South African Seduction [survey of S.A. contemporary art scene]

Art + Auction, Feb. 2013, pp. 80-85.

Focus on South Africa

Nearly 20 years after the fall of apartheid, the young democracy’s art scene continues to evolve.  

By Jason Edward Kaufman


In the two decades since the dismantling of Apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994 the global diplomatic and business communities have reengaged with South Africa, but the art world lags. Few native artists have gained prominence on the international stage, and the market for modern and contemporary South African art remains heavily domestic and undervalued relative to work from Europe, the U.S., China and Latin America, not to mention Canada and Australia.

A recent tour of the country revealed an art economy emerging from colonial provincialism. A small number of galleries and auction houses thrive in Africa’s largest economy, and despite social reforms and a rising black middle class, the appreciation and collecting of fine art remain pursuits of the white minority. Black-owned art businesses and collections can be counted on the fingers of one hand, an unfortunate statistic in a nation of 52 million inhabitants including 80% of African ethnicity.

Museums, including the major municipal galleries in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban, remain woefully underfunded, lack significant international collections, and other than the South African National Gallery in Cape Town, few receive major loans from abroad, mainly because of financial constraints, sub-standard facilities, and security issues. They tend to present mainly art and traditional crafts from their region, and cannot afford to buy historical or contemporary foreign works. When Clive Kellner stepped down as director of Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2008, he told Artinfo, “I have R54,000 ($6,750) a year for exhibitions, and R4,000 ($500) for advertising.” Private support is negligible owing to unfavorable tax laws that have not fostered a culture of philanthropy.

“We cannot compete with international museums’ acquisitions budgets that are also vying for South African art,” he acknowledges, “but we have been more pro-active in identifying talented young artists for our collections that previously would not have been considered.”


Rapid Transformation

Arts and culture have not been at the forefront of government initiatives. The ruling African National Congress faces grave socio-economic challenges, including combatting rampant poverty and reversing the effects of decades of segregation and inadequate education. Not that cultural development has been entirely abandoned – the national Department of Arts and Culture is forming a Visual Arts Task Team to strengthen the arts. But transformation of South Africa’s art scene will likely remain driven by the private sector. Top commercial galleries such as Goodman, Stevenson and Everard Read have recently expanded, increasingly take part in major art fairs and place work in foreign museum shows. Established and newer galleries are supporting a younger generation of contemporary artists including many non-whites who are gaining the attention of collectors who not long ago rarely crossed the color barrier.

“There’s a breadth of talent exploring contemporary media across the racial spectrum, and it’s on a par with the rest of the world,” says Fraser Conlon, a Zimbabwe-born South African who co-owns Amaridian Gallery, which sells sub-Saharan art and design in New York. “The biggest challenge for Africa is having access to the global markets,” he says. “West African artists have a far greater presence because of proximity to Europe and the colonial background is far more favorable. But southern Africa is more isolated, and only since the dismantling of Apartheid are people willing to consider the country.”


A Modern Renaissance

Reconsideration of the South African market has been fueled largely by a handful of wealthy collectors in the country and expatriates in England who compete for trophies by such modernists as Maggie Laubser, Jacob Pierneef, Alexis Preller, Irma Stern, Jean Welz, and others. According to the art historian Esmé Berman, the auction record for a South African work before the end of Apartheid was R120,000, for a pastel-colored landscape painting by Pierneef that sold in 1985. By 1993 a post-Impressionist still-life by Stern had topped R200,000 ($65,000). When these works returned to market in 2011 each sold for more than R10 million ($5 million) at auctioneer Strauss & Company.

Berman says the exponential rise in the early modern market was catalyzed by Bonham’s 2007 launch of South African sales in London. The first included 13 Sterns with estimates above £70,000 ($140,000) and one at £550,000 ($1.1 million). Strauss & Company was founded in 2009, and a marketing battle resulted in a string of record prices that culminated in 2011 when Stern’s Arab Priest (1945) sold at Bonham’s for £3 million ($5 million) to the Qatar Museums Authority. (In a landmark case, the recently established South African Heritage Resources Agency restricted its export, then allowed it to leave the country.) But by 2012 the auction houses had flooded the market and supply of top works had diminished. Bonham’s sale last October flopped. The following month, however, in a perverse confirmation of the rising value of works by these modern masters, paintings by Pierneef, Laubser, Hugo Naudé, and Gerald Sekoto were stolen from the Pretoria Art Gallery. (All but the Sekoto have been recovered.)

Few contemporary artists achieve such prices, however, without emigrating, as have Marlene Dumas (to Amsterdam) and Robin Rhode (to Berlin). The South African record for William Kentridge (b. 1955), whose 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was universally acclaimed, is just R2.2 million ($250,000), set at Stephan Welz in Cape Town in 2010, though one of his works reached $600,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2011. But now, South African contemporary artists appear with greater frequency in group exhibitions abroad, including surveys at New York’s Museum for African Art in 1999 and 2005, at the Museum Bochum, Germany in 2004, and at MoMA which in 2011 mounted a print survey drawn entirely from its own collection. Interest in South African photography has resulted in a recent show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and an exhibition of Apartheid-era images, curated by Okui Enwezor, at the International Center of Photography in New York.


Contemporary Growth

“The scene is changing rapidly,” says Ross Douglas, founding director of the annual Joburg Art Fair. Launched in 2008, the fifth edition, sponsored by First National Bank (FNB), took place last September and generated fringe shows around town. Among the 29 exhibitors were French, German and British galleries and more than a dozen special projects. But despite high quality offerings for modest prices, and a handsome presentation in the modern Sandton Convention Center, the fair attracted few foreign collectors and curators.

“Part of the fair’s mission is to educate people,” says Douglas. “There are not enough good commercial galleries in South Africa, no government contemporary art museums, no place to look at art. It’s mainly in corporate collections and commercial galleries.”

But according to many arts leaders here there has been some improvement. “The market today is unrecognizable from what it was 10 years ago,” says Riason Naidoo, the first black director of the National Gallery in Cape Town. “It has become more professional; there is more competition with many more commercial galleries, and there are many international museums and collectors acquiring South African modern and contemporary art, which can only be good for the artists. South African commercial galleries are now more visible at international art fairs from Miami to Berlin, and Stevenson will for the first time will be participating at Frieze, which is a significant breakthrough.”

Another goal of the Joburg fair is to diversify the audience for contemporary art. “Galleries were perceived to be white, elitist, alienating spaces. We want to change that,” says Douglas, noting that opening night five years ago was an all-white affair, but patrons now include affluent blacks among the European-descended bankers, mining barons, winery owners and corporate executives who comprise South Africa’s collecting society.

Among those in attendance was Kentridge, who feels the fair is poor substitute for the intellectual heft of a biennial. “I’m very pleased that we have the fair,” he says, “but it’s a shame the biennial no longer exists. The one is a curated essay about what’s happening in the art world. The fair, like all fairs, is a trade show.” Nonetheless, the fair provided a snapshot of the variety of Young African Artists (YAAs) emerging from South Africa.


South African Talent

Kudzanai Chiurai (b. 1981) showed a video installation with related works part of which was in the recent documenta. His work, at Goodman, took the fair’s R100,000 FNB Art Prize. His vibrant Pop-inspired political satires belong to MOMA as well as collectors Elton John and Richard Branson.

Delicate “smoke drawings” by Diane Victor (b. 1964) are figurative social critiques in soot, made using a candle flame as a brush and enhanced with charcoal and stumping. Her work, presented by David Krut Projects in Johannesburg, is owned by MOMA and SFMOMA and can still be had for four- and low-five figure prices.

A crowd-pleaser was the hyper-real, Ron Mueck-like, scaled-down nude self-portrait sculpture by Ed Young (b. 1978). Stellenbosch Modern and Contemporary sold multiple copies from the edition of 20, including one to retired banker Paul Harris. Stevenson presented a fetishized cement mixer bristling with nuts and bolts by Michael MacGarry a room with a wrap-around forest mural painted by Deborah Poynton.

MOMO showed photographer Ayana V. Jackson (b. 1977), an African-American living in South Africa who Photoshops self-portraits into politically charged compositions, including one based on Demoiselles d’Avignon and another in which she appears as a Malian Islamist rebel, semi-nude and armed a la Valie Export.

Others to watch include Nicolas Hlobo (b. 1975) whose multi-media assemblages of rubber, ribbons and other materials comment on issues of Black identity and sexuality with a raw elegance and allusive power. The Tate Modern has shown his work, which is represented by Stevenson. Another is sculptor Mary Sibande (b. 1982) who creates monumental sculptures of a super-maid – her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were domestics – clad in brightly colored maid uniforms, and triumphantly portrayed on horseback, confronting soldiers, and looking dreamily to the future.

In addition to these artists, museum directors, curators, collectors and dealers point to Willem Boshoff, Candice Breitz, Peter Clarke, Kendell Geers, Moshekwa Langa and Paul Stopforth as artists to watch. They also emphasize that many mid-career artists deserve wider recognition, including Roger Ballen (b. 1950), an American photographer living in Johannesburg since 1980, has documented white poverty in black and white images that recall the grim intimacy of Farm Services Administration photographs of the 1930s. He has also collaborated with his subjects to stage compositions that occupy an eerie realm between surrealism and photo-journalism, some embellished with hand-drawn additions. And he has directed music videos for the Afrikaans group Antwoordt that have gone viral on YouTube. Ballen has shown with Gagosian and at museums around the world, with a retrospective slated for the Smithsonian’s Museum of African Art in Washington, DC.

Other substantial talents are Sue Williamson (b. 1941), whose socially engaged photographs including portraits of women involved in the struggle for civil rights, are in most museums in South Africa, and Jane Alexander (b. 1959), a veteran of various biennials, whose “Butcher Boys” (1985-86) greets visitors to the National Gallery in Cape Town. The stunning work consists of three lifesize semi-nude white figures with Devil horns seated on a bench. She is not prolific and rarely offers work at Stevenson, though one piece sold at Sotheby’s for more than R1 million.

A decade ago South African photography was synonymous with David Goldblatt, who along with Peter Mugabane and others documented the Apartheid regime. Today he is joined by Pieter Hugo (b. 1976) and Zwelethu Mthethwa (b. 1960), rising stars known for stunning large-format color portraits of Africans. Mthethwa’s have been collected by MOMA, the Guggenheim, SFMOMA, LACMA and the Getty. Hugo, known for his shocking portraits of Nigerians street performers and their trained hyenas, garnered attention at the fair with large-format color images of Capetown residents at home and frontally nude. Mikhael Subotzky (b. 1981), who shows with Goodman, documents the impact of crime on the daily lives of South Africans and was in MoMA’s “New Photography” series in 2008.


Wildlife and Collectible Crafts

The most prolific and popular artist in South Africa is the animalier sculptor Dylan Lewis, whose bronze leopards dot myriad public and corporate spaces and appear in the homes and grounds of virtually every wealthy South African. Lewis has a compound in the Winelands that he is landscaping as a setting for his bronzes, including recent mythologizing human figures, some of which allude to the Victory of Samothrace. Lewis is represented by Everard Read and sells for prices comparable to Kentridge.

Another artist obsessed with South African wildlife is Nic Bladen, a former dental technician who casts live specimens of plants indigenous to Capetown’s rich biosphere. His unique silver floral jewelry and sculptures sell at Everard Read in Capetown and at Amaridian in NY. Also gaining a following is Astrid Dahl, a white ceramicist who lives in the Midlands and makes abstract floral vessels in white clay.

Traditional arts and crafts, particularly of the dominant Zulu tribe, remain on the margins of the international contemporary art world, but are increasingly collectible. Several white artists have taken it upon themselves to bridge the divide. Ceramicist Fee Halsted-Berning in 1985 founded Ardmore Ceramic Workshop in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, training rural black artisans to produce elaborate and beautiful polychromed pots teeming with leopards and flora that are collected by museums and given as diplomatic gifts by the South African government (Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac, Queen Elizabeth and the Empress of Japan have received examples.) Individual pieces sell for R800 to R50,000, with the record at auction R2 million for a vase by Wonderboy Nxumalo at Sotheby JHb in 2008.

The Ubuhle Beaders have not achieved prices close to Ardmore, but the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum in Washington, DC plans to exhibit their work, which may become South Africa’s answer to the Gee’s Bend quilt phenomenon. The group was founded by Bev Gibson who provides materials and guidance for native women whose colorful beaded textiles have figurative compositions from a Crucifixion to water buffaloes to the night sky.

Both workshops are in the Midlands, a region of KwaZulu-Natal farmland an hour northwest from Durban near the Lesotho border where a number of craft studios, boutique hotels and restaurants constitute a leisure route marketed as the Midlands Meander Ardmore and Ubuhle pieces are in many South African museums as well as The Museum of Arts and Design in NY, and their work can be found along with tribal collectibles at galleries such as Kim Sacks in Johannesburg.


Looking Beyond Struggle

Among the most welcome recent developments was the opening last fall of the Wits University Art Museum, a state-of-the-art showcase for tribal and SA contemporary art in downtown Joburg. Then in December the country’s first private museum of contemporary art was christened by financier Piet Viljoen in a converted Victorian house in Cape Town. The New Church – named after the street it is on — opened with a show drawn from his 480-piece collection and curated by Stevenson Gallery film artist Penny Iopsis who selected works by Nicholas Hlobo, abstract painter Zander Blom, and installation artists Dineo Seshee Bopape and Wim Botha.

On the international front, South Africa will not only return to Venice, but the Department of Arts and Culture has been in discussions about a permanent pavilion at the Biennale. Meanwhile, the Consul General in Milan will serve as Commissioner soliciting proposals for 2013.


The Contemporary Gallery Scene

The vast majority of the country’s galleries and auction houses are based in Johannesburg or Cape Town, with many operating in both cities. Here are four of the most prominent:

Goodman Gallery, founded by Linda Goodman in Johannesburg in 1966, has a  strong international reputation, representing William Kentridge, David Goldblatt (b. 1930) and Candice Breitz, and regularly participating in ArtBasel, ArtBasel Miami Beach and the Armory Show. The gallery opened a second location in Cape Town in 2007 and the business is now owned by Liza Essers. A 2012 exhibition titled “Hail to the Thief II” focused on corruption in ANC leadership and featured a painting by Brett Murray portraying polygamist president Jacob Zuma as Lenin, but with his penis exposed. Zuma, acquitted on rape charges in 2006, said he felt personally violated, and the ANC censored the image.

Stevenson Gallery opened in Cape Town in 2003, and owner Michael Stevenson partnered with David Brodie on a Johannesburg space in 2008. An exhibitor at ArtBasel and Miami Beach, and lately Frieze in London and New York, Stevenson shows South Africans Nicholas Hlobo, Robin Rhode, Pieter Hugo and Deborah Poynton, and has mounted the country’s first shows of international artists like Francis Alÿs, Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Hirschhorn, Glenn Ligon and Walid Raad. Among its notable recent shows was a three-part series that considered the impact of the Joburg Biennials on South African art and included work by artists who participated in the original biennale, including Pierre Huyghe, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Wangechi Mutu, Stan Douglas, Olafur Eliasson and Yinka Shonibare.

Everard Read, South Africa’s oldest gallery, was established in Johannesburg in 1912, and since 1980 has occupied a sprawling villa in the semi-urban Rosebank district. The gallery deals in figurative modern and contemporary art from South African and the UK. The roster includes contemporary realist John Meyer, sculptor Angus Taylor, animalier sculptor Dylan Lewis, and early modern work by Gerard Sekoto, George Pemba and Jacob Pierneef. In 2010 owner Mark Read opened Circa on Jellicoe, a three-story oval-plan annex for contemporary art, designed by local studioMAS with a spiral ramp ascending behind a screen of vertical aluminum fins.

Gallery MOMO, founded in Johannesburg in 2003 by Monna Mokoena, is one of the country’s only black-owned galleries. From its modernist glass box in an elegant area of the city, MOMA represents native artists such the Art Brut-inspired painter Paul du Toit, sculptor Mary Sibande, and photographer Ayana V. Jackson. Mokoena organized South Africa’s official show for the 2011 Venice Biennale, but was sharply criticized for including Sibande and other artists from his stable.


Jason Edward Kaufman//

A reduced version of this article was published as “South African Seduction” in Art + Auction, Feb. 2013, pp. 80-85.


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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