Past and present: a dialogue through art with Boschendal and Norval Foundation

Boschendal, a cradle of European history in South Africa, and the Norval Foundation, a hub of contemporary art, have come together to stimulate a new, challenging conversation. Anastasia de Vries gives insight to what’s being said.

This is a story of the past. And the present. It’s a story of place. A place. Boschendal, a many-splendoured place. We will sing to the tune of an old song as we hail the beauty of one of the most historic wine farms in the Western Cape. Locals say it’s located in the Dwars River Valley; others that it is on the road from Stellenbosch to Franschhoek, passing through the dorpies Pniël, Johannesdal and Kylemore.

From left: Qiniso, The Sails by Zanele Muholi is one of several self-portraits on show at Boschendal; The manor house is the setting for a stimulating exhibition by the Norval Foundation.

All around, the splendour of green fields and lush vineyards; clear blue skies and mountains form a backdrop to this place. Since Boschendal was founded in 1685, it has been evolving and now, after a decade of reinvention, the farm has become a landmark destination in the Cape Winelands. Stop here for its weekly drive-in cinema or one of the many fun workshops or the Friday night market, when soft and balmy evenings are filled with the sounds of live music and the scents of fresh farm produce.

Or simply stop here because the people of this werf breathe life into a history that spans more than three centuries, right back to the French Huguenots. Theirs are the living stories of how history could, or should, be reinterpreted, reimagined, transformed. Theirs are the stories of how a national treasure with a rich, multi-layered past came to be a place of empowerment for everyone who lives here, particularly those who in the past would have been no more than slaves. Now their eyes are on the future.

Yes, it is a place of beauty where the connoisseur and the restless traveller, the social activist and the fun-seeking reveller will always find something to feed body and soul. But more than that, it’s a place where past and present lock hands and find harmony.

So it comes as no surprise to find in this place as innovative a ‘pairing’ as the partnership between Boschendal, with its centuries’ old history, and the Norval Foundation, a Cape Town centre for art and cultural expression that is dedicated to the research and exhibition of 20th- and 21st-century visual art from South Africa and beyond. Featuring artists from around Africa, the Norval Foundation’s Homestead Collection will be the foundation of exhibitions at Boschendal in 2022. It is displayed in the estate’s 19th-century manor house and, with exhibitions rotating every three to four months, it intends to juxtapose history and contemporary art practices that captivate and challenge.

It’s a juxtaposition that sees the present conversing with – even interrogating – the past and vice versa. And herein lies the beauty of history reinterpreting itself: that here, in the transforming, transformed space of this world-renowned grande dame of the Winelands, an exhibition of work by world-renowned South African visual activist Zanele Muholi should be the first to adorn the grande dame’s manor house walls.

Visual activism in a storied setting.

Zanele, who prefers the gender-neutral pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’, has selected for the exhibition photographs from their ongoing series, Somnyama Ngonyama (meaning ‘Hail the Dark Lioness’). ‘They’ are embodied in Somnyama Ngonyama’s photographic self-portraits, in which Zanele’s own body serves as a palette to represent marginalised groups so that in the images the artist, literally and figuratively, becomes ‘them’ – those who are imprisoned by injustice and endemic racial bias or are subjected to demeaning and brutal labour practices or violence against gender nonconformists. Now just imagine them on the walls of the history-laden manor house at Boschendal.

But who is this artist who already has everyone talking about how they achieve such introspection through their art? After completing a master’s degree in Documentary Media at Ryerson University in Toronto, in 2013, Zanele became an honorary professor at the Hochschule für Künste (University of the Arts) in Bremen, Germany. Their curriculum vitae attests to the many local and international awards and accolades received, including the Fondation Blachère Award at Les Rencontres de Bamako biennial of African photography in 2009 and the Prince Claus Award in 2013. Their work is currently exhibited in Berlin (preceded by solo presentations elsewhere in Germany), the United States, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Switzerland, Sweden and Brazil, and in group exhibitions in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia.

Ceramics by Githan Coopoo in the art shop.

Describing themself as a visual activist, Zanele originally attracted international attention for their documentary-style portraits of South African LGBTQ+ and gender non-conformists, but their work has changed visually and politically in Somnyama Ngonyama. These images are jarring, challenging the politics of identity and raising critical social justice and human rights issues. And it’s the eyes in the images that are so mesmerising, so defiant, drawing you in and holding you captive, challenging you to invent and reinvent the present cast against the past, to assess and reassess ingrained notions of identity, to rearticulate contemporary identity politics and, with the artist, to interrogate representations of beauty. The eyes demand the appraisal and reappraisal of new possibilities of understanding.

“Our historic farm is no stranger to extraordinary events that showcase the very best of the Cape’s creativity and artistry,” says Georgie Davidson, CEO at Boschendal. And this partnership between Boschendal and the Norval Foundation is indeed extraordinary. Not only bringing art to a broader community, it is also creating “more opportunities for learning through art and culture”, says Elana Brundyn, education and development partner at the Norval Foundation.

A sculpture by Kyle Morland.

“Because we have to talk,” adds Ian Manley, representing Boschendal. About the past. About the present. And a future. Here, together. That is why the partnership between Boschendal and the Norval Foundation, the historical and the contemporary, is so significant. “Viewing contemporary art, such as that of Zanele Muholi and others whose exhibitions will follow, in a historical setting Boschendal confronts one with the past in the present or the present in the past, opens up new ways of looking at past and present, and maybe starts new conversations, new ways of talking to one another. Art can do that,” he says. For some, the exhibitions will be a slap in the face, a fist to the stomach; for others, they will be a gentle nudge.

But in this place where the past and present speak through art, new conversations can grow. It’s a revolutionary concept, but a revolution of the heart, the mind.

Outside, around the manor house, a past–present dialogue is taking place between sculptures by Kyle Morland (born 1986), who is known as an interdisciplinary artist, and Edoardo Villa (1915–2011), who worked primarily in steel and bronze. Inside, contemporary art hangs on walls that hold the memories of days gone by. Among them are Zanele Muholi’s black-and-white portraits. They scorch the senses.

We are all responsible for this history, we are all this history, they say. We are all responsible for changing the narrative.