JCAF: A Beacon of Hope in South Africa’s Art Scene

The Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation champions quality over quantity with curated exhibitions and free access, offering a refreshing and sustainable cultural experience.

By Petra Mason
Installation view of ATMOSPHERE 3. Earth: Indigenous Knowledge and Extraction, from left: Mater Iniciativa, Ecosistemas Mater (2024); Zayaan Khan and Coila-Leah Enderstein, Seeds from the Streets to the Seas (2019); Russell Scott, Botanical Portraits Unearthed (2008–17); Ximena Garrido-Lecca, Insurgencias botánicas: Phaseolus lunatus (Botanical insurgencies: Phaseolus lunatus) (2017). Photo Graham De Lacy.

While state-owned public institutions have fallen apart, South Africa has seen the emergence of private art collections and collector-driven art museums in recent years. According to executive director and senior curator Clive Kellner, the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) is neither a museum nor an art gallery, but a sustainable cultural institution offering imaginative spatial variety ‘crucial to a healthy arts ecosystem’. The foundations ‘do less better’ approach offers contemplative content over scale, volume and commercialism.

Rebecca Potterton
The Other Side of Dreaming (2024). Mural.

Now in its fourth year, the JCAF has secured itself as a definitive academic and research-orientated private art institution and think-tank on the continent.

How? Through small, carefully curated exhibitions, where quality supersedes quantity. The JCAF has only 450 square metres of exhibition space, which is not much compared to its larger contemporaries. In Cape Town — the Norval Foundation has nine galleries and Zeitz Mocaa occupies 6 000 square metres of space.

Ecospheres opened on 31 May and ends 7th December 2024. Ecospheres is the first in a trilogy of exhibitions that fit neatly into the three-year research theme of ‘Worldmaking’ and includes Ecospheres (2024), Structures (2025) and Futures (2026) — along with an accompanying series of talks and publications. Each exhibition consists of two parts : a physical exhibition and a printed publication that extends through additional research, data and collateral material.

Installation view showing Russell Scott, Botanical Portraits Unearthed (2008–17). © Russell Scott. Photo Graham De Lacy.

While I count myself one of the fortunate few to have interacted with each of the annual exhibitions since the foundation’s launch in 2020, my access, like anyone’s, is entirely egalitarian. Entry is free, all you have to do is book online. The welcoming embrace of ‘the doors of learning and culture shall be opened,’ reminiscent of the Freedom Charter, is made possible by three generous, low-profile trustee philanthropists: Gordon Schachat, former deputy chairman and co-founder of African Bank Investments Ltd; Adi Enthoven, chair and non-executive director of Hollard and executive chairman of private investment group Yellowwoods; and Phuthuma Nhleko, former group president and CEO of MTN. All have heavily invested in the ten-years-in-the-making foundation. Architect Pierre Swanepoel from StudioMAS says: “In the midst of load shedding and emigration, we want this philanthropic institution to be a sign of hope.”

Installation view of ATMOSPHERE 1. Water: Narrative and Myth- Making, from left: Rithika Merchant, Transtidal (2022); Zizipho Poswa, uNa’kaMzingisi (Mzingisi’s Mother) (2024); Bronwyn Katz, Kai tus tu (Great rain rain) (2023). Photo Graham De Lacy.

Situated on the edge of Forest Town, the heritage property sits along the old Johannesburg tram lines in what was once an electrical tram shed. The foundation’s ruddy face brick exterior overlooks the tree-lined street in the affluent suburb of this former mining town in Africa’s largest economy.

Installation view showing Ximena Garrido-Lecca, Insurgencias botánicas: Phaseolus lunatus (Botanical insurgencies: Phaseolus lunatus) (2017). © Ximena Garrido-Lecca. Photo Graham De Lacy.

Arriving at the foundation as I did on a crisp, clear, autumnal Highveld afternoon during an uncertain time for our country and at the start of what may well be a winter of discontent for many, the splashes of colour – yellowing leaves, red brick and manicured green grass – added to the modernist optics while having a distinctly orderly and civilising effect.

Installation view showing Michael Tsegaye, Ankober (2007) and Afar II (2023). © Michael Tsegaye. Photo Graham De Lacy.

In stark contrast to the famously snobby art world, the entire staff line up to greet guests as they embark on their timed visit, the guides chat and show one around, explaining the architecture of the building.

Installation view Zizipho Poswa, uNa’kaMzingisi (Mzingisi’s Mother) (2024). © Zizipho Poswa. Photo Graham De Lacy.

Moving through the exhibition, the precision of the presentations, without labels or texts to tell you what to think, with the guide there to enable a process of discovery, for some reason Samson’s riddle came to mind: ‘Out of the eater came something to eat, out of the strong, something sweet’.

Installation view of ATMOSPHERE 1. Water: Narrative and Myth- Making: in the foreground, Ernesto Neto, Um dia todos fomos peixes (One day we were all fish) (2017); in the background, Zizipho Poswa, uNa’kaMzingisi (Mzingisi’s Mother) (2024). Photo Graham De Lacy.
To book online: 
The JCAF is located at No 1 Durris Road, Forest Town, Johannesburg, South Africa.
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