Zanele Muholi, Athi-Patra Ruga, Thania Petersen, Igshaan Adams, Kyle Morland, Cyrus Kabiru, Nandipha Mntambo and Kudzanai  Chuirai.  The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Mocaa) hasn’t opened its doors to the public yet, but we already know via previews of the opening exhibitions, which artists have been crowned the contemporary art luminaries by this institution. This will be hotly debated and has been contested, with so many important artists being inevitably excluded. You can’t very well show every significant living artist in the opening exhibitions even if they do have 80 galleries. Significantly, in maintaining the contemporary vibe, no art from before the year 2000 will be collected – or at least this is the message the museum has been sending out via its acquisitions.

In this way the story of African and SA art will be incomplete. Perhaps the story is too big to tell.  A history of SA art has undoubtedly influenced our contemporary artists. Think of how Ruga both admires and challenges Irma Stern’s portraiture. Chuirai’s latest exhibition, We Live in Silence II, at Goodman Gallery riffs on the history of painting.

An historical context is vital to fully appreciating contemporary art and will be partially offered by a Strauss & Co exhibition on September 13 at the One & Only Hotel, which is a stone’s throw from Zeitz Mocaa. The older and now long gone ‘masters’ whose art once exemplified contemporary outlooks will feature in this exhibition of Important South African and International Art, which is a preview of the highlights from an upcoming auction that will take place in Cape Town on October 16.

This group of art celebrities not only dominate art auctions, but are part of veritable list of who’s-who of the country’s most important modern and or 20th Century artists. Think Pierneef, Stanley Pinker, Cecil Skotnes, Sydney Khumalo Walter Battiss, Peter Clarke, Alexis Preller and female art heavyweights, Irma Stern and Maggie Laubser. In other words, a museum collection to rival the ones hanging in Thomas Heatherwick’s building. 

Not that Strauss & Co are trying to compete – that would be difficult given all the hype surrounding the professional preview weekend at Zeitz Mocaa. This show is meant to complement this landmark event, drawing attention to another era of artmaking and celebrate how the art world has expanded and matured.

Since a Pierneef work, Farm Jonkershoek with Twin Peaks Beyond, Stellenbosch, fetched an earth-shattering R20-million at a Strauss & Co auction in June, there has naturally been increased interest in this artist’s oeuvre. This exhibition presents a diverse array of works by Pierneef.

Interestingly, the Jonkershoek valley makes another appearance, in a titular work created in 1926. The dusty pink peaks remain in view but the scene, composition and almost pointillist rendering of it differs quite remarkably from the painting of this setting that fetched R20-million. This work is valued between R500 000 and R700 000.  

HardeKoolboom in a Bushveld Landscape (1944) delivers on his signature geometric trees in bucket-loads with a scene bursting with greenery. In stark contrast is the long, soft drooping foliage in Willow Trees in Summer (1913). The pastel medium allows Pierneef to better capture the character of the willow trees, making for an unusual or unexpected work from this artist, who seemed to embrace hard lines, structure.

Perusing this exhibition will make clear that while contemporary African artists are consumed with identity-issues as exemplified in the opening exhibitions at Zeitz Mocaa that are largely photographic based or performance related, those of a bygone era were fixated with landscapes and rendering them in a picturesque manner. Hugo Naudé’s impressionist-like views of Namaqualand and Venice exemplify this as do Maud Sumner’s Desert Landscape.  

The next generation of artists from the 50s onwards embraced an abstract vocabulary in the manner of the modernists in Europe, though as Erik Laubscher’s Evening Landscape painting substantiates, some continued to use the landscape as a subject-matter to apply different stylistic and ideological interests.

An in-depth look at this era is offered at Welgemeend in Gardens, where Frank and Lizelle Kilbourn and Pieter G Colyn have been showing a selection of works from their collections in an exhibition titled: Abstraction: South African Art from the 50s to the ‘70s. The exhibition was extended to tie in with the Zeitz Mocaa opening.

Back at the One & Only, the narrative in the evolution of SA art continues with Battiss, Skotnes, Sydney Kumalo combining or taking inspiration from the abstract mode in the 50s with an African vocabulary to express another era – from the 60s to the 70s at a time when not only were black and white artists in conversation but European and African art modes began to coalesce in interesting ways.  This may not have been the motivation behind the Skotnes work Communication, a wood carving presenting three abstract figures.

“Very few South African artists have been able to establish an artistic form of expression which is not only personal, but also captures the spirit of our own complex age,” wrote Egon Guenther in a catalogue for an exhibition where this work was shown.

Guenther puts his finger on the role art can play in not only making us aware of contemporary conditions, but through historical works connect us with another era. Clarke’s haunting Day Dreaming, a painting of a group of naked men looking out to sea, reminds us, however, that art also offers us a window of often unfulfilled aspirations. This 1967 work featuring men of different races sitting naked and at ease with each other points to a desire for a changed society. Clarke fortunately did live to see our country transformed, and he may well have heard of the plan for the Zeitz Mocaa before he died in 2014, but could he have imagined what the building would be like, or how it would feel to step into such a massive museum dedicated to art from the continent?

- Important South African and International Art, a preview of the highlights will show at The Gallery, One & Only Hotel, Dock Road, V&A Waterfront from September 13 to 17. Entry is free. Abstraction: South African Art from the 50s to the ‘70s is on at Welgemeend, cnr Welgemeend and Lingen Street, Gardens until September 22. By appointment only: call Helena at 082 461 9753. For more information on the Strauss & Co auctions and events visit: straussart.co.za


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