Every other day, on my route to Sir Lowry Road, the chosen address for Cape Town’s most forward-thinking commercial galleries representing homegrown talents like Kemang wa Lehulere and Igshaan Adams, I pass a natural spring fed by Table Mountain, one of the world’s oldest peaks. As in other parts of this port city, which is currently experiencing its worst drought in a century, local residents fill up plastic containers to supplement the strict daily water quotas imposed by authorities. Across town, in the plush hotel perched atop the new Thomas Heatherwick-designed Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, a new museum focussing on African art made after 2000, the egg-shaped bathtubs are currently out of use, their plugs removed.
The drought is a major talking point among Capetonians: it is expected that the city’s water supply will be depleted by April, before the annual winter rains. Cape Town could become the first major global city to run out of water, reported the New York Times in December. A beachhead for white settlement of the subcontinent from 1652, Cape Town is modern South Africa’s oldest city. Starting in the nineteenth century it became the centre of a flourishing art scene. This process was capped by the founding, in 1895, of the South African National Gallery, the country’s only national art museum. The opening of Zeitz MoCAA, which is based in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront mall development and showcases the collection of German businessman Jochen Zeitz, entrenches Cape Town’s longstanding hegemony over the visual arts.
During the inter-war years (1918-39) Cape Town remained the centre of artistic innovation in South Africa, notably in painting. Irma Stern, a Berlin-trained expressionist who maintained a sumptuous residence in Cape Town, was the leading painter of her day. A fixture of the country’s earliest national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, the legacy of her gestural style is visible in the work of Cape Town painters like Penny Siopis, Georgina Gratrix and Mia Chaplin. More tellingly, Stern remains the most sought-after South African artist at auction, the prices paid for her work elevating her to among the ten most expensive women artists sold at auction globally between 2005 and 2015.
In the politically fraught but financially buoyant decades after 1945, Johannesburg – not Cape Town – emerged as the centre of innovation in art. It was the birthplace of pioneer abstract painter Ernst Mancoba, a member of the CoBrA group, and is home to artists such as David Goldblatt, William Kentridge and Santu Mofokeng, all well known to French audiences. In 1995, Johannesburg attempted to consolidate its premier position with the launch of the Johannesburg Biennale. David Bowie, then on a hiatus from making music reported on his visit to the biennale for Modern Painters: “After the white-picket-fence, rolling green of the Cape, Johannesburg is an urban nightmare. Blade-runner brutal in its hostile, teeming streets, and really exciting.” Unfortunately, the biennale project, which ran to two editions (1995 and 1997), was a failure.
Since then, and notwithstanding its own failed attempts to revive the biennale format with CAPE07 and CAPE09, Cape Town has reasserted its position as South Africa’s art centre. This re-emergence has come paired with intense activism. In 2015, a bronze sculpture depicting British-born mining magnate and Cape politician Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT) became a focal point of the country’s post-apartheid culture wars. Viewed as a repressive symbol of “suffocating whiteness” by students, to quote UCT sociologist Xolela Mangcu, it was later removed. In 2016, a small group of UCT students burnt 24 artworks on display at the university. “No time for white tears here,” a voice was heard shouting. Members of the Trans Collective – a self-defined LGBTIAPQ+ coalition – also vandalised a photography exhibition commemorating the first anniversary of the Fallist Movement, and, also in 2016, UCT’s art school – whose graduates include painter Marlene Dumas – was occupied.
This activism has birthed its own rising talents. The all-female collective iQhiya, comprised of 11 black women who all attended UCT’s art school, have staged public performances around Cape Town and also appeared on Documenta 14. iQhiya member Sethembile Msezane also has her work on display at Zeitz MoCAA. The museum’s holdings, which includes solo exhibitions for Swaziland-born Nandipha Mntambo and Zimbabwean mixed-media artist Kudzanai Chiurai, has split opinion. Mark Coetzee, Zeitz MoCAA’s executive director and chief curator, has made the figure the defining leitmotif of his museum’s opening exhibitions. Coetzee told me that his decision was influenced by two key factors: the fetish value of “selfies and the photographic image” among millennials, and the still-pressing need, in post-apartheid South Africa, to offer black museumgoers work that they might identify with. Artist like Athi-Patra Ruga and Mary Sibande typify the baroque flourishes of this new practice being privileged by Zeitz MoCAA.
The current water crisis poses not only actual risks for Cape Town, especially of civil unrest, but also perceptual challenges. Is the city viable in the long term? For now, wealthy art collectors seem to think so. In 2017, collector Wendy Fisher opened A4 Arts Foundation, a dialogue-minded space that could be a corrective to Zeitz MoCAA. It forms part of a network of new spaces, including Maitland Institute, a project space founded by collector Tammi Glick that this year will host Nicholas Hlobo and Donna Kukama. The newly opened Norval Foundation, which includes a sculpture park, will add further diversity to the art on show in Cape Town. On the surface, Cape Town is winning; but all the new institutions I mentioned are white-owned. Younger artists especially are displeased. The suffocating whiteness endures. The storm clouds looming on Cape Town’s horizon hint not at rain but the possibility of more protest.
- Sarah Khan, ‘There Is a Water Crisis in Cape Town. Travelers Should Be Prepared (and Can Help)’, New York Times, 27 December 2017
- David Bowie, ‘The Cleanest Work of All’, Modern Painters, Summer 1995, p.44
- Xolela Mangcu, ‘Shattering the myth that race doesn’t matter’, Sunday Times, 22 March 2015, p.19
- Hedley Twidle, Fire Pool, Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2017, p.256
- Mark Coetzee, interview 7 July 2017, Cape Town