If you’ve wandered through the streets of central Stellenbosch this year, you’ll have noticed large-scale photographic artworks on and around the small student town’s iconic Cape Dutch architecture. This is the Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust’s (SOST) outdoor photography exhibition, curated by Anelisa Mangcu and organised together with exhibition patrons, Private Clients by Old Mutual Wealth.
SOST was launched in 2012, and this photographic exhibition, titled Freedom, I dream up for myself and others, is the ninth iteration of public art facilitated by the non-profit. The exhibition, in line with SOST’s initiatives, has been conceptualised and designed to educate students and other members of the public about the critical importance of art as a tool of empowerment. Jean Minnaar, MD of Private Clients by Old Mutual Wealth, is intimately aware of the potentiality of art as an agent of transformation. “The appreciation of art in all forms is a global phenomenon and is as old as time itself. Beyond its emotional and aesthetic value, we believe that art is a real and tangible asset that appreciates over time,” says Jean. “Providing support for SOST’s ongoing education efforts for emerging and established artists is close to our hearts, as we believe that this kind of creative thinking is important in developing a vibrant and diverse economy.”
Curator Anelisa Mangcu was approached by SOST and its board of trustees to assemble this exhibition based on her extensive existing body of curatorial work that doesn’t shy away from asking pertinent and probing questions. In retrospect, her decision to choose photography by African artists to make a statement about space, place and belonging in Stellenbosch makes perfect sense. The eight Masters selected by Anelisa represent a broad range of acclaimed photographic talent from across the continent that work in figuration, a subject close to her heart. “I’m a figurative curator. Right now in my career, I like to connect to things that connect to what I love the most, which is being in the business of human beings. I love people. I want to make them happy and inspire them in whatever way I can, and figuration allows me to do that.”
Familiar names like Berni Searle, David Goldblatt, Obie Oberholzer and Roger Ballen have been included, plus celebrated outliers from further afield such as Akinbode Akinbiyi, James Barnor, Calvin Dondo and Malick Sidibé. “My dream was always to work with Master photographers, particularly ones from around Africa, but also those who draw inspiration from the continent and have living experience here,” explains Anelisa. “I really wanted to focus on a photography show. Most of the photographs are black and white. There are images that have always stuck in my mind, and it was such an honour to engage with the artist or estate. When an artist puts out a work it’s a documentation of the current time, and those works are then considered to be part of the archive. What makes it so wonderful is that it really is the archaeology that was never buried.”
That the exhibition is sited around Stellenbosch, long viewed as a bastion of White privilege, was an area of fruitful exploration for Anelisa. “I’m a huge storyteller and I really love telling stories through artworks. Stellenbosch has been seen as a space that is not inclusive of people of colour. As a Black woman, engaging in that space and seeing how others engage in it in the art world, and having a brother attend the university, I really began to understand that it’s just a small town – which is not to say that all the things that are said about the town should be overlooked, but art is definitely a unifying conversation. There’s always something that someone can pick up from it.” The service that art can provide in a public space, out of the intimidating conventional white-cube gallery space, was top of Anelisa’s mind as she chose the various locations for each work. “I’m aware that the art gallery is a privileged place to be in and I’m aware that some people might be intimidated by these spaces. If I can be open and inviting with my practice, then that is what I’ll do.”
Her show allows residents and visitors to the town to take a moment out of their ordinary day and contemplate life from a new perspective. “I wanted people to find different ways to spend their afternoons and investigate the exhibition. What I love is that we have these huge images and these decently sized plaques which force the audience member to engage with the story behind the artist.”
As you move through the exhibition, Anelisa encourages you to closely examine the history of where you are. “We wanted to occupy spaces that we know people often pass. We wanted to make sure the works were in close proximity to one another. I really want people to explore Stellenbosch and to get to know it – and it can be daunting because of the economic, social and political discourse that is assigned to it. You can imagine that as a Black woman who is vocal on these matters, who expresses my views through exhibitions, working in Stellenbosch was no child’s play. I was incredibly mindful of the response I would get.”
Beyond the exhibition itself, Anelisa and SOST teamed up with visual artist and activist Prof Sir Zanele Muholi, the Muholi Art Institute (MAI) and Art School Africa (ASA) to create educational tools and mentorships that aim to further harness the innate power of art and foster a new generation of creative practitioners. “It was imperative for me to have this (the photographic exhibition) as the foundation piece for the many projects we are hosting, which to me are life- changing and things I’ve always wanted to do. I’m a huge believer in education. For me, it’s imperative that education is not something only the privileged have access to.” The Rupert Museum became a key partner, hosting workshops and talk spaces that facilitated intellectual engagement. Held in June, these workshops allowed students from the Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography to team up with a mentor for a day to encourage artistic debate and dialogue. “I feel it should be a requirement for all schools to have an artistic interest and for these to be discussed as potential career paths in the home,” says Anelisa.
Freedom, I dream up for myself and others, will be on view until March 2024.