Conveniently set in Cape Town’s city centre, yet hidden within the lush foliage of the Company’s Gardens, the South African National Gallery is a stone’s throw from the South African Museum and Planetarium, the Iziko Slave Lodge, the Iziko Cultural Museum and the Jewish Holocaust Centre as well as the coffee shops, restaurants and street vendors of Long Street and St George’s Mall.
Almost my first words as I swung through the glass doors of the SA National Gallery Museum were “Son of a bitch!”
The amused smile of a nearby security guard indicated that, while I may have expressed more vehemence than most, this was not the first time he had seen a visitor startled by the display. On a bench in the centre of the room sat three horned demon-like sculptures, relaxed and patient. The sculpture, The Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander, is an utterly terrifying and compelling experience. I loved it. However long you look at it, there is always the lurking fear that one of the figures will slowly turn to stare right back at you.
The Gallery is large and spacious, with rooms dedicated to Prints and Drawings, Indigenous African Art, Contemporary Art, Historical Paintings and Sculptures, New Media, South African Symbols and Sculptures. Each room has accompanying wall text providing the background and inspiration of each collection.
As with most top national museums, the permanent collection at the Iziko National Gallery is complemented by various temporary exhibitions, which while I was there included William Kentridge’s menacing video installation, Refusal of Time – a display of four black and white films in which Kentridge engages with our perception of time. The films are shown simultaneously on three walls, while a large accordion-like automaton huffs and puffs in the centre of the large rectangular room. Both riveting and ominous, the narration is accompanied by sinister ticks of the clock, breathing sounds, tuba tones and chanting. I found myself constantly startled by the haunting thrust of the automation, the cacophony of sound and the use of dramatic anticipation by the narrator.
Other than this the Gallery’s atmosphere is one of quiet contemplation amongst the visitors, who appeared to be young and old, tourist and local alike.
I spent roughly two hours in the museum, taking in all the exhibitions. The maze-like structure of the building kept me knocking about like a drunken mouse in a cage but finally I exited – via the gift shop – with the help of the curator.
The South African National Gallery is a mesmerizing and thought-provoking plunge into the remarkable creativity and imagination of South African artists.