SA's art scene has undergone a renaissance

Local curators and artists have taken bold steps to make art accessible to more people, breathing new life into the industry

12 January 2020 - 00:00 By Mary Corrigall
'Queens in Exile', video still of an Athi-Patra Ruga work dealing with heritage, gender, history and performance.
'Queens in Exile', video still of an Athi-Patra Ruga work dealing with heritage, gender, history and performance.
Image: Supplied

The art world came out of the closet in the 2010s. Where once it appeared to be enjoyed only by a small coterie of artists and super-rich patrons, in this past decade it became part of public life in unprecedented ways.

Socialites and influencers wanted in on the opening nights of art museums, art fairs and gallery dinners and young hipsters filled the streets outside galleries on the first Thursdays of the month.

Contemporary artists didn't exactly emerge as rock stars, with swathes of adoring fans, but they graced glossy spreads and accumulated substantial followings on Instagram, sharing new works before the paint had dried.

Social media wasn't the only driver behind an interest in art or attitudes towards it.

Buying art became a means of self-expression for collectors — pinning their taste, perception and aesthetic nous to the wall. Acquiring art too could be a reckless, hedonistic act rather than one motivated by social benevolence and expressing political attitudes, as was the case in the apartheid era. Art didn't need to overturn the status quo.

Driving this shift, or in response to it, was artists' preoccupation with form. The tactile, compositional or material qualities inherent in art saw them delivering works that were more likely to invoke pleasure than disdain. This fed a new, growing art market searching for the next visceral fix outside the virtual worlds that typically absorb our attention.

In darker moments, the artworks that insinuated themselves into public discourse were those that provoked outrage, exposing the fissures of a fragile democracy in the making.


Institution-building had a huge role to play in cultivating audiences. The last decade saw a flurry of new museums and art foundations open; from The Wits Art Museum to the Javett Art Centre, the Nirox Foundation to William Kentridge's Centre for the Less Good Idea, to the A4, Maitland Institute, the Norval Foundation and, of course, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Mocaa). These were driven by private patrons, affirming the status of collecting art.

When the Zeitz Mocaa opened in 2017 it was a big moment for the South African art world. We finally had a contemporary art temple, designed by starchitect Thomas Heatherwick. While art insiders were initially unhappy with how it was being managed and the quality of the exhibitions, the sheer dimensions of the building and the international attention it attracted compelled South Africans who had never seen the inside of a gallery to became curious about contemporary art. This built on the interest art fairs had been generating — in 2012, the Cape Town Art Fair was opened and in 2013 the Turbine Art Fair and Nirox Winter Sculpture Fair in Joburg.

This growth was echoed in the number of commercial art galleries that mushroomed in the two major art capitals of Joburg and Cape Town — over 23 new galleries opened. The bigger galleries - Goodman, Stevenson — grew their international profiles through representation of artists from other African countries and participation in important fairs, while the new crop of galleries — Smith, Kalashnikovv, BHkz, No End, Salon 91, Loop 99 - led by 20-somethings — catered for the next generation of artists.


Desperate to be relevant to the broader population, the decade kicked off (literally) with almost every gallery, artist and museum attempting to exploit the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Stevenson Gallery jumped on the bandwagon, launching a show across Joburg and Cape Town with a title that summed up the prevailing sentiment: This is Our Time.

Art and soccer made for very odd bedfellows. Halakashe at the Standard Bank Gallery was one of the more successful in forging a link between culture, dress, ritual and sport through photographs of African soccer fans. Zanele Muholi, ever the artist to make the most of a moment, produced a set of portraits of black female soccer players.

South Africa rejoined the art world stage in 2011 after decades in the cold during the cultural boycott of the apartheid era with a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Installation works by Mary Sibande, Siemon Allen and Lindi Sales marked our re-entry.

Unfortunately, our participation, secured by a commercial gallerist, was overshadowed by controversy. However, almost every Venice Biennale the country has participated in has been dogged by some sort of backlash.

In 2015, locals were unhappy with two white male curators being appointed and Willem Boschoff's Racist in South Africa (2011), where he listed reasons he was "not a racist" but just an angry citizen, provoked criticism.

Generally, art tended to only make headlines when it was widely "rejected".

The year 2012 was, of course, the year Brett Murray got into hot water for the infamous The Spear (2010) painting, which depicted former president Jacob Zuma with his penis hanging out. What followed was the stuff of a gripping Netflix doccie series.

Court cases were filed; protest marches took place outside the Goodman Gallery, newspapers were burnt; death threats made and even the Film and Publication Board attempted to censor the artwork.

Controversial artist Ayanda Mabulu.
Controversial artist Ayanda Mabulu.
Image: Shelley Christians

In 2013 Ayanda Mabulu's painting, Yakhal'inkomo Black Man's Cry, attracted headlines when organisers of the FNB Joburg Art Fair demanded it be removed lest the negative portrayal of Zuma (pictured crushing a miner's head under his foot) offend the government sponsors. David Goldblatt, the late photographer, used his weight to reverse the decision.

Challenging the hard lines separating genders marked the works of the artists that blazed trails in the 2010s — Nicholas Hlobo, Nandipha Mntambo, Athi-Patra Ruga and Muholi — not only in content but in choice of medium — with many male artists choosing supposedly female-related mediums — embroidery (Ruga), knitting (Barend de Wet) and lace-making (Pierre Fouché). The figurative mode often gave way to an abstract language (or approach). This saw political expression segue into or married with a renewed interest in form.

Hlobo, who won the Standard Bank Young Art Award in 2010, which wasn't a surprise given he had enjoyed solo exhibitions at the Tate Modern and the Boston ICA in 2008, hailed this shift in visual language as he moved from depicting clear representations of the body — through found garments to amorphous shapes fashioned from rubber — to a canvas-based abstract mode defined by embroidered lines. His conversation about "cultural hybridity", ritual in Xhosa culture and fluid gender lines gave way to preoccupation with composition, colour and texture.

Moshekwa Langa, who made "a comeback" in 2016 with an extraordinary exhibition, Ellipsis, presenting abstract works, affirmed that this turn had taken hold.

Moshekwa Langa's abstract 'Kaditshwene' (2016).
Moshekwa Langa's abstract 'Kaditshwene' (2016).
Image: Supplied
'Zeus' by Nandipha Mntambo.
'Zeus' by Nandipha Mntambo.
Image: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's

The next generation of artists, Igshaan Adams, Bronwyn Katz, Turiya Magadlela, worked with found objects (bed-springs and stockings) with gender and social links, though they too arrived at abstract forms.

Meanwhile, female artists Lisa Brice, Sanelle Aggenbach, Kate Gottgens, Georgina Gratrix and Lady Skollie, chose male-dominated mediums — painting — opting for more figurative modes where they could challenge gender or traditional art norms.

Hlobo was propelled into the international stratosphere — represented by the Lehmann-Maupin gallery — one of the most important in the world. South Africa-based artists attained international recognition through prizes and commissions for major biennales: Muholi, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Billie Zangewa, Mary Sibande, Mntambo and Dineo Bopape.

A visitor looks at Kemang Wa Lehulere's 'The Grave Step' at the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art in 2014.
A visitor looks at Kemang Wa Lehulere's 'The Grave Step' at the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art in 2014.
Image: Athanasios Gioumpasis/Getty Images

On the museum circuit, solidifying our local "masters" with survey shows, there was an exhibition of Ernest Cole's work at the Joburg Art Gallery in 2010 and a Penny Siopis retrospective, Time & Again, at the Iziko National Art Gallery from 2014. A retrospective of Mntambo and Kudzanai Chuirai at Zeitz Mocaa formed highlights of the museum's inaugural programme.

Norval Foundation provided the setting for some satisfying curated exhibitions — Heliostat, a retrospective of Wim Botha by Owen Martin, and Re/discovery and Memory: Sydney Kumalo, Ezrom Legae, Serge Alain Nitegeka and Edoardo Villa by Karel Nel.

The proportions and dimensions of these new pseudo-museums have influenced the kind of art artists produce. Large-scale pieces that may be challenging or non-object-based can find temporary homes in them.

This has allowed artists to create the sort of visual spectacles that attract bigger crowds, who have come to appreciate their value.