Did you know?
Buried beneath the ampitheatre at Nirox Sculpture Park are concrete structures that were used as reservoirs for trout farming by the former owners of the land.
About an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, deep in the Cradle of Humankind, artist Richard Penn wraps some vegetables in foil and places them carefully on a braai (barbecue). 'My brother is flying in from Manchester, and he’s going to come through for a braai,' he says.
Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, you’d think he was on holiday – after all, we are in area that is increasingly becoming a weekend retreat from the big city. But this is the Nirox Foundation complex and Penn is here to work.
Penn is part of the Nirox Foundation’s residency programme, which invites renowned artists to stay on its property, giving them access to the region’s extraordinary heritage.
Working in collaboration with United Kingdom-based writer Guinevere Glasford-Brown, they are busy on a project that will see Penn’s art merge with Glasford-Brown’s writing to create a unique work that is neither quite book nor art piece.
The project involves them exchanging two books every day, with each entry in each book a response to the other’s drawing or writing. Working on the theme of 'Origins', they say they have been inspired by their current surroundings. Their entries are, therefore, closely linked to the scenery and feelings evoked by it.
That scenery is the Nirox Sculpture Park, a 15ha lush expanse of land that was once a commercial trout farm. Now with a serene atmosphere, walkways and water features surrounded by a sea of greenery, it belies the fact that it is part of Gauteng, the most densely populated province in the country.
According to curator at Nirox Mary Jane Darroll, the sculpture park was the brainchild of Benjy Liebmann, the owner of an adjacent farm who in 2006 had bought a sculpture by Edoardo Villa and displayed it on his farm. 'He was so impressed by the work of the artist that he offered him accommodation and a studio on his farm. Villa declined the offer, but said, however, that he would love to exhibit there,' she says.
Following that exhibition, Liebmann, along with the owners of two other pieces of land bordering the former trout farm, purchased the land. They tore down their fences to give their animals access to the land, and turned it into what is now the Nirox Sculpture Park.
'If you are lucky, you might see some zebras or antelopes grazing,' Darroll says. 'We tell our artists to make their installations strong as the monkeys come out to play on them.'
As you stroll into the garden, you meet Layers of Being by Angus Taylor – the giant kneeling figure made of rammed earth fascinated art lovers in the Netherlands during an exhibition entitled The Rainbow Nation .
The installation took Taylor four days to assemble in the park, but its presence is so overwhelming, it looks as though it emerged from the earth from which it is made.
Further down the garden, Fractals – also by Taylor and comprising nine heads on top of each other – echoes the earlier piece.
As we continue our walk, each piece is met with a new reaction – shock, horror, fascination, wonder...
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect about the garden is that none of the works are permanent fixtures. To a first-time visitor, each work looks firmly grounded to its spot, yet one day each will disappear, to be replaced by the works of other artists. Each trip to the park is certain to be a new, unpredictable experience.
Darroll says the project aims to make sculptures as an art form more accessible to the public. 'More people buy paintings for their homes, yet if you look at the history of Africa, sculptures are a more natural form of art,' she says.
The Nirox Foundation also promotes performing arts. There’s an amphitheatre where events such jazz concerts and poetry readings are held regularly.
At such times, and when there are exhibitions taking place, the park is open to the general public. At other times, visitors need to make an appointment.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
The park is about 40 minutes from Johannesburg or Pretoria. Click here for directions.
Around the area
Since you are in the Cradle of Humankind, you can make a day of it and visit the Maropeng Visitor Centre and the Sterkfontein Caves; and just down the road from Nirox is the Kromdraai Gold Mine.
Self-drive is the best option.
What will it cost
Entry to the park is free, but the various events do have a charge.