How Cape Town and Johannesburg have become art hubs to rival any other city
It could be said that South Africa has an incredibly long and rich history of art. In 2018, archaeologists excavating the Blombos Cave in the Cape uncovered what is believed to be the oldest human drawing ever found. The cross hatched pattern, etched onto a fragment of stone using an ochre “crayon”, is said to be over 73,000 years old.
But as well as being – perhaps – the birthplace of abstract art, South Africa today is a hive of artistic activity, from design, to film, to fine art. The visual art scene is attracting the attention of international art lovers and collectors. Commercial galleries, art fairs and events are blossoming and the country’s impressive museums are a must-view on any visitor’s itinerary.
Two significant new galleries that have opened in recent years, the Norval Foundation gallery and sculpture garden and the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), both in Cape Town, are well worth a visit.
Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa
Billed as “the Tate of Africa”, Zeitz MOCAA, is located at the V&A Waterfront. It is the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world and is the place to see renowned artists like Mary Sibande, William Kentridge, and Nicholas Hlobo, as well as many high profile temporary exhibitions.
Exhibits aside, it’s a simply stunning space. The Zeitz was crafted from a historic grain silo complex, built in the 1921 and decommissioned in 2001. The interior of the building was carved out of the huge cylindrical silos, creating a series of curved concrete lines. A central atrium, a rooftop sculpture garden and a number of gallery spaces are topped by the Silo Hotel, where you can have a meal or drinks at the rooftop bar overlooking the city and the mountain.
Norval Foundation gallery and sculpture garden
The Norval Foundation is an excellent day out for the whole family, as it is set in the parklike surroundings of the Steenberg Estate, adjacent to Table Mountain National Park. The museum houses 20th and 21st-century visual art from South Africa and beyond, including work by Sekoto, Cecil Skotnes, Anton van Wouw, Deborah Bell, Irma Stern, and Edoardo Villa. The sculpture garden with its rolling lawns, indigenous planting and dramatic works is a highlight and a great place for photos.
End your visit with a meal at the well-regarded and rather beautiful Skotnes Restaurant, where locally-inspired dishes are crafted from ingredients sourced from local, small-batch suppliers. In summer, the restaurant supplies picnic baskets (pre-ordered) for visitors to enjoy al fresco amongst the sculptures.
If your appetite for art is insatiable, head also to the SA National Museum in Company’s Garden, Cape Town, where you will find an outstanding collections of South African, African, British, French, Dutch and Flemish art, or to the suburb of Woodstock which is home to many of the commercial art galleries.
Top travel tip:
A major exhibition of William Kentridge’s work will be hosted simultaneously by both Norval Foundation and Zeitz MOCAA from 24 August 2019 through to March 2020. Works include drawings, animation, installations, video, sculpture, tapestry and prints produced by this renowned South African artist over 40 years. Why Should I Hesitate? Sculpture is on view at Norval Foundation and Why Should I Hesitate? Putting Drawings To Work will be on display at Zeitz MOCAA.
The Wits Art Museum (WAM) in the vibrant student area of Braamfontein, is home to an extraordinary collection of contemporary and historical African art, as well as the Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts. There are interesting new exhibitions all the time, as well as talks, artist walkabouts and a great children’s programme. There are smaller commercial galleries nearby, as well as a Saturday food market and trendy shops.
The Standard Bank Gallery in downtown Johannesburg showcases well-regarded local artists.
The Johannesburg Art Gallery is in a magnificent Edward Lutyens building in downtown. It houses one of the biggest art collections in the country, a truly historical assortment that includes 17th century Dutch paintings, 18th and 19th century European artworks, and South African art from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Handily for tourists who want to see, and perhaps buy contemporary art, most of the city’s top commercial galleries are within a mile of each other in an art strip around Keyes Avenue, Rosebank.
When you’ve seen the bright and the new, go back to where it all began – the simple and striking rock art and ancient stone tools and artefacts of our ancestors. The Origins Centre at the University of Witwatersrand takes you on a journey of modern humankind, symbols and stories, from the earliest rock art and the fascinating beliefs of the early San people to colonial times and resistance artwork.
If you are in Cape Town or Johannesburg of the first Thursday of the month, take in First Thursdays, when the galleries in the main art precincts are open until late. There’s serious art viewing – and buying – to be done, but it’s also a fun scene, with restaurants and bars adding to the festive atmosphere. Get details and a route map here.