With more than 100 art galleries in Cape Town and its surrounds, the art scene is growing both in size and popularity every day. The Mother City is known for its vibrant and dynamic culture and community, with a wide range of contemporary as well as fine art exhibitions. Art has always played an important role in South Africa’s storied history. Whether it’s art that takes you back 4000 years ago, during the time of the cave painting from the San Bushmen or contemporary art that evolved during the apartheid era and afterwards, it is an important aspect of any trip to South Africa. Here is an overview of why South African art is so unique and why you need to incorporate an art focused experience into your travel itinerary.

A doorway into the rainbow history of South Africa

Often South African art is only linked to traditional masks, sculptures and colourful prints. However, in a country with eleven different languages, art serves as so much more than that. South African art is seen as the one language that can speak for all of them, the doorway to different cultures and people, in order to see what is really going on. Coming to South Africa and experiencing different types of art, from contemporary art to classic art and fine art to street art, can provide a difficult but dynamic story about the country’s complicated past. With art as a platform for different cultures, it has played a strong role in the history and culture of the country.

“What makes African art unique is certainly its link to its rich and sometimes turbulent history, and also the expression of a vital and positive energy.”

– Matthias and Gervanne Leridon, private collectors of contemporary African art and funders of African Artists for Development

What to expect from South African art?

South African art is known for its eclectic and rich diversity. The country’s vibrant past, together with all different cultures and languages, gives South African artists a sea of inspiration. South African art can be divided into four historical eras: San Bushman, Colonial, 20th century, Apartheid (and Post-Apartheid from the 1990s). The first period, San Bushman, is art made by indigenous people of Southern Africa, what is now South Africa and Botswana. The Bushmen created rock paintings and carvings (rock art) that are estimated to be more than 4000 years old. They created an impressive range of rock art in the Drakensberg mountains, which is considered the most concentrated group of rock paintings in sub-Saharan Africa.

The second era is considered the early colonial era, where artists focused on portraying the world in minute detail. This art was also used as a way to report back to people in the colonial home countries. Paintings and drawings often depict flora, fauna, people and landscapes.

After the 19th century, artists such as Jan Volschenk, Pieter Hugo Naudé and Anton van Wauw started making art that was more focused on the country’s identity – stronger elements of African culture begin to be more noticeable in this era’s work. Thereafter followed art in the period of the rule of the Apartheid regime. This art is considered more diverse, from very accurate paintings to abstract art with a mix of European and African elements. Great examples are artists Gerard Sekoto and George Pemba, who focused on portraying the urban African life in places such as Sophiatown in Johannesburg and District Six in Cape Town.

After the downfall of the Nationalist government and the dismantling of Apartheid in the early 1990s, conceptual art was on the rise. Unknown artists were given the opportunity to join the global debate about art. Contemporary artists David Goldblatt and Sue Williamson are very well known for using their art in protest against the racist government system.

It’s safe to say that South African art cannot be defined in a single description. It is a story of a complicated and tense relationship between Africa and Europe. Art from the African continent reflects many different expressions and includes paintings, sculptures, photography, film and much, much more; but we would argue that that’s what makes it unique! According to Tony East from the Goodman Gallery, “In any culture, nation or environment, the strength of their art lies in the strengths of their diversity and culture.”

Cape Town, where local meets global

It is said that Cape Town is the proverbial gateway from the tip of Africa to the rest of the continent. Not only does it boast inspiring natural beauty but it is an accessible and cosmopolitan city with so many different influences from all over the world.  With the opening of galleries like the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) it is clear to see that Cape Town has a vibrant and incredibly dynamic art scene which attracts many established and emerging artists and art lovers. According to Pamela Mulock-Bentley, a painter based in Cape Town,

“Cape Town is very migrant based and welcoming to creatives from all around the world. This makes South African art not limited and the volume of contemporary abstract art is high.

With the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), the biggest contemporary art museum in Africa, opening its doors at the V&A Waterfront in September, Cape Town will be placed in the spotlight as a globally recognized destination for art. For Matthias Leridon,  collector  of South African art, what makes Cape Town a real epicentre of art is that the Mother City benefits from a powerful art creativity of high quality, structures such as galleries and museums, gallery owners who do remarkable work of international influence, as well as south african based collectors.”

Past and present: African artists to watch

In the last decade, vast sums of money have been paid for masterpieces from South African artists such as Irma Stern, Jacob Hendrik Pierneef and Gerard Sekoto. 

“South African art is making an entrance in the global debate about art. Many young SA artists are given the opportunity to show the world what their opinion is in this debate.” 

– Tony East, Goodman Gallery

The story behind South African art takes you through the history of the country, where the emerging artists of today show you the big changes that are taking place. In addition to learning about the established SA artists like William Kentridge, David Goldblatt and Yinka Shonibare, it is also worth keeping an eye on some of the rising stars of today. Some of the emerging artists to watch are Kudzanai Chiurai, Mikhael Subotzky and Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze. 

It’s an exciting time to be an African artist as the world is paying more attention than ever before. The reason for this can be attributed to the growth prospects of the continent and the ongoing organisation of international events focused on African art. Exhibitions like the Lumière d’Afrique are leading to the exposure of many of these young talented artists.

The 21st century is and will be the century of the African continent”, Cape Town faces now overcoming challenges: There are absolutely amazing artists and artworks all over Africa without any exception, and this may give a special role to Cape Town, perhaps the voice of other artists of the continent, which is a beautiful mission.”

– Matthias Leridon, African art collector

Ways to experience art in Cape Town

There are a variety of ways to experience art in Cape Town. Here are just a few to explore during your visit:

  • First Thursdays – A big rendezvous which is held on the first Thursday of every month. During this day, you can explore art galleries and cultural attractions in Cape Town until late. And it is all about an exchange of ideas: art in content needs to stay vibrant.
  • Woodstock Street artA place of interest is Woodstock, a small district on the edge of the Cape Town CBD, sandwiched between Table Mountain and the Waterfront docks. Woodstock is experiencing rapid gentrification with new shops very popular with hipsters, fine restaurants and entire streets dedicated to galleries and studios, where you can meet the artists themselves.
  • Galleries – Don’t miss out Youngblood,  Michael Stevenson Gallery, The Goodman Gallery, What If the World Gallery,  Momo Gallery and Greatmore Studios.
  • Museums – Zeitz MOCAA, Iziko and Irma Stern Museum. Top museums that host some of the finest South African art collections in the country.

With all changes happening and being home for one of the most exciting art galleries of the South Africa, it can be said that Cape Town’s art scene is most vibrant of the country. The important national art collections, well-established art dealers and the rise of new trendy galleries makes Cape Town not only a place for ‘just’ art lovers, it shows the interesting history of the country and culture of South Africa. This makes it almost a must to implement an art element into your travel itinerary to Cape Town.

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