Cape Town is painting a new future

MAY 2015 – Cape Town is an art-friendly city, but it is not a major player on the global art scene … yet. Will the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa prove to be the game changer?

“In a world where bling, leisure and money converge Cape Town is the perfect sub-Saharan hub for art,” says cultural commentator and educator Ashraf Jamal. Former editor of Art South Africa magazine and curator of the World Design Capital 2014, Jamal believes Cape Town is playing host to a global shift in taste. “We are not only concerned with South African art these days, but with an Afrocentric or Afropolitan zeitgeist.”

International interest in contemporary African art has boomed in the last decade and local art dealerships are thriving on it. South Africa’s art scene is driven by a new generation of artists who are rooted in Africa, but not bound by geography. Says Jamal: “Worldart specialises in Afro-global pop, SMAC is splicing African art with its abiding strength in abstract art. The Goodman and Stevenson galleries are at the frontline of contemporary art, just as Brundyn+ pulls out of the race to focus on a new and innovative continental community arts project.”

Art is bursting out all over Cape Town, with art producers, passionate collectors and property developers determined to ensure Cape Town’s pre-eminence as the top art tourism destination in Africa.

In Cape Town art does not just happen in garrets and galleries, it happens on the streets. It is part of the fabric of a city where officials have incorporated art in their strategy to bring about social cohesion.

Emma Bedford, art specialist at auction house Strauss & Co, insists “Cape Town is one of the few cities in the world where visitors can enjoy unparalleled leisure experiences while viewing exhibitions and buying the works of top African artists as well the artists of the diaspora who feature in collections and shows here.”

While many South African cities have experienced an exodus from the inner city, leaving buildings to decay and poverty to take root; the opposite is true of Cape Town. Visionary developers have transformed the city into a vibrant business and residential district. Strategic initiatives like the Cape Town Central City Improvement District (CCID) have revitalised the streets, creating the impetus for developers to repurpose historic buildings, in turn, stimulating the opening of restaurants, bespoke shops and art galleries.

Cape Town had always fancied itself the creative capital of South Africa, but massive effort, financial investment and effort has gone into and will continue to go into fulfilling its potential.

The Design Indaba has played a key role in establishing the city as an international design hub. Started in 1995, it is a thought-leader in the creative arena, attracting leading design thinkers to local shores, culminating in Cape Town taking its turn as World Design Capital for 2014.

Cape Town’s creative economy is supported and promoted through happenings like “Infecting The City” (ITC), an annual public arts festival that aims to bring socially engaged performance and visual art to the streets. Entrepreneur Gareth Pearson’s “First Thursdays” sees thousands come into the CBD to enjoy after hours art exhibitions, walking from gallery to gallery.

The global profile of South Africa’s burgeoning design scene was raised by Southern Guild, founded by Trevyn and Julian McGowan. In 2014 they launched South Africa’s first international design fair, Guild, which saw South African artists collaborate with international designers to create challenging design-art collectibles. And they opened a gallery in Woodstock.

Not forgetting the role of the arts in developing democracy is the African Arts Institute which has just launched the African Arts Campus at the Homecoming Centre of the District Six Museum in Cape Town. This project will present insights into the African creative economy and what puts African art at the cutting edge.

While Cape Town became world-renowned for its design and its wine, fine art has always played second fiddle to Johannesburg, where art is far bigger business. Says Tony East, gallery manager at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town: “Johannesburg is the financial capital of South Africa and attracts the bulk of its business travellers from the rest of Africa. All the big corporate collections are housed in Jo’burg and many of South Africa’s top artists live and work there. But Cape Town is geographically more suited to becoming an art destination. Most galleries have a presence in both cities and in time I see the corporates moving some collections to Cape Town to better showcase them.”

The two cities are engaged in a symbiotic relationship – and most artists have the opportunity to show their work in both. The two cities feed off each other’s energies, providing contrasting subject matter for art making. Johannesburg’s edginess is a welcome counterfoil to Cape Town’s postcard prettiness. Johannesburg is a more mature art city: the FNB Jo’burg Art Fair is now in its eight year and attracts major sponsorship.

Launched in October 2013, Cape Town’s Art Fair is now taking off. In its third year and fourth edition, Fiera Milano Exhibitions Africa has secured a slot at the Cape Town International Conference Centre. It will be held in February next year – before Design Indaba. Says Liza Dyason, manager of the fair: “This is a real coup for us. It is the first step towards a permanent venue and opens the door for a title sponsor. We already have sponsorship and now we can grow and develop. Fair director Matthew Partridge has put together a team with curatorial and art fair expertise who will take it to the next level, attracting international and pan-African galleries and visitors.

New York-based author and art historian, RoseLee Goldberg said “Cape Town can certainly claim to have the best location of any art fair in the world” during her visit to the Art Fair. Goldberg pledged to use her influence to bring key New York galleries to Cape Town for future art fairs. This is just the beginning for the fair…

That Art Fair, launched in 2015 to run in conjunction with Design Indaba, is an artist’s art fair. This ARTsouthAfrica initiative aims to be for “African artists who work under the radar of the traditional art establishment and who do things a little differently”. It will provide an interesting counterpoint to the Cape Town Art Fair.

The game changer for Cape Town promises to be the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA). “It will be the biggest museum of contemporary African art on the continent,” opines Jamal, “with a potential traction equivalent to the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and the Tate Modern in London.”

Tamzin Lovell Miller, director and co-owner of the Sulger-Buel Lovell Gallery in Woodstock, agrees: “The Zeitz will establish Cape Town as a centre of excellence. You cannot underestimate the value of such a museum to boost the art industry as a whole. We are really lucky to have the gallery here – it could have been in Kenya or Nigeria. The museum will stimulate interaction with experts from other museums, curators, artists, writers, collectors and scholars, who would otherwise not have come here. The museum will enrich our art community and create reciprocal opportunities.

“The commercial impact will be massive. The museum expects to attract more than 500 000 visitors per year – the spin-off will be enormous. The industry is already seeing some of the impact. New galleries have opened and some have scaled up.”

Zeitz will play an important role in pulling Cape Town out of its parochial slumber, says Lovell Miller, and the city is already contributing to the debate around African art – whether contemporary African artists should be regarded as African artists or contemporary artists who happen to be from Africa, is the question.

Emma Bedford rates the museum as a “cultural facility of global significance that provides an intellectual and cultural focus for Cape Town”. The local art scene does not lack critical engagement or intellectual rigour. South Africa owes the quality of its art to the fact artists benefit from the “best art education that includes a balanced emphasis on practice, theory and history”.

Local art is still competitively priced, attracting international buyers keen to invest in emerging markets. Says Bedford: “South Africa is now part of a global art market. Buyers, connected to the internet, will follow the art they want to see and acquire. Speaking from the point of view of Strauss & Co, our buyers are from Europe, the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Asia.”

More South African artists are gaining recognition internationally and local intellectuals contribute significantly to the discourse about African art within a global context. “South African artists who have firmly established themselves internationally include Cape Town-born painter Marlene Dumas, William Kentridge and Penny Siopis, whose retrospective Time and Again has given her wider recognition. Willem Boshoff’s work is attracting major collectors. Sue Williamson and Berni Searle are supported and collected mainly by international institutions. Photographers Guy Tillim, David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo, Mikhael Subotzky and Zanele Muholi are sought after internationally,” notes Bedford.

A younger generation are honing their craft in a post-apartheid cultural environment and asserting themselves, too: Robin Rhode, Candice Breitz, Zander Blom, Athi-Patra Ruga, Georgina Gratrix, Kudzanai Chiurai, Serge Alain Nitegeka, Vivien Kohler, Emma Willemse and Kemang Wa Lehulere are some of those contributing to the South African art debate.

The favourable exchange rate obviously serves as an incentive for international collectors, says Emma van der Merwe, curator at the Everard Read Gallery in Cape Town. But it is her opinion that Africa has much to contribute to the Western art discourse and that is why our art is sought-after by collectors. “Our ideas are complex and provide a fresh perspective, and our artists are examining subject matter that resonates with international art lovers. When African galleries venture to London, New York, Berlin and Basel, our work excels on a global platform.”

Deborah Bell, Dylan Lewis and John Meyer all have representation in museums and collections abroad. Nigel Mullins, Nelson Makamo and Penny Stutterheime are making waves. “And fresh from his hugely successful exhibition at the CIRCA gallery space in Johannesburg, Wayne Barker is preparing his solo presentation at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair New York.”

Tamzin Lovell Miller says artists like Wim Botha, Jane Alexander, Nicholas Hlobo and Zwelethu Mthethwa continue to produce work that intrigues collectors. But there is a crop of emerging artists – Nandipha Mntambo, Mohau Modisakeng, Jenna Burchell, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Blessing Ngobeni, Carolyn Parton and Igshaan Adams who are exploring South Africa’s turbulent past and the struggles of the individual within contemporary society in bold new ways.

Art critic Ivor Powell writes that there is “a dynamism, commitment and identity in the arts such as we have not seen since the dawn of the South African democracy”.

The Goodman Gallery has been at the forefront of the art discourse since 1966, putting artists like Kentridge, Brett Murray, Kendell Geers, Sam Nhlengethwa, Diane Victor, Jeremy Wafer, Clive van den Berg, David Koloane, Alfredo Jaar, Liza Lou, Misheck Masamvu and Mikhael Subotzky on the map. And the gallery’s mission is no less fervent than when it started out.

Finally, Ashraf Jamal sums up the Cape Town art scene by referencing a 1899 painting by British artist James Ford. Entitled ‘Holiday Time in Cape Town in the Twentieth Century’, the painting has proved “uncannily futuristic”. “At the glossy foot of Table Mountain we see a crazy mix of European architecture from Gothic to Neoclassical to the weird Venturi postmodern spin-offs we would become accustomed to, in which anything and everything came together to create a frenzied tentacular aesthetic. That’s Cape Town! A mix, a mashup, a reverb. Part colonial, part now, caught in a time warp that allows for nostalgia, dreams – even an art revolution.”

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