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Humanist's Vision of Early Cape Town

  7 September 2013     Archived

Gregoire Boonzaier was, according to Dr Albert Werth, esteemed former director of the Pretoria Art Museum, the painter of Cape Town who was able, with his characteristic signature, to capture the city in all its changing beauty.1 That signature changed over time, making this early vision remarkable not only for what it reveals historically of the city in the 1940s but for its evidence of the artist's early style.

Gregoire Boonzaier - Lion's Head from Bo-Kaap

The street, placed just off centre, leads the viewer’s eye into this scene as if inviting us to take a stroll down memory lane. On the right is the facade of the Mosque Shafee which stands on the corner of Chiappini Street and Helliger Lane. Around 1847, the date appearing above the ogival-arched entrance, Imam Hadjie started his own congregation and in 1859 he acquired the land and built the mosque, making it the fifth mosque constructed in the Bo-Kaap.

The earliest members of this community arrived from the Malayan Archipelago in the late seventeenth century and the area was increasingly settled between 1790 and 1840. During this period the character of the Bo-Kaap emerged as its inhabitants utilised their building and artisanal skills to develop a vernacular architecture influenced by elements of Cape Dutch and Georgian styles. Despite many changes, its architecture and culture have remained relatively coherent over the years.

Painting in 1944, Boonzaier captured the effects of sunlight on the houses clustered at the foot of Lion’s Head by applying his preferred colours including flake white, yellow ochre and Naples yellow in thick impasto over darker under painting. Details are briskly defined in raw umber lines. A stable composition, achieved by balancing architectural forms on either side of the street, evokes permanence and owes much to Paul Cézanne. It is during the time Boonzaier spent studying and painting in Britain and Europe between 1935 and 1937 that he saw an important Cézanne retrospective exhibition and was amazed by the strength, originality and bold colour harmonies of his paintings.²

The telegraph pole painted in a lively alizarin crimson captures attention and leads diagonally to the rocky outcrop in the distance. On the way we encounter the life on the streets which so fascinated the artist. His sympathetic representation of the local inhabitants is rendered here with a lyricism that acknowledges the extraordinary history and culture of the area. It is hardly surprising then that art historian and cultural commentator, Neville Dubow predicted, “whatever form Gregoire’s future development takes, a deep-seated humanism will always be at its core”.³

¹. Werth, AJ. (1981) ‘Introduction’. In Gregorie Boonzaier, exhibition catalogue, University of Stellenbosch Art Museum.
². Bekker, Martin. (1990) Gregoire Boonzaier. Cape Town and Pretoria: Human & Rousseau. Page 79.
³. Dubow, Neville. (1959) In Bekker, Martin. Ibid.

Text by Emma Bedford

Gregoire Johannes Boonzaier
Lion's Head from Bo-Kaap
oil on canvas
65 by 85,5cm
R 600,000 - 800,000


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