When traveling internationally, we wouldn’t think twice about going into an art gallery in a village you might be passing through, but locally – not so much. Harrie Siertsema and his team have made sure that both Richmond in the Karoo and Mpumalanga’s Graskop should stop you in your tracks. DIANE DE BEER takes a closer look and loses her heart:
“Living with art” is a phrase invented for art connoisseur and instigator of the Modern Art Projects South Africa (MAPSA) Harrie Siertsema, which is mainly found in the small Karoo town Richmond and Graskop with two extraordinary galleries.
That’s right, not many when driving through or rather passing by on their way to either Cape Town or in the other direction, Johannesburg or pass through Graskop, would consider it possible to visit what many consider world class galleries.
But that’s exactly what Harrie and curator/artist Abrie Fourie have established with financial assistance from Harrie’s longtime partner Willem van Bergen with art possibilities growing and evolving at some speed..
It all began with Harrie buying what he thought was a single house in the small Karoo town, only to discover at closer inspection that it was much more – almost an entire block. While peeping through a window of the house he was interested in, someone tapped him on the shoulder and asked for work. The deal was done.
When you arrive in Richmond, this same George Williams will welcome you to MAPSA or for a stayover at their guesthouse.
With the purchase, Harrie’s many hours of play as a youngster- when this former architect was measuring not only every room in his childhood home but also the furniture – kicked in.
But not only that, he can remember buying his first artwork at the age of 15 with money he earned working at a local stationery shop. “I still have it,” he says as I sit admiring the amazing art I can see over his shoulder in his city home, a constantly growing extension of that first purchase.
This is a man with a straightforward passion, but one he has followed without fail while on the way, not only supporting established artists, but also discovering up-and-coming artists at shows, SASOL New Signatures and Absa L’Atelier.
He describes his particular art bent as close to the Italian Arte Povera (poor art) movement that emerged in in the late 60s. “It wasn’t as if I knew of them at the time, it simply must have been a part of the zeitgeist,” he believes. His interest is recycled and rescued art rather than the corporate kind and when you look at the names like Jan van der Merwe, Gordon Froud, Jeremy Wafer, Sam Nhlengethwa, Willem Boshoff, Robert Hodgins, Cecile Heystek, Diane Victor, Claudette Schreuders, Sandile Zulu, Seretse Moletsane and Strijdom van der Merwe (a who’s who of local artists and the list goes on).
The narratives grow and there is a multitude of South African stories being told by a diversity of local voices magically reverberating in places that will hopefully capture a much larger audience – of both local and international travellers.
Since its inception in 2005, MAPSA’s activities have included exhibitions in various venues in South Africa (Cullinan, Dullstroom, Graskop, Pretoria, Aardklop, Potchefstroom and Richmond) determined by Harrie’s many other business interests.
Like in Richmond where an old supermarket packed with broken pinball machines was turned into a spacious art gallery, Harrie was having a pancake at a small café in Graskop when before he knew it, he was the owner of a pancake joint with two burners. Many years later it has been turned into a flourishing business with Harrie’s Pancakes thriving in Graskop, Cullinan, Dullstroom and in Pretoria with a Delagoa Arts and Crafts alongside.
Further expansion in Graskop also includes a hotel where it really all began and where some of his favourite artists were asked to decorate the rooms, which allow visitors the delight of sleeping in a space filled with not only the individual artist’s art, but also a real sense of the artist. A gallery similar to that in Richmond also features in this Mpumalanga town with space that artists can usually just dream of.
There’s always something happening in their art world. MAPSA has commissioned site-specific installations and published limited edition monographs while artist’s residencies, workshops and retreats are ongoing at different properties in Richmond.
They constantly engage with the community and well as dealing with the challenges facing contemporary artists. They are determined to make a difference and to contribute to change and development whenever possible. Collaboration is something they encourage and nurture and with Harrie and Abrie a dynamic duo backed by the rest of the team, including the logistic genius, executive manager Morné Ramsay, they are constantly at work to provide creative opportunities to artists from around the country as well as Richmond inhabitants.
For people tackling the N1 in any direction, Richmond is the perfect stop for a stayover. The first time I did this with family and friends, finding ourselves the next morning with mugs of coffee still in pyjamas in a gallery with spectacular art – in the middle of the Karoo – was simply magical and unexpected. And still feels unreal and something to be cherished with every stopover.
That’s what art can do for you. It keeps on giving in the most imaginative fashion and when you have someone like Harrie with the team he has surrounded himself with as he would, you know that you have to keep an eye on what they come up with next.
On site in Richmond for example, they also have an extraordinary Bookbinding Project overseen by artist Mongezi Mcombo, an Artist Proof Studio alumni, who also produces his own work on the premises, OpenLab, a biennial project where artists can explore site-based public interventions, an interdisciplinary laboratory, the yearly Land Art Project for art students of the University of the Free State under the guidance of Professor Willem Boshoff (how can you resist with the never-ending vistas of the Karoo) and an informal Clay Brick Making Collaboration. And this sentence should really be open-ended because they are constantly coming up with yet another collaboration or creative venture that adds to MAPSA’s art experience.
Staying over is an option, but not everyone wants to take such a specific break when on the road. In that instance, Richmond is the perfect turn-off for a well-deserved artistic break. Pick up a MAPSA art walk map from the gallery, which will point you in the right direction to include their magnificent contemporary art collection. Also discover Willem Boshoff’s dictionary Word Woes (which as the title suggests works in different ways when read in either Afrikaans and English) as well as work by Strijdom van der Merwe, Johan Moolman, Gordon Froud and Abrie Fourie in the connected Sculpture Garden.
Included in this space is also the previously mentioned bookbinding project and Ella Ziegler’s Does The Ground Feel Tears?, a text-based work using handmade alphabet bricks, a MAPSA collaboration with local brickmaker Trevor Snyders.
Sculptor Guy du Toit has added his version of Two Thousand and Ten Reasons to Live in a Small Town, a public art project facilitated by VANSA and funded by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund, which has many different goals incorporated in a single project.
The latest in the MAPSA series is Richard John Forbes’s Black Room (see more detailed story following in this space) which will blow your mind and give you a sense of experiencing art in a very distinct and visceral manner.
Add to that MAPSA’s fruit and veg garden, Hoggie Viljoen’s indigenous garden as well as Shane de Lange’s text-based work The Fence and Hannelie Coetzee’s Tokkas, Londa and Oom Samuel engraved on a plastered wall.
If all of this sounds quite hectic, this is just a taster and not even half of it. But it can all be explored in your own time. I would simply start with the gallery, have a wander through the sculpture garden and then see how much more is possible or keep the rest for the trip back or whenever you pass through Richmond again.
It can easily turn into a lifelong and life-enhancing discovery.
For more info and bookings:
For stayover bookings at Richmond: contact Hazel Mbuyane on 073 386 8509 (but be aware that they often have residencies or other activities which prevent stay-overs)
The gallery has a number for George Williams on the outside which can be contacted for info or a walk-along: 073 436 4413
For bookings at the hotel in Graskop: 013 7671244
Phone Harries’s Pancakes manager Lindy Kruger, for gallery viewings or accommodation in Harrie’s Cottage: 078 111 9060 .
For good food when passing through:
Vetmuis: Magriet Burger on 082 380 1196 or
Die Padstal: Klaradyn Grobler 079 755 8285.