.
He assumed that there had been some kind of mistake; Or worse, he thought, it could be a scam. But the message was signed by an official of the South African Mint, a subsidiary of the South African Reserve Bank, so he replied.
After a string of follow-ups in late 2019, he found himself in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Cape Town. He was directed to the boardroom, directed to his seat. On the table in front of him was a folder titled “Top Secret”.
“I felt like a secret agent,” says Sanan, 39, with a smile. It emerged that the SA Mint had contracted an agency to compile a list of artists whose work significantly represented the country’s natural history and conservation efforts. The Cape Town-based Indian artist has spent a decade engaging with nature and wildlife through his art, in mediums ranging from acrylic ink to watercolor, graphite and 3D artwork, so it’s no surprise he’s on the list.
The project itself, when he realized its scale, took his breath away. “This type of invitation usually means that your work could be featured on a commemorative coin or some sort of collector’s edition,” he says. “Little did I know that this would be the occasion for my work to be engraved on millions of circulating coins.”
Sanan’s painting of a southern right whale and her calf was recently selected as the artwork for South Africa’s new 5-rand coin (replacing the wildebeest). The competition was open to all South African citizens and residents. Sanan is the latter. “Currency forms a strong part of the country’s visual language, so it’s an honor to be a part of history in this way,” he says.
The southern right whale is an endangered species that lives in the oceans south of the equator. Each year, the country’s southern coast, from Cape Town to Mosel Bay, serves as a sanctuary for newborn calves and their mothers, who usually spend six months there from June to December, before moving north to colder waters, and returning in June.
The portrait of Sanan on the 5-rand coin depicts this flood situation, a major conservation success in itself. Among massive whales—called right whales because they were considered the “right” whales to hunt, because they produced large amounts of oil and baleen—the species plummeted to 300 in the 1920s, before universal protection laws were passed. 1935. These whales are still endangered, but their population is now estimated at 10,000, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
“Hopefully, much of the world will see this as a sign to protect more of the planet’s natural resources,” says Sanon. “Making your mark as an artist is definitely the goal in life. I feel honored to do so and to be accepted as part of a country that loves me so much. “
It has been a long journey for Sanan, in many ways. He was born in a small village outside Mashobara in Himachal Pradesh, and spent most of his youth in the lush, apple-growing districts of Spiti and Kinnaur.
He graduated from National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad in 2006; In 2012, he met Sophia Olivia Sanon, a cultural policy advisor from South Africa in Delhi. They soon planned a trip to SA. “Love,” he says. “I moved here because I fell in love and I’m still in love.” They now have a five-year-old son, Cedrus (named after the cedar trees the artist grew up around).
Cape Town’s topography – tableland, flatlands, coastal land and bay areas – as well as its flora and fauna had a profound influence on Sanan’s art. Living on the edge of Table Mountain National Park, he has access to the region’s last remaining afromontane forests. The Cape Floristic Region at the southern tip of South Africa is the smallest biome (or biogeographical unit) in the world, containing an astonishing diversity of plants and a large proportion of these endemics found nowhere else on Earth.
“The ocean is this mysterious place that connects our coastline to Antarctica. I dream of giant mammals living in cold dark water, how they are connected to currents and upwellings. We are small in comparison. The sense of scale is so dramatic. can find,” says Sanan.
Since 2014, Sanan has built a vibrant art practice there. In a sense, he has never lived far from the wilderness, he says, and so nature is a driving force in his work. “I don’t see myself as separate from nature. In animals and plants, in fact, I see the values of interdependence and symbiosis that I also value in human relationships.”
His artworks have found their way into private collections in eight countries. He was part of fundraising auctions organized by NGOs like WWF and Wavescape. His next show, he says, reflects his engagement with Indian wildlife and ancient artistic traditions.
Is his art also a form of activism? “What you see is my love for the life that exists and has evolved on Earth,” says Sanon. “If there is one mission, it is to ‘connect people to the wonders of the living planet.’
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