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FFrom the rock art of the San to the most recent contemporary museum in Cape Town, ZEITZ MOCAA, South Africa’s history of art is a long and interesting one. Often this history is closely tied to the political landscape, and most times reflects that landscape.
Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Park (recognised by UNESCO as a mixed cultural and World Heritage site) boasts the largest group of rock paintings to be found in sub-Saharan Africa. This can be considered the earliest examples of visual art, with subject matter that extends beyond the simple visual representations of day-to-day life towards a representation of spiritual and religious beliefs of the San people.
One of the oldest galleries in the country, the Goodman Gallery, situated in Johannesburg, was established in 1966 by Linda Givon. It quickly became an important instrument towards challenging the Apartheid laws that sought to segregate black and white people through all spheres of ordinary life, including arts and culture. In the early years, the gallery presented exhibitions by black artists such as David Koloane, Dumile Feni and Sydney Khumalo, who went on to play an active role in the creation and sustenance of The Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA), established in 1978. Its main purpose was to collaboratively work with artists of different disciplines, particularly around issues of ownership and distribution. The Goodman Gallery remains a critical vessel through which to explore art history in relation to commerce.
SSouth Africa boasts a number of homegrown exports who have gone on to create remarkable bodies of work as well as contributing to the global art discourse. Among these are William Kentridge, Zanele Muholi, Kemang Wa Lehulere, David Goldblatt, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi and Mary Sibande. We’re also very proud of icons such as Esther Mahlangu, a painter of large-scale works with references to the Ndebele heritage, who has exhibited and collaborated with international artists including Yoko Ono.
South Africa is home to a number of world-class institutions such as The Wits School of Arts in Johannesburg (offering programmes in digital art, fine art, film & television, history of art, theatre/performance and more), Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, and the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg. Over the years these have been significant in fostering a strong connection between art and activism.
Metropolitan cities like Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town make up a good part of the South African art scene, but some smaller towns have and continue to make a name for themselves. Among these are Parys in the Free State and Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape (to be renamed Makhanda, honouring Nxele, a Xhosa warrior, philosopher and prophet). Grahamstown is host town to the The National Arts Festival, an important event in South Africa’s arts calendar. The festival originated in 1974 and has gained a reputation as the leading arts festival, showcasing the best art in Africa through performances, comedy shows, visual art exhibitions and more.
Clarens in the Free State boasts a myriad of explorations, with a number of great restaurants and outdoor activities. Smaller galleries such as Addy & Hoyle Art Gallery and Art and Wine Gallery add to the scene.
DDurban, offers more than beautiful beaches, great weather and friendly faces - one can also indulge in contemporary art at Artisan Gallery, which has the finest South African handcrafted artwork and Fat Tuesday Gallery, showcasing paintings, ceramics and photography.
Despite mainstream contemporary art dominating the conversation, steps have been taken to integrate artists on the fringe. One of these is through The Joburg Fringe, often described as “the gutsy, independent, streetwise, annual art fair”, which runs alongside the famous Joburg Art Fair and congregates art lovers, collectors, galleries and thinkers around African contemporary art. Joburg Fringe creates a space for independent and emerging artists to engage with curators, collectors and the public, and takes place at Victoria Yards in the suburb of Lorentzville, an industrial complex turned artist hub cum urban farming landscape, cultivating not only some of the best art in the city but also seasonal fruit and vegetables. Victoria Yards is also home to a number of contemporary galleries and print studios, including Daville Baillie Gallery, Danger Gevaar Ingozi Studio (DGI) as well as artist studios with visual artists Blessing Ngobeni and Ayanda Mabulu.
A number of alternative art spaces provide a platform for different narratives and conversations. Among these are The Spaza Art Gallery in Troyeville, a gallery dedicated to showcasing young artists through music performances, public art works and more. Given the racial history of South Africa, spaces such as these as well as Gallery MoMo and MMArtHouse, some of the few 100% black-owned gallery spaces, are important, especially around issues of ownership and access.
A brilliant initiative to get a sense of the lay of the land is through participating in First Thursdays, where residents and tourists alike walk the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town galleries, hopping from one spot to another, and enjoying exhibitions, live music, performance art and pop-up bars. This is truly one of the best ways to enjoy the art scene and all it has to offer.
AAbout the author
Nkgopoleng Moloi is a writer and photographer. She is interested in space, movement and how people navigate different spaces, particularly in cities. She is a contributor at Art Africa Magazine where she writes about contemporary visual art from Africa and the diaspora. She is passionate about art, history, architecture and design. Nkgopoleng has exhibited her work at Franschhoek Festival of Art 2018, Grammers Fotoza Exhibition 2018, Vital Signs group show 2017, Joburg Fringe 2017 and many more.