Cape Town’s seascapes and landscapes are beautiful, but there’s more to be discovered: art galleries and studios proliferate. No more than a 15-minute drive from wherever you are in the city, visual delights of a different kind await.
Galleries need to harmonise their creative space with the requirements of retail. Stevenson, in gentrifying Woodstock on the outskirts of the city centre, is glorious. But, with showrooms in Johannesburg and Amsterdam too, a raft of employees, and a roster which includes leading artists, it’s also clear the gallery means serious business. Editorial and marketing assistant Misha Krynauw guides me through no less than eight viewing rooms in the Cape Town headquarters, augmented by virtual exhibitions.
Stevenson’s current themed exhibition, My whole body changed into something else, probes ideas of perception, transformation, and tension between humanity and nature. Transfiguration by Penny Siopis is mesmerising. Siopis works in multiple mediums, exploring the intersection of memory, politics and migration in what she terms the “poetics of vulnerability”. Zimbabwean Portia Zvavahera’s works are also stunning; the vibrant and vivid colours and varying techniques creating a meditative, spiritual quality.
There’s more to Newlands than rugby, cricket, breweries, forests and upmarket schools. The Montebello design and craft centre is in the very shadow of the mountain, but art of a more exclusive nature is to be found a kilometre or so away from the wettest, greenest part of the city, in the Kildare Rd cluster of restaurants and boutiques. The Barnard is easy to locate, but it’s almost hidden in plain sight. Compact and elegant, it showcases just one artist’s work at any time. At present the exhibition is Virginia MacKenny’s Strand/Shore, a dreamy compilation of watercolours and oils that unravel Covid-19-linked emotions of alienation and isolation, resilience and support. Each piece asks a question, and the whole is a challenging yet beautiful narrative of the artist’s 15-month journey from lockdown to reawakening.
Decisions, decisions, decisions
Down the hilly main road into Hout Bay, the sea just in view, there’s another impression at the entrance to the suburb: three galleries clustered in striking architectural relief and with stunning window-display pieces visible from the road. Which one to delve into before closing time? I decide to visit the Hout Bay Gallery. The salon is a pleasingly cluttered visual feast. Standout works are Jacques de Bruyne’s Pride, a gorgeous celebration of equestrian power and beauty, and Eve Hargitai’s Valerie, a regal 1920s-styled, flapper girl nude. But most impactful are Lorraine van Wyk’s provocative, innovative portraiture creations in which she applies paint to her actual subject, then photographs the still-wet image and seals it using the Diasec method to extravagantly elevate colours.
“Schools aren’t teaching arts and culture as they should,” says former creative teacher Andrew Mokgatla. He’s now giving it his all as a full-time artist, and has a studio at Sembach Gallery in the working harbour precinct of Hout Bay. His style is dramatic and expressive, but the charcoal drafts and multiple builds of intricate studies, mark him as a classicist. “I’m a Renaissance man,” he avers, meaning that he combines a detailed understanding of anatomy with contemporary colours. He’s recently completed two stunning portraits of Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and legendary SA actor John Kani.
Sembach represents more established artists such as Nicolaas Roos and Bongi Bengu, too, as well as being a hub for community upliftment. From the neighbouring premises of Sembach’s sister studio, Intle Art, Zimbabwean-born painter Only Mpofu runs a weekly art class for disadvantaged children. Mpofu’s Ghetto Child may have been inspired by one his charges; it’s beautiful — simultaneously cheerful and poignant.
It’s a miserable, rainy day when I visit Kalk Bay, a quaint seaside suburb in the south Peninsula. It’s only 3pm, but smoke is seeping from fireplace chimneys, and Artvark Gallery proprietor Theresa Wessels is bundled up against the cold. But there’s warmth all around: she and manager Leigh Nolte are welcoming, engaging, and passionate — not only about supporting local artists, but also in assisting the community. During hard lockdown they ran two online auctions, which included a substantial charitable component in support of the Muizenberg Community Action Network feeding scheme.
In the first viewing room, Sharle Matthews’s Trying to Find Order Amongst the Chaos demands attention, as does Thabang Lehobye’s Lady With Medallion. “I exhibit what I, personally, love,” says Wessels. She’s an artist, too, her Obsession: Bucket series of mixed media works created during the recent Cape drought having received accolades at the 2019 Woordfees Art Awards. Overall, Artvark is coherent and thought-provoking. “Every gallery has a style,” says Wessels.
Just down the road, Kalk Bay Modern’s style is best described as eclectic. On display is a diverse range of artists and mediums: rare San art; ceramics by Leora Lewis, textiles and tapestries by Eastern Cape-based Keiskamma Trust artists; photographic works by Mikhael Subotzky, plus a few Kentridge linocut etchings, at appropriately knockout prices.
Kalk Bay Modern offers majestic sea views from its first-floor premises above the famous Olympia bakery. “But,” says owner Cheryl Rumbak, “South Africans hesitate to venture upwards from ground level,” meaning that business has been hit by near nonexistent tourism during Covid-19. So, if the tourists can’t come to you, go to the tourists, is her thinking: she’s heading to Amsterdam the next day to explore the idea of a pop-up exhibit in the city.
South Africans are also reticent to visit corporate headquarters for nonbusiness purposes. Which, in the case of the Sanlam Art Collection, is a missed opportunity. Curator Stefan Hundt is a human encyclopedia regarding SA art, artists, and art history, and generously shares his knowledge. Only a small part of the company’s overall collection is displayed at Sanlam’s primary offices in the northern suburb of Bellville. Still, it’s freely open to the public, and represents an exquisite and varied snapshot, including works by Irma Stern, linocuts by Vuyile Cameron Voyiya, and sculptures by Johannes Maswanganyi. The stand-out piece is Harry Trevor’s Self Portrait, its severe impasto contrasting with the contemplative image.
Whether one appreciates art as enlightenment or excitement, reward or provocation, there are galleries to match, all across Cape Town. All are accessible, liberating, challenging — alive with the wonder of human creativity.
Artvark: 48 Main Road, Kalk Bay
Barnard: 55 Main Street, Newlands
Hout Bay Gallery: 71 Victoria Avenue, Hout Bay
Kalk Bay Modern: 1st Floor, Olympia Building, 136 Main Road, Kalk Bay
Sanlam Art Gallery: Sanlam Head Office, 2 Strand Road, Bellville
Sembach Gallery: 31 Harbour Road, Hout Bay
Stevenson: 160 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock