Mixed Bag: Brave new collection
"Could any art inside match this?" was the laconic, grouchy question put to an Iziko museum official on the steps of the National Gallery in Cape Town.
It was the opening night two weeks ago of an exhibition showcasing work acquired for the permanent collection over the past 20 years.
Across the Company Gardens' "museum precinct", winter light was dimming over Signal Hill. The famous hilltop pines cast their black, cutout shadows against the pale pink dusk - a classic indication of more bad Cape weather on the way.
It was a rhetorical joke, of course, but there were plenty of punters that night who openly debated the worth, meaning and even the "what" of the art inside.
Officially titled Brave New World: 20 Years of Democracy, the exposition is a mixed bag of works spread around the stately old museum.
While there is plenty of eye-catching and brain-teasing art, the viewer may wonder how it was that these pieces made the cut.
It's a serious business, this "permanent collection" thing. Once acquired, individual artworks may never leave the Iziko collection, a tradition since the founding of the National Gallery yonks ago.
These are artworks consecrated for their significance and importance and, hopefully, they bear testimony to talent and originality. At the same time, one would imagine, the idea is to give some expression to what the finest South African artists are up to.
Seemingly oblivious to the irony of the original Shakespeare/Huxley phrase they use as the title, the curators have themed the exhibition around social issues. With political punch the driving force in what sometimes becomes clutter, visitors may miss the real gems.
Relief from heavy statements are supplied by pieces such as Dan Halter's fine video, Noria Mabasa's gorgeous clay figurines of our four Nobel prize-winners, Christine Dixie's majestic etchings, and Nicholas Hlobo's powerful Ingenile blanket.
Photography is a joy and a plus, both old and new. Mikhael Subotzky's Pollsmoor spread and Gabrielle Goliath's tongue-in-cheek Ek is 'n Kimberley Coloured grab your gaze.
You don't have to be too troubled by the curatorial didactics to indulge in the fun of Zapiro's cartoons or Jane Makhubele's Mandela's 85th Birthday Celebration Outfit.
The latter, grandly "designed" in safety pins and whatnot, is a brilliant banner for a South African salutation of our 20 years. It certainly gives that exquisite view of Signal Hill a run for its aesthetic money.
- 'Brave New World' is on at the Iziko South African National Gallery until November 1. Call 021-481-3800