Understanding South Africa, its history and the art which has accompanied its ongoing convulsions takes a little time, but perhaps the most important thing is to have a starting point. D'Ellerman House to Delaire Graff Estate including AtholPlace, Mr. Tripper makes us travel with the thread of art.
The very personal, but accomplished, reading of this heritage by Paul Harris at Ellerman House seems essential to that understanding. Whether or not you choose to stay in one of the 11 rooms of this Relais & Châteaux hotel lulled by the tides of the South Atlantic, you should definitely experience a private viewing of the thousand or so works curated here, to say nothing of lunch on the ocean terrace. Having previously been content simply to hang art as decoration, the hotel now plays an increasingly educational role previously exclusive to traditional museum environments. The inclination of this former banker differs in this respect from that of Laurence Graff, owner of the Delaire Graff Estate outside Stellenbosch, and that of the founders of AtholPlace in Johannesburg.
Although these hotels all share the same common thread of art from house to garden, and have along the way involved the country’s top galleries, from Goodman Gallery and Everard Read to the Stevenson Gallery, Ellerman House has pushed commitment even further to the point where it adopts the feel of a museum, housing the classical and modern pieces of its collection in the main building, and showing its contemporary pieces on a balcony overlooking the sea. This journey shows us how and how far the art of South Africa has ventured beyond its geography. While it was the landscape that fascinated the plein air painters exiled here in the 19th century, there is no longer any question of ‘white art’ or ‘black art’; there is only unified South African art.
Nevertheless, this fact should not be misinterpreted as easy or in any way bland. Its history and politics have forged the lasting human condition of this country, and given its art an emotional charge that is undoubtedly stronger now than before. Contrasting shadow with light and humor with provocation, South African art has not forgotten the days of apartheid, colonialism and slavery that now provide it with a fertile territory for subject matter. National culture and history undoubtedly dominate personal experience for all these artists. Sometimes Utopian or even poetic, their art is no less subversive and brutal in its quest for inventiveness and even recycling, as evidenced by the sculptures of El Anatsui recently celebrated at another Cape Town bastion of art, the South African National Gallery, which may not be as spectacular as Tomas Heatherwick’s Zeitz Mocaa, but is every bit as essential.
After the borderline crazy plan to redevelop the former warehouses of Woodstock into a creative hub initiated by the Goodman and Stevenson galleries - the most influential in the country - Cape Town lacked a single location with the ability to stamp the identity of the city and country definitively on the global art scene. Having opened the gallery created in the former V&A Waterfront grain silos last year, Jochen Zeitz has unquestionably succeeded in his presentational and hanging challenge by creating a museographical tour de force - a model of its kind - to showcase the best of creativity in South Africa and its diaspora, from Athi-Patra-Ruga to William Kentridge, Cyrus Kabiru, Kendell Geers and Zaniele Muholi to Banele Khoza, to mention just a few.
But the country’s other cities are not to be outdone. Just as the vivid colors of 70 Juta in Joburg share a parental link with the equally bright buildings of the legendary neighborhood, the famous First Thursday events that invite visitors into galleries for evening viewings have found an echo in the country’s administrative capital, and the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock has an alter ego in Arts on Main in Johannesburg's Maboneng creative hub. Both have become epicenters of these neighborhoods of painted walls and outdoor sculptures, where the big-name galleries also have a presence.
Even in Franschhoek, a small town surrounded by vines, the atmosphere is very different, the same great names of art still hang next to each other. The Stevenson Gallery has thrown its doors open wide onto a former priest’s garden where sculptures by stars such as Lionel Smit and Dylan Lewis patiently await happy owners, like Laurence Graff, who has colonized every square foot of his spectacular neighboring wine estate with magnificent pieces. In this place, buying art seems every bit as simple as buying a bottle of wine in the minimarket next door. If the landscape was once the source of South African art, the art of South Africa is now irrevocably part of the same landscape.