Art is our soul at Ellerman House. Our collection tells the tale of a nation with a rich history, taking visitors on a journey that explores the huge social and cultural shift in South Africa from the mid-nineteenth century to present day. Learn more about it, straight from the horse’s mouth, in a Q&A with our Art Curator, Margaret Gradwell – a painter in her right with impeccable knowledge of South Africa’s art culture.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself? Where were you born and what is your background in the arts?
I come from Gauteng, South Africa, and attended the University of Pretoria were I graduated and went on to lecture there for 30 years. I was Professor of Fine Arts as well as a practicing artist who is now contracted to Call of Africa Native Visions Galleries in USA.
How did you end up working as an Art Curator at Ellerman House?
I was approached by the owner of the Ellerman House art collection, Paul Harris through a past student of mine and now famous artist, Angus Taylor, to apply for the position, when I left the university in order to pursue my own art career full-time. Curating this collection has become my passion and pride.
How do you decide which pieces of art the hotel is going to include in its collection?
Paul Harris and his family are astute collectors who are also assisted by good advice from gallery owners such as Mark Read. My major task is to identify gaps in the collection, or young artists who are making a name for themselves. It is also important to remember that the art must be suitable for the environment in which it is to be viewed and appreciated by guests who are most often art lovers and very knowledgeable.
Please, tell us more about this collection? Is it more traditional or contemporary?
There are approximately 1000 works in the collection, most of which are exhibited throughout the public and private areas of the hotel. The works are all by South African artists dating from the earliest works by explorer-artists such as Thomas Bowler (1830s) through to artists who were influenced by the British romantic landscape artists, through to artists who brought back European Modernist traditions. There is the Contemporary Gallery and sculpture garden at Ellerman House that features artists who are currently some of the best in South Africa.
What would you say is your personal favourite piece in the collection?
My personal favourite piece in the collection is “Liggaamsopvoeding vir Meisies” by Anton Karstel. Why this painting resonates with me is because it ticks all the boxes that I personally look for in a work of art. The size of the painting is imposing and evocative, yet the detail requires one to step closer and examine Karstel’s process. He is obviously grappling with the content as well as the process. The painting exists as layers of ‘overpainting’. The past sometimes shines through to the present. Images of young girls engaged in exercising according to guidelines of practitioners of physical education from the 1930s, are juxtaposed with violent slashes of calming blue paint. Karstel is engaging critically with how society makes us and how we make ourselves. The photographic references from training manuals that he uses are very real to me as an observer. The impasto-like and gestural brushwork appeals to my sensibility as an artist and keeps on inviting me to participate in the process of painting, yet the images stir an uneasiness in me that jogs my memory. This painting engages one on a visceral, intellectual and emotional level.
Which is the most revered piece in the collection?
Taking into account auction statistics, Irma Stern, JH Pierneef and Alexis Preller are the top contenders for most valuable works sold on auction. These artists and many more who occupy the top 10 or 20 positions on the value scale, are included in the collection. The most revered artist in the collection must be JH Pierneef. The main public room in the house bears his name: the Pierneef Room. A firm favourite work is “Mont-Aux-Sources”. This long vertical view of the well-known peak of the Drakensberg Mountain Range, was a preliminary painting done by the artists in preparation for a panel of the same scene for South Africa House in London.
Which is your favourite Cape Town museum, institution and/or gallery and why?
The Norval Foundation is a new-kid-on-the-block that offers beautiful spaces for well-curated exhibitions and has a magnificent sculpture garden that is unique to the Cape. The old silo building at the Cape Town Waterfront is a marvellous reconstructed space that is currently exhibiting the work of internationally famous, South African artist William Kentridge, until March 2020. A privately-owned art gallery that always has amazing contemporary art is Everard Read and Circa Galleries, also at the Waterfront in Cape Town.
Which up-and-coming South African artist would you advise people to keep their eye on?
Blessing Ngobeni who is in his mid-30s now, is an example of a resilient youngster who has used his talent as an artist to conquer a life of hardship. In prison he discovered his passion for art and after being released in 2006 he attended a few courses at art centres in Johannesburg, and eventually attended artist residencies in New York and France. Ngobeni rapidly developed a style of his own, using montage, paint and distorted and contorted figures. Currently, he has expanded his artistic ambit to include sculpture, video animation and live performance. His work has been enriched by various references to other successful artists both local and international. Ngobeni has become a regular participant at the FNB Joburg Art Fair and Investec Cape Town Art Fair. His artworks have been featured at the EXPO Chicago (2017 and 2018) and PULSE Miami Beach (2018) in the United States. He most certainly is an artist to support and admire.