Southern Africa’s leading artists—and the pioneering collectors who have amassed their works—are shaping Cape Town into a capital of the contemporary art world.
Please Don’t Kill Us. The giant block letters emblazoned across the yellow brick wall seemed unnervingly out of place against the peaceful and prosperous backdrop of Cape Town’s Tamboerskloof neighborhood. But the mural—standing nearly as tall as the whitewashed Victorian residence behind it—was neither the illicit scribble of local vandals nor the blustering protest of a disgruntled homeowner. Rather, it was the work of one of South Africa’s most influential artists, a graphic greeting to welcome visitors to the latest exhibit at the New Church museum.
“The neighborhood reacted quite badly,” the South African art dealer João Ferreira recalls of the mural, which the artist Cameron Platter created for the New Church’s Pop Goes the Revolution exhibit last October. “The council objected. Papers were served, ordering its demolition.” Undeniably pugnacious, the mural—whose verbiage borrowed from common roadwork signs in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal—proved even grimmer when viewed from the back. Splashed over a scarlet background, the bold letters read Please Please Kill Us.
Opened in 2012 in a converted 19th-century home, the New Church is attracting attention for more than just its provocative welcome wall. The privately owned museum showcases more than 400 works—by Platter, Brett Murray, Robin Rhode, Kudzanai Chiurai, and other rising stars—owned by Piet Viljoen, a local collector who has helped pioneer the notion that contemporary Southern African art is actually worth collecting.
“Piet Viljoen has collected very bravely,” Ferreira says. “Our market is so tiny and our gallery system is so small that values have been hard to gauge in the past. But suddenly the art world is very interested in what we are doing, and this very narrow stream is opening up to a much bigger pool.”
Ferreira, a South African who opened Cape Town’s first contemporary art gallery in 1998, has seen the evolution of Southern African art firsthand. For centuries, the common perception of the region’s artistic achievements was limited to wooden masks and woven bowls. In recent decades, however, political shifts ranging from the end of apartheid in South Africa to the democratization of Zambia and Namibia have contributed to a widespread cultural revolution. Artists who have emerged from this era of change are now altering the ways people think about African art.
One of Southern Africa’s most famous contemporary artists is William Kentridge, who first hit the international scene in the late 1990s with his politically charged drawings and prints. By 2010, the South African’s work was the focus of a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Kentridge’s South African contemporaries include Platter, whose Life Is Very Interesting is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, and Nicholas Hlobo, who is currently a fellow at the Tate Modern in London. In addition to their recognition from leading museums, these and other Southern African artists have enjoyed considerable success in recent years at international art fairs, such as the Venice Biennale in Italy and Art Basel in Switzerland and Miami.
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