Flying back from Cape Town, I found myself next to a woman whose sweatshirt had made me smile in the airport. “Buy art from living artists. The dead ones don’t need the money” it read.
The Acton-based art curator had been in the Cape to make films about artists and, like me, had been blown away by the talent. Right now, she agreed, the city is one of the hottest art destinations on earth.
Cape Town has always been a hub of creativity. During apartheid it was the African capital in which to enjoy formal European art. Three decades after Mandela’s release, it has developed into a thriving cultural hub in which to explore contemporary art from across the continent.
The African art market is booming — not only in Africa but across the world, according to Mary Corrigall, author of The South African Art Market. In the past ten years, she says, the number of international platforms selling African art, from auctions to websites, has doubled to almost 130. In February, in spite of Covid restrictions, 23,000 visitors attended the Cape Town Art Fair — Africa’s largest — to see the works of more than 300 artists from Angola to Zimbabwe. And prices have skyrocketed; a piece by Marlene Dumas was sold for £3.2 million at Sotheby’s London, making her one of the most expensive living female artists.
Its sudden popularity explains why wherever you go in the Cape there’s creativity to tap into. In the touristy Waterfront the huge, industrial-style Watershed hangar is now lined with craft stalls. In the edgy neighbourhood of Salt River more than 130 colourful murals adorn walls that can be viewed on walks organised by Culture Connect (cultureconnectsa.com). Tours can be arranged by the Cape concierge Lew Rood (lewrood.com) to the Winelands to see private collections, from classic cars in the Franschhoek Motor Museum (fmm.co.za) and historic art at La Motte Museum (la-motte.com) to Laurence Graff’s contemporary artworks (delaire.co.za). And there are galleries aplenty, from the commercial to art institutions such as Zeitz Mocaa (zeitz mocaa.museum) and the Norval Foundation (norvalfoundation.org).
For those interested in full immersion, two organisations have created bespoke experiences in which art lovers can not only see pieces and meet artists, gallerists and auctioneers but stay in art-filled houses. One is the Art House Collection, co-founded by Elana Brundyn, one of South Africa’s leading contemporary art experts. Having owned a gallery, then helped to run the Zeitz Mocaa and Norval Foundation, the friendly Afrikaner was involved in launching countless artists’ careers. In November, with journalist Michelle Snaddon, she opened the country’s first collection of rental homes with significant artworks, and each one is different.
“We wanted to bring together collectors’ homes that had their own character,” she tells me. “Some owners might be architects or magazine editors, others are chefs or gardeners.”
Heaven on Fourth, an Art House Collection property
GUY LERNER/ART HOUSE COLLECTION
The cosy white Shaker-style clapperboard house, Heaven on Fourth, in which I spent my last night, for instance, is a haven for its bohemian owners’ quirky objets: giant rainbow-coloured modern portraits and shelves of ceramics alongside patchwork tapestry cushions and chests inlaid with shell. Sitting beneath a jaunty striped awning and watching the waves roll on to Fourth Beach below was bliss.
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Another night I stayed at Hope House, a 1920s salmon-pink double-storey mansion furnished with pared-back Scandinavian pieces and antiques, the high-ceilinged rooms hung with art from both ends of the globe: a pair of Harland Millers and a Grayson Perry alongside works by the South African art icons Deborah Bell and Fred Schimmel. With balconies from every bedroom, it felt like the ultimate grown-up pad in which to sip local bubbly while admiring the reflection of the golden sunset on Table Mountain.
Then there was the Balinese-inspired Maison Noir, one of three homes on the discreet, seven-acre Hout Bay estate below Table Mountain, surrounded by forests and fynbos gardens. Designed to resemble a village of separate houses, connected by a curved gallery hung with photographs, paintings and sculptures by some of the continent’s biggest names and decorated by the local design guru Trevyn McGowan, this is a polished retreat. With its own wellness manager, it was a restful place in which to do yoga in pretty gardens, to be hypnotised in a sound therapy session and to try a rasul treatment in the little spa. Because the American owner lives next door there’s a chef and staff on site, or he can fill the fridge with farm produce and provide transport to restaurants such as Chefs Warehouse at Tintswalo Atlantic, where the flower-strewn food is as spectacular as the seaside views.
The beauty of staying in private houses, I soon discovered, is that you can do pretty much what you want when you want, especially with the Art House Collection on hand to act as concierge. Some guests, Snaddon says, want “the full works — a helicopter trip around Cape Town, drivers to take them on a wine tour, a yacht, private chefs and a jazz trio over dinner”. Others, like me, just want a list of great bars and restaurants, delis and farm shops, and then to feel free to enjoy Cape Town like a local.
Guests can book a day with Brundyn herself, which is a bit like having the curator of Tate Modern take you around London. My day with her started at the charismatic Baylon Sandri’s Smac Gallery to meet Bonolo Kavula, whose spare wall hangings made with punched circles of shweshwe fabric won her this year’s Norval Sovereign African Art prize. Sandri has been in the market since the 1990s. “What interests me is that artists are great predictors of the future,” he said over breakfast. “There’s always a boom in an economy in which art is thriving.”
After a quick look at Smac’s inspiration al back-catalogue, Brundyn drove me to see the private collection of Martin Epstein, whose co-workers are privileged to share in his Art Gazette offices. Here Epstein explained his latest venture with the curator Morné Visagie, buying direct from artists and selling their works online. “It’s great for artists, as they sell pieces that might not have been exhibited before,” he explained. “And it’s great for the public — they can view online, then buy, from our collection of 13,000 or so works.”
After lunch at the rustic, laid-back Between Us (where Brundyn last hosted Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior), we set off to a house owned by Royal Portfolio. Although the brand, founded by the art-collecting Biden family, includes Cape properties such as the Silo and La Residence, some of its hotel guests — who regularly include Elton John — prefer the privacy of a house. Hence the recent addition of four extraordinary rental homes to the portfolio, each overseen by the Silo’s staff, including the art lover Irene BoaVentura, who can expertly guide guests around the hotel’s African collection — or, if they want, into the Winelands or to galleries from Stevenson and Blank Projects to Everard Read and Goodman.
The Bond-style brutalist Villa 196 that was booked for me was the perfect party pad for a gathering of artists and curators arranged by Brundyn. Set on a cliffside in the smart Atlantic-facing Bantry Bay, the five-storey mansion, with its soaring concrete spaces and sharp furniture, was soon buzzing with Cape Town’s coolest creators enjoying freshly made sushi and updating me on the art scene. In a couple of hours I’d met the new curator of the 2023 Liverpool Biennial, Khanyisile Mbongwa; the multidisciplinary artist Sethembile Msezane, who’d done a live art performance as Cecil Rhodes’s statue was taken down; Dr Portia Malatjie, a senior lecturer at Michaelis School of Fine Art; the jewellery designer Githan Coopoo and his partner, the printmaker Shakil Solanki.
That night I lay cosseted by fine linens and looking out at the starlight reflected on the ocean and realised that, although I have worked in galleries, studied art and watched the art market for years, I’d learnt more in the past week about African art than I had during the rest of my adult life. My levels of house envy have increased considerably — but my little black book of African artists is now pretty damn fine.
Three arty hotels in the Cape
1. Fynbos Family House, Babylonstoren
Ten years after opening their glorious farm-garden hotel Babylonstoren, Karen Roos and Koos Bekker launched six new cottages and a private house amid wild mountain scrub. The house is particularly pretty with its five bedrooms set around a courtyard and pool and decorated in Roos’s restful style featuring white stripped beams and antiques alongside Patricia Urquiola furniture plus beautiful botanical art. Nearby are hiking trails, a fishing lake and a poolside bar; the main hotel’s spa, restaurants and shops are a short golf-buggy ride away.
Details One nights’ self-catering for ten from £3,469 (babylonstoren.com)
2. The Silo, Cape Town
Constructed above the Thomas Heatherwick-designed Zeitz Mocaa museum, this family-owned hotel contains one of the finest private collections of contemporary African art in the city, displayed on walls from the parking lot to the penthouse. The rooms — with sumptuous velvet and silk, crystal and lacquered cabinetry – are flooded with light from the iconic bulbous windows, some with views of the sea. Its staff are equally impressive, from efficient concierges to smiling barmen serving spiced biltong and fine wines on the rooftop. The art tour is worth taking — if only to see the treasure-filled penthouse.
Details B&B doubles from £762 (theroyalportfolio.com)
3. Ellerman House, Cape Town
This grand 1906 Edwardian mansion is an institution, not only because of the unrivalled hospitality it offers guests in its 13 rooms and two villas (which have welcomed presidents and pop stars), but because of its art too. Ellerman’s owner has amassed more than 560 treasures from over two centuries, from priceless Pierneef oils and William Kentridge prints to Vusi Khumalo’s contemporary works, hung in the house and gallery. The hotel is open only to guests, but it’s worth checking in to see the art.
Details B&B doubles from £630, including drinks and art tour (ellerman.co.za)
Lisa Grainger was a guest of Art House Collection, In Residence Villas and Royal Portfolio, which have homes from £205 to £5,000 a night self-catering, and a day’s touring with Elana Brundyn from £1,000 (arthouse-collection.com; inresidence.villas and theroyalportfolio.com). Seven nights’ self-catering at Studio on Castle Street and three nights in a Fynbos Cottage at Babylonstoren, including an art tour and wine tour, from £2,962pp (timbuktu travel.com). Fly to Cape Town