Come to Bellville and CY the Sanlam art collection is so hot
Once absorbed by some of the priceless or provocative works, viewers will probably forget where they are
Bellville is probably the last place you would think of visiting to look at art. Certainly you would not expect to find a century of South African art on exhibition in an area caught in a downturn and untouched by the hipster gentrification that artists’ studios and commercial art galleries seem to engender.
The Sanlam art gallery has been operating as somewhat of a cultural island attached to its mothership, the Sanlam headquarters. A Century of South African Art from the Sanlam Art Collection 1918–2018 is designed to tie in with the company’s centenary celebrations this year.
In this modest space cultural diversity and a multitude of voices have found expression. The gallery has often featured artists the art world has overlooked. Last year it staged a retrospective of Tyrone Appollis, the Mitchell’s Plain artist bent on expressive renderings of ordinary life, taxi rank scenes, children playing in township streets.
“I can’t be bogged down with intellectualism; I must do what I want to do,” said Appollis of his supposedly unfashionable work and perceived rejection by the art world.This sense of inclusiveness and willingness to go against the grain is to some degree reflected in the Sanlam art collection. Pauline Gutter and Leora Farber are hardly artists people clamour to collect, yet they are part of the massive 2,000-odd collection and will also be part of the landmark exhibition opening this week.
New art institutions such as Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, the A4 and the Norval Foundation are bringing private collections into the public sphere, but many of the exhibitions have evinced a self-consciousness about art collecting. This is evidenced in expected tick-list collections with all the fashionable names and very few surprises.
Stefan Hundt, director and curator of the Sanlam art collection and gallery, is not one to be swayed by fashion: “I haven’t been that keen on Kentridge so there is only one in the collection,” he observes.Not that Hundt is solely responsible. The collection was established in 1965 and has been guided by those who sat on the acquisitions board such as Nel Erasmus, Helen Davis, Willem Boshoff, Haydn Proud and Jillian Carmen. Clearly, the committee wasn’t going to settle for a collection defined by famous names. At one time works by high-profile artists like Irma Stern, Gregoire Boonzaier and a JH Pierneef and a Volschenk were sold off.
“The notion of what was the chocolate box artist was well discussed,” says Hundt.
There were a few arguments regarding Jan van der Merwe’s 2000 work Gaste, which will be on show. This installation work includes an embedded screen replaying a gun going off. It was intended to represent the rise of family murders which occurred in white suburbia in the 1980s.
Hundt’s collecting appears to be driven by the artwork’s sociopolitical value within the context of this exhibition. With over 80 works by Maggie Laubser in the collection (and regarded as its strength) it could have been a quite different show.
“I chose to reflect what was happening in SA socially and historically and in terms of what artists were doing over that time,” says Hundt.
In the catalogue he makes special mention of the last acquisition, a 2015 painting by Richard Mudariki titled The Model. The triptych reveals the artist’s wry take on the #RhodesMustFall campaign and the removal of Cecil John Rhodes’s statue. Depicted in various states of completion, Mudariki may be questioning the role artists play in the construction of visual propaganda.
20th-century works reveal that artists of yesteryear were more likely to conform to conventions of their time. Irma Stern’s Portrait of a Young Malay Girl (1949) shows how the artist was more concerned with formal qualities of painting than revealing social realities of the time, says Hundt.It is through 21st-century works that gritty reality comes into view, such as Diane Victor’s Disasters of Peace series.
The diverse works in the collection, which cover a diversity of modes such as expressionism, abstract art of the 1950s, and identity-driven photographic art of the 1990s, plot a narrative of the developments in SA art.
Once absorbed by some of the priceless or provocative works, viewers will probably forget they are in Bellville.
A Century of South African Art from the Sanlam Art Collection 1918–2018 will show at the gallery in Bellville until August 14 before moving to Sanlam’s Johannesburg headquarters.