Art for transformation sake
A small-time art fair with big time ambitions
The Stellenbosch art festival aims to transform itself into a culturally significant triennial by embracing African art
Stellenbosch is to get an art triennial 2020 . It’s a leap of faith by a group of mostly enterprising women, set to spin around the lofty colonial cultural cloud that has hung over this gorgeous student and wine town since its founding in 1679.
The Stellenbosch Triennale 2020 will focus on contemporary art from Africa. It is configured to fit in with the increasing importance of the Cape as an international culture hub, but it also wears strong local significance.
Like art biennials that take place every second year (the 58th Venice Biennale, the oldest, opens on May 11), triennials and quadrennials traditionally offer a snapshot of contemporary creativity. Originally a kind of nationalist cultural trophy expo, the modern version negotiates a rather more social and often political terrain.
The envisaged Stellenbosch Triennale is being organised by the Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust (SOST). It is a nonprofit organisation that has arranged a number of public art projects over the past seven years, refining considerable skill in logistic management and sourcing sponsor support.
Established by enthusiastic local residents, who include Andi Norton and Francé Beyers, SOST has hosted and inspired more than 80 artists in a variety of sculpture street shows with various degrees of success.
The new project takes the SOST’s objectives and efforts to new, ambitious heights, extending the town’s in-born tourist attraction to a potential international cultural audience. At the same time, the trust’s commitment to the inclusive local community remains solid, as is evident at the envisaged hubs for the event in 2020 .
The dashing Khanyisile Mbongwa is the chief curator of the art event. She will work with other experts to a theme announced as “Tomorrow There Will Be More of Us”.
The 34-year-old Mbongwa, a Stellenbosch alumni, is a sussed independent curator and a renowned art practitioner who has worked internationally. She graduated from UCT in 2018 with a master’s degree in interdisciplinary arts, public arts and public sphere. She is associated with the Norval Foundation and the Cape Town Carnival. As an artist, her work has been widely acclaimed.
Mbongwa is assisted by Nontobeko Ntombela who curated the Cape Town Art Fair in 2018, and the distinguished Ghanaian artist-writer Bernard Akoi-Jackson.
Of course, punchy-poetic sounding themes are de rigueur for these seriously minded arts festivals and tend to ring if not hollow after the fact, often precociously cerebral.
Yet in discussion with the organisers and Mbongwa, one senses both the reality and optimism conveyed in the theme of the 2020 triennial. It also gently punts the town’s ongoing adaptation of the high-culture dynamics inherited from the colonial era, its Dutch-Afrikaans imagery, to the global creative African interface.
The announcement of the project took place at the office of the organisation, housed in one of the classic houses in Stellenbosch’s Dorp Street. As a signal of the triennial’s intent a magnificent multi-coloured, stitched patchwork handmade by Kampala women hangs over and covers the entire façade of the historic Voorgelegen.
This is one of the official Stellenbosch Triennale 2020 launch artworks titled Kawuuwo by the Ugandan artist Hellen Nabukenya. With its reference to cover and preserve it is a vivid intervention in the historic street with a powerful eye-catching message.
A Stellenbosch Triennale makes a lot of sense, especially as the organisers seem to have a realistic view of its scope.
Committed to public art and community involvement, extending its aims is a natural development for SOST. Norton, who is project director, says it is now the right time to take public art in Stellenbosch to the next level.
“We are proud of the exhibitions of public art that the trust made possible over the past eight years. It began with our belief that access to art should not only be for the privileged few, and our mandate is to bring fine art to public spaces in Stellenbosch for all to enjoy.”
The Stellenbosch Triennale, she says, will join a global network of over 600 biennials and triennials.
“It will be a town-wide exhibition showcasing the finest contemporary artwork from selected African countries, the only one of its kind in Southern Africa.”
So of course there is also a strong tourism motif, in a town already magnetic in its historic and cultural offerings.
The organisers are pitching the tie-in with other art attractions for the timing next February to April, linking to the Cape Town Art Fair, the Design Indaba, seasonal art auctions, and hubs such as like the Norval Foundation and the Zeitz Mocaa.
While there will be strong multidisciplinary art presentations, holding true to the SOST engagement with the street, a number of venues in different communities will be installed, taking in Kayamandi and Jamestown. A central exhibition space will be developed at the old Woodmill, while architect Pieter Mathews is developing a temporary pavilion for Die Braak, the famous central village square.
At the launch, Khanyisile Mbongwa explained something about her thinking of the theme “Tomorrow There Will Be More of Us”.
“The theme asks us to think about tomorrow in intersectional ways through remembering, the ancestral, the imaginative and becoming. And so, art is a lens … a course correction, a stimulus around curiosity and imagination.”
There is a lot of women power invested in the Stellenbosch Triennale 2020. It’s going to be exciting.