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Beeld, South Africa - Art should be accessible to everyone

Elana Brundyn helped establish some of Africa's most important art institutions. Her new project Art House Collection combines art and travel and aims to make art more accessible and fun

Interviewing South African art doyenne Elana Brundyn truly challenges your interview skills. She bounces from one idea to the next, while enthusiastically leading you down cerebral rabbit holes, only to make a mental U-turn, reverse the dynamic, where she becomes the interviewer and you the subject.

Even from halfway around the world, she radiates a confident inquisitiveness from a Zoom screen - she joins our discussion from the Fotografiska New York gallery, the same gallery in downtown Manhattan infamous art grifter and con-woman Anna Delvey-Sorokin eyed for her art foundation.

Brundyn's mental acquisitiveness, her most endearing trait, is a force to be reckoned with. She is as interested in her interviewer as they are in her. And before you know it, she has flipped the conversation. Now you are telling her about your family, interests, and history - because Brundyn really wants to know what makes you tick.

In African art circles, she is close to royalty. Her LinkedIn introduction euphemistically states "Cultural Entrepreneur", although she helped establish some of South Africa's most important private art museums and institutions.

She was a founding director of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, Africa's version of the Tate Modern or the Guggenheim. Soon after, she helped establish the Norval Foundation, another contemporary South African art museum in Steenberg, Cape Town, in collaboration with property developer and philanthropist Louis Norval. She also facilitated a collaboration agreement between Boschendal Wine Estate and the Norval Foundation. She is a founding member of the Stellenbosch Triennial and affiliated with Harvard University's Centre for African Studies. Before that, she owned a gallery on Loop Street in Cape Town.

During the interview, a common theme or interest emerges - Brundyn's interest in people and her need to understand them. How are we wired, what are our wants, needs, hopes, and dreams? Her need to understand what makes us tick stands central to her success story.

The power of humanity

Brundyn did not study art, psychology, or sociology - her qualifications include political studies, law and African studies at Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town.

Early on, I made peace that I would never be a political animal. I believe in soft power," she states. The political arena, with its Machiavellian power plays and bombastic, strongman tactics held little appeal to her. If you want to become an influential figure that makes a lasting impact in your field or society, you need to understand people,” she explains.

"Politics could not offer me that. And I have always loved the visual arts. It’s also a much more effective vehicle to drive reconciliation and highlight people’s shared interests." Art, she believes, gives us a better insight into word views and realities that differ from our own. “Art, and notably conceptual art, compel the viewer to think deeper and more critically about the artist's intention. This is why I love conceptual art and artists, especially those who use it to challenge existing ideas and push boundaries."

Early in her life, she started collecting art. “I saw the power it had to sway opinions and start a conversation around sensitive themes or topics. Although it cannot always change their opinion, perhaps it will make them consider a different point of view. Some friends were gobsmacked by the artwork that hung in my home. But after a few visits, the works piqued their interest. They want to know why it appeals to you, what you see in something they perceive as foreign, strange, or even mundane.

But slowly, a mind-shift happens. It's one of the most powerful mediums to facilitate change."

An equalizer

Art is a bit like the proverbial Roman forum of society - a central meeting point for people from diverse backgrounds to exchange ideas and thoughts, she explains. “It's a potent social equaliser. When I ran my gallery on Loop Street, I had to sit through some dead quiet days, especially during the Capetonian winter. For hours you wouldn't see a soul. During one of those slower days, I had a brain wave - to stage my own 'happening'. Everyone who visited the gallery that day was invited to burgers and drinks at Loading Bay, a restaurant at De Waterkant.

"Whether you were my framer, a tourist, artist, curator or a prominent collector, you received an invitation. The first “happening” was a roaring success and her "hamburger happenings" became a regular institution. “When you seat creative people from different backgrounds next to each other, magic happens,” she says. “It stimulated new ideas, encouraged creativity, and forged new partnerships. Regardless of my guests' background, education or social standing, they all had a shared interest - art".

Art curators from New York broke bread with bright-eyed art ingenues, while young artists, trying to find their feet, were introduced to established art collectors.

"I have built up some of my most treasured relationships during these events."

Outdoor sculpture at Norval Foundation in Steenberg, Cape Town

A safe space

Currently, she's investigating new art museum paradigms – and how to make these spaces more accessible to novices and rid them of their elitist, exclusive stigma.

"People (wrongly) think that art museums and galleries go hand in hand with intellectual torment and introspection," she scoffs. And while art should question the status quo, provide social commentary, and encourage a feat of cerebral gymnastics, it can also be fun and even a bit frivolous.

“Museums are hard work – anyone who has done the museum circuit in Paris, Madrid or New York knows the feeling of brain fatigue you experience at the end of the day. Even for me, a veteran in the industry, it can be mentally exhausting visiting art fairs, biennales or trying to cram as many art museums as possible into a short European city stay," she admits.

"There is a need for a space that offers soft, amiable introductions to art. The traditional museum and gallery model is also undergoing great changes. It's a challenging time in the art world, but also immensely exciting – a brave new world with new opportunities."

Studio on Castle Street, in the heart of Cape Town, is the home of a former decor magazine editor

Art and hospitality

The concept takes shape in one of her latest projects, Art House Collection, a bespoke collection of Southern African holiday homes, hotels, and lodges. Brundyn runs it in partnership with former magazine editor and travel writer Michelle Snaddon. Together they have hand-picked properties with exceptional decor, architecture, and art collections.

“I’m fascinated with the psyche of the collector,” she explains. "Before Zeitz MOCCA opened, we undertook a careful curation of the artworks that would be exhibited with the launch. I wanted to curate a collection around African art collectors with the theme 'Africa Collects'. It was supposed to be a homage to these collectors and the artists they support.

The idea was never used during her tenure at Zeitz, but collectors – whether it's stuffed animals or Pierneef prints, continued to interest her. “What drives their tastes and whims?” she muses. “Why are they interested in that artist, medium or era? It’s all rather fascinating."

She hopes Art House Collection’s respective properties will offer guests a safe space to engage with art and give them some insight from a collectors' point of view. A private home or house isn’t as intimidating as a museum or gallery, she explains. Guests can express their opinions and thoughts about the artworks, without fearing judgement from a stiff-upper-lip art snob. And for art lovers, the residences offer a sanctuary filled with exceptional artworks and sculptures.

"The properties in the collection are quite diverse, just like their owners. They range from interior decorators to former journalists and magazine editors. They’re mostly creative professionals – for whom creativity extends far beyond their career or day job," she says.

“I also believe that it shouldn’t cost a lot of money to surround yourself with beauty and art. I'm constantly in awe when visiting artists and creative friends, their feats of inventiveness and originality are astounding when you consider their limited funds. One week, while making my rounds and meeting with clients and artists, I was hosted at an impressive (and expensive) mansion, with a prime position on the Atlantic Seaboard. It probably cost gazillions to design and build. But I was much more impressed by the artists’ apartments and studios - how they imprinted their style and personality onto their living space with tiny budgets. I was far more impressed with their ingenuity and originality than that mansion on the Atlantic Seaboard."

The whimsical folly that is Le Grand Jardin in Devon Valley, just outside Stellenbosch

Excess and balance

Some of the Art House Collection homes are fantastical follies of pure excess. Le Grand Jardin in Stellenbosch is the culmination of all your childhood fantasies - an old-fashioned carousel in a manicured garden, a conservatory full of exotic plants, children’s rooms with Tintin themes, complete with a model of the white and red checkered rocket from the book Destination Moon. During summer you can recline on a candy floss pink flamingo-shaped lilo while sipping on cocktails or wine spritzers.

Artworks from South African masters such as Alexander Rose-Innes, Sydney Carter, Gregoire Boonzaier and Adriaan Boshoff add to the exuberance of the property.

Then there is property developer Japie van Niekerk's Mapogo House, a private safari lodge in the Sabi Sand concession next to the Kruger National Park. The lodge’s style is the antithesis of the Blixen-esque "I had a farm in Africa" colonial aesthetic that plagues the safari industry.

Instead, it follows a more natural design that elevates its surroundings and the Lowveld landscape. The structure draws inspiration from the angular, functional modernism of American architect Richard Neutra and French architect Le Corbusier while softening the geometric lines with organic forms, like the bronze sculptures of wild animals and birds from South Africa's emerging artists.

The wallpaper in the main bedroom at Le Grand Jardin, handpainted by African Sketchbook, is a wild celebration of Henri Rousseau's jungle scenes

The properties of the Art House Collection aren’t all grandiose structures and fantasy, though.

There is also STIL, a simple homestead in Montagu, surrounded by the Langeberg and an eclectic pied-a-terre in the Cape Town City Bowl. "Visitors to South Africa are spoilt for choice when selecting their next holiday accommodation, whether it’s a luxury holiday home or lodge, or a five-star hotel.

With the Art House Collection, we want to offer our guests a distinct experience - where art and hospitality merge.

"Nevertheless, the homes in our portfolio offer so much more than just their bespoke art collections. From the instant our guests arrive to the moment they open their eyes in the morning, they should feel part of an experience where every detail has been carefully thought through and arranged to make their stay as special as possible," she concludes.

Stil, in the historic town of Montagu, is on Route 62 - the longest wine route in the world!

Tranquillity in Montagu

STIL cottage, a simple homestead in Montagu in the Western Cape, takes its design cues from Japan and Scandinavia, with a touch of Cape Country Dutch to keep things local.

As the name "Stil" ('quiet' in Afrikaans) indicates, it is a place to catch your breath and relax. The cottage's functional open-plan layout ensures a harmonic flow from the interior to the exterior. Stil's guests can enjoy the sanctuary's exterior, natural surroundings, and the creature comforts of the interior.

The rooftop terrace is a big draw card among its guests – As dusk sets in you can lie on top of the house and watch as the Karoo sky changes from crimson to lavender and later dark indigo. Or set your alarm clock for early and watch the sunrise over the Langeberg, while bokmakierie birds and hummingbirds serenade you with their dawn call. A splash pool offers relief from those sweltering Karoo summer days.

The Art House Collection website describes it as a place "with 'harmony in abundance'. The overriding feeling is one of harmony – where colours, textures, forms, and eras have been combined to tranquil effect. Dark and light, nostalgic and contemporary, curves and corners all work together in the space towards achieving balance.”

• Art House Collection also offers special rates for South Africans. Email for more information. This article is translated from the original article in the South African Beeld newspaper, written by Carla Lewis/Photograph of Elana Brundyn by Michael Le Grange at Norval Boschendal.

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