Cool Capital Biennale: A creative space for PTA

Films on CBD rooftop, Pretoria. (ENABA Productions)

Films on CBD rooftop, Pretoria. (ENABA Productions)

There’s a joke among some of Pretoria’s cooler denizens that the correct spelling for the city is in fact Pre-historia. With its stern-faced apartheid-style statues and architecture of the inner city doesn’t typically garner much kudos on the hip and happening front  –  nor do the words “contemporary” and “creative” immediately spring to mind. 

But if you slow down a beat or two and pay heed to the languid whispers that filter from the purple-blossomed jacarandas above, you might catch wind of a small but steady revolution that’s on the rise. Under the auspices of architect Pieter Mathews and a team of volunteers, the capital city’s creatives have been composing, writing, painting, sculpting, scheming, dreaming and, most importantly, connecting in preparation for the “world’s first un-curated, DIY, guerilla biennale”.

Having started on August 29, the Cool Capital Biennale is now in full swing until November 16 (Pretoria’s birthday) with a series of planned (and spontaneous) installations, happenings, parties, movie screenings, exhibitions, concerts, workshops and poetry readings. 

They’ve already lit up the Voortrekker Monument in pink, wrapped some of the capital’s unsuspecting trees in “shweshwe for a sjoe sjoe city”, hosted a pinhole photography workshop; held a “citizen led” mural painting and beautification project in Mamelodi; belted out ideas in a poetry marathon and screened a number of alternative movies from the city’s rooftops, among other things. 

“This is the only bienale that empowers people,” says Mathews.
“Other bienales are curated, they’re about keeping certain people away. The idea behind Cool Capital is to democratize [creativity]. We expect lots of bad stuff, but there’s lots of good stuff that will float to the top.”

Mathews came up with the idea after visiting the architectural bienale in Venice. The poster for that year invited visitors to “Take creativity beyond Venice : to your own city” and that’s exactly what Mathews decided to do. 

“As architects we tend to sit up in our ivory towers and talk about aesthetics, but what we need to do is bring design to the people, so that creativity can be something that has an impact on the economy,” he says. “I want to live in a memorable city.  We don’t have a mountain, we don’t have a sea, but we do have some of South Africa’s best sculptors and artists. That’s our currency.”

A lesser-known fact about Pretoria is that it’s a spawning ground for many of South Africa’s leading artists. It’s also the sculpture capital of South Africa – the city boasts more foundries than anywhere else in the country. “When you start counting a lot of South Africa’s artists are from Pretoria, or studied here, or spent a decent amount of time here,” says Johan Thom, performance artist, sculptor, photographer and printmaker. 

“Roger Hodgins, Walter Battiss, Pierneef, Wim Botha, Angus Taylor, Gerhard Marx, Dianne Victor, Wayne Barker, Guy du Toit … the list goes on and on, but it’s amazing how people tend to forget that.” 

Speaking from his wife’s gallery, Fried Contemporary, Thom walks us around the current exhibition Capital Transitions by Elsa van der Klashorst. There couldn’t be a more fitting theme for the bienalle. Through multiple layers of carefully carved out maps and images Van der Klashorst explores the city – a one-time bastion of Afrikaner ideals – in terms of personal meaning, politics, history and transformation. 

In the catalogue to the exhibition she writes: “I gradually came to the realization that a different and fascinating space is now being produced, alive with street vendors, food, music, different languages and hooting taxis. To a certain extent this exhibition represents an attempt to come to terms with and refigure this transformed space.”

Re-figuring, re-imagining and re-appreciating the city is the ultimate aim of Cool Capital, says Mathews. It’s an opportunity for the capital’s citizens to collectively contemplate and express why they love the city, and how they can improve it. 

It’s also served to connect people with each other, with educational institutions, with the private sector and with some of the embassies. The cement manufacturer PPC has come on board by sponsoring artists to create a series of park benches; the Netherlands embassy has sponsored Dutch Footsteps, a website that showcases the Dutch influences in Pretoria and includes details about architecture, art and household items and the Atterbury Trust has allocated R10 000 each to 20 schools to align with a local sculptor or artist  to create a bienalle specific work at their respective schools. 

Among the latter is Pinned Transitory II, Rina Stutzers’ contribution at the Afrikaans Hoer Meisiesskool. It’s not immediately obvious that the soft sculpture held in place by a series of ropes, is in fact a pigeon crashing beak first into the ground, so when a security guard sees us looking at the piece he comes over to ask us what it is. We leave him, doubled over at the waist, taking an upside down perspective on the sculpture.            

“My feedback comes from people,” says Mathews. “Not art critics or award judges, but from people like this guy. He was sitting there wandering what the sculpture was, so he asked. That’s how we start a debate that’s how we bring art to the people.”

“We’ve activated the city now,” he continues. We’ve shown people what’s possible. We asked for a cool capital and now we’ve got it.” 

For more information about the Cool Capital and its upcoming events visit or like their Facebook page.  

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