This blog is about the genesis of several lasting relationships. It is also a short story about of one of South Africa’s most significant sculptors. It started in January 2002 when a collector walked into the Photographers Gallery ZA in Cape Town. He was looking for a sculpture of which he only knew the title and not the name of the artist. A few months earlier, shortly after I had opened the gallery, I was asked to identify an old family photograph. The internet then was not the tool it is today. But I managed to trace the image to Roman Vishniac and put the collector in touch with Vishniac’s relatives in New Jersey. It gave me the confidence to take on the challenge of looking for this sculpture although the medium fell outside of my expertise. My first call, and I cannot remember why, was to the printmaker, Bruce Attwood. We had never met, but we had a long chat on the telephone, and it was him who told me that Icarus sounded like a title of a sculpture by Bruce Arnott.

Bruce Arnott, Icarus Head. Bronze. 2001.

It was not difficult to ‘find’ Bruce, he was then the head of sculpture at Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town. That is where I met him in late January, and where I introduced him to Peter (the collector) a few days later. They remained friends until Bruce’s death in 2018. My job was done, but because Peter lived in Los Angeles I became the middle person and navigated his acquisitions. That is how I ended up working with Bruce. In 2004 Bruce asked me to handle the sales of the Dreamtime: Signs and Portents exhibition presented at the Irma Stern Museum. It included 35 sculptures and 20 drawings. Bruce wrote that “Dreamtime refers to sources of inspiration, to ‘inner work,’ and the psychological space in which poetic imagery is generated”. The collection of sculptures were a testament to Bruce’s sharp intellect and his great sense of humour. More so, as a curatorial project, it was a masterclass in how to mount a sculpture exhibition.

Over time I could see Bruce’s influence in the work of his former students, but it was only in 2019 while researching the South African National Gallery (SANG) for my MA degree, that I finally understood Bruce’s importance – outside of his own creative practice.

Bruce joined SANG in 1962 as a professional officer. By the time he left for London in 1964, to research the influence of West African sculpture on Western art he had already increased the profile of sculpture at SANG and curated the very successful exhibition Rock Art in Southern Africa in 1962. That exhibition attracted 26 650 visitors, and travelled to museums in Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Windhoek, Durban and Johannesburg (SANG, 1963-1964:13). His African Weaving exhibition hosted in 1967 allowed textiles as a medium to be added to the permanent collection, and he wrote in the exhibition catalogue of the “nebulous front that divides art and craft” (SANG, 1967:1). He added that the tapestries and carpets included in the exhibition were a “distillation of a somewhat rare creative ferment: they are as significant for this as for the aesthetic qualities they undeniably possess” (SANG, 1967:3). It was however, in the foreword of the African Art in Metal exhibition catalogue, also curated by Bruce and hosted in 1970, that SANG’s intention of collecting representative works by contemporary African artists was shared. Traditional African art then was limited to the collections of ethnographic museums. Arnott wrote that, even though it is the older science, “art history may be regarded as a branch of ethnography” and that both the disciplines “are concerned with the study of material culture – ethnography embraces work of art in general terms, art history is specifically confined to them” (SANG, 1970:3). He goes on to mention that, with the publication of Carl Einstein’ book Negerplastik (1915) and Guillaume Apollinaire’s Sculptures Nègres (1917), “there was a serious differentiation, on aesthetic grounds, between African sculptures and other ethnographic objects from Africa” (SANG 1970:3). Bruce was promoted to assistant director in 1970, however he left the institution later that same year. As demonstrated by his choice of exhibitions, Bruce looked beyond the limits of the white bubble at a more inclusive African identity. At that time he was singular in that vision for SANG.   

My role as middle person ceased over time. But I continued to see Bruce at least once a year at Peter’s place which was dotted with Bruce’s sculptures. This annual get together has continued after Bruce’s death who remains present through his work.

In 2021 I approached Bruce’s family with a proposal to showcase his work at the 2022 edition of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. The response to Bruce’s work was very positive and the occasion was made even more special when Peter showcased his private collection in Los Angeles at the same time.

Bruce Arnott. Biggles. Bronze. 2010.

The exhibition, Bruce Murray Arnott: Into the Megatext curated by Sven Christian opened on 22 April 2023 at the Villa-Legodi Centre for Sculpture in Johannesburg. It provided the first comprehensive overview of Bruce’s life and work. The book, Bruce Murray Arnott: Into the Megatext edited by Bruce’s widow, Mari Lecanides-Arnott and Sven Christian was also released in 2023. With this publication Bruce’s influence as an artist, scholar, designer, curator, and educator is finally recognised and intuited through the work of many of South Africa’s leading contemporary scholars and practitioners in the visual arts.

Bruce Arnott. Levitator. Conjuria series. Bronze. 2010.

I am very pleased to announce that I will be showing a few of Bruce’s sculptures at the 2024 edition of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. The exhibition at the art fair is presented by Legacy, and linked to the exhibition, Being/Present which is on view at the Gallery at Glen Carlou until 10 March.

Bruce Arnott. Aphrodite. Bronze. 2015.

I can never thank Peter enough for asking ME to find the maker of Icarus. I should also add that no dreams were dashed and no hopes were destroyed. For me it has been an ongoing journey of discovery and learning. Rest in peace, Bruce.

All images courtesy of Bruce Arnott Estate.