A flood of art from Africa is washing over the Cape. Go see it all
From the Norval Foundation to Zeitz MOCAA to the Goodman Gallery to the Stellenbosch Triennale, so much talent is on show, writes Sean O’Toole
The decades-long rivalry between Cape Town and Johannesburg for the title of art capital of SA might finally be settled - well, at least for a month or so. This month, the country's oldest metropolitan settlement plays host to an astonishing richness of art. Lists rarely make for compelling journalism but sometimes needs must.
Let's start with Kenyan painter Michael Armitage, who's showing eight of his ambitiously scaled and lusciously painted figurative compositions at Norval Foundation in the Constantia winelands. Accomplice, as his exhibition is titled, is the first complete showing of a suite of paintings loosely based on scenes from the 2017 Kenyan elections.
Armitage arrives in SA off the back of successful 2019 exhibitions in New York, Sydney and Venice, as well as a whopping debut at a New York auction. Last November, an Asian collector paid the equivalent of R22.8m for a 2015 painting rendered in Armitage's fervid, tropical-expressionist style.
Success, says Armitage, doesn't change certain basics: painting is difficult. "I still face the same damn problems." These problems, of laying down his oil paint on a culturally resonant bark cloth sourced from Uganda, still excite the artist, who splits his time between London and Nairobi.
"I can deal with not having much money, but the thought of having to give up painting in any way I would find very difficult."
Not to be outdone, Cape Town's ritzy portside museum, Zeitz MOCAA, has a double bill featuring two important artists hailing from West Africa: the Malian textile genius Abdoulaye Konaté and Nigerian multi-media artist Otobong Nkanga.
As is the case with Armitage, this is Nkanga's first museum show in Africa. Titled Acts at the Crossroads, this beautifully choreographed show broadly surveys the Belgium-based artist's diverse practice - painting, sculpture, photography, installation, weaving - from the past two decades.
Occupying an entire floor of the museum, one highlight is a room populated with delicate scented plants, red stones and a shimmering tapestry depicting a kola tree and its caffeine-infused fruit.
"The plants with a curry scent remind me of my childhood in Kano," says Nkanga, who visited Kirstenbosch during her preparatory visits to Cape Town. "I wanted to include sage, but it wouldn't survive. I was amazed to learn how many varieties of sage you have in South Africa."
Nkanga has been making tapestries since 2010. Her enigmatic pieces are outsourced to a collaborator in the Dutch town of Tilburg and produced on a computerised loom. They are things of wonder and ambition, especially Double Plot, a large, arcing work with celestial motifs and figures transported from her paintings.
Konaté, who trained as a painter in Bamako and Havana before taking up fabrics in the 1990s, works in a very different manner to Nkanga. Employing up to 30 assistants, he supervises the design and dyeing of his textile pieces, leaving the hand-embroidery and stitching to his mostly male assistants - traditionally, men do sewing and tailoring in Mali.
The founder of the Balla Fasséké Kouyaté Conservatory in Bamako, an institution that preserves and teaches Mali's millennium-old textile practices, Konaté was invited to create a large hanging textile for Zeitz MOCAA's cathedral-like atrium. Composed of strips of burgundy, coral, crimson and indigo fabric, his abstract composition includes various ideograms linked to Mali's ancient writing and knowledge systems.
The work celebrates the careers of Malian historian Youssouf Tata Cissé and French anthropologist Germaine Dieterlen.
Across town, Stevenson is showing collages, watercolours and woodcarvings by Cameroonian maverick Barthélémy Toguo. Like Armitage and Konaté, he is an alumnus
of the Venice Biennale. The many portraits on his show depict contemporary inhabitants of Bilongue, a tough neighbourhood of the port city of Douala. Some of his watercolours are fringed with local idioms, written out in pencil and helpfully translated into English by the artist.
"When the cock is drunk, he forgets the hawk," reads one. Another offers, "Love laughs at locksmiths."
Upstairs from Toguo's homage to his hometown, Goodman Gallery has put together a mini survey for Carrie Mae Weems. This influential American photographer started out as a documentarian in the early 1980s, but her ambitious practice has since evolved into a rigorous exploration of photography's capacity to restate blackness in white America.
A4 Arts Foundation in District Six is hosting another acclaimed African-American visitor, sound-interested sculptor Kevin Beasley. His exhibition includes fibreglass replicas of concrete road furniture and T-shirts frozen in resin. Beasley's frozen assemblages recall the post-painterly experiments of local artists Pat Mautloa and David Koloane.
Like Armitage and Weems, Beasley's rise to prominence has involved stopovers at the famed Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), both in New York. In 2012 Beasley performed a kind of DJ set in MoMA that consisted of a mix of a cappella versions of songs by dead rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.
Biggie, it turns out, was a heavy breather.
Also vying for attention in a crowded marketplace is Zimbabwean sculptor and collagist Wallen Mapondera at SMAC, Durban-based Afro-pop optimist Cameron Platter at Whatiftheworld Gallery and emerging abstract painter Hugh Byrne at Ebony Curated. This is only a partial list of what is on offer.
The timing of this intense flurry of exhibitions - and, let's be honest, extravagant weirdness - owes much to the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, which also opens next week. It might have started life out in a wind-ravaged tent next to the V&A Waterfront in 2012,
but it has since grown into the country's premier art fair.
Punting artists, be they on show in a commercial gallery or at a selling fair, is a perilous labour. Nonetheless, look out for solo presentations by painters Alexandra Karakashian and Mawande ka Zenzile. Karakashian's wrapped canvases and stacks of paper, heaped like stone mounds, explore failure.
"Paintings feel like they fail a lot of the time, well, especially mine," says Karakashian. "I think that's why I started tearing them up, folding them up, and stacking them away."
The selection on curator Nkule Mabaso's Tomorrow/Today exhibition includes Ivorian-French landscape photographer François-Xavier Gbré and printmaker and humourist Bonolo Kavula. Last year Kavula expanded her repertoire with a stand-up comedy show at A4 Arts Foundation.
Don't expect much mirth at the art fair, though. Art appreciation is a serious business of fashionable ensembles and craning necks.
Stasis and change is central to the meaning of the Stellenbosch Triennale. This new art festival, which opens next week, looks set to complicate an already congested itinerary of events in the Cape peninsula - as well as increase the fuel bill. Never mind these complications.
The two-month art festival features three curated exhibitions, a film festival, performance art shenanigans and an architectural pavilion designed by Pieter Mathews, whose recent achievements include the new Javett Art Centre in Pretoria.
Chief curator Khanyisile Mbongwa's headline show at the Woodmill features 20 artists, among them sculptor Bronwyn Katz and painter Mongezi Ncaphayi.
Star billing matters, and Ghanaian installation artist Ibrahim Mahama and Angolan film artist Nástio Mosquito are the big names. Both are graduates of the Venice Biennale.
In a conversation with William Kentridge last year, Mosquito - who lives between Ghent, Lisbon and Luanda - said: "I don't know how to draw, so I don't. I have the tendency to write things down."
Kentridge, whose career achievements are on view at Norval and Zeitz MOCAA, replied: "My sketchbooks have very few drawings in them. They're mainly lists, repeated and repeated as the projects develop."
Which is my cue to shift gears.
Stellenbosch's pitch as a serious contemporary art destination comes at a time of uncertainty and, well, laughter. Long sold as a bucolic university hideaway with a folksy ethos rooted in the region's winemaking and farming enterprises, in 2019 Stellenbosch suddenly found itself recast in two very different books as a sex-mad village inhabited by feudal barons.
White privilege is central to Eva Mazza's Sex, Lies & Stellenbosch, a breathless pulp fiction about a midlife crisis. Speaking at the Stellenbosch launch of her debut novel, Mazza half-jokingly said it was inspired by a married man with "lots of horses and a girlfriend living it up in Cape Town".
If you're unsure who this philanderer is, here's a clue: he appears in political journalist Pieter du Toit's The Stellenbosch Mafia. Both a sober account of Afrikaner enterprise and tabloid tale of sneering old guards and ambitious arrivistes, Du Toit's book profiles some of Stellenbosch's elite sons, including Johann Rupert, Markus Jooste and Christo Wiese.
Is the new Stellenbosch Triennale another Kebble-like instance of putting lipstick on a pig?
"Don't undermine the Stellenbosch mafia," remarked EFF leader Julius Malema during a 2014 rally in nearby Khayelitsha, delivering a catchphrase that now headlines Du Toit's book. "They control everything in South Africa."
Round about the time these muckraking books appeared, land invasions in Stellenbosch caught the eye of New York Times reporters. In March they published details of a confidential municipal audit: nearly 80 of the farms in Stellenbosch sit on public land that was locked into 50-year leases with white farmers in the early 1990s, in exchange for private investments in water infrastructure.
So is the new Stellenbosch Triennale another Kebble-like instance of putting lipstick on a pig?
I put this question to the event's organisers, a nonprofit association of mostly Stellenbosch locals working under the banner of the Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust. They winced, as was to be expected. The team, which includes arts administrator Andi Norton, Norval Foundation director Elana Brundyn and Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography lecturer Mike Mavura, is well aware of Stellenbosch's reputational problems. But Steinhoff shenanigans, they insist, have nothing to do with their project.
The start-up project, which has raised R8m from local businesses and private individuals, traces its origins back to 2007 when land artist Strijdom van der Merwe wrapped trees in Dorp Street with red fabric. In 2010 the trust introduced Stellenbosch to the bronze bestiary of Dylan Lewis. Over time, the municipality evolved from a rubber-stamping authority into an ardent supporter, adding impetus to the idea of a triennial art exhibition.
Mbongwa, whose interest in the arts was sparked by her tap-dancing granny, is the chief artistic eye for the first instalment. Familiar with Stellenbosch's complications from her time there as a sociology undergraduate, she characterises Stellenbosch as a site of "woundedness".
"Being here is not a theoretical problem but an everyday, lived experience," she said.
Mavura's involvement in this project is important to flag. A former politics and international relations lecturer at Rhodes University, he has unique insight into how art spaces and projects in other African cities have shifted public opinion towards art - a cultural practice viewed as elitist and inaccessible.
During his travels to Njelele Art Station in Harare, Les Studios Kabako in Kisangani (Democratic Republic of Congo), and Boys' Quarters Project Space in Port Harcourt (Nigeria), Mavura encountered projects that didn't rely on commerce to define them.
"The location of these spaces is strategic, often in places where society must psychologically or physically transcend and transform," Mavura reported back in 2015. "They coerce us to look around us and see how we are from our core."
It remains to be seen whether a dose of artistic acupuncture will alleviate the stresses of life in the whitest enclave of happiness-starved SA, sexcapades notwithstanding. But expect to see smiles shine through the grimaces, maybe for a month or so.