Cape Town - Search beneath/at the end of the rainbow
Cape Town – the stuff of Sunday painters’ dreams. A turquoise ocean at the foot of Table Mountain, shimmering velvet beaches, the Cape of Good Hope in the early morning light. Boundless beauty and harmony with a dash of colorful African culture.
The city’s many galleries reflect precisely this mix. Joyous, exotic, decorative Ethno-style African art is popular, especially with tourists – the rainbow nation on canvas, a dancing water bearer, maybe a wild lion thrown in for good measure. But the real world of African art looks very different.
“There are far too many pretty pictures here,” says Dathini Mzayiya. The young painter is sitting amid the tidy chaos of his studio in Cape Town. The floorboards are spattered with paint; gloomy colors and strong brushstrokes dominate his canvasses. Dathini Mzayiya probably knows what kind of art would earn him pots of money; he knows what the mass market wants. But he refuses to pander to popular taste: “I paint what I see and what I think is important.”
Mzayiya belongs to a generation of young South African artists, who are turning against all the clichés, preferring at last to speak for themselves. Like his fellow painters at the Gugulective artist collective, named after Gugulethu, one of the oldest black townships in Cape Town, Mzayiya can see the cracks forming behind Cape Town’s pleasant facade, the ruptures and dissent, and this is what he wants to draw attention to. “The city is searching for an identity of its own. It is accused of not being African enough, but Africa is in Cape Town and Cape Town is in Africa.”
The pictures produced by the Gugulective are uncomfortable; They depict life in the townships on the edge of the city – sometimes amusing, sometimes sobering, never embellishing. And Gugulective is not alone in its efforts. Take the South African photographer Pieter Hugo, for example, who is currently taking the international market by storm with his sensitive compositions of scenes of everyday African life. Hyena men in Nigeria, honey gatherers in Ghana, scouts in Liberia: His pictures offer intimate insights into people’s lives without any of the voyeurism often typical of the white observer.
Hugo’s photos can be viewed at the Stevenson Gallery, which has been making its mark on the Cape Town art scene ever since it opened in 2003. “We have 20 artists under contract,” says the gallery’s curator Sophie Perryer, “among them, some of the country’s best known, such as the photographers Guy Tillim and Bernie Searle and versatile upcoming artists like Nicolas Hlobo and Nandipha Mntambo.”
Most buyers come from abroad and contemporary South African art is hotter than it has ever been. Today it has its place at all the major art fairs around the world. “Demand has been steadily growing since the end of apartheid, and especially in the past few years,” says Perryer. The works of South African artists reveal much more maturity these days, she explains. “Compare them with those of the rest of the international market and you can see that African artists still have real problems to contend with. Artworks from Europe and North America may be brilliant and highly professional, but they often seem flat and lacking in energy by comparison.”
Sophie Perryer knows what she’s talking about. She is the author of the book 10 Years 100 Artists: Art in a Democratic South Africa (Struik, Cape Town, 2005, www.struik.co.za ), one of the best reviews of modern art on the Cape. “I studied art because I wanted to work as an artist myself,” she says, and you can almost hear the wistfulness in her voice as she speaks. But in addition to art, she loved the English language and so spent a few years in cultural journalism and eventually founded the by now probably foremost art journal in the country, Art South Africa (www.artsouthafrica.com).
The Stevenson Gallery is famous for its balanced mix of internationally acclaimed and upcoming African artists, and the Goodman Gallery’s collection has a similar focus, which means no collector should willingly miss either. Those who prefer to rely on their own instincts are well advised to pay a visit to the
Association for Visual Arts (AVA). With a little luck, you can purchase for very little money the works of artists who are just starting out in their career. “We allow ourselves the luxury of taking risks,” says gallery boss Kirsty Cockerill.
Thanks to the generosity of the gallery’s sponsors, young artists can exhibit their works and gain experience here. No gallery in Cape Town offers so many constantly changing exhibitions as the AVA. “The established galleries come to us to spy out the talent,” says Cockerill. Dathini
Mzayiya’s pictures have had repeated shows here. Cockerill tells how Mzayiya was raised in the Cape Town mega-township of Khayelitsha. “He never attended art school.” The AVA is helping him to make a name for himself, and a South African lifestyle magazine recently featured one of his pictures on its cover. “I was constantly drawing in school,” says Mzayiya with a shrug.
Today, the young artist, who shares a studio downtown with four friends, is waiting for his breakthrough into the world of large galleries and art fairs. Some of his pictures are reminiscent of Pablo Picasso, others of Franz Marc. “I take my inspiration from daily life, from the people around me and the way they interact with each other, from their body language,” says Mzayiya. Again and again, he chooses urban spaces and encounters between different cultures as his subjects.
Apartheid may be over, “but it is as visible today as ever. We still have the same corrugated iron shacks, the city is still divided into residential areas inhabited by difference races, who are separated by highways and rail tracks. We are free, but we still haven’t found a common identity. Ignorance rules. These are the wounds we have yet to heal.”
The artists aren’t likely to run out of material anytime soon. What’s more, South Africa is rapidly becoming a window on the entire continent ¬ – and an art center. More and more galleries are signing up artists from other African countries.
“We like to see the big picture and deliberately look beyond our own borders,” says curator Sophie Perryer, “for us, the future lies in Africa.“