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Reflections on South Africa

by Rachel Walker
Image: Cityscape

SCAN South Africa Research Trip from SCAN on Vimeo.

In March 2015, Rachel Walker represented SCAN as part of a British Council Connect ZA supported trip that aimed to explore and report back on the visual arts scene in South Africa. In this overview of her trip, Rachel outlines the organisations she visited and the difficulties faced by many artists and grass roots organisations in South Africa. This project was supported by SA-UK Seasons 2014 & 2015, a partnership between the Department of Arts and Culture, South Africa and the British Council.

A summary of key statistical research on the South African Visual Arts sector can be found as a Resource titled Summary of South African Visual Arts Sector

To summarise the current contemporary art scene in South Africa is challenging. Although not my intention to explain the current socio-political issues of the country, it would be impossible for me to discuss my findings without referencing the difficulties I encountered and, which made a profound impact upon my trip. 20 years after the fall of apartheid, the troubled political and social history of South Africa still reverberates and played into everything I experienced during my trip.

Travelling as a representative of SCAN in March 2015, I was invited to explore possibilities of collaborations with VANSA (Visual Arts Network South Africa) and to develop opportunities for on-going mutual learning and support. I set out to gain insight and present an overview of the visual arts sector in South Africa today.

The trip was arranged to coincide with Francis McKee’s (CCA ) curatorial visit to South Africa. McKee’s trip was organised by two SA curators, independent curator Amy Watson and Francesca Verga of Durban University of Technology and supported by British Council Scotland and Connect/ZA. Their project with McKee was devised as a result of a curatorial exchange trip with Glasgow International in 2014, when Watson and Verga visited Scotland as part of the International Curators Professional Engagement Programme.

The activity within the arts across the cities I visited felt distinctly different. Johannesburg with its densely populated artist community had a tangible DIY presence and community action spirit. According to statistics there are approximately 100 individual galleries/organisations/educational institutions and artist led spaces in the city, which is large in comparison to the 50, mainly commercial, spaces in Cape Town, with only 10 listed in Durban.

Invariably what remained with me throughout my conversations and experiences in all three cites were the challenges faced by limited access to public funding for the arts. Those I met, revealed some staggering statistics concerning funding cash flow with, in one case, an organisation in Johannesburg receiving confirmation of a funding grant 4 years after the application was submitted, by which time the organisation had already closed down part of the project completely in order to stay in operation. Many arts organisations have to rely on private funding and corporate sponsorship for projects, which makes fundraising for the running costs within organisations complicated.

Assemblage, Johannesburg
Assemblage, Johannesburg


I arrived in South Africa through the city of Johannesburg. Arriving late to my hotel in the downtown neighbourhood of Braamfontein was a daunting introduction to the city. Criminal activity is problematic in Johannesburg and admittedly I was naive to the full extent of the threat of crime. Due to this, and the failing public transport system, navigating the city on foot was not an option. I was warned by my hosts not to travel alone in the city, as the threat of hijackings is an issue for tourists especially. These restrictions brought boundaries and limitations upon my access to the city.

Gentrification in Johannesburg has created ‘Art Precincts’ in the inner city settings. I came across an extreme version of this in the developing area of Maboneng in down town Johannesburg. The Maboneng Precinct and the Arts on Main development was conceived by two property developers buying up disused or squatter inhabited buildings and warehouses in a poor neighbourhoods of Johannesburg. Creating spaces for retail, creative business, artist studios and workshops as well as the city’s only independent cinema in the area, and the entire area is patrolled by security guards. A proposed 10-year plan outlines intentions for the self confessed ‘art-gentrification’ in the area, raising the property value, creating inflation and displacing local long term inhabitants of the area. In Maboneng, extensive developments have been made in the provision of purpose-built artist studios in the ‘Arts on Main’ complex. William Kentridge is just one artist who holds a studio there and during my visit I was able to overhear rehearsals for his new opera performance from behind the partially open roller-shutters of his studio.

I met with a host of artists and curators who kindly introduced me to their organisations and projects during my 4 days in Johannesburg.  Connections and visits included;  Mary Wafer and Jill Ross, print curator and master print maker at David Krut, curator Neil Nieuwoudt at Nirox Gallery Johannesburg,  Lavendhri Arumugam, curator at Ithuba Art Space, Molemo Moiloa, director of VANSA, Anthea Pokroy founder and director  at Assemblage Artist studios and Project Space , curator Aysha Waja and studio artists at The Bag Factory , Lesley Cohen, Collections Curator at WAM at Wits and Aaron P Kohn the director and curator of the newly established, albeit controversial, Museum Of African Design.

Other venues visited in Johannesburg; The Trinity Session, Artist Proof Studio, Business and Arts South Africa.

I had questions regarding the development of socially engaged practice in SA and learned about a strong history of activities with firm roots in anti-governmental protest art against the apartheid. There are a plethora of on-going interesting projects concerning community led engagement in SA today such as the previously prolific, Joubert Park Project , in Johannesburg. VANSA have supported the development of many socially engaged art projects including ‘Two Thousand and Ten Reasons to Live in a Small Town’, ‘Revolution Room’, and ‘2014 ways of being here’. I met with one of the project collaborators, artist and educator Vaughn Sadie whilst we were both in Cape Town and attending Remaking Place , a three-day public art symposium. Sadie has an academic approach to making work and has collaborated on many projects in South Africa through site-specific work and participatory practice to develop new alternative ways to perceive and engage with a city. Sadie later visited Glasgow as part of a longer trip to the UK and was hoping to connect with other individuals and organisations working within the public realm in the UK.

Public art is a hot topic issue in SA at the moment, particularly Cape Town with the recent back-lash against corporate-funded public sculptures that were installed as part of World Design Capital in 2014. I met up with artist and curator Jacques Coetzer , whom I had previously met whilst working on a project for Deveron Arts in Scotland in 2014. Coetzer is the third artist to receive the commission for a new public art work in Cape Town. The project is developed upon the idea of providing an ‘open house’ or ‘speakers corner’ for the people of the city. An ambitious installation of the facade of a three story house will be situated on a large marble plinth which will sit adjoining an example of colonial eighteenth century architecture which currently houses the city council of Cape Town.

African Art Centre, Durban
African Art Centre, Durban


My introduction to Durban was through taking part in a round table event, ‘Think Tank’ which was held in the municipal museum and art gallery. The event was organised by Watson and Verga as part of the McKee trip and took the form of a lead discussion that brought together key figures from the city wide institutions, galleries, as well as independent artists and producers. The aim was to engage curators, gallerists and directors from major art institutions with new ideas of how to develop sustainable and relevant institutions and how to ‘leverage assets without the compromising of curatorial vision’. Central to the discussion was a presentation from McKee about the development of the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. I learned that discussions of this kind and meetings between key figures in the Durban art scene rarely happen, if at all. It was the first time that some of the group had been brought together to discuss the issues faced within their institutions and practices. All present agreed that the meeting was a positive step towards creating a more mutually supportive network. The conclusions were varied but VANSA will progress further actions that came out of the discussions.

At the round table, I met Xolani Hlongwa who invited me to his project space Green Camp Gallery Project. Founded in the downtown area of lower Glenwood, the rebirth of this once derelict site is now known as the Green Camp Gallery Project. The project was established two years ago after Xolani secured a 10-year lease on a dilapidated building and courtyard, which was occupied by squatters and known for criminal activity and as a hide out for drug offenders. Xolani has been unwilling to make applications for public funding in order to retain his vision for community engagement that creates a new model for sustainable activity. Xolani explained that he is on course to fulfil his three stage plan of Recycling, Integration and Rehabilitation. The site is a surprising mix of urban decay, art workshops and green growing space. Xolani describes the entire project space as an artwork and a social experiment into sustainable community engagement with art practice. At the time of my visit, elderly women from the nursing home next door, arrived to share food and enjoy the company of others, a service to the area and a benefit to the local community that cannot easily be replicated within an institution. Xolani hopes to achieve a form of rehabilitation of the neighbourhood through his project.

Other Durban venues visited; artSPACE , Green Camp Gallery, KZNSA , African Art Centre .

Cape Town

In contrast to Johannesburg and Durban, Cape Town has the feel of a European city. There is a strong commercial gallery scene here and I saw a wealth of exhibitions by contemporary South African artists. Cape Town has the largest percentage of commercial galleries and exhibitions showcasing work of highly established national and international artists, it is a wealthy cosmopolitan hub and has far less in the way of grassroots organisations. It houses ambitious exhibitions at the Iziko South African National Galleries At my time of visit there was a vast Penny Siopis retrospective show in the galleries and an impressive kinetic sculpture and film installation by William Kentridge. Many highly established artists and curators work from Cape Town and it has a feel of international influence and exchange.

Cape Town also boasts a new course at the University of Cape Town which has influenced the development of curatorial practice for many emerging practitioners. Also known as Michaelis, the University offers an Honours programme in Curatorial Studies, which is offered in close collaboration with Iziko South African Museums.

I found an interesting collection of works exhibited as part of Perspectives 2, presented at Stevenson Gallery . This was the second in a series of exhibitions exploring themes of mysticism, the phallus and scenes of pleasure through artworks from contemporary South African artists, featuring works from Walter Battiss, Zander Blom, Meschac Gaba, David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo, Anton Kannemeyer, Moshekwa Langa, Zanele Muholi, Stanley Pinker, Robin Rhode, Penny Siopis and Portia Zvavahera. Stevenson Gallery have also recently developed a new project space in their commercial gallery in the ‘art strip’ area of Woodstock. The RAMP gallery sits in the entrance hallway leading to the main gallery space. Emerging artists are invited to create site-specific installations. At the time of visit, emerging young artist from Cape Town Laura Windvogel aka Lady Skollie was exhibiting a series of wall murals suggesting sexually charged imagery of women and bananas. While the English meaning of the word ‘ramp’ describes the project’s physical parameters, its meaning in Afrikaans,‘disaster’ provides a thematic subtext of the exhibitions.

I was also invited by project founder of Alma Mater to visit her new gallery and project space and to meet the South African artists involved in the current exhibition. The artists I met were incredibly keen to discuss their practice with me and explained the difficulties they have in engaging people in critical dialogues about the work they are making. They expressed a need for a shift within their local arts community and seek to explore more effective ways of engaging the public with the art practice of young artists in SA. The project space is housed in a disused commercial food preparation unit and retail space in the industrial part of the city; Alma Mater is a space for experimentation, collaboration and live performance. It was established out of a need for a space for emerging artists and curators to engage in critical dialogue and to collaborate. The founder is looking to make connections with similar models in the UK and to bring people together though a network that supports the artist-led activities in both countries.

Other Cape Town orgs visited; Zeitz , The New Church , blank projects , Goodman Gallery, iziko museums of South Africa.

A common thread that ran through the work of artists in all stages of their careers in SA was the confident exploration and highlighting of difficult political issues within their work. Politics of race, sex, gender and governmental corruption were rigorously interrogated in artworks from artists across all levels and disciplines. Formally, there were a variety of styles and approaches but most carried a heavy political or historical subtext within the work that was very clear to read. Some South African artists I met explained that this may, in fact, be a way to begin to work through and deal with the past, heal the social issues and share their message on a national and international platform through an arts practice. A strong message is sent out to the rest of the global art world that people of South Africa are directly dealing with and challenging political and historical unrest within their work, which I found to be impressive, bold and stimulating.

In hindsight it may have been naive to travel alone in a country, which has such a vastly divided society, where stark social and racial issues are present. However, there were some unexpected outcomes of my trip that is worth highlighting, I have been able to create new links between South African and Scottish artists and organisations and details of projects continue to develop since my time back in the UK. Due to the trip, I enjoyed what was an enlightening experience and a learning opportunity far richer than I could have anticipated.

Think Tank
Think Tank
Green Camp Gallery
Green Camp Gallery