The Art of collecting

Elizabeth Donaldson talks to curator and collector Julia Meintjes about her latest exhibition, the extraordinary talent of South Africa’s undiscovered artists and why linocuts rock

Julia Meintjes is arguably one of South Africa’s most eminent curators. She has played an important role in the national art world for nearly 30 years and currently manages Art at Tokara in Stellenbosch as well as art portfolios for a number of high-profile clients, such as Graham Beck Wines. Her experience is international and impressive.

Her career began at Tatham Art Gallery, from where she moved to the Johannesburg Art Gallery as exhibitions officer. Subsequently, Julia helped to establish the Arts Alive Festival, when it profiled and developed the arts in South Africa and attracted national and international participation. She also managed the art collection of the South African Reserve Bank for 10 years as well as compiling an art collection by contemporary southern African artists for Citigroup SA. For Barclays Bank she put together a collection of works by historic and contemporary South African artists that depicts different interpretations of landscape in South Africa, and for KPMG in Johannesburg she created an animal-themed collection. The collection includes images of mythical and real animals, some inspired by African folklore.

The corporate fraternity is smitten with Julia and with good reason; the art she collects on their behalf is a solid investment, a high performance asset with a ROI that makes a lot of sense. With the second takeover of the business, General Cologne Reinsurance sold part of the art collection compiled by Julia for a substantial profit.

So what gives Julia the Midas touch when it comes to art?

Julia graduated with a first class fine art degree from Pietermaritzburg University, having studied privately with acclaimed artist-teacher Lois Breytenbach. “She influenced me profoundly. She taught her students to experiment and encouraged us to express our own ways of seeing. Above all she taught me that art communicates with the viewer, and these conversations are part of a long process in an artist’s life. What I aim to do with my exhibitions and collections is to prompt these conversations, preferably ones that challenge and fascinate.”

Julia’s ability to co-ordinate extraordinary collections that do just that has taken her to all four corners of the globe, including a stint at the prestigious Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

“With experience I have learned to articulate why, in my opinion, one piece of art is more interesting than another. With experience I have also learned that it is not necessarily the artist who is collectable; for me it’s about the individual work. Rather than buying a particular signature, I would recommend buying a specific work by a particular artist who may have a collectable signature.”

>“It interests me that South African collectors easily pay a lot of money for work by well-known historic artists, but seldom invest in the country’s vast pool of untapped talent. As much as I take pleasure in sourcing art, I am fascinated by the artist’s creative process, too much simply to sell art. I need curatorial space. I’m interested in why people make things and am keen to put together different art works that spark questions. Conversations.”

“I am passionate about building collections over time. I’ve learned an enormous amount from clients because everyone looks at art differently, which encourages me to look again. For example, working with Phillip Howell on the Barclays collection in 1996 was really stimulating. Phillip is English and has a very different life experience from my South African one. He wanted landscapes depicting South Africa, so we created an interesting collection of historical and contemporary works. In a collection such as this it is not only the individual works that spark conversations with the viewer, but their placement alongside other works sparks other conversations.”

The question most people would like to ask an art dealer of this caliber is, “Who is your favourite artist?” to which Julia thinks before answering, “I don’t have a favourite artist. I have favourite pieces like Bertha Everard’s Deville Wood, Diamond Bozas’s Self Portrait and Josephine Gheza’s Fish Mermaid. However, I would single out Stanley Pinker who is a remarkable artist. I am extremely pleased that he is finally being recognized for the great artist he is. I just wish for him it had happened sooner.”

“Also, artists use different media. There are many artists who’ve managed to survive by making original prints, which is more financially viable. This allows the artist to make a limited edition of one work. It’s also good for collectors because it makes art more affordable. John Muafangejo and Azaria Mbatha are both lino artists that spring to mind. The Caversham Press Studio in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands is one of South Africa’s most highly regarded studios. The Press will be 25-years-old this year and there will be a celebratory exhibition at The Standard Bank Gallery plus our exhibition at Tokara, which will include works by Robert Hodgins, Peter Schutz, Elza Botha and Peter Clarke.

Since 1998, Julia has worked as art advisor to Tokara Winery (owned by GT Ferreira) where she curates a number of diverse exhibitions every year displaying work by current and historical Southern African artists. The programme has profiled beaded and embroidered works from Shangaan, Zulu and Ndebele artists alongside paintings by Siphiwe Zulu, original limited edition graphics in black on white by numerous artists, a show by Elza Botha, Alfred Thoba and Ntombi Nala, photographs by Obie Oberholzer, Jac De Villiers and another five contemporary art photographers, Phillip Rikhotso, Foni Kofi, Jenny Stadler, Bronwen Findlay and Clifford Mpai, a display themed around the collectability of SA art, a show about landscape featuring Jan du Toit, and others displaying paintings and sculptures by a range of serious young contemporary and established SA artists.

Julia also initiated and runs a profit-share project with artist-craftspeople from KwaZulu-Natal, Threads of Africa. Artists weave baskets in fine metal wire, which are destined for a high-profile exhibition at AngloGold Gold of Africa Museum in Cape Town later in the year.

For more information, contact Julia Meintjes Fine Art on (011) 788 0820.

Julia Meintjes displays works at Restaurant Christophe, van Reyneveld Street, Stellenbosch, tel: (021) 886 8763.

BOX

Now on exhibition at Art at Tokara

The Space Between

From Looking to Depicting

Celebrating Estelle Marais and her Karoo

Focusing on Marais’ Karoo, the exhibition features landscapes by a select group of artists investigating the way in which they observe landscape and then create their own interpretation of the place. Including works by Diamond Bozas, Scott Bredin, Khulekani Dlamini, JW George, Leonora Everard Haden , Johann Louw, Erich Mayer, Saint Mokoena, Terence McCaw, Helen Timm and JEA Volschenk

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At Art at Tokara until 25 April. For more information call (021) 808 5900, art@tokara.com

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