Grand gallery to open

Seen from Silvermine, the Norval Foundation art gallery in Steenberg.

The Norval Foundation art gallery in Steenberg is set to open on Tuesday April 28, but not everyone will be celebrating.

The Norval Foundation is a new centre for the research and exhibition of 20th and 21st-century visual art from South Africa and beyond. This is the foundation’s new premises (“Leopard toad-friendly art gallery in store,” Bulletin August 10, 2017).

For many months passing motorists have been puzzled by the large structure growing between towering yellow cranes on what was the site of the old Barnyard restaurant.

The former president of the Wildlife and Environment Society (WESSA), John Green, has criticised positioning the concrete building in the middle of a wetland. He said Wessa had tried to protect the upper reaches of the Westlake River wetland.

“We thought that we had reached agreement on a low-key residential development which totally protected and resuscitated the wetland,” he said.

He wants to know what considerations the City’s planning department gave to National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) in allowing the gallery to be built where it is.

Rob Tiffin, of Zwaanswyk, said the building was completely out of character with an area bordering farmland and the Table Mountain National Park.

“All housing in the area above the road is of low density and height, as in Zwaanswyk and Steenberg. The Tokai Residents’ Association fought hard against this project, but was beaten by the DA’s policy of density and commercialisation at any cost so that they can get more rates,” said Mr Tiffin.

Erica Hobbs, of Kirstenhof, said: “It’s an ugly building, looks like a factory and makes the US Embassy look stylish by comparison. It’s an abuse of land, especially since they not only built in a rural area but also had the audacity to claim a sensitive wetland area upon which to build their monstrosity. The planning department should never have allowed it. It’s grotesque and has allowed for someone’s ego to run riot.”

The Norval Foundation, however, says the gallery’s environmental footprint is a gentle one.

Last week the building, which is across the road from the American Embassy, was a hive of activity as finishing touches were put to it, including landscaping and the installation of sculptures and other artworks.

Glazed windows to the north and south capture views from the double-floor sculpture gallery and restaurant.

At the centre is an atrium with an installation of black planks by artist Serge Alain Nitegeka and views of the wetland sculpture park.

Talitha Cronje, spokesperson for Norval Foundation, said everything at the property focussed on the western leopard toads.

“The founder and owner, Louis Norval, is well aware of how these endangered amphibians are dying out due to the drought. They were audible at night during construction, and there are lots of tadpoles swimming around in the little dam,” she said.

Mr Norval is a former South African amateur golf champion who in his “spare time” is a global investor with fine-art collections. One of his aims is to have them assembled for viewing in one place, hence the gallery and sculpture park.

Ms Cronje said the gallery would host exhibitions by local and international artists and would also house the large Norval Foundation private collection of contemporary art. The light, airy restaurant is named after South African artist and teacher Cecil Skotnes.

“All ingredients are sourced from local, small-batch suppliers, with the intention of supporting and uplifting local communities,” said Ms Cronje.

The restaurant opens onto a terrace and indigenous garden. A boardwalk winds around the building through the wetland and past sculpture installations, a children’s playground, vineyards and vistas of Silvermine and Constantiaberg.

There’s an outdoor amphitheatre that can seat about 110 people, and Ms Cronje said the gallery might be a venue for picnics and jazz concerts in future.

There are several exhibition spaces of different sizes but the most spectacular is to the north – a double floor of glazed window with views of Devil’s Peak and the back of Table Mountain.

Curator Karl Nel said two 6.7m sculptures of the Edoardo Villa Estate Collection, each weighing about seven tons, were installed on Friday April 13.

“It will be the first time they will be seen in public since the 1960s. Very few museums can take these artworks because of the weight.”

Behind the sculptures are photographs, by Egon Gunther, which are equal to them in size and part of the same collection.

The Norval Foundation is also the custodian of the Gerard Sekoto Foundation and the Alexis Preller Archive.

Horticulture designer Raymond Hudson, who has co-designed the Kirstenbosch exhibits shown at the annual Chelsea Flower Show, said the grounds had been overrun with alien vegetation, but now the wetland had been rehabilitated and every plant around it was indigenous.

Last week he was creating drainage channels from the wetland and building up the bank alongside the road across from the American consulate.

The City’s media office did not respond to questions by the time this edition went to print.