For our first visit of the day, we headed out to Tokai, located about 25 km outside of Cape Town. Nestled right next to Groot Constantia, the oldest wine estate on the continent, we find the non-profit Norval Foundation. It’s the second privately funded foundation established in Cape Town in the past year (Norval opened in April of 2018, only seven months after Zeitz MOCAA), and a significant driving force in diversifying the local art scene.
In the entry hall we were greeted by chief executive Elana Brundyn and chief curator Owen Martin. Both Brundyn and Martin were actually working at the Zeitz MOCAA when they were approached to lead the Norval Foundation, an ambitious institution focusing on contemporary and 20th century South African and international artists.
The newly opened building also houses founder and property mogul Louis Norval’s private collection (better known as the Homestead Collection, comprised of about 1505 pieces, mainly paintings, drawings and scuptures by 20th century African artists) although it’s important to stress that the Foundation exists entirely separate from the collection and has no real obligation to showcase it. At this point, the Norval Foundation has no acquisition budget and is mainly concerned with making the work of important or largely overlooked South African artists widely accessible to local and international visitors, and providing the necessary art historical context for these art practices.
The solo presentation of Mmapula Mmakgoba “Helen” Sebidi (SA, 1943) is a good example of someone who has been exhibiting for a long time and has been reluctantly part of the commercial world (she is represented by Everard Read Gallery), but only now, after more than forty years, was invited by the Norval Foundation to exhibit her work in an institutional context. At 27, Sebidi, a domestic worker with a raw talent for painting but coming from a humble family, enrolled at the White Studio established by pioneering black painter John Keonakeefe Mohl after encouragement from her employer. She got her first commercial break in the eighties and has been painting ever since. Sebidi draws inspiration from her experiences of the suffering inflicted by years of apartheid and township life, and depicts these in harrowing but colourful tableaus showing abstracted human and animal figures. In this exhibition titled “Balthaping Ba Re!” she dedicates herself to mythologies and ancestry and invites us to think through the spiritual meaning of animals.
Other noteworthy exhibitions on at the moment are clustered under the umbrella “Re/discovery and Memory”, a ‘series of interrelated solo exhibitions which focus on the productive dialogue between Sydney Kumalo, Ezrom Legae and Eduardo Villa, at a time when South Africa was deeply divided by its politics and social structures.’
Upon entering these exhibitions one has to pass through “The Atrium”, an open space connecting the sculpture garden with the exhibitions. Every year an artist is commissioned to create a piece for this space, Serge Alain Nitegeka (who we’ve encountered at Stevenson yesterday) being the first one to create an immersive installation resembling a dense cripple wood forest.
One of the biggest assets of the foundation are the beautiful gardens and the sculpture park surrounding the institution. Located on protected wetlands and home to exclusively indiginous plantlife it’s a much more lush iteration of the kind of sculpture parks we are used to in the lowlands.
Driving up from Capetown, it was quite unsettling to notice all of the heavily guarded houses, sporting spiked gates and rolls of barbed wire on top. The Norval foundation is no different with its heavy entrance gate and security guard checking everyone who enters the property. It’s not necessarily the most inviting atmosphere with the posh restaurant adding another intimidating barrier for the underprivilegd communities. The question on everyone’s lips and which also concerns Zeitz MOCAA is how both institutions will be able to share the exhibitions and wonderful garden with a diverse audience.
Studio Visit Mawande Ka Zenzile – The problem we didn’t create
location: Nyuanga east
Nyanga is one of the oldest and Black townships in Cape Town. It was established in 1946 and proclaimed a township during the same year. It lies about 26 kilometres from the City centre. Nyanga, meaning ‘moon’ is still poor and is made up mostly of informal settlements where people live close together in shacks made of zinc, cardboard and wood – this despite recent governmental development initiatives to provide more brick houses. Families here live below the breadline. Despite this, Nyanga is where things are happening. Organisations like: ‘Abalimi Bezekhaya’ are promoting a culture of self-help by facilitating food growing and environmental action, and role models like ‘Mama Maphosela’, who takes in TB and Aids orphans, are working to deal with the stigma attached to HIV. Vibrant entrepreneurs have opened barber shops, hairdressing salons, tuck shops and informal traders and fruit sellers, line the main streets.
Essentially Nyanga was created as a result of the migrant labour system.
Initially migrant workers were virtually all men, who needed to earn a wage to pay hut taxes introduced by the government. There were few job opportunities in the rural areas, so they had to come to the cities to work for cash to pay the government taxes. People moved across the country, often far from home, to work for a short while and then return to their families. Later, women, too, became migrant workers, mostly doing domestic work for White families. The migrant labour system provided cheap labour for White-owned mines and farms (and later factories). The system also brought about the racial segregation of land. Between 1950 and 1960 the government started the policy of forced removals. In 3 years time 16.000 Africans were evicted from Divco areas( The Cape Divisional Council)The evictees were moved from shantytowns in these areas to small houses and self-built shacks in Nyanga. for more info read here.
We arrive with the group in a bus in the township and the contrast feels awkward being surrounded by poverty. Shacks made of zinc and cardboard form a mosaïc patchwork of grey and brown colors highlighted by brick houses painted in orange, yellow or blue. The patchwork looks as if it’s intuitively painted by an artist who has no concept or plan.
As we enter a Maroon container, the studio of Mawande Ka Zenzile ,we are welcomed by loud music and it felt like a wall of sound we had to cross in order to enter his sanctuary. Being an artist myself I know how sacred a studio can be. The space is small and filled with books, tools, a couch and an electric heater. On the wall a photo of his son and we see part of a painting with a naked black man. The containers is placed in front of the house where the mother of the artist lives. An orange two store brick house. Around the corner there is a primary school and children look at us with curiosity.
Mawande immediately starts to talk and his words cover us like a waterfall of drops. He is an intellectual but what bothered him at the university is how knowledge was created and how the systems of knowledge production are constructed by the same systems of power which oppressed blacks. Art saved him because it gave him a different perception on the world. His life completely changed when he decided to become an artist. He started to realize that there are other methodologies of knowledge production. The knowledge he got at university was second hand knowledge. So he decided to trust his own intuition and step away from these knowledge prodcutions. His intuition was always there but he was taught not to trust it. “Intuition is a European vocabulary. We do believe in ancestry as guidance in this realm. Ideas and answers only come when I am in a certain state of mind.” he says “When I am in my studio I don’t think” Which I can understand. He has read so many books that there must be thousands of words dancing in his head. Creating brings you in a different sate of mind. It’s a way of escaping your thoughts. Everything he creates is part of what is surrounding him. He makes sculptures, installations and does performance. Painting was always important to him. He uses cow dung and mixes it with pigment to paint with. It is a way to lift the materiality of the dung to another level. Cow dung brings back childhood memories because it was used to cover the floor of his elderly home. When they wanted the house to smell fresh, they used cow dung. It stands symbol for nothing more and nothing less. It is what it is. He let ’s the viewer struggle with content and meaning.
My mind wanders off to an interview I saw with Chris Ofili. A lady in the audience asked him where the elephant dung came from. Chris’ answer: “The elephant dung comes from the elephant.”
“There is something magical about art when you look at it “ he says . What a capitalistic system does is forgetting that there is a world beyond reality and consumerism. Art helps us to re-imagine a different future. Sticking to the same system makes that the ones who were lefties and activists and protesting for a better world now have become the new rich of the future. It is a repetitive system.
Decolonization was a way to dig deeper into knowledge production and it helped him to create a different paradigm. It helped him to find a alternative approach. Decoloniality on the other hand imposes another positionally. The majority of theorists are from South America and they didn’t have the experience he had. There is no Africanism in there theory. Post -Colonialitity was also trapped in a modernist approach. It takes away the agency from you and it makes you depending on other people to create knowledge for you. An art object is free from all that.
Using images from Lumumba and Kadaffi and flags is not related to Iconoclasm. He doesn’t want to be defined as an iconoclast. They are just symbols. Symbols and worlds are already existing. Everything is already there. The question is how do you bring them together to create a sentence. The object is nothing it is what we project on the thing that gives the thing it’s meaning. We don’t think about logic and what it is. Who defined those terms? One doesn’t look on how they influence each other. When you go back to first hand knowledge you will find a different truth.
What is meant by ‘The problem we didn’t create’. The title of his catalogue.
Racism, sexism, poverty, inequality, environmental problems were not created by the ones who are marginalized in this world. At the same time the problem in itself also carries a solution. Hegel says that Africans don’t have a history. The ones who have controle on how you think and what to believe that’s also a problem we didn’t create.
Currently he his working on new paintings for upcoming shows and art fairs. There is a tension between wanting to be completely autonomous as an artist on the one hand. On the other hand depending on the economy of that same art world which distracts him from being autonomous. Luckily he is filled with so many new ideas that he doesn’t know where to start. And that’s a problem he has to solve by him self.