Cape Town’s imposing new art complex, Norval Foundation, aims to put South Africa firmly on the global cultural map
Nearness to nature is what gives Norval Foundation its edge. This monumental new art museum in Cape Town faces the heart-lifting Steenberg Mountains and lies against a carefully preserved wetland, one of whose well-known inhabitants is the western leopard toad. You can hear its call from the museum’s restaurant deck.
The survival of this endangered amphibian has been of almost as much concern to the designers of the magnificent three-storey concrete, glass and granite structure as its nine state-of-the-art galleries and its extensive storage vaults for the art collection of the visionary behind it all, property magnate Louis Norval.
It’s a project that took six years to reach fruition. Creating the museum’s undeniably world-class facilities involved several trips to the globe’s great art establishments, to which Norval took his partner, Mareli Vorster, and Senior Curator Karel Nel.
‘Louis wanted a destination museum away from the city centre, where people could have a four-hour visit enjoying the art, a meal, the sculpture garden and the shop,’ says Nel. ‘He wanted it to be family-friendly, so there are even picnic baskets that people can take out into the sculpture garden.’
One of the foundation’s aims is to reposition South African artists no longer in the public eye so that they can be discovered by new generations of art-lovers, both local and foreign. Which is why Nel – himself an internationally known, Johannesburg-based artist with a sculpture background – has focused on two of the country’s inspired early sculptors for one of the museum’s opening exhibitions. This is the first-ever major retrospective of Ezrom Legae and Sydney Kumalo.
Seamlessly fusing African sculptural traditions with European modernism, their finely finished bronze figures provide a haunting visual commentary on black life during the dark days of apartheid. The exhibit runs until the end of August 2018.
They honed their talents in Edoardo Villa’s studio and a collection of his work is here too: his spiky 6,7m colossus, ‘Africa’, surrounded by numerous smaller works. Nel says that ‘Africa’ was last seen in public in 1960 at Johannesburg’s Milner Park showgrounds.
Now relocated from its former home at the then Iscor headquarters, it’s made of black 5cm-thick powder-coated steel and weighs seven tons. Fortunately, the museum’s concrete floor can take up to eight tons. At 9m high, this sculpture gallery must be the most voluminous art space in the country. One wall is glass, and looks onto the back of Table Mountain.
Cecil Skotnes mentored artists like Legae and Kumalo at Polly Street Art Centre in Johannesburg, one of the apartheid era’s few schools for black artists. So the Norval Foundation restaurant has been named after him, with one of his famous carved and painted panels installed in the bar on the floor above.
The decor in this elegant, double-volume restaurant was done by Pretoria-based interior design company Reddeco. Here, you can enjoy both the view and the classic South African dishes dreamed up by Phil de Villiers, former chef at Primal Eatery, Eat Out’s Best Steakhouse of 2017. Then you can walk out onto the deck overlooking the sculpture garden.
Dotted among fynbos planted by Keith Kirsten’s gardeners is a variety of contemporary pieces: Brett Murray’s ‘Again Again’ (monumental), 2016 Pop Art bulls; a striding yellow figure by Nigerian sculptor Victor Ehikhamenor aptly titled ‘The Unknowable’; Wim Botha’s cluster of disembodied wings emerging like birds from the water below.
However, of the 12 sculptures on display, it’s Angus Taylor’s whimsical, stone-stacked giant that makes the biggest impact. The colossus lies on his back in what looks like a tricky yoga pose, one leg stretched almost 7m into the air. He’s irresistible, especially since the Belfast granite rocks of which he’s made look as if nature put them there. Taylor named him ‘Holderstebolder’, an Afrikaans word meaning ‘head over heels’, derived from the Dutch word holderdebolder, which suggests the noise of rolling boulders. The sculpture’s a clever, modern take on the prehistoric tradition of heaping boulders together as markers. Taylor says that the appeal of the local stone from around his Pretoria-based studio is its humility: ‘Stone has a profound history written in the material itself. It has an “is-ness”, or tzu-jan. It tells a narrative, if you know how to read it,’ he explains.
In the heart of the building, another giant artwork fills a double-volume atrium. This dauntingly massive labyrinthine tangle of black wooden planks represents the traumatic border crossings traversed by its internationally recognised Burundian creator, Serge Alain Nitegeka, on his journey here. It boggles the mind.
Various inaugural exhibitions have been mounted. Pulling at Threads, curated by Owen Martin, includes a William Kentridge tapestry made by Marguerite Stephens. Spectrality, Sorcery and the Spirit has been curated by Portia Malatjie and US, THEM & I by Khanyisile Mbongwa.
With open-plan administrative offices upstairs and a research library stocked with digitalised South African art books, the building itself has the feeling of an artwork. Designed by Derick Henstra and his team from dhk Architects, it’s a deceptively simple, elongated construction enlivened by random, laser-cut detailing that provides texture against off-shutter concrete.
A floating roof structure houses solar power, while the granite-clad podium supporting the building has parking for 150 cars, as well as extensive environmentally controlled storage space for Norval’s art collection. It includes works by major South African artists such as Irma Stern, Alexis Preller, Maggie Laubser, Gerard Sekoto, Deborah Bell, Peter Clarke and Dumile Feni, as well as John Meyer’s famous 14 Boer War paintings.
Then there’s the shop. Also a large space, it’s filled with home- and bodywear from a range of South African brands – Dismoi, Fabrikate Studio, Willowlamp, Shweshwe Baby and Chapman Collection, to name a few.
The executive director of it all is Elana Brundyn. An art professional who founded her own Cape Town gallery over a decade ago, before joining the development team of Zeitz MOCAA, she’s passionate about what she sees as the new perspective this impressive venture will add to the cultural legacy of the African continent.
*This article first appeared in the June 2018 print issue of Elle Decoration.
Text: Hilary Prendini Toffoli Photographs: Adam Letch Photographer’s Assistant: Cara Gillougley