Fun in the Red Boat by Makiwa Mutomba.
Fun in the Red Boat by Makiwa Mutomba.
Image: Supplied

“Art should never be what you expect it to be,” Lynette Ou Tim, administrator at Nel Gallery, admonishes me, gently and wisely. 

I’ve just observed fifteen minutes of Black and Blue, a performance-installation-film concept by Oupa Sibeko. Actually, Black and Blue is durational art, a form of endurance on the part of the artist in seeking to convey a message with impact and provocation. Sibeko endures for seven hours at a stretch — and I’m still pondering his message.  

Nel is eponymously named, owned by Luan Nel, himself an artist of renown. It is the first gallery I visit, and I’m jolted out of preconceptions of this quaint, old-world corner of Cape Town.

Gazing at the Stars by Buhle Nkalashe.
Gazing at the Stars by Buhle Nkalashe.
Image: WORLDART

Something unexpected has happened 30m down the road, too. Charl Bezuidenhout, owner of WORLDART gallery, has just sold a non-fungible token (NFT) GIF of SA artist Norman O’Flynn’s Da Bomb. Understandably, he didn’t realise anywhere close to the $69m that Christie’s derived for Beeple’s digital art, but Bezuidenhout believes this is a first for an SA gallery or artist.

WORLDART is compact, displaying selected works of just a few artists at any time. Which perhaps makes Buhle Nkalashe’s Gazing at the Stars even more mesmerising.

Bezuidenhout epitomises a transition among many gallerists and artists keen to explore the new frontiers technology affords them: a portal to a global marketplace, and a catalyst for conceptual innovation.

Cutting-edge proposals

Across the cobbled alleyway is another remarkable space, the Association for Visual Arts (AVA). The non-profit’s roots go back to 1851, when it organised SA’s very first fine art exhibition. AVA has been occupying its current premises for 50 years, but there is nothing staid or stuffy: it is light, breezy, abuzz with young art students attending a course — and with the energy of its director, Mirjam Asmal.

AVA Gallery.
AVA Gallery.
Image: Supplied

The gallery has four exhibition spaces, and Asmal invites cutting-edge proposals from any artist or curator.

Photographic artist Jean Brundrit’s current display, Over the Horizon, is a series of 26 images of Antarctica, taken using a lens made of ice.

Brundrit captures the ephemeral wildness of this extraordinary place; her slow-dissolve lens has created an unfocused, here-now-gone-now, mirage-like sequence that mimics the melting of the ice shelves. Weirdly beautiful, the work is simultaneously a reminder of the earth’s power and a sad encapsulation of the Anthropocene.

Gail Dörje, one of the doyens of the SA arts scene, has owned the Cape Gallery for 30 years. Impressions on entering are of an old library: a little dark, cluttered, studious. But as with all art, impressions evolve: the gallery is between exhibitions, so the space and displays seem unstructured — but there are riches to behold.

Inside Cape Gallery
Inside Cape Gallery
Image: Supplied
Birds of the same Feather, by Vusi Beauchamp.
Birds of the same Feather, by Vusi Beauchamp.
Image: Supplied

Zimbabwean-born Makiwa Mutomba’s Fun in the Red Boat is a vibrant study of the interplay between children’s movement and happiness.

Fortuitously, I also stumble upon some of Peter van Straten’s story-like, surrealist works. Fantasy for Human and Fish is breathtaking. It is one of the gallery’s priciest pieces — but the range on offer will suit the pockets of any art lover. 

From the sidewalk, 99 Loop appears the exemplar of an intimidating gallery. Behind the security grille is the view of austere, whitewashed walls and functional scree flooring; on duty is an apparently serious, aloof manager or proprietor. Again, my preconception is all wrong.

It is the epitome of a welcoming and accessible salon, a place to chat over coffee, and contemplate the creativity of young South African artists such as Selwyn Steyn and Vusi Beauchamp. Beauchamp’s Birds of the Same Feather is a striking mixed-material blend of tones and textures, darkly mysterious but also humorous — a comment on the country’s ever-changing social and cultural composition.  

Absorbing exploration

If art is about discovery, it requires us to be receptive and to adopt emotional openness — to be willing to embark on a journey.   

A rewarding, absorbing exploration is the Odyssey exhibition at Eclectica Contemporary. Proprietor and CEO Shamiela Tyer has curated a thoughtful range of mixed media creations by African artists.

The exhibit flows through the gorgeous gallery, mirroring a voyage from Egypt in the north, through central Africa, and into the south.

Tyer has been inspired by Homer’s classic poem to explore themes of exile, dislocation and nostalgia, and the yearning for — and the pilgrimage to find — rootedness.  

On display are works by some of the continent’s preeminent, internationally recognised artists including Natasha Barnes, Moroccan Mimouni El Houssaine and DRC-born Thonton Kabeya, as well as emerging local talents such as Georgia Lane.

The knockout piece may be Ley Mboramwe’s FCC vs Cash (May the Lord be Glorified); it is hard to imagine a more dramatic, potent use of colour.

Eclectica also has a fascinating collection of etchings, prints and lithographs, and gallery manager Margie Wagner is a generous wellspring of information about the history and complex technical processes of these fine art forms.

My all-too-brief exploration of a focal point of Cape Town’s arts and culture scene — heritage and history in harmony with vanguard modernity — has been eye-opening and enriching. The city centre has helped to refresh and centre my soul.

• For more information on the Association for Visual Arts (AVA) visit https://www.ava.co.za/

  • Find all the listed galleries at these respective addresses:
  • Association for Visual Arts (AVA), 35 Church Street
  • Cape Gallery, 60 Church Street
  • Eclectica Contemporary, 56 Church Street 
  • Nel Gallery, 117 Long Street, corner of Church Street
  • WORLDART, 54 Church Street
  • 99 on Loop
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