South Africa’s Art Scene Is Poised for a Breakthrough

To many outsiders, the South African art world may seem to have produced no more than a few major talents — most notably William Kentridge. Their work further suffers by being narrowly perceived as inextricably associated with apartheid, still the lodestone of South African identity. This oversimplification persists largely because even decades after the global boycott of South Africa’s economy and culture came to an end, the country’s art scene remains small. And while a few galleries are starting to reach out internationally, the arts still lack the broad popular audience at home that they enjoy in the Americas, Europe, and, increasingly, Asia.

Exacerbating the problem, the ruling African National Congress seems more interested in exploiting the divide than in broadening support for the arts, as evidenced by the party’s attempt last year to censor a painting of polygamist president Jacob Zuma as Lenin with his penis exposed. Intended by artist Brett Murray as a denunciation of corruption among ANC leadership, the government moved to suppress the work, launching a lawsuit against Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery and calling on party members to boycott a newspaper that published the image. A tribunal ruled that no action be taken, but the firestorm left the impression that South Africa’s government was more interested in culture wars than cultural development.

Yet a closer look reveals an art economy beginning to emerge from colonial provincialism. Only a small number of galleries and auction houses thrive in Africa’s largest economy, but top commercial galleries increasingly take part in major art fairs and place work in foreign museum shows, and Goodman, Stevenson, and Everard Read galleries have all recently expanded. Established and newer galleries are supporting a younger generation of contemporary artists, and many nonwhites are gaining the attention of collectors who, until recently, seldom crossed the color barrier. The appreciation and collecting of fine art remain pursuits of the white minority, but a black middle class is beginning to rise. Still, black-owned art businesses and collections can be counted on the fingers of one hand, an unfortunate deficiency in a nation of 52 million inhabitants, 80 percent of whom are black.

Museums, including the major municipal galleries in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, and Durban, remain woefully underfunded. Few receive major loans of works from abroad because of financial constraints, substandard facilities, and security issues, and they tend to present mainly regional art and traditional crafts. Private support is negligible owing to unfavorable tax laws that have not fostered a culture of philanthropy. Even the South African National Gallery in Cape Town cannot afford to buy historical or contemporary foreign works, and Riason Naidoo, the institution’s first black director, admits, “We cannot compete with the acquisitions budgets of international museums that are also vying for South African art.” But he notes in what may be a hopeful sign for the emerging scene, “We have been more proactive in identifying talented young artists for our collections who previously would not have been considered.”


For a brief period in the 1990s South Africa seemed to have become a full-fledged member of the international art circuit. After decades of exclusion during the international economic and cultural boycott that had isolated the country, in 1993 more than 20 South African artists were shown in the Venice Biennale. In 1995 the Ministry of Culture founded the Johannesburg Biennale, which for the first time brought international art to the stigmatized country. The second edition, in 1997, branched out to venues in Cape Town, with shows organized by international curators under the direction of Okwui Enwezor, then a rising curatorial talent. But the event’s major funder, the city of Johannesburg, closed the exhibition early to save money, and the biennial has not been revived since.

Despite rapid social transformation since the fall of apartheid, arts and culture have seldom found a place among government initiatives combating grave socio economic challenges, including rampant poverty and an inadequate education infrastructure. Last fall the national Department of Arts and Culture announced a Visual Arts Task Team to strengthen the arts. Clearly, however, the transformation of South Africa’s art scene will continue to be driven by the private sector. There, growth is the order of the day.

“Government support is low, as is understandable,” says collector Paul Harris, “so in the private sector we try and do as much as we can. Not as in other countries, but you start somewhere.” The former banker was speaking on the terrace of Ellerman House, his cliffside hotel above Cape Town that serves as a showcase for his extensive collection of South African art. On display are classic modernist paintings by Irma Stern and Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, as well as such contemporary works as a slab of polished granite into which conceptualist Willem Boshoff scratched a line for every day Nelson Mandela spent in prison, raunchy political satires by Anton Kannemeyer, a monumental stacked-stone bust by Angus Taylor, and moody figurative paintings by John Meyer.

“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, co-owner of New York’s Amaridian Gallery, which sold sub-Saharan art and design until its recent closure. “The biggest challenge for Africa is access to the global markets. 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. Only since the dismantling of apartheid have people been willing to consider the country.”

Image: Kudzanai Chiurai and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg

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South Africa’s Art Scene Is Poised for a Breakthrough

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