Franschhoek’s reputation is rooted in wine, more recently augmented by its acclaim as the country’s culinary capital. But hiding in plain sight, too, are some of the country’s best art galleries.
When the first Huguenot religious refugees arrived in the valley in the late seventeenth century, even the optimistic among them would not have dreamed of a town teeming with visitors enticed, in part, by a thriving culture scene, with about 20 art venues in the village and surrounds. Some are clearly positioned within the connoisseur, investment bracket, others are breezy and informal. All are welcoming and epitomise the spirit of Franschhoek as a place to nourish appetites, senses and the soul.
Arriving into the area on the R45 from Cape Town, La Motte is a natural first stop. Driving up the kilometre-long entrance, it’s immediately apparent La Motte is no typical wine farm. This is confirmed on meeting the museum and gallery curator Elzette de Beer, who graciously conveys a wealth of information about its cultural history and assets.
La Motte’s current exhibition, Threads of Synergy, features South African mohair tapestry art. I recognise the medium’s interpretation of William Kentridge’s distinctive Cicero, taken from his 500m-long Triumphs and Laments frieze along the Tiber riverbank in Rome, produced to mark the city’s 2,769th birthday in 2016. There are also giant tapestry adaptations of works by Cecil Skotnes, and Sam Nhlengethwa’s Three Models is particularly impactful. The creations are for sale, at serious prices, on request — these are world class artworks, requiring enormous collaborative effort, with an artistic director and a team of four weavers working for four to six months to complete each tapestry.
De Beer steers me to La Motte’s treasure in the adjacent viewing salon: a significant collection of works by J.H. Pierneef. Partly chronological, partly themed, it represents a homage to one of SA’s artistic masters.
If La Motte suits the more discerning art lover, The Gallery at Grande Provence, a few hundred metres down the R45, is more expansive and youthful. The estate’s al fresco restaurant patrons are spoilt for choice of accompanying visual beauty: vineyards, heritage architecture, and an open view into the adjoining walls of art. Comprising four exhibition rooms, The Gallery is one of the larger Franschhoek art spaces, with much to reward lovers of any art medium: paintings, prints, ceramics, sculptures, or photography.
The abstracts by young artist Annemieke Engelbrecht are challenging and energetic; pieces by multi-media sculptor Karin Lijnes alternate between powerful and playful; Everett Duarte’s Alignment is a riotous blend of precision and impressionistic colour. But the standout is Mziwoxolo Makalima’s Silindile, a diptych canvas that captures a despairing boredom. It’s a quintessential South African image: sad, side-of-the-road hopelessness in striking perspective.
On leaving Grande Provence, I notice the famous wine-route tram heading back into town. Coincidentally I parallel its journey, and arrive at the tram’s ticket office, centrally located on Franschhoek’s main road, Huguenot Street, in a courtyard of boutiques, coffees shops, restaurants — and a gallery, Ebony/Curated.
Ebony/Curated actually has two Franschhoek galleries. The elegantly formal Bordeaux House premises showcase flagship exhibitions, while the Franschhoek Square space is more relaxed and eclectic. Still, the latter has some exquisite pieces, such as a wondrous bronze, Ortus, by Cape Town-based Kenyan sculptor Stanislaw Trzebinski, and a beautifully decorated, giant, traditional ceramic pot, Johannesburg Take Off, by John Newdigate. There are some extravagant prices, too: Norman Catherine’s carved and painted wood, Penance, is R430,000. Gallery director Marc Stanes admits the nod to international tourists, many of whom “consider the town a premier art destination”, and are willing to pay accordingly for “works by important, collectable African artists.”
Two young artists on show at Ebony/Curated will surely soon join that echelon. Harare-born Tafadzwa Tega’s News Reader, and Durban-based Sibusiso Duma’s Mom I Am A Thug are two of the most captivating works spanning all the galleries I visit.
One block further down Huguenot Street, in yet another pretty alcove, are close neighbours Abe Opperman, Gallop Hill, and AITY. Gallop Hill’s space is unique, like an interior stepping stone garden with pathways to the artists’ works. Owner Dijonne du Preez’s ambition is to discover unknown artists with distinctive styles, like collage artist Olivier, and stroke victim Martin de Kock who now paints “wrong-handed” in Miro-like surrealism. Also stunning are Phulani Liebenberg’s portraits, prompting reflections of common humanity by fusing multiple ethnicities in each visage.
The eponymous Abe Opperman gallery showcases the artist’s remarkable versatility. Apart from by-appointment arrangements in Johannesburg and Cape Town, Opperman is now based in Franschhoek, and his summer exhibition includes acrylics on canvases, sculptures, and ceramic installations. But the heroine piece is a charcoal and ink on paper, Indigo Sophie, gorgeously encapsulating his characteristic black-and-white bedrock with highlights of fragmentary colour.
AITY — abbreviated from Art-in-the-Yard — is the smallest gallery I visit. It packs a punch, though, with vibrant mixed media pieces from Vanessa Berlein’s Bloom exhibition, haunting fine art wildlife photography by Caroline Gibello, and the penetrating light and energy in Gqeberha-based Duncan Stewart’s enthralling canvases. Curator and gallery manager Salomé Daruty de Grandpré is charming — and firm. “Impossible. I love them all”, she avows, when asked to highlight her favourites.
The Cape summer heat strikes late in the afternoon. But, uphill from the town centre and into the vineyards of the Chamonix and Black Elephant wineries, I have an appointment with Andrea Desmond-Smith, the owner and artist-in-residence of Blue Lion Gallery at Artemis. “I’m the witch of Franschhoek,” she says. Introductions can mislead: she is the friendliest sorcerer imaginable, and the most creative.
Blue Lion is less a gallery than a component part of Desmond-Smith’s lifelong project as an eco-feminist. She’s unfamiliar with the term, preferring to frame her work as mythopoetic, but the name of her property — Artemis, the Greek goddess of the wilderness — pinpoints her dedication to the natural world.
Many of her artworks — though captivating in their own right — represent aspects of Desmond-Smith’s life journey, her telling of which enriches the gallery experience. And, beyond the gallery, lies more. “Would you like to see my sculpture garden?,” she asks. Magically, around the first bend of a wondrous fynbos garden with breathtaking valley views, there appears an attentive guardian, an 8-foot tall mosaic, one of dozens of her sculpture creations. “She’s called Eve, so as not to offend Christians,” says Desmond-Smith. “But for me she’s ‘Lilith the protowoman’, or ‘Mother Nature’ — what woman was before God made her the companion for Adam. And see what happened then!”
Desmond-Smith’s irreverence isn’t typical of Franschhoek, but her imagination and zest certainly are. Creativity abounds in this valley.
- Abe Opperman, 11 Huguenot Street, 082 551 9708
- AITY Gallery, Shop 1, Heritage Square, 9 Huguenot Street, 083 463 0392
- Blue Lion Gallery at Artemis, 37 Uitkyk Street, 082 744 4999
- Ebony/Curated, 4 Franschhoek Square, Huguenot Street, 021 8764477, and
- 4 Bordeaux Street, 021 8762616
- Gallop Hill, 11 Huguenot Street, 062 205 5926
- La Motte Estate Museum and Gallery, R45 Main Road, 021 8763446
- The Gallery, Grande Provence Heritage Estate, R45 Main Road, 021 8768630