The New Vanguard of Culture in the Cape

Between the towering mountains, the verdant forests, and the breezy oceans, Cape Town is also known for its sometimes icy (read exclusionary) nature. A new generation of cultural workers is throwing out old ways and building new models of relationality and a sharp awareness of ethics. They are reimagining place while building new narratives of belonging.

By Nkgopoleng Moloi
Anelisa Mangcu

In 2019, writer and curator Antwaun Sargent published the book The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion. In it, he defined vanguards as those who create a condition “that is inclusive and reflective of a wider world” while expanding notions of agency. This sensibility is evident in the philosophies upheld by the five Capetonians I interviewed in the lead-up to the city’s most vibrant art world calendar event — the 2024 Investec Cape Town Art Fair.

I sat down with Anelisa Mangcu, Seth Shezi, Heinrich Groenewald, Shona van der Merwe, and Mpilo Ngcukana in conversation about their influence and what living and working in Cape Town means to them. These new vanguards of culture operate under a different logic to the elitist nature of the art world and the often-clannish Cape Town scene. They have mustered a voice, are tastemakers in their chosen fields, and are creating spaces of creativity and freedom for themselves and those not privy to the nerve center of society. But it’s not all work and no play – each of them is keenly aware of all the city has to offer, from cultural events and nature to where to eat and play.

Anelisa Mangcu: The Culture Curator

I first met Anelisa following her co-curating of the painting exhibition Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt, which was staged at Keyes Art Mile as part of FNB Art Joburg Open City in 2021. Since then, I have watched in awe of her dedication to Black emerging artists from the continent, particularly those who challenge the politics of representation through portraiture and figuration. Her commitment to artists whose visual articulations express histories and personal narratives remains unwavering.

We meet for coffee at Pauline’s, a spot with a small garden in Sea Point. Anelisa is adamant that the best way to get ideas flowing is to spend time outside, especially in a city filled with so much natural beauty, and so our interview was extended through a walk on the Promenade. She spoke with clarity and passion about the community of artists she champions. “I love working with young artists. I’m committed to creating opportunities where their work can thrive; where they can have the kinds of conversations that are not possible in White-owned spaces.”

In 2020, Anelisa founded the curatorial and advisory business Under the Aegis. In line with its name, the company facilitates and supports relationships between artists, galleries and collectors within the African continent and its diaspora. As a curator, she started her career at gallery Ebony Curated on Loop Street. She describes her work as being founded on care and authentic pursuits, and is interested in shifting perspectives and challenging conventions around emerging and independent artistic practice.

For Anelisa, the 2024 Investec Cape Town Art Fair carries special excitement as she will exhibit for the first time. Her booth brings together three artists working across diverse mediums and geographies: Nigerian-born Adegboyega Adesina whose figurative painting practice draws from the art of body painting; Buqaqawuli Thamani Nobakada who uses her background in architecture to create richly textured mix-media works; and Dutch-Ghanaian photographer Casper Kofi whose intimate portraits capture personal ties.

Under the Aegis Casper Kofi

As much as she is excited about participating in a world-class art fair, as a young Black woman pursuing her curatorial goals independently, she’s also aware of the inherent contradictions. She reflects that “Cape Town is an urban system entrenched in deep complexities from a variety of political, historical, social, economic and environmental factors. Despite my full access to the city and its wonderful offerings, I can’t help but think about Henri Lefebvre’s The Right to the City and how Cape Town as a space can represent power dynamics. I often think of who has rights to the city, and how it manifests itself as a superior form of rights. Who has rights to the oeuvre and who has rights to participation and appropriation? Who has the right to habitat and the right to dwelling?” However, Anelisa says, “I am far more interested in spatial solidarity, community and collective exchange of solutions for marginalised groups occupying spaces that they are expected to merely exist and not thrive in. Those who have experienced a city, as well as a country, that has colonial history know how challenging it is to navigate the invisible borders of that space. I do not have all the solutions for those who feel restricted – all I can do is contribute to opening up whatever space I can.”

The City According to Anelisa

“I’ve lived in Cape Town for the majority of my life. You can always find me at Villa 47, indulging in a Pomodorino (with Burrata) or a Spaghetti ai Frutti di Mare. There is a new restaurant called Therapy in Gardens, and you can never go wrong with their Penne Alessandro. Most Fridays, you can find me at The Planet Bar at the Mount Nelson for a drink (or two) after work. Bascule Bar serves the best view of the mountain and the perfect old-fashioned. There are too many wine farms to mention, but I love the Constantia Valley Winelands, particularly Bistro Sixteen82”

Seth Shezi: The Culture Chameleon

When you meet Seth, he is bubbly, energetic and incredibly warm. I met with him over lunch at Hemelhuijs in De Waterkant where he told me: “I find so much comfort in appreciating beautiful things around me.” As a young Black South African, Seth is set on breaking boundaries and is interested in following his passions and feelings, not just his mind. “I go where my heart leads me,” he says. Merging podcasting, creative direction and strategy, Seth is a cultural shapeshifter. His experience is vast and spans multiple industries. He began his journey as a business analyst for Metropolitan Health Group and Vox Orion before moving to business development and homing in on his creative pursuits, eventually founding creative studio Obsidian Studio in 2017. Obsidian is the black gemstone which naturally forms from volcanic lava and inspired the name of his business as a nod to and celebration of Blackness, and its potential and strength.

Seth Shezi – Sarah Keogh

Through his recent creative pursuit, Breaking Eggs, a podcast series in audio-visual form, Seth hosts curious seekers and trailblazing mavericks at the intersections of business and creative industries. Among others, he has interviewed businesswoman Carol Bouwer and chef Nick Charalambous of Greek Cypriot restaurant Ouzeri. Currently, he is the curator and creative director of the cultural experience Little Gig, a three-day gathering of mind-expanding experiences in extraordinary settings (the last one took place on the tiny island of Lamu in Kenya). The festival blends art, performance and heritage with offerings from writers, poets, chefs and local musicals who tell beautiful stories of non-conformity against Western hegemonies.

For him, his career is about rebellion against exclusion. “Access and luxury are nebulous concepts. The height of luxury is to have the freedom to be oneself and to be rebellious. I’m interested in dreaming up worlds through acts of rebellion which is about saying; ‘these are the things that I have chosen for my life and they do not fit into specific boxes’,” he says.

His voice is about to reverberate even further through his new position as part of the Board of Trustees at the Norval Foundation — the art foundation in Steenberg dedicated to the research, understanding and care of 20th and 21st-century visual art from Africa and its diasporas. This new role gives him a firmer foot in the contemporary visual-art world, as well as an opportunity to champion young artists on the continent. Coinciding with the Fair, Norval Foundation continues to showcase Cinga Samson’s first museum exhibition, Ukhe Nje Wasondela, Ndakuphosa Kulo Mlambo, as well as a substantial body of work by modernist painter Alexis Preller, Mythical Lexicon, drawing from The Preller Archive housed at Norval Foundation.

The City According to Seth

Seth spends his time between Cape Town and London, but when he’s in town he enjoys Scheckters Raw in Sea Point for their insanely delicious plant-based meals. Hugo Social Club overlooking the Atlantic Seaboard is a good place to enjoy music and people-watch), and Salsify at the Roundhouse gets a nod from Seth too.

RESEVOIR: The Culture Community Shapers

Known for its distinct curatorial voice, RESERVOIR is a minimalist’s dream. Having worked within the gallery system over many years, Heinrich Groenewald and Shona van der Merwe (co-founders of RESERVOIR) noticed the ever-widening gap between artists, collectors and audiences — often attributed to a neglect of the quality administration required to sustain close art community ties. They began with a nomadic model of curating shows in different contexts while providing consultancy and bespoke services to a wide collector base. That model has now developed into a project space with a strong curatorial arm, marrying good business sense with ethics while building community and creating space for emerging artists. “When we started it was almost as if we were mobile gallerists,” says Shona.

Reservoir’s Shona Van Der Merwe

The name RESERVOIR comes from the idea of a space where information, collected over the years, circulates between different people. Within their working process, there is a deep respect and appreciation of relationships. Their curatorial approach is process-driven with an emphasis on solo projects. “A lot of what we do is intuitive,” says Shona, who considers discernment as a critical component of what makes work compelling — it’s about particular sensibilities and sensitivities to narratives that are specific to artists and their communities. The approach to method is considered and uncompromising.

as far as the sea – a solo by inga somdyala at reservoir

Although its roots are firmly grounded in Cape Town, RESERVOIR has expanded its footprint towards the European market. In the past year, they exhibited at Milan’s international modern and contemporary art fair, Miart, and Italy’s long-running contemporary art fair, Artissima, where they received the 2023 New Entries Fund award.

The pair is committed to the local art scene. They began the year with a new project by artist Ana van de Ploeg in their gallery space. To coincide with the 2024 Investec Cape Town Art Fair, they will showcase works by Alexandra Karakashian, Bella Knemeyer and Dale Lawrence by hosting an open studio at Bree Castle House, where their gallery is currently situated. This is an effort to bring local audiences into artists’ studios to engage, challenge and enjoy the work that artists are producing. “We love our central location. Besides the flurry of wonderful eateries, it offers visitors to RESERVOIR a convenient opportunity with Bree Street being one of the social and creative arteries of the city,” says Shona.

Reservoir’s Heinrich Groenewald

The City According to Heinrich and Shona

When they’re not hard at work at Bree Castle House, Heinrich and Shona hang out at Kasteel Café, Loading Bay, the General Store on Bree Street, or can be caught having dinner and drinks at Hacienda or Obi Restaurant.

Mpilo Ngcukana: The Culture Challenger

Within the local art ecosystem, very few Black-owned spaces survive, let alone flourish. Even fewer exist in locales that are traditionally marginalised and sidelined. Mpilo is a co-founder of art gallery 16 on Lerotholi in Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township. It has nearly a century of history behind it since its formation as a result of South Africa’s 1923 Urban Areas Act. His mission is “to build a deeper appreciation for the diverse heritage, narratives, and experiences of African people both within the Langa community, across the African continent, and beyond.”

Mpilo Ngcukana

Mpilo is clear on his belief that “when you immerse yourself in the experience of art, you’re not just witnessing; you’re feeling.” This is why 16 on Lerotholi is not just a physical gallery but rather inspires profound feeling, and what Mpilo reflects on as “a holistic approach encouraging a deeper sense of responsibility – a poetic way of knowing, often sidelined in Western culture’s overemphasis on reductionist thinking.”

In just a few years, the space has had a profound impact on how local audiences engage with art in Langa. The affectation of seeing oneself (and those like you) represented is palpable, which is why the gallery focuses on developing an identity and ethos grounded in close relationships with artists. Speaking to Mpilo, one gets a sense of intense vision and a true belief in the power of art being able to shape a different future. He also has a strong passion for place – Langa in particular.  He tells me that his “engagement with local emerging artists is deeply rooted in a genuine passion for nurturing unique voices and compelling narratives within the art community.”

Ballroom dance Mongezi Gum 2023 Acrylic on Canvas 61 x 84 cm

Unlike many white cube galleries in Cape Town, 16 on Lerotholi actively encourages artists to reach out and directly submit their portfolios for consideration. This inclusive approach goes a long way in creating a diverse, rich and rigorous programme. Having traversed through the challenges of the global pandemic (the gallery opened its doors three months before the national lockdown), 16 on Lerotholi is set for a resilient future with its gallery programme and continued collaboration with South Africa’s longest-running commercial gallery, Everard Read, through joint exhibitions and artist development programs.

The gallery will participate under the ALT section of the 2024 Investec Cape Town Art Fair. As part of the VIP programme, it will host an afternoon of Jazz on 17 February to accompany an opening of the exhibition Locating Identity: Unveiling African Artistry in the Inner Sanctums of Langa. “This event delves into the intellectual discourse surrounding African identity, challenging the notion that our creations must conform to spaces distant from our roots,” notes Mpilo.

The City According to Mpilo

When he is not at the gallery or meeting artists, Mpilo enjoys local spots like Loading Bay in de Waterkant, Kloof Street House, Athletics Social Club and One Park in Gardens.

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