Cape Town’s Art Scene is Blowing Up
From the hottest artists to must-visit galleries, here’s what you need to know.
“It does not take a whole lot of convincing to get someone on a plane,” is the droll answer of Joost Bosland, curator at Stevenson — one of Cape Town leading commercial galleries — when asked about the spectacular growth of the city’s art scene.
It’s not hard to see what he’s on about — Cape Town has natural beauty in spades: on its fringes are towering cliffs, golden beaches, and historic vineyards that craft seriously yummy wines. The city’s centre, wedged between the soaring sandstone of Table Mountain and the glittering Atlantic, is compact and safe enough to explore on foot — a hodgepodge of Art Deco, modernist and Victorian buildings home to restaurants, design boutiques and entrepreneurs making everything from everything from artisanal cheeses to micro-roasted coffee.
And then there are the galleries. You’ll encounter many of these on an amble through the centre, or by heading to Woodstock, a gritty, vibrant nearby suburb, where many of the city’s top commercial spaces are based.
“When international collectors and institutions visit, they find a dynamic and pertinent conceptual dialogue — the visual arts sector in South Africa is technically as good as anywhere else. The subject matter is universal. Often examples are very affordable relative to elsewhere,” Mark Shields, the director of Everard Read Cape Town, says. The gallery, which has been based in the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront for the last 22 years and recently opened up a new satellite space, sells roughly half of its works to international collectors.
Commercial galleries have been the driving force behind Cape Town’s emergence as an art capital, and their presence at the Cape Town Art Fair — now a fixture in the calendar of many an international collector — has seen the annual event grow from a poky tent six years ago to taking up 6,300 sqm of space at the city’s international convention centre this February.
Now, however, art lovers have two new extraordinary reasons to visit the city — at any time of the year.
In September 2017, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa launched in the Waterfront. Billed as Africa’s Tate, its nine floors are home to works in a variety of different mediums by a who’s who of contemporary African art. 25 kilometres away, on Cape Town’s southern edge, is the Norval Foundation, which opened in April 2018. Looming as sleek and vast as an aircraft carrier over a sea of vines and wetlands, it was founded by property mogul Louis Norval, and houses his family’s extraordinary collection of South African modern art — including key pieces by Gerard Sekoto, Irma Stern and Edoardo Villa. There’s a swish restaurant, a sculpture garden and a research library, while cavernous gallery spaces play host to temporary exhibitions of both modern and contemporary African art.
The Norval Foundation’s executive director, Elana Brundyn, attributes the current “explosion of interest” internationally in African art as an attempt to remedy years of ignoring the continent’s artists. Jochen Zeitz, whose collection of contemporary African art forms the core of the Zeitz MoCAA’s collection, echoes this.
“There is amazing talent coming out of Africa in all aspects of artistic expression. I think it was only a matter of time for their voices to be heard and it is immensely satisfying to see the world finally giving African creativity the credit and exposure that it deserves,” the former PUMA CEO says. The museum that bears his name is way of ensuring that African art “takes its rightful place on the global stage, rather than it being a passing moment” — creating “something that will sustain itself for many generations and have a lasting impact on Africa and further afield”.
At the epicentre of what Zeitz describes as a “a vibrant and growing art ecosystem” is the University of Cape Town’s fine arts school, Michaelis. Founded in 1925, the school has had an outsize influence on the city’s art scene — many of its artists and curators having studied in its grand buildings right in the centre of the city. One of its most promising young graduates, Morné Visagie, says that its four-year degree embedded in him a strong work ethic and attention-to-detail, along with “curatorship and craftsmanship”. The school, he says, “asks and expects you to think outside the box and forget everything and anything you ever thought about art. It teaches a contemporary and conceptual discourse. You can imagine what it must be like, coming straight from the timid suburbs, to art school and watching Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle in class in first year!”
The faculty combines heavyweights (such as sculptor Jane Alexander) with young contemporary artists teaching part-time — ensuring a mixture of rigour and radicalism. The Michaelis graduate show every December is inundated with Capetonians on the prowl for exquisite — and affordable — pieces for their walls, while curators from local galleries circle the makeshift white cubes sizing up the fresh talent. Soon after his 2011 graduate show, Visagie was invited by Whatiftheworld to participate in a group show; he has had a number of solo shows at the contemporary space (one of the city’s finest)since then.
“All the young people in Cape Town are trying to do their own thing and start their own businesses,” Visagie says. “This innovative energy is inspiring, and everyone feeds off it. It’s a fast changing and developing space, with more and more foreigners visiting and moving here. As an old port city, it still functions as that: a constant exchange with people from around the world.”
When Brett Murray graduated from Michaelis in 1988, Cape Town had just one commercial gallery. The transformation over 30 years has been remarkable. Now there are dozens — along with two printmaking studios and several new non-profit art organisations such as the Maitland Institute and the A4 Foundation, which host residencies and exhibit work.
“It is really beginning to feel like the city is embracing and supporting art practitioners,” he says.
Murray’s studio — where he creates provocative sculptures that have been snapped up by the likes of French actor Gerard Depardieu and rapper P Diddy — is a five-minute walk from his house in the gritty, vibrant suburb of Woodstock.
“Within a few blocks there are framers, silkscreen workshops, timber yards, metal merchants, hardware stores, art supply shops, engineering companies and bronze casting foundries,” he says.
Thania Petersen, whose extraordinary photographic self-portraits explore the Cape’s lingering legacy of slavery and apartheid, returned home in 2007 after 17 years abroad. She doesn’t regret it. “At any time of the day, no matter where you may be working you can escape into the abundance of her beauty. You are always five minutes from ascending into the magical and mystical forests of Table Mountain”. This is a gift that, “makes us feel sane, loved, thankful and hopeful” in a city that — given its stark inequalities — “can sometimes leave you utterly heartbroken”.
Claudette Schreuders, who lives and works in the leafy suburb of Pinelands with her partner, fellow artist Anton Kannemeyer, also enjoys the mountain: her weekly hikes “provide a good balance with work”. Although she’s been exhibiting with Jack Shainman Gallery in New York since 2001, she says, “I’ve never seriously considered living there: New York has got an incredible energy but I can only take it in small portions.”
Zander Blom moved to Cape Town from Johannesburg in 2014 — the same year he won the Jean-François Prat, a €20 000 international prize for young painters. As the burdens of identity and political expression in South Africa lessen, artists such Blom are more at liberty to negotiate the meaning of shape, space and colour in an abstract dialogue that never really occurred during the upheaval and urgency of the country’s recent past.
“Even though Parliament is a stone’s throw away from my studio, I can’t say that I feel any more connected to politics or current affairs or that any of Cape Town has really influenced my stuff in a noticeable way since I moved,” he says.
Compared to Johannesburg, where he was constantly in his car, “Cape Town is full of nice things that are very close together,” Blom says. “It’s easy to pop out of the studio for lunch or to have a beer with some friends. Many of them are artists and it’s great to have chats about art on a regular basis. There are more people visiting my studio nowadays. I find it very healthy for my current work to have many sounding boards.”
In 2012, Michael Tymbios and Gareth Pearson began the Cape Town edition of First Thursdays — with six galleries staying open late on the first Thursday of the month. At the time, the inner-city was a dead-zone in the evenings, once workers had returned to the suburbs. Today more than 50 galleries, restaurants and shops participate in the monthly event; Tymbios estimates that between 15,000 and 20,000 people attend.
Artists and entrepreneurs are making the most of the huge audience that First Thursdays lures into the city, he says. “We’ve seen a collective of galleried-artists self-organising and selling their works from the shuttered entrance to a gun-shop, the mayor’s office using the platform to feature the work of artists from across the broader metropolitan area, and local architecture studios opening their doors to the public.”
Back at the Norval Foundation, Brundyn says she believes the gallery will complement the work of the city’s commercial galleries by being “a platform for the exploration of alternative ways of seeing and making in the visual arts that aren’t always commercially viable.” And so, in the months to come, Norval will play host to a busy line-up of concerts, lectures and artist residencies.
While it’s likely that local and visiting art connoisseurs will make the most of its ambitious programming, Brundyn hopes that Norval’s reaches far beyond this well-heeled audience. Like Zeitz MoCAA, which shares this ethos (with its Access for All policy), the foundation offers free entry on one day a week, and will be developing education programmes designed to enhance access to schoolchildren and others who may never have been inside a gallery.
It’s no wonder that Visagie says: “There is excitement brewing in the air here.”
FIVE GALLERIES TO VISIT
Everard Read and Circa: Once somewhat safe and staid, this venerable gallery and its satellite space, Circa, now represent some of South Africa’s most exciting talent — including visual artist nomThunzi Mashalaba, sculptor Beth Diane Armstrong and ceramicist Lucinda Mudge.
Stevenson: Along with Goodman — its rival a few doors’ down — this gallery represents many of contemporary African art’s A-Listers. Stevenson is particularly strong on photography — showing work by Lesbian visual activist Zanele Muholi and provocateur Pieter Hugo that has been snapped up by collections the world over.
Norval Foundation: A strong curatorial team and access to the Norval’s family’s peerless 20th-century collection should ensure a programme that seamlessly situates current movements in South African art against the backdrop of its recent lineage.
Iziko South African National Gallery: In spite of lack of resources and less limelight than other institutions, this grand old lady in the city’s central gardens still manages to punch quietly above her weight with rigorous and thoughtful programming.
Blank Projects: Blank has built a reputation for unearthing daring, exciting talent that engages creatively with the charged complexities of the South African present — including the 2018 Standard Bank Visual Young Visual Artist of the Year winner, Igshaan Adams, whose finely embroidered work reflects on his identities as young, gay and Muslim.
An edited version of this article appeared in the July/August 2018 edition of MONOCLE under the heading “ New Waves”.