Culture trip

Culture trip

Not just for rainy days, these museums and galleries are perfect for delving deeper
into South Africa – and the world’s – heritage. By Keith Bain

Cape Town

Iziko South African National Gallery
Despite humble beginnings consisting of a 45-painting bequest in 1871, the National Gallery’s collection has now grown so large that only a tiny fraction can ever be displayed at any one time. Next to its original European artworks, there is an in-depth survey of some of the last century’s finest local artists, and a selection by contemporary superstars, including the likes of William Kentridge, Athi-Patra Ruga and Penny Siopis, plus superb African craft pieces which range from beautiful Ndebele beadwork to traditional knobkerries (fighting sticks), and truly imaginative exhibitions.


District Six Museum
Of all the places in Cape Town to learn about the miseries of apartheid and the way it impacted directly on the people of the city, this lovingly curated museum is the best. Displays detail how, when the vibrant multicultural area known as District Six was declared a whites-only zone in 1966, tens of thousands were displaced, and the ways that political firebomb brought about so much of the social and economic disparity that is still evident today. The museum uses photographs, artefacts, and histories spoken by those who once lived here and now come tell their stories, so the level of personal insight is very moving.

Iziko South African Museum
Dating back to 1825, the country’s oldest museum owns a collection of more than a million-and-a-half specimens, and boasts the skeleton of the largest African dinosaur – Carcharodontosaurus – which outsized even its cousin, T. rex. From the Victorian-era stuffed animals and 700-million-year-old fossils, to fascinating displays on sharks, and entire whale skeletons hung from the ceiling, the museum is an eye-opener on the natural world.


Heart of Cape Town Museum 
The site of the world’s first human heart transplant, performed in December 1967 by a dashing surgeon named Christiaan Barnard, has been transformed into one of the country’s most compelling specialist museums. And although the hospital’s atmosphere is decidedly clinical, there’s plenty of pathos in the way the story of the race to perform the groundbreaking procedure unfolds. There is an excellent documentary on Barnard, but the real highlight is when you enter the pair of side-by-side operating theatres where the history-making medical procedure took place. Latex sculptures produced by film-industry specialists simulate all the characters who were present, and the excitement of the operation comes to life through a gripping account by a very knowledgeable guide.


Irma Stern Museum
Although the artist Irma Stern (1894–1966) achieved international recognition during her lifetime, she was initially maligned in her own country. This gallery celebrates her talent and passions in the home where she lived and worked for almost four decades. A relentless artist, she typically completed each of her paintings in a single sitting, under the influence of nicotine and caffeine. She worked in a variety of media and her artwork ranges from portraits of African tribal women to landscapes. In her studio, apparently untouched since her death, are Stern’s palettes, paintbox and brushes, as well the personal displays with which she chose to surround herself in her working environment.


Apartheid Museum
Many of the visitors who pass through this world-class museum find themselves emotionally unsettled by its meticulous chronicling of apartheid history. Your journey through the modernist concrete structure begins when you’re handed an entry pass labelling you as either white or non-white – then you enter accordingly, first walking through galleries of massive identification cards, further emphasising the dehumanising aspect of racial profiling. It’s quite an emotionally taxing start to an encounter that grows in intensity as the history of South African racial segregation and resulting political turmoil is played out in vivid photographs, detailed textual displays, gut-wrenching video footage, and moody installations such as the bleak hangman’s nooses, which symbolise the number of political prisoners executed under apartheid rule until as late as 1989.


Wits Art Museum
Forming part of the Wits University Cultural Precinct, just three blocks from Nelson Mandela Bridge, WAM is situated within an increasingly hip pocket of Braamfontein. This university-owned gallery is in possession of the most extensive collection of African artworks in sub-Saharan Africa – some 10 000 catalogued items, which range from as early as the 4th century. Aside from the beadwork, drums, masks and textiles, there is a painting collection which surveys the finest local masters, including the likes of William Kentridge, Kendell Geers and Jackson Hlungwani.

SAB World of Beer
What makes this museum of brewing special and unique is that it celebrates Africa’s long history of beer-making, and looks at how – for thousands of years – beer has been an integral part of social and cultural life on this continent. Aside from the explanation of SAB-Miller’s own European-style of beer-making, there’s a focus on umqombothi, the traditional Xhosa fermented beer made from maize and sorghum that is especially famous in the Eastern Cape, and there’s a recreated Sowetan shebeen. There’s a lot to take in, but a 75-minute guided tour – capped off with a beer-tasting session and pub lunch in the Tap Room – helps put everything into perspective.


Origins Centre
This museum came about through the University of Witwatersrand’s existing Rock Art Research Institute. Its focus is on showing that racial and cultural differences are largely superficial, as we are all unified by a genetic thread that traces humankind back to a common ancestor – in Africa, of course. It also posits that human beings are united by our unique ability to engage in symbolic thought and cultural exchange. Most interesting are details of the mystical San spirit world, typically entered by means of shamanic trance dances.


Johannesburg Art Gallery
The sale of a large diamond financed Joburg’s first gallery – Lady Phillips, wife of the first chairman of the Rand Mines Company, sold her 21-carat ring to buy three paintings by Wilson Steer in 1904. She grew her collection using monetary contributions from well-off connections and then commissioned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to design the elegant building that now houses everything from old Flemish and Dutch paintings to beautiful African curios plundered by European explorers in the mid-19th century. Plus, there’s also plenty more up-to-date modern and contemporary work: Rodin and Picasso rub shoulders with the South African masters Pierneef, Battiss and Gerard Sekoto, and there’s a lovely sculpture garden too.



The Phansi Museum
Visitors to this excellent collection of African artefacts are guided by a real Swazi princess: assistant curator, principle tour guide and hostess, Phumzile Nkosi. She’ll show you a non-detachable hat made from human hair, a doll carried by 21-year-old virgins to let guys know they are available, and will tell you about the grass penis sheaths – or ‘passion killers’ – which are worn after circumcision to signify manhood. Apparently Shaka Zulu forced his impis to wear them so they’d maintain focus during battle. Nkosi is a powerhouse of knowledge on southern African cultures, and occasionally breaks into song, or performs brief vignettes during the tour, helping to bring some of the exhibits to life.


Campbell Collections
Housed in Muckleneuk, the neo-Cape Dutch home originally built by the sugar baron Sir Marshall Campbell in 1914, these university-owned collections rank among the country’s best-curated museums, maintained by the academic researchers who also conduct tours that take in the gracious gardens, Cape Dutch furniture and artwork, all collected by Campbell’s son. The highlight, though, is the extensive Africana library and ethnological artefacts acquired by his daughter, ‘Killie’ Campbell, who was an avid collector of traditional utensils, ornaments, artworks, musical instruments and sticks, as well as various items of beaded clothing.

Ohlange Institute & Inanda Heritage Trail
On 27 April 1994, Nelson Mandela cast his vote in SA’s first democratic elections in the chapel of a century-old school – the historically-significant Ohlange Institute – located in the township of Inanda, 28 km north-west of Durban. The school was founded in 1901 by the first president of the African National Congress, Dr John Langalibalele Dube. Ohlange’s chapel, along with Dube’s house and grave, are among several significant stops on the Inanda Heritage Trail. Another key site is the Phoenix Settlement, established by Mahatma Gandhi, who lived here for many years – his house is also a museum.

Durban Art Gallery
Founded in 1892, in the ’70s this became the first state-owned gallery to display African carvings, beadwork and clay pots, helping to recognise the artistic value of these traditional crafts. Today, there’s a rotating permanent collection of over 3 500 artworks specialising in Victorian painting and South African contemporary art, but also spanning the gamut from French and Chinese ceramics, early glass vases by Lalique, and bronzes by Rodin, to various European, Asian and African masterpieces dating as far back as the 15th century. It is housed in the Durban City Hall, which is incidentally a stone replica of Belfast’s City Hall, built in 1910.


KwaZulu-Natal Society of the Arts Gallery
What began in 1902 as an informal opportunity for artists to discuss, exhibit and market their work, the KZNSA has evolved into a hugely influential foundation for Durban’s artists, and the hub of the city’s very lively art scene. Its Glenwood gallery also holds a variety of events, from installations and performance artshows to exhibitions covering a wide spectrum of local and international artists, and pulling together divergent, often unexpected genres – plus the gallery is a hub for interventions and festivals, attracting an arty crowd.

Photography: KZNSA/Paulo Menezes, Courtesy images
August/September 2016


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