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Stellenbosch Triennale, a bold experiment
The curator Bernard Akoi-Jackson photographs Ibrahim Mahama's elongated and stylized coffins made from local timber at the Stellenbosch Triennale in Stellenbosch, South Africa, February 2020. In a South African city emblematic of wealth and privilege, a program of radical art from the whole continent seeks to confront and heal. Kent Andreasen/The New York Times.

by Siddhartha Mitter

STELLENBOSCH (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- For tourists, this prim colonial town is the gateway to a spectacular mountain region dotted with wine estates. To most South Africans, however, it is the redoubt of the Afrikaner elite, a Calvinist town whose university trained the framers of apartheid and where banking billionaires roost today. In a land that is sharply unequal despite 26 years of democracy, money and whiteness feel especially concentrated here.

It’s an unexpected place for a contemporary art exhibition — particularly of the experimental, Pan-Africanist variety, with artists from around the continent, none of them white, exploring economic and cultural themes and led by a curator steeped in black feminism and Xhosa spirituality.

So when the first Stellenbosch Triennale began last month, and artists mingled with Afrikaner finance people at the opening-night party while hip DJs from Cape Town spun Nigerian and Congolese dance hits, even the organizers who intended this effect did a double-take.

“I did look around many times and just smile,” Andi Norton, a board member of the Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust, the group behind the triennale, said the next day. “It was a group of people that I hadn’t thought I would ever see in the same place.”

Stellenbosch is an hour’s drive from Cape Town, and the triennale underscores the region’s emergence as a global art hub. Cape Town’s art fair is Africa’s biggest; the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which opened in 2017, and the Norval Foundation’s art museum, from 2018, are world-class venues.

And the triennale’s roster was strong: Helmed by Cape Town-based chief curator Khanyisile Mbongwa, seconded by Ghanaian curator Bernard Akoi-Jackson, it featured major figures on the African circuit such as Ibrahim Mahama, Victor Ehikhamenor, Bronwyn Katz and Donna Kukama, along with 20 lesser-known artists and collectives in the exhibition’s emerging-artists section.

But the location was the biggest story of all. For South African culture veterans, to see this kind of work in Stellenbosch, of all places, was deeply incongruous. For six weeks, the triennale attracted more than 6,000 visitors, before the event went on hiatus after the coronavirus outbreak reached South Africa. The presence of these artists and their work brought an optimism and energy that confounded even the cynics.

“It’s not a natural unfolding,” said Jay Pather, an adviser to the triennale, who is a choreographer, curator and teacher at the University of Cape Town. “It sits oddly.”

The town is not just wealthy but insular. Stellenbosch University long taught only in Afrikaans, the settler language derived from the Dutch, officially adding English and Xhosa only in 2016. “The Stellenbosch Mafia: Inside the Billionaires’ Club,” a native-son exposé by the journalist Pieter du Toit, made a splash in 2019, documenting the workings of this tight-knit business elite and the Steinhoff affair, a financial scandal that rocked the national economy.

For the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters opposition party, Stellenbosch denotes shadowy forces that members believe control the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa. But it’s far from just radicals who view the place with suspicion.

“Most of my black friends don’t come here,” Norton said.

Norton and Francé Beyers, her friend and co-board member, were the event’s prime instigators. The sculpture trust had supported public-art presentations around town by South African artists for 10 years, and they wanted to go bigger. They recruited Elana Brundyn, the director of the Norval Foundation, and Mike Tigere Mavura, a Zimbabwean artist and educator, strengthening their board with art-world savvy and African artist networks.

Mavura told them of his bus journeys across Africa, attending art events organized on a shoestring. Pictures of the 2017 Lubumbashi Biennial, with events al fresco, showed that a biennial or triennial didn’t have to be as elaborate as Venice’s, Norton said. “It took a lot of pressure off us,” she said. “It gave us a lot of ideas of how we could do it our authentic way.”

The Stellenbosch Triennale was relatively frugal, with a budget of 8 million rand (roughly $600,000), as well as in-kind contributions, according to Beyers. Almost all of the money was raised from local donors, many of them anonymous (in keeping with the secrecy associated with Stellenbosch money). Still, the investment was significant, a bet on breaking the mold.

“We’re so much more than food and wine,” said Jeanneret Momberg, the head of the town’s tourism board and a former winery executive. “I think it’s very fresh and necessary that we bring young, progressive, inclusive people into the area.” She added: “Colonialism, slavery, those are all topics that it’s not nice to talk about, but they’re part of our heritage.”

The initiative reflected an ongoing dynamic in South Africa — some members of the Afrikaner community are seeking to make a social impact while they process guilt from the apartheid era. “A lot of serious liberal Afrikaners want desperately to change the paradigm,” Beyers said.

In a sense, the triennale met them partway, refraining from art that was obviously angry or polemical. That sort of work had little interest for Mbongwa, the curator, who said it would merely replicate the all-too-familiar tensions of daily life.

“Our lives as black people, people of color, people who have been oppressed — we’re programmed to respond to the system all the time,” Mbongwa said. Her cardinal values, she said, were “care and cure.”

“Care in terms of caring for the artists, for the space. And cure, because the reality of the world is there’s so much woundedness we have that we don’t understand. I’m coming here to open some form of wound so I can understand how to heal and instigate spaces of healing.”

Mbongwa grew up in Cape Town’s Gugulethu township; she belonged to Gugulective, an artist collective active a decade ago. The townships resulted from forced displacements under apartheid, which designated land by race across South Africa, clearing nonwhites from desirable areas. The social ills that followed this violent uprooting — crime, sexual violence, alcoholism — still endure.

“We did not create these places,” Mbongwa said. “We were put here, we made life here, we had our moments of joy, but this place is inherently sick. We found a way to sort of negotiate the disease. And I realized, I’m tired of dying. I want to know how to live.”

She studied sociology, deliberately choosing Stellenbosch University to understand the system. That experience gave her an edge with the organizers. “Somebody’s got to understand this town,” Beyers said.

Mbongwa suggested the triennale’s title, “Tomorrow There Will Be More of Us,” intimating that change was inevitable, however hard.

The main show, with 20 artists outdoors and in an industrial hangar at the Woodmill, a timber plant converted into an office and retail complex at the edge of town, was heavy on installations. One large-scale textile work by Zyma Amien, from South Africa, evoked the collapse of the Cape region’s garment industry; another, by Hellen Nabukenya, from Uganda, was a ceiling-hung assemblage stitched over six months with women in her local community.

Mbongwa’s emphasis on care came through in a performance-installation hybrid by Kukama, from South Africa, who collected soil each day from a local river to tend to indigenous plant seeds in a fragile bed surrounded by concrete. Sethembile Msezane, also South African, built a hutlike structure set with candles, plaited hair and a wafting soundtrack of female voices, dedicated to “women who did not leave the world peacefully.”

Ronald Muchatuta took on his native Zimbabwe through painted panels and drawings hung on clotheslines, referring to political leaders and events. On the ground, he placed his wood-carved version of a children’s game that involves tossing seeds or stones, and invited visitors to play. Similarly, Patrick Bongoy, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, broke the tension and heavy theme of his installation of rubber sculptures and strips — evoking resource exploitation — with a loop of sweet rumba by the famous Congolese singer Franco.

Mbongwa said she was keen to make a tactile show for this setting. “I was interested in aesthetics that maybe have something familiar to the everyday person,” she said.

The emerging-artists show, “On the Cusp,” was in a more strait-laced setting, a classic Cape Dutch manor house in the center of town, made available by Distell, a Stellenbosch-based liquor company that sponsored the section. (As a condition of their support, Akoi-Jackson selected the 20 artists from African countries where they have subsidiaries.)

“From the Vault,” an exhibition in the university museum, mingled works from its collection, highlighting European and white South African artists with black modernist art from the University of Fort Hare, where Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters studied.

The bumpy history of biennials in South Africa, during apartheid and after, weighed on the organizers’ minds. The Johannesburg Biennale, for instance, held just two editions, in 1995 and 1997. The second, loaded with global stars and curated by Okwui Enwezor, was criticized for failing to engage with a broad local audience.

The Stellenbosch Triennale was much smaller but still faced the challenge of reaching the black and mixed communities whose members make up a majority of the city; many live in the townships and commute to the center to work service jobs. The organizers focused on inviting schools.

Performing at one of the triennale events, before a mostly white audience of media and guests, slam poet Adrian van Wyk called Stellenbosch “the place that housed the engineers of erasure, the justifiers of divide and conquer.”

Van Wyk is coloured — the Afrikaans-speaking, mixed-race group forming much of the Cape population. He studied at Stellenbosch, helping to start a poetry series in the townships as a refuge for rebellious minds.

Later, van Wyk offered an impromptu tour of sites around Stellenbosch that bore marks of its troubled history and its present. “The first time I was called a racial epithet was in Stellenbosch,” he said.

He pointed out the Moederkerk, or Mother Church, in the town center, where pastors developed the religious rationale for segregation. “Apartheid was prayed into existence here,” he said.

Nearing the campus, he showed where a coloured neighborhood had been demolished for the university to expand; and Andringa Street, where, in 1940, white university students destroyed the property of mixed-race inhabitants.

“We feel like we don’t belong on our earth, on our land,” van Wyk said. Even nature was wounded, he said, pointing to rows of oak trees — the town emblem — with cancerous growths.

In the face of such stakes, van Wyk said he was happy to see the triennale. “It’s beautifully audacious,” he said. “This place just needs disruption, constant disruption.”

The visiting artists provided some of that. They gathered at long tables at nice restaurants, usually the sole black diners. Some were housed at the homes of local patrons, prompting awkward or enlightening breakfast conversations.

After an official cocktail event, the visiting artists booked a convoy of Ubers and fled for Kayamandi, the city’s largest black township, a short drive from the center but a world away, with streets edged by corrugated shacks and, up the hill, utilitarian concrete homes. Sundown found the artists at an open-air drinking spot, sharing beers and grilled meat while a DJ spun house music. It was a welcome break, but for those unused to South Africa and its extremes, it was also jarring.

“It was like, OMG,” said Ghanaian artist Kelvin Haizel. “So how do we deal with the complexity of this pristineness, and then this other space that provides labor to the city?”

Kaloki Nyamai, a mixed-media artist from Kenya, embraced the contrast in his own way, visiting as many wineries as possible — to grasp, he said, how the society functioned.

His plan initially involved shipping more materials than the triennale could afford, and the space allocated to him was smaller than he had expected. Mbongwa coaxed him into being guided by what he found on location. He came up with an installation that was one of the show’s strongest, involving sisal rope and suspended money boxes from the Bank of Uganda, in a shacklike structure that visitors could enter, minding the large mound of cow manure at its center.

The work, he said, was informed by the discomfort among white people he had met in town, and his own discomfort at experiencing theirs. The dung came from area farms, and he pointed out that it had two different consistencies — one from industrial-raised cows, the other free-range.

“This is actual Stellenbosch art,” Nyamai said. “It’s theirs to stay.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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