Corporate Collections preserve South Africa’s Artistic Legacy

Hidden treasures like the SABC Art Collection give continued life to the nation’s cultural heritage.

By James Sey
Tracy Rose Regina Coeli 2002

The country’s public art museums are struggling. A lack of funding and neglect at a national policy level has led many of them to look to alternative fundraising and special events to stay afloat. In terms of South Africa’s artistic and general cultural heritage, organisations and art patrons have stepped into the breach.

There are significant collections at our universities and exhibitions put on by fine art auction houses. Both are often accompanied by critical material and documentation in the form of catalogues and monographs. More recently online documentation provides crucial critical and documentary frameworks which preserve and contextualise our shared cultural history.

Sam Nhlengethwa The Beer Hall 2003

One other place where such art collections thrive is in some of our largest corporations. Corporate collections are started for many different reasons and aren’t always designed to represent the character of the organisation. Some have been started by senior executives in a personal capacity and have gone on to be priceless cultural resources and play a role in expressing the identity of the corporation concerned.

One such example is the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), which intriguingly has one of the most interesting contemporary art collections in the country. While many bemoan the condition of most of our State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), the art collection at the SABC is a shining and rare example of an SOE fulfilling its mandate to educate and entertain South Africa’s citizens.

Jackson Hlunwani Dog

The corporate collection at the SABC only started in earnest after the transition to democracy in the mid-1990s. Prior to that, the landmark offices in Auckland Park in Johannesburg were full of undistinguished landscapes and conservative still lifes, reflecting the tastes of the incumbent apartheid government.

Johannes Phokela Exaltation Allegory

The appointment of a professional curator, Koulla Xinisteris, in 1997, coincided with the release of an acquisitions budget for new work. Xinisteris began to put together a contemporary collection rooted in the idea of representing previously neglected contemporary and modern artists, many of whom were black and who had been denied access to career opportunities and networks during the apartheid years. Xinisteris, who still runs the collection, elaborates: “In our curatorial approach, we always tried to be representative across race, gender, historical period, style and medium. We wanted to inhabit the contradictions of our country through the art in the collection and try to educate and inform viewers by the emotions that the works evoke.”

Julain Motau Emaciated Miner 1967

The collection features major works by some of the most influential modernist and contemporary black artists in the country. Julian Motau was shaping up to be one of our most influential black contemporary artists, with work which compares to that of the politicised and angry drawings of Dumile Feni. He was murdered in Alexandra aged only 20, in 1968. His amazing work ‘Emaciated Miner’ features in the collection, alongside drawings by Feni himself. Historically significant work by other major black modern and contemporary artists like Sam Nhlengethwa, David Koloane, Johannes Phokela and Tracy Rose lend gravitas and huge cultural significance to the collection. The presence of some of the most important fine art photography in the collection, a genre South Africa is justly world-famous for, is especially commendable, with artists like David Goldblatt, Santu Mofokeng, Guy Tillim and Jo Ractliffe all represented.

The collection is available to view in the extensive foyer at SABC Headquarters in Auckland Park or by appointment. It also travels nationwide to fulfil its educational mandate at different venues and has an expansive online presence.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and don’t miss out on regular updates from the YourLuxury Africa team on all things luxurious, beautiful and inspiring.