Masters from Southern Africa Explained by Strauss & Co Art Experts, Ahead of 26-28 July Virtual Live Auction



Collectors the world over are buying historical, modern and contemporary art from Africa

Something very exciting is happening in the art world right now. There is an awakening, indeed a burgeoning of collector and commercial interest in the power of artists from Africa, and from Southern Africa in particular. Inclusive dialogue sees the international art world embracing a global perspective and driving diversity. Art from the continent is now so much more accessible, and the seasoned art experts at Strauss & Co fine art auctioneers are in a strong position to present and discuss the selection of works by local masters on auction at the upcoming 26 to 28 July Virtual Live auction.

We caught up with three Strauss & Co senior art specialists, Head of the Art Department in Johannesburg, Dr Alastair Meredith, Wilhelm van Rensburg and Marion Dixonto gain unique insight into stand-out pieces by artists Alexis Preller, JH Pierneef and Portia Zvavahera included in the auction catalogue and the significance of these works in the context of the global rise of interest in art from Africa. 

“The broad selection of art on our auction is fantastic and the contemporary offering is really comprehensive, covering everything from oil paintings by Georgina Gratrix and Nelson Makamo to Gerhard Marx’s magnificent collage piece using map fragments,” says Strauss & Co executive director Susie Goodman. “Over the past decade, as the shock of the new has settled, we’ve seen established collectors enthusiastically integrate works by contemporary artists into their historical collections. The programming of our sale makes clear the stylistic lineages and affinities that connect past and present artists, be they Clive van den Berg and Christo Coetzee, or Athi-Patra Ruga and Alexis Preller.”

 Dr Alastair Meredith

 Q: Alastair, you are a passionate auctioneer with extensive scholarly knowledge of early twentieth-century South African painting. Please tell us about your selection of the most impressive work by South African artist Alexis Preller on auction in July and the meaning this specific piece holds for you?

A: We’re delighted to feature ten works by Alexis Preller in our upcoming sale. The earliest example is from 1939, and the latest, a small and spectacular abstract painting called The Gates, is from 1968. These works, and those in between, give a glimpse of the artist’s incredible imagination, as well as his unique stylistic and iconographic development. African Headmight be the most important example of the group, and is closely associated with The Gateway, a slightly earlier watershed painting. African Headshows a stylised profile, with flashes of coral, blue and orange, and relates to Preller’s interest in the Ndebele; it also catches him searching for a very personal African mythology. I happen to love Three Figures, Congotoo, which was painted in the-then Belgian colony in 1939. The colours are electric!

Q: Being so deeply entrenched in art from Africa at Strauss & Co auctions, please share your thoughts on the irresistible rise and popularity of African art on an international level?

A: It’s fantastic to see a new global focus on contemporary African art. Seasoned as well as new collectors are showing serious interest in this market, while major academic institutions have also picked up on the trend. While talented and fearless contemporary artists on the continent are producing dynamic, forward-thinking and beautiful work, it’s important to remember their distinguished forebears: modern and post-war artists from Africa have long been neglected, and are also due a moment in the sun.

Wilhelm van Rensburg

Q: Wilhelm, you are a prolific champion of art whose output marries scholarly research and critical writing with curating. You have organised important exhibitions for Irma Stern, Judith Mason, JH Pierneef and, most recently, Christo Coetzee. Please tell us about your highlights of Pierneef work on auction in July?

A: The Pierneef offerings on this auction – no fewer than 18 lots – incontrovertibly show that his work is highly sought after, whether one relates to his prints, such as the rare etching, Bushveld, Northern Transvaal (Lot 403) showing fine, needle-sharp lines that are very different to his broad, flat surfaces of black and white, characteristic of his well-known linocuts, to his other works on paper, such as the watercolour, Limpopo (Lot 328) showing an impressionistic bird’s eye view of the landscape. Equally compelling is the casein, A Windswept Tree on an Extensive Landscape (Lot 450) showing Pierneef’s dexterity with an innovative, yet challenging medium to its fullest. But the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the majestic Bushveld (Lot 456) an oil painting that brilliantly captures the essence of the South African landscape with towering trees virtually filling the picture plane, dwarfing the dramatic clouds in the background. This work featured prominently on my Pierneef retrospective exhibition, A Space for Landscapeat the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, in 2015.

Q: Please tell us about any other important works by African artists you’d like to highlight.

A: If one wants to get a good sense of the current issues and diverse art mediums that contemporary African artists explore, just put the Zanele Muholi (Lot 212), the Athi-Patra Ruga (Lot 241), the Georgina Gratrix (Lot 296), and the Mikhael Subotzky (lot 307) works side by side: phenomenal aesthetic insights are guaranteed! And don’t overlook Moffat Takadiwe’s Printed Modernity (Lot 273), a wry comment on technology and our reliance on the internet and social media.

Marion Dixon

Q: Marion, you possess that rare combination of extensive corporate experience and practical expertise in art collecting and curating. What are some of the influences you believe are driving interest and demand by collectors for art from Africa worldwide?

 A: As Africa has become more integrated into the global community, contemporary African art has attracted the attention of the international art market. Artists from the continent have certainly made their presence felt on international biennales, art fairs and exhibition spaces in the major art centres of the world. These artists are generally put forward by reputable galleries that over many years have supported and nurtured their careers and exhibited their work locally and internationally. The emergence of a number of dedicated private museums and foundations designed specifically to showcase contemporary African art lends further credence to the importance of contemporary art from Africa – and that it is not a passing fad. The world is sitting up and taking note of Africa’s vibrant and creative art making.  

Q: One of the highlights of this auction is the significant work Pakatangiro Rudo (Where Love Began) by Portia Zvavahera. We would love to hear your insights into this specific piece, the artist herself and the themes she explores in her paintings.

A: As a contemporary artist who has not yet made her mark on the secondary market, we are delighted to be handling this typically vibrant and large scale painting by Portia Svavahera titled Pakatangiro Rudoon our upcoming auction. This work magnificently captures two figures that are so tightly embracing that they seem to form a single light and dark intertwined entity. The one figure is draped in a textile-like printed pattern associated with her cultural upbringing, the other deep red figure has such a tight grip around her waist that it is unclear whether it is an intensely loving embrace or perhaps has a more ominous connotation. The facing figure has two feet firmly planted on the ground but disconcertingly one leg and foot is entirely ghost like. This picture would seem to evoke many of her dreamscapes and nuanced memories, experiences and concerns relating to relationships, marriage and parental love.

Sunday 26 July 2020
11am: Wine

Monday 27 July 2020
4pm: Post War and Contemporary Art
7pm: Post War and Contemporary Art

Tuesday 28 July 2020
4pm: Modern and Post War Art, including Property of a Pretoria Collector
7pm: Modern and Post War Art, including Important South African Art from the Property of a Collector

Please join the informative Strauss & Co art talk abouts:

Via Zoom link: