Cape Town’s greatest art collection lies neither in a museum nor a gallery, but in the city’s most exclusive hotel, Ellerman House. Here, guests eat, drink, sleep, and live with South Africa’s masters of the past, present, and future.
When I think about hotel art, it goes something like this: a watercolor of a sailboat gliding through an anonymous harbor; a close-up photograph of a sunflower, dewdrops on its petals glistening in the sunlight; or maybe it’s more abstract, like a Mark Rothko knock-off of red and yellow blocks woefully bleeding into each other.
I don’t expect to walk into a hotel and find a piece of artwork—much less an entire collection—that brings tears to my eyes. And I certainly don’t plan on discovering an artist whose work inspires me to jump into my rental car and head to the gallery district to find a piece for myself. But that’s just the kind of thing that happens at Ellerman House.
I had always been a fan of South African art. Thomas Bowler’s 19th-century landscapes have a realistic yet otherworldly way of depicting a Western Cape of the past that still seems very much alive today. Pierneef’s strange mix of surrealism and realism is haunting and humorous at once. And William Kentridge, the country’s famed mixed-media artist, is like the Bob Dylan of South Africa’s contemporary art movement. To discover all of these artists on the walls of Ellerman House was an education far greater than any museum could offer.
I ate breakfast with John Meyer and his dark and redolent narratives. I read in the library with Wim Botha and his whimsical book sculpture. There were cocktails with William Kentridge in the living room and glasses of Pinotage with Angus Taylor in the wine gallery. At day’s end, I watched the sun set behind Bantry Bay with Beezy Bailey and Willem Boshoff. No art gallery in Cape Town—no gallery in the world!—could offer such intimate viewings.
While wandering through the hotel exposed me to the greatest artists of South Africa’s past, a visit to its gallery exposed me to the country’s creators of the present. Evocative and sometimes subversive pieces from artists like Anton Kannemeyer taught me about apartheid and the racial difficulties of South Africa’s ongoing struggle. I discovered new artists like Blessing Ngobeni, whose frenetic work reminded me of Jean-Michel Basquiat. I was reminded that sometimes the best lessons in history and politics cannot be read, but must be experienced. These pieces did just that for me.
I was most moved, however, in the back of the house, at the little pantry where I stocked up on cupcakes and macarons one afternoon. There, just opposite the kitchen, I discovered Mary Sibande and her alter-ego Sophie, a domestic worker dressed in a royal-blue Victorian dress topped with a crisp white apron. In the photograph, They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To, Sophie’s eyes are closed as she sews a giant “S”—as if from the uniform of some unknown Superman. She is peaceful and sad and lonely and dreaming all at once. Beautiful, poetic—she brought me to tears.