Art in the Winelands: art and wine

Art and wine: an ancient pairing. In the Winelands of the Cape, their association has been rejuvenated through inspired collaborations between winemakers and art-makers. This is the first instalment of a new series in which Chris Thurman goes behind the scenes to learn more.

Katja Abbott’s quirky and darkly comic creations (exhibited here at the Gallery at Glen Carlou) blur the divisions between species and bring into question our behaviour as humans.

Prior to June 2022, when she had two works included in the group show Paint at the Gallery at Glen Carlou, Marina Simela’s only opportunity to exhibit her work had been in a T-shirt shop in Doornfontein. The artist, who goes by the pseudonym Kafe, explains that her anagrammatic name is ‘slang for fake’: “I always felt like I wasn’t a real artist, so I decided to become Fake.”

Borrowing from her background as a tattoo designer and fusing pop culture figures with religious motifs, Kafe’s street-art style could be described as an iconoclastic mash-up. Her Sticker Licker and Pink Fox acrylics joined various other provocations selected by artist-curator JP Meyer for the Paint exhibition, which sought to explore the diversity of contemporary practice by South African artists working in what is still often perceived as a ‘traditional’ medium.

The distinct contexts in which Simela’s paintings have been displayed – one is almost tempted to depict downtown Johannesburg and the Cape Winelands as polar opposites – give some insight into the vision that drives Glen Carlou’s gallery manager, Christa Swart. With an astonishing facility at her disposal (more than 400m2 of floor space above the wine estate’s cellar and alongside its restaurant), Christa is committed to making this resource available as a platform for new and emerging artists.

“I see my role here as connecting art and life – that is, art and people,” says Christa Swart, Glen Carlou Gallery manager.

Her own career in the arts sector has entailed a Gauteng–Western Cape trajectory. After studying and then teaching at the University of Pretoria with mentors such as Diane Victor and Elfriede Dreyer, she worked as a valuator for auction house Stephan Welz & Co. Then, in 2019, she took over from Pierre le Riche at Glen Carlou.

“I see my role here as connecting art and life – that is, art and people,” says Christa. “Too often in contemporary art there is a disconnect; members of the public feel that they don’t know how to ‘access’ or ‘understand’ art. So I focus on accessibility for visitors, while still encouraging experimentation and creating opportunities for young artists.”

A number of artists have had their first formal exhibition experience thanks to the Gallery at Glen Carlou, their work hung or installed alongside that of more established artists and even famous names. They have used this as a springboard to present solo shows elsewhere. And with this increased exposure, of course, has come a growing status (and financial value) in the art market.

Christa loves the stories behind the artworks she exhibits, as well as the life stories of the artists themselves. She is an energetic and engaging guide; watching her take visitors through the gallery, one can see how her enthusiasm is infectious. In different conversations she may cite a certain school of German philosophy, talk about the complementary colour palettes in adjacent paintings, note a playful sporting allusion in an installation or simply laugh at the expression of a sculpted figure.

As the Cape emerged from winter, the Gallery at Glen Carlou staged two parallel exhibitions: Untitled, an eclectic group show, and Part Forest, a collaboration between duo Katja Abbott and Paul Kristafor. Katja and Paul’s multimedia meditations on humans’ relationship with the natural phenomena that sustain life on our planet are both teasing and profound. Part Forest hints at our dependence on trees to produce the oxygen in the air that we breathe (so that we become part of the forest and it becomes part of us). But the phrase also suggests that, insofar as forests preserve elements of a ‘primitive wildness’ within them, ‘there is an aspect within each of us that is wild and instinctual’. Is this ‘internal wildness’, he part of us that is ‘forest’, what drives ecological destruction? Or do we collude in this damage precisely because we deny our connection to wildness and wilderness?

Often, our attempts to interact with the natural world result in anthropomorphism – when we project our concept of human behaviour, beliefs and motivation onto animals. Katja presents a darkly comic take on this with her avian and feline creatures that blur the human-animal divide. Paul’s work is less metaphorical and more material in its engagement with the ‘forest’: his self-taught wood-turning and carving techniques produce exquisitely polished bowls and pots – improbably light and thin vessels when one considers the dense, heavy oak from which they are made.

The Gallery at Glen Carlou rotates its exhibitions every six weeks and readers will have to visit it online or in person to find out what is currently showing in the space. But travelling to this artistic island in a glorious sea of greenery, surrounded by vineyards that stretch across the valley between Simonsberg and Paarl, will always be rewarding.

That island image is not mine, but borrowed from Christa, who notes, “Our gallery has sometimes felt like an island in terms of contemporary art in the Boland region. The Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch and a number of galleries in Franschhoek do support emerging artists, but my mission is to find a balance between what is commercially popular and work that is more challenging.”

For this reason, she has been glad to observe recent developments down the road (10 minutes’ drive along the R45, to be precise) at Boschendal Wine Estate. An exciting collaboration with the Norval Foundation, launched at the start of 2022, saw the old Manor House at Boschendal converted into a permanent gallery space, an arts hub for the exhibition of both new and seminal South African art. This allows Boschendal to help the Norval Foundation fulfil its mandate of expanding public understanding and appreciation of African art.

The old Manor House at Boschendal Wine Farm has been converted into a permanent art exhibition space as part of Boschendal’s partnership with the Norval Foundation.

The gallery opened with Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama, celebrating an internationally acclaimed ‘local’ artist. Most recently, it staged Horizon, a selection of items from the Sanlam Art Collection aiming to contribute to debates about land and landscape in South Africa.

Curator Clare Patrick invited viewers to reflect on some thorny issues: environmental and political, ethical and ideological. From the early decades of the 20th century (represented by works from JH Pierneef, Maggie Laubser and Nita Spilhaus) to the apartheid era (Durant Sihlali, Andrew Verster and Meshack Raphalalani) and the post-apartheid period (David Koloane, William Kentridge and David Goldblatt), Horizon offered key insights into both South African art history and the many discourses that ‘land’ invokes.

Along with its educational imperative, however, the Boschendal Norval Gallery seeks to promote contemporary artists by running commercial projects at the same time as its museum-style exhibitions. A dedicated space presents visitors with the chance to view and purchase more affordable works, ranging from prints to artists’ books. I picked up a beautifully crafted and printed zine from independent publisher Dream Press for just a couple of hundred rand.

Boschendal emphasises ‘life on the farm’ as central to its visitor experience, offering various activities that expose guests to its regenerative farming practices and sustainable gardening – and there are plans for a similarly immersive approach to its arts programme, from sculpture gardens to artists’ workshops.

Other wine estates in the Simondium/Groot Drakenstein area have signalled their interest in renewed arts investment. In August 2022, Plaisir de Merle teamed up with Rand Merchant Bank to turn its cavernous cellar space into a pop-up jazz club, bringing together a star-studded group of musicians from around the country to entertain jazz aficionados. The stunning atmosphere in Plaisir’s grand cellar was enhanced by the travelling exhibition Hugh Masekela: Home Is Where The Music Is, a collection of photographs and memorabilia celebrating the life of the jazz great. And the presence of other South African jazz legends, from Miriam Makeba to Abdullah Ibrahim and from Kippie Moeketsi to Jonas Gwangwa, was tangible as their music filled the air.

Happily, there is plenty more in the offing when it comes to the arts in this corner of the Stellenbosch Winelands.