25 September 2012 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

The art of travel

Appreciating art, like travel, involves the journey as much as the destination. At Ellerman House boutique hotel in Cape Town, these combine seamlessly to form an unforgettable experience.

One of the luxury rooms at Ellerman House. Image courtesy Ellerman House

Ellerman House enjoys an incredible location in Bantry Bay with perfect sea views. It offers the ultimate (and I use that word deliberately) in 5-star comforts. But it’s the hotel’s art collection that makes it completely different from anything else out there.

You see, for me, contemporary art is a tangible expression of the places I go and the people I meet. A painting or sculpture becomes a lens through which what I experience is rendered meaningful and often new. Its themes and context echo what’s important to the artist, and social issues, ideology, power, identity, and even just simple aesthetics, come into play. Living with art, for a few hours or a few days, allows me to experience a new country or city in a unique and privileged way. And when staying at Ellerman House, you do live with it.

The Ellerman Contemporary gallery. Image courtesy Ellerman House

This is why my visit to this boutique hotel in Cape Town blew me away – when you stay there, you're surrounded by its art collection, which distils and condenses impressions and ideas into an aesthetic form that you can appreciate and reflect on until it becomes as much a part of your experience of South Africa as the places you visit and the people you meet.  

Art, like travel, takes you places you’ve never been and shows you things you’d otherwise never see. If you’re lucky, art, like travel, leaves you changed by the experience.

The hotel now has 500 pieces by South African masters, including Pierneef and Irma Stern, a collection that was put together by the hotel’s owner, financier Paul Harris. On arrival, guests are welcomed by a collection of portrait work by the likes of Maurice van Essche, Alexis Preller, Anton van Wouw and Pieter Wenning. None are commissioned pieces; they are all simply interpretations of people the artist met, like the people you will meet on your travels around the country...

And you immediately know this is a hotel like no other (another bold claim, but one that is borne out by the experience that follows).

Entrance to the Ellerman Contemporary gallery. Image courtesy Ellerman House

Each hallway is decked out with a quality and calibre of work that I’m more used to seeing in a museum (or perhaps in the house of someone rich and important who I'm not likely to know). The works of 19th-century masters, like Thomas Bowler and Thomas Baines, are kept carefully out of direct light, their subtle colouring and lines as much historical documents as works of art.

Great landscapes by Frans Oerder and Erik Laubscher reflect scenes you may already have encountered on your South African travels, while works by Preller, Gregoire Boonzaaier and Cecil Higgs explore South African territory of a different kind. The hotel’s resistance works, by George Pemba, Gerard Sekoto and Ephraim Ngatane, continue the story of South Africa, exploring its social and political landscape, and bringing its art into the present moment. Which is where the contemporary collection takes over.

Art on display at the recent Art Angels charity auction at Ellerman House, which raised R1.3-million. Image courtesy Ellerman House

As much as I love the masters (I still can’t get over having coffee under the gaze of one of Stern’s incredible portraits; or under a Pierneef, his Drakensberg looming more real than the real landscape itself), the collection by about 80 contemporary artists is equally, if not more, exciting because these artworks tell the stories of now. These are displayed, in rotation, in the specially built Ellerman Contemporary gallery (fronted by the striking Hier sculpture, a 3m head made of slate by Angus Taylor), which is located on the hotel grounds.

The gallery’s role is to introduce guests to contemporary South African art, not to sell it, explains Mitch Terry, my host on the gallery tour. And what an introduction – a piece by Willem Boshoff, a granite slab marking off the days that Nelson Mandela was in prison, reflects Robben Island in the distance; a table by William Kentridge also plays with reflections, speaking of his cinematic style, inviting you to engage, to see, to feel; and Mary Sibande's They Don't Make Them Like They Used To reflects a landscape of a different kind and sits, companionably, in dialogue with work by Phillemon Hlungwane.

One of the luxury rooms at Ellerman House. Image courtesy Ellerman House

Mitch, who is there to interpret and answer any questions (which he does professionally and unobtrusively), points out Kate Gottgens's Bone by Bone, a piece he feels is a particularly South African image, painted in shades of coastal camping-trip green, with its Volkswagen kombi, camping table and the flip-flop-clad feet of its subjects. There are works by Penny Siopis, Conrad Botes, Anton Kannemeyer and Norman Catherine. Gavin Younge’s Turkana Boy, and Lira by Georgina Gratrix, are hung close to Michael Subotzky’s piece on Pollsmoor Prison.

Aramita de Clermont’s art holds me fascinated. Her images, individually and collectively, capture a moment in the lives of the South Africans she photographs. At the same time, her lens connects me to each narrative, and the subject's story becomes my story too, I realise. 

And that's what, to different degrees, each piece in this collection has the ability to do – connect us. Sometimes it's to the place that inspired it; sometimes to the person who created it; and sometimes to a broader narrative of history, identity and meaning encapsulated in the myriad themes the artists explore.

Visiting the hotel and gallery confirmed that art, like travel, takes you places you’ve never been and shows you things you’d otherwise never see. If you’re lucky, art, again like travel, leaves you changed by the experience. Thank you, Ellerman House, for finding such an eloquent way to combine the two.

A view of the hotel. Image courtesy Ellerman House

Category: Arts & Entertainment

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