Triennale 2020: drawing the world to Africa’s art

To describe the Stellenbosch Triennale 2020 project as ambitious is not to undermine the confidence and zeal of a remarkable team of women. With a male or two included in the mix, they are determined to add another notch to the town’s cultural status.

The triennale is the brainchild of the Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust (SOST), an energetic group led by the likes of Andi Norton, Francé Beyers and Elana Brundyn that has been responsible for the sometimes controversial public art projects on the Eikestad’s streets over the past eight years. For its first Stellenbosch Triennale, planned for next year, the challenging, poetic theme is ‘Tomorrow There Will Be More of Us’. With its upbeat tone the phrase takes an optimistic view, inferring that through art, solutions can be found.

Khanyisile Mbongwa, chief curator of the inaugural Stellen­bosch Triennale.

Anchoring the impressive womanpower behind the project, Khanyisile Mbongwa is an inspired choice for chief curator. She is joined by curator Nontobeko Ntombela, researcher Rashieda Witter and the Ghanaian artist-writer Bernard Akoi-Jackson. Pieter Mathews is the exhibition architect, while Andi Norton, an SOST trustee, is the all-impor­tant project director. Other hands-on trustees are Mike Mavura, Elana Brundyn, Francé Beyers and Michael van Wyk. It’s quite a remarkable and dynamic team and, with women taking the lead, has an utterly contemporary configuration in terms of current social-art endeavours.

If all goes according to plan, next February is going to see something very unusual happen in Stellenbosch. In South Africa, in fact. Something that draws Africa – currently the ‘hot art continent’ – and an apprecia­tive international audience right into the heart of the idyllic Eerste River region that Simon van der Stel fell in love with way back in 1679. 

The facade of 116 Dorp Street is already a powerful pointer to the Stellenbosch Triennale 2020. A vibrant curtain of lyrical colour fiercely ‘protects’ or ‘conserves’ the usually minimalistic double-storey white walls of stately Voorgelegen. This is, in fact, a preview of the art to come in February 2020.

If Africa has finally arrived in Van der Stel’s colonial town by way of Ugandan artist Hellen Nabukenya’s artwork Kawuuwo, its joyful presence among the grand oaks and the lingering lofty cultural cloud signals a new, relevant synthesis. Hand sewn by the women of Kampala, Kawuuwo is a magnificent lappieskombers redolent of matriarchal care and craft.

The title of the 22-metre wide textile tapestry is a Luganda word for the leaf used to cover the traditional matooke plantain dish while cooking. Hellen explained the artwork speaks to the valuable history of the building, once nearly destroyed but now preserved. Devotion and spirit are embedded in it. “The process of gathering and stitching textile offcuts into an installation that is draped on the building represents the collecting and recording of its history,” she says.

Together with women of the Love2Give organisation in Kayamandi, Hellen also created the installation Agaliawamu for the launch. The title comes from a proverb that translates into ‘the teeth that are together can bite the meat’. The artist says it is a call for people to work together to overcome challenges.

Also to celebrate the announcement of the triennale, Smangaliso Khumalo created a video and a performance piece for Die Braak. Again the contradiction of old and new – the past, present and future – was a riveting subtext to this bright South African artist’s continuing exploration of history, identity and belonging.

But why a Stellenbosch Triennale?

The formal vision of the event is declared as ‘a world-class African art event that provides a platform of dialogue, critical thinking, research and visual storytelling through exhibitions of the finest contemporary visual art from Africa’.

Smangaliso Khumalo performed Franz Taaibosch Di Freak’s Soliloquy Slaloms at the launch of the Stellenbosch Triennale.

At the launch, Bernard Akoi-Jackson raised the question whether the world (and Stellenbosch) needs what he called another ‘mega art project’ in light of the international spread of some 600 such events. He answered that small and local can be big and important, referring to the success of the Lubumbashi Biennale in the DRC.

The inclusion and intervention of the local community and its art producers are threads that run through and into the declared ideology of the SOST. They underpin Khanyisile Mbongwa’s view that by making the town the primary destination of multidisciplinary art in Africa, the Stellenbosch Triennale “will speak to a deliberate turn that places creative practices at the service of society along themes such as economics, aesthetics, emancipatory practices, collaboration, the right to the city, identities, memory and healing”.

Plotting this as a triennial, a three-yearly event, the organisers allow themselves the space to develop and correct. The name implies serious intent, following the great tradition of art biennials and quadrennials that traditionally offer a sharp snapshot of contemporary creativity. Originally a kind of nationalist cultural trophy expo, the modern version negotiates a rather more social and often political terrain, making it a perfect fit for the slow revolution taking place in Stellenbosch.

As non-profit events where artists are supported and inspired to give free rein to their imagination and invention, these art festivals form a welcome bulwark to the capitalist commercialism and commoditisation that threatens to engulf the contemporary art world in the form of art fair entertainment and high-price auctions. It returns creation to conception, craft and talent. 

For the advantages of well-run, professional art festivals one simply needs to look at the tourism and economic successes of the Venice Biennale (in its 58th edition this year), the Whitney Biennial in New York (running until 22 September 2019), the roving European Manifesta (next year in Marseille) and the Documenta Quinquennial in Kassel, Germany (the 15th version in 2022).

The Stellenbosch Triennale 2020 team
The triennale team includes (from left to right) co­curator Nontobeka Ntombela, researcher Rashieda Witter, chief curator Khanyisile Mbongwa, project director Andi Norton and co­curator Bernard Akoi­Jackson.

Sensibly, organisers of the Stellenbosch Triennale 2020 are looking at the Lubumbashi Biennale (the 6th will open this October) as inspi­ration, as it shows that a small town can be activated to international attraction. Unlike the big cities where art expos have to deal with a certain facelessness, the intimacy of smaller locations makes a more comfortable ambience for the cultural explorer, for whom a cup of coffee is just around the corner. 

While Stellenbosch has ingrained tourism appeal that continues to grow steadily, creating a specific art/culture focus within a confined period is a good sell to visitors. With contemporary African art on an international high, the theme is a super fit. 

Add this focused vision to the established draw of nearby Cape Town’s annual Art Fair and Design Indaba, the vibrancy of the new Norval Foundation, the Iziko South African National Gallery, Zeitz MOCAA and a host of cutting edge commercial galleries and the Stellenbosch Triennale 2020 is set for success.

Chief curator Khanyisile

The Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust (SOST) could hardly have selected a more apposite chief curator. Khanyisile Mbongwa is a star within a new generation of curators whose fingers are on the global pulse of art production. Not only are they fully clued up on current philosophies, but they also show a deep sensitivity for the local and African connection and our convoluted histories.

An accomplished artist and curatorial specialist (currently with the Norval Foundation after holding, among other positions, a residency in Germany last year), Khanyisile completed her BA in humanities at Stellenbosch University in 2012 and a master’s in interdisciplinary arts, public art and public sphere as a Mellon Foundation Fellow at the University of Cape Town in 2018.

She has been applauded for her work with public space and interdisciplinary and perfor­mative practices, in which she aims to unpack the socio-political, economic, racial and historical contemporary complexities and nuances of the everyday. She is the perfect pick to lead the Stellenbosch Triennale 2020 project.