Art and Design

Serious art at the altar

Sean O’Toole

In a South African first, a local financier is sharing his private collection with the public.

Art space: Wim Botha’s Time Machine has found a home in the New Church museum. (David Harrison)

In a speech to inaugurate his new contemporary art space, the New Church, South Africa’s first privately owned museum devoted exclusively to contemporary art, financier and collector Piet Viljoen conjectured how he and President Jacob Zuma were “connected through art and, specifically, Brett Murray’s work”.  

“I was moved to start collecting by his sculpture Africa, while our president was moved to ban his work,” said Viljoen. In the first case, he was referring to Murray’s public sculpture on St George’s Mall in Cape Town, a bronze West African fetish figure sprouting garish yellow Bart Simpson heads, which was funded by the JK Gross Trust.

Making light of the recent imbroglio over Murray’s Spear painting of Zuma, he added: “At least we were both moved.”

Viljoen’s road to Damascus moment as a collector happened in 1998. A former Reserve Bank analyst and currently the chairperson of asset management company RE:CM, Viljoen was working as a fund manager at Investec.

“It was the time of the IT bubble and Y2K,” he said during a private tour of his museum, a repurposed Victorian home built in 1890 on New Church Street in Tamboers­kloof. Challenging the prevailing orthodoxy, he presented a talk at an Investec conference that “lambasted” the hype surrounding the new digital economy. “The visual thread in my PowerPoint presentation was Murray’s sculpture.”

Afterwards someone told him that art dealers Andries Loots and Fred de Jager were selling a miniature bronze model of Murray’s work. He set off in search of it. “I saw a whole bunch of other stuff that blew my mind. That’s where it started.”

Murray’s model, which is the size of a gold Academy Award, is on a shelf next to some of Norman Catherine’s freaky oil-on-wood mini-sculptures in Viljoen’s museum office. Nearby, on the carpeted floor, is a garish pink figurative sculpture by Michael MacGarry made out of polyurethane and industrial foam. I initially mistook the Roland drum kit at the opposite end of the room as an artwork too. Not so. Viljoen uses it to practise his rock riffs. Yip, Viljoen has his own man cave.

For a while now there has been whispered talk about a big-name collector opening a private art museum in Cape Town. Jo’burg collector Gordon Schachat, Puma chairperson Jochen Zeitz and English collector Charles Saatchi have all been mooted as candidates. In the end, Viljoen, who dismisses talk of art as an investment, quietly got on with the business of finding a space, signing the title deed, contracting an architect and placating angry neighbours.

Although admittedly prompted by a “selfish” motive — “I wanted to see my work; it was all in storage” — his new venture is, like the man, studied and calm, generous and playful. A text work by painter Georgina Gratrix at the entrance pithily summarises his attitude: “Art is very, very, very … serious.”

As part of his commitment to taking art very seriously, Viljoen, whose passions also include cycling, invited artist Penny Siopis to sift through his 480-piece collection and organise a representative display for the museum’s opening.

Her selection includes several of her Stevenson Gallery stable mates, notably new abstractionist painter Zander Blom, installation artist Dineo Seshee Bopape, sculptor Nicholas Hlobo and Lynette Yiadom Boakye, a London-based figurative painter of Ghanaian descent. She has also included her own work, the short film Obscure White Messenger, an impressionistic collage of found images and Verwoerd assassin Dimitri Tsafendas’s biographical statements.

“My point was to try to draw out what I perceive to be the heart of Piet’s collection, which is really his interest in the human subject,” Siopis said. “My interest was not so much the obvious identity stuff but rather the kind of works that speak about the human subject through forms that manifestly require engagement from the viewer.”

The show, which is titled Subject as Matter, includes work by Walter Battiss. Wim Botha’s recently completed white neon and wood sculptural installation, Time Machine, is the standout piece. A dynamic integration of competing black and white forms, the impossibly asymmetrical work is displayed in a retrofitted double-volume space at the rear of the museum space.

“The work reminds me of a challenging project I once set students where they had to draw a human being using only the lines that could be made with a ruler,” writes Siopis in the accompanying catalogue.

The New Church, which will host the exhibition curated by Penny Siopis for the duration of summer, is open to the public by appointment only. Contact Colleen Pastor on 021 657 3472

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