The Nirox Sculpture Park, A Haven For Artists

The Nirox Sculpture Park, A Haven For Artists

Home to works from local and international artists, and complete with a dedicated space to practice undisturbed while surrounded by nature, the Nirox Sculpture Park is undeniably one of Gauteng’s most beautiful locations. Omenka got in touch with Mary-Jane Daroll, curator of the annual Winter Sculpture Fair held at the park to discuss about the vision behind the park, her goals for the fair and the position sculpture occupies in South Africa’s visual art landscape.


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The Nirox Sculpture Park hosted its Winter Sculpture Fair in May. What were your goals and considerations for this exhibition?

Sculpture in South Africa could not enjoy better conditions, we have abundant space to exhibit work and fantastic weather. In this country we lead a largely outdoor life as inside our homes integrate with the outside spaces. The contemporary trend of covered garden spaces also lets us live largely outdoors. So this is an ideal situation to expand the space to show sculpture. Throughout Africa there is a long and significant history of sculptural works, and object making – especially in northern Africa.

The endeavour of making sculpture is often solitary while there is significant cost and resources needed for the materials. In addition, the installation process often involves teams of 10-20 people, experience and often technological assistance is needed to hoist the immense weights.


What is the vision that inspired the Nirox Sculpture Park and your own vision as curator of the annual Winter Sculpture Fair?

As curator I don’t have a theoretical model or value system, which I wish to impose on any exhibition.  There is no message, the works are the rationale – the nature of the presentation and the considered placement within the landscape are the manifestation of this process. I prefer to respond to the works, working together with the artists from the inception with the possibility of creating their dream. In the case of this last show, a continued conversation within their style and subject matter – and response to the site, creating a multi-cultural journey within a space that is stimulating and exciting. The identity of the exhibition emerges as the works develop. The primary aim, within the diversity, is to celebrate sculpture.


After visiting Venice and Frieze, what are some of the interesting insights and challenges you had?

After visiting the Venice Biennale this year, and London Frieze I was struck by how compelling our contemporary art is, both in subject and execution, and the fact that there is an ever-growing interest in African works, and their relative value is still reasonable. I think that South African artists have a place in the global market and we can facilitate that exposure. My vision for the artists is an ever-increasing opportunity to create art they otherwise might not within an indoor environment, and the growth it brings.


Origins of the park?

The sculpture park arose and has developed organically from a confluence of events and circumstances. I recall a conversation with Edoardo Villa after Benji Liebmann had purchased two of his sculptures and placed them on his farm. Liebmann then asked me to bring Villa to see them in-situ. Once I’d managed to lure him from his studio, Edoardo Villa was so overwhelmed at the placement of the works in the African landscape – the dichotomy between a wild African bush and a carefully tended landscape, that he volunteered he would love to exhibit in the new park. It was still under construction, but he already saw the potential.


What place does sculpture occupy in South Africa’s visual arts landscape and how has that changed or evolved since the inception of the Nirox Foundation, Sculpture Park and Residency programme in 2007?

I believe that the scale and presentation of these sculpture shows are building both the industry of sculpture in South Africa, as well as exposing the quality of work to an established and growing viewing public. Given the very significant numbers attending the shows, there is clearly a need to be exposed to the sculptures and the spectacular environment, together with the convivial experience of good food and wine – the gourmet culinary experience compliments the cultural arena.


What are the guiding principles the park and foundation operate within, and what are your ultimate goals?

The work produced is of excellent quality. The highest standards are applied both intellectually and physically to create an opportunity for artists to engage outside of the white cube – in nature, in the true sense of traditional large scale sculpture. The works are totally transformed in the park environment. The physical challenges of creating larger works for outdoor have not been explored on this scale. NIROX is the only single purpose residency and sculpture park in South Africa, and some of the broader nature reserve’s wildlife certainly makes it unique.


How have you worked with the foundation as curator since its inception?

I have been invited to work on three projects at NIROX since its inception. Two were Edoardo Villa’s last major exhibition, which was in 2007, and After the Rainbow Nation in 2013 was the other. This year, I curated the Winter Sculpture Fair exhibition. Group exhibitions allow the NYA (New Young African) artists to exhibit alongside established icons in South African sculpture. The most significant factor for me coming in as a curator from the art world at large is that this park has provided the artists, both as residents and as participants in the show, a unique opportunity to exhibit in a world heritage site – one that demands a serious contribution. Of equal importance is the power of the natural environment. NIROX’s absolute commitment to the aesthetic above all else, makes it a most desirable venue to exhibit in.


The foundation places artists at the centre of its work and development initiatives, enabling and supporting the creation of new work and the expression of new ideas. How does this model work?

The Nirox Foundation prefers to work with a diverse range of local and international artists as a focal point to enable original and fresh output, and creative ideas.


Why is this important and how did it come about?

At NIROX, I see how powerful the interactions between the international and local artists can be. The exchange is invaluable; the alternate perspectives and the exposure I believe to be the reasons for this residency programme are not easily achievable for local artists. It also allows younger artists to have exposure to the professional arena. We’ve also extended invitations to educational institutions including University of the Witwatersrand, (Wits), University of Johannesburg (UJ), Michaelis Art School (Cape Town), The University of Pretoria, and The Bag Factory, asking them to suggest and identify worthy candidates to represent the various schools and emerging talent in South Africa.


What about the viability economically; which pieces sell and have sold at this year’s show, and how does this genre allow artists to make money?

The last exhibition had 52 works and over 30 sold. This year, we again had a good response – it is crucial that these exhibitions translate into sales for the artists, as this is their livelihood. It is not just to have a nice event; it is important the public sanctions its support.


Beathur Mgoza Baker is a writer, filmmaker and curator focused on creating dynamic new platforms. Based in South Africa, she also engages in audience development within the arts, growing and connecting the African collector base within the fine and visual arts. Baker is a seasoned media professional with a background in print, journalism, television and digital media content. She is also a content specialist and former commissioning editor for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

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