Art teaches: The Norval features the works of Ezrom Legae (1939-99) paying homage to genuine African sculptural invention. Picture: SUPPLIED
Art teaches: The Norval features the works of Ezrom Legae (1939-99) paying homage to genuine African sculptural invention. Picture: SUPPLIED

Sculpture has often stood up for the grandeur of ego. But given the range and quality dominating the opening exhibitions at the new Norval Foundation premises, the three-dimensional art here suggests a more refined philosophy.

Of course, no decent art museum (the new Norval is nothing if not architecturally claiming to be a mini "Modern") will be without a welcoming sculpture that states the institution’s case as forcefully as possible. And if there is any possibility of meandering to the outdoor space, statues in the garden are a must. The new building provides amply and entertainingly so.

A swanky, imposing Eduardo Villa at an angle marks the glassy entrance to this fine new house for art – designed to exquisite detail and intention by DHK (modernism seems to fit art museums best).

Public art: Nandipha Mntambo’s Ophelia floats in a marsh at the Norval. Picture: SUPPLIED
Public art: Nandipha Mntambo’s Ophelia floats in a marsh at the Norval. Picture: SUPPLIED

Even the title of the sculpture, The Last to Arrive, a typical black steel Villa of 1978, suggests a cheerful, humorous welcome. It’s a marker of a happy return of focus on the mastery of the great sculptural artist whose head-strong abstraction and sharp modernism also had its detractors over a long public creative career. If sculpture is often the first to fall in the fashion trends of art, this is a happy comeback.

To bring the message home, the Norval brought to Cape Town his early masterpiece, Africa from 1959-60.

Owned by Exxaro Resources, this wondrous mysterious black tower, tipping nearly seven metres, is surrounded by a host of carefully selected earlier Villa pieces. In the grand double volume of the glass-sided gallery, these are rich and inviting pawns to tickle a playful mind (check out the magical candelabras) – even as they illustrate a clear view of the artist’s thinking during those inspired years up to 1968.

A clever component in this space, quietly augmenting Villa’s gregariousness, is a work by Burundi-born Serge Alain Nitegeka, Form Ephemeral VII, in painted wood. Working in the minimalism tradition, Nitegeka’s clarity of sculpture as object-in-space is riveting.

He had also been commissioned to install a substantial work in the central atrium, leading to the individual galleries. Structural Response III is a great black jungle of construction laths, acting as a kind of visual and physical maze as visitors find their way. It is both playful and somewhat intimidating.

To the left leads into Gallery 1, where a quirky exhibition with a silly title is housed in a pristine cool space. Whatever objections revolutionaries have to the classic "white cube" gallery, it serves art well and indeed gives the nutty-named Pulling at Threads installed here more import than it warrants.

Featuring some 10 artists working in "craft-based media", it includes Cape Town’s Igshaan Adams, whose arras Path of Upright cuts a clever moral conversation with Ghanaian Ibrahim Mahama’s powerful coal bag tapestry opposite.

This group show’s artworks carry the full weight of its hand-crafting, and energises surrounding space as much as traditional sculpture of the big metal type.

The latter, in traditional bronze, is precisely represented in the next door galleries.

Here finely curated overviews by Karel Nel of the art of Sydney Kumalo (1935-1988) and Ezrom Legae (1939-1999) rise beyond the educational to pay sensitive homage to genuine African sculptural invention. There is plenty of animalistic drama — and don’t miss the drawings.

The title Re/Discover and Memory — linking the Kumalo/Legae/Villa connection and friendship — says it all, adding a welcome whiff of nostalgia. (The Norval family’s art interests show up here, as most of the pieces are from their Homestead collection, some acquired from the inspired, alternative collector Bruce Campbell Smith.)

Surrounded by amusing paintings by the likes of Gladys Mgudlandlu, Trevor Makhoba (the show-stopping Bamphonse Ngamasele), Thomas Kgope and Sithembiso Sibisi, it makes a delightful "chamber" show. (These too are works from the Homestead collection, and the small Gerard Sekoto, Femme en Rouge, 1948, is a significant work in the artist’s oeuvre, managed by the artist’s foundation based here.)

One can easily predict that the Norval’s garden and the sculptures that inhabit it will become a draw card. The clever design of the building opens up to the west onto a small wetland vale, now carefully rehabilitated to indigenous flora. Gentle contours allow for complimentary art placements.

Despite the Peninsula’s fine outdoor spaces and local flora, art-in-the-garden has never come up seriously in the Cape. Right now the Norval is showing the way with permanent and loaned sculptures of various kinds.

Walking down the path to get a close-up of Nigerian Victor Ehikhamenor’s imposing Isimagodo (The Unknowable) or discovering Nandipha Mntambo’s Ophelia floating in a marsh generate the kind of thinking-person surprise that good public art ought to instil.

Sculpture is indeed a bold entrance into the public limelight. While this new addition to Cape Town’s art life follows the international capitalist contemporary trend of collector-named museums, the three-dimensional art avoids the hubristic weight of owner showiness. It rather tickles gently and amuses, as it should.