Africa is now… At the First Stellenbosch Triennale

It’s just an observation, maybe triggered by a moment of delight, but I can’t shake the feeling that the Stellenbosch Triennale has changed the town. Perhaps even the people. For one thing, they seem to be more engaged, with a boost of optimism.

That’s what good art does, of course. But the upbeat, yes, challenging message of the ambitious first Triennale effort by the Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust (SOST) – as engraved in the overall theme of Tomorrow There will be More of Us – has rubbed off. A youthful spirit of creativity has invaded the town, it’s all over the place, and its distinctly African flair and originality are pumping the vibe.

This is perhaps why Stellenbosch is now changed forever. The contrast between a town that is gloriously rich in colonial history and the contemporary dynamic of what artists, especially younger ones, are making in the rest of Africa is playing out here in vivid imagery, in two, three and more dimensions, until the end of April.

A new cultural map, a blueprint for and about the future, has been overlaid on the lush tapestry of a past lingering among the ancient trees, whitewashed walls and the colonial ghosts that have trod the town’s cobbles for three centuries. It has conjured up an impressive magnet for additional tourism, adding to the Eikestad kaleidoscope that is already so popular. 

Once outliers to the high-street buzz, the communities that live within a bicycle ride of the centre of town have been drawn in, too. And so the SOST’s long-term project extends its cultural empowerment reach.

Tracy Naa Koshie Thompson’s Bio-luminous Leibniz biscuit, made with Leibniz biscuit, glycerine, fermented tangerine and lemon, vinegar, and acrylic iron oxide pigment. (65cm x 65cm; 2018)

At a time when the international art world is feeling increasing discomfort about the superficial power of money in the form of art fairs, auctions and the like, the freshness of art that shuns price-tags in favour of invention is driving the success of this first triennale endeavour. Add to that the finely tuned curatorial selection of artists, events and add-ons, and the dynamics have been defined.

The Stellenbosch Triennale 2020, or ST2020, will also be remembered for its generosity (made possible by sponsors who recognise the good): all events are free – a rare occurrence.

The strong accent that falls on what the media calls ‘materiality’, which is evident in so many artworks on view or to be experienced, is indicative of the commitment to creativity. Art made from materials, things, fabric and such like that differ from the traditional media (the sort collectors feel comfortable paying high prices for), and that may or may not endure, symbolises perhaps an alternative to a global art environment sometimes choked by the power of currency. In this sense, the robust African practice of seeing things differently is driving the town’s present pervasive spirit of optimism.

It started a year ago with that splendid ‘wrapping’ of Voorgelegen, the triennale’s offices in Dorp Street. Artist Hellen Nabukenya’s site-specific installation Kawuuwo – a massive colourful quilt created with a group of women in Kampala, Uganda, and draped over the facade of Voorgelegen house – was a colourful preview of the different tack ST2020 would take.

Inherent in that glorious artwork was the sense of community, of using whatever people could lay their hands on, along with colour and energy, process and invention. This is a thread that runs through the work of many of the artists who have taken up the main exhibition space in Devon Valley’s Woodmill Lifestyle Centre, but also in the adjunct shows and installations around Stellenbosch.

Chief curator Khanyisile Mbongwa and her team have delivered.

The materiality of Hellen Nabukenya’s work – she is one of the 20 invited artists in the main exhibition – is echoed in a wonderful array of artworks in the curators’ exhibition. What is striking is how the basics of the media these artists employ are reconfigured into eye-catching original work.

The handmade, tactile dimensionality of stitching becomes figurative in the pieces by Lansdowne-raised, multi-prize-winning Zyma Amien, who connects the process of stitching and cloth in her own expressive manner, reflecting a personal cultural history linked to Cape Town’s garment industry. Joburg’s Reshma Chhiba takes a somewhat different approach but also makes use of hand stitching. 

From Ghana, Tracey Thompson and Ibrahim Mahama (the star at his country’s Venice Biennale pavilion last year) both work in what could be called domestic materials and means: foodstuffs and commercial packaging, such as Mahama’s renowned hessian sack installations in various cities (including Cape Town’s Norval Foundation in 2019), although for ST2020 this famous artist is working in wood. Their art brings an element of ritual into the exhibition.

Ritual and performance make up one of the most dynamic of contemporary art expressions at the Stellenbosch Triennale, and the local women’s group iQhiya has had a substantial impact. Bronwyn Katz and Sethembile Msezane come from that background.

Capetonian Igshaan Adams also delves deeply into the personal and religious, his art of fabric and textile taking on sculptural awareness. Patrick Bongoy, originally from the DRC, creates a similar effect. His painstaking processes combine the reworking of waste materials like rubber tyres into arresting pieces that refer to the trauma of his country with female tradition in a contemporary African manner. Zimbabwe-born Ronald Muchatuta is a remarkable painter whose large canvases and drawings are thought-provoking, some showing influences of his long stay in South Africa. 

Adjunct curator Dr Mike Mavura and chief curator Khanyisile Mbongwa have brought together artists who inspire with their fresh approach.

The photography on show manifests in dynamic variety: the pop inventives by talented Kelvin Haizel from Ghana, Rwandan Kivu Ruhorahoza’s video images, and the performance records by Euridice Kala, aka Zaituna Kala, from Mozambique.

Figurative, non-figurative and magical abstracts in two dimensions have an engaging presence in work by Kenyan Kaloki Nyamai, Stacey Gillian Abe from Uganda, and our own talented Mongezi Ncaphayi.

If there is completeness to the curatorial choices with the variety of invited artists at the revamped Woodmill Lifestyle Centre, the selection for On the Cusp, the smaller exhibition of fringe artists at Little Libertas in Dorp Street, reflects the energy of youth in an unimpeded manner. In other words, this is free-flowing talent.

This exhibition features 10 artists and collectives from Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Angola, Tanzania, Mozambique, Nigeria and South Africa and it is a delightful mix of media, techniques, methods and genres. As its curator, Ghanaian Bernard Akoi-Jackson, has pointed out, it is a group show that “takes into account future possibilities by engaging with new artists set to innovate in the Africa scene to come, as well as on the world stage”.

It certainly represents the future vision implied in the Stellenbosch Triennale’s theme. Aaron Samuel Mulenga, Agnes Waruguru, R Canon Griffin, Indira Mateta, Lazaro Samuel, Malebona Maphutse, Nelly Guambe, Simnikiwe Buhlungu, Valerie Fab-Uche and the group Asafo Black Artist Collective from Ghana fire up the engine room of ST2020.

A lovely contrast – call it the past – is the exhibition at the University Museum with its tongue-in-cheek title From the Vault. This contrast – between the university art collections (of Stellenbosch and Fort Hare) that were delved into for this art history review – indi­rectly illuminates the policies and politics of such academic collections. In this sense, it is an important reference for this first triennale’s long-term strategies.

Talking of which, the Creative Dialogues series of talks (under Dr Mike Tigere Mavura’s hands-on direction) and ongoing deliberations are a vital link to what ST2020 can deliver for the future in this culture-charged, scholarly town.

By the time this Stellenbosch Triennale 2020 concludes at the end of April and visi­tors have had their rewarding fill of the red-hot African music presentations and the Concepts of Freedom film offerings, I have no doubt that, like me, Stellenboschers will feel that a change has taken place. They’ll be able to visualise the future and they’ll love what just happened. 

A host of youngsters will be happier and brighter, and art savvy, after engaging with the remarkable visual wonders of The Imaginarium, an online learning resource that aims to stimulate imagination. In fact, locals of all persuasions will always remember what happened over this dynamically charged Stellenbosch summer. 

And on the Braak, Pieter Mathews’s Pavilion, where artists and the community will have interacted, improvised and contributed to the final outcome of their combined creations, will have testified to the soul and purpose of ST2020.

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