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The Talent Nurturer: Elana Brundyn

Elana Brundyn has long championed African art and artists and believes in celebrating the continent’s every success.
Elana Brundyn

The arts have an inextricable relationship with the tradition of patronage – ardent supporters and nurturers of talent who have safeguarded its various mediums through the ages. This has evolved over time, and patrons in the 21st century come in many forms: champions of creativity, connectors and changemakers. Elana Brundyn – a cultural entrepreneur, curator, former gallerist and consultant – wears all of these hats.

A vocal advocate for African excellence, her passion lies in sharing with the world the success stories of the continent, and encouraging Africans to tell these more confidently themselves. ‘For thousands of years Africa has been part of a complex network of global exchange, and has shaped the course of global innovation to a far greater extent than it is given credit for,’ she notes.

Brundyn’s long career in the contemporary art world makes her uniquely poised to advise, educate and champion it, but it’s her natural boundless energy and warmth that makes her enthusiasm impactful. ‘Art and culture are powerful and influential. And their most attractive characteristic is that their power is soft and persuasive,’ she says.

Elana BrundynElana Brundyn

Her own personal love of collecting and researching contemporary art laid the foundations for the formation in 2006 of the eponymous Brundyn Gallery in Cape Town, which focused on developing young artists. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy her desire to use her influence more altruistically. ‘I dreamt of a role where I could contribute to the greater good of art and artists beyond the confines of a commercial gallery,’ she says. This manifested over time in philanthropic roles on family boards and trusts, as director of Institutional Advancement and External Affairs at Zeitz MOCAA and as CEO of Norval Foundation. ‘To build museum platforms for the likes of Zeitz MOCAA, Norval Foundation and the Boschendal Gallery has been my life’s calling.’

One memory that stands out for her during her time with Norval was hosting renowned sculptor Yinka Shonibare CBE and his team on their first visit to South Africa. ‘I had a dream of bringing the first Shonibare wind sculpture to Africa. It made no sense that this British-Nigerian superstar did not have a permanent example of his work on the continent,’ she says. The Norval family agreed and supported acquiring ‘Wind Sculpture (SG) III’ (2018). ‘Yinka helped choose a permanent place for the piece.
It was so enriching to discuss the process with him over dinner. He has an incredible mind. And the exercise of placement itself was fascinating, as it required special weather reports to assess the wind direction and strength of the site. Fitting for a sculpture of such significance to need an in-depth weather report!’

She has now come full circle in founding Brundyn Cultural Consultancy, through which she advises on and executes high-level cultural programmes, exhibitions and public commissions, and oversees the establishment of art collections for individuals and museums.

‘I believe more than ever in the value and influence of culture. The past decade has taught me to take a long-term and purpose-driven perspective,’ she says.

This sense of purpose is underscored by the inspiring and affirming experiences she’s had with artists over the last 20 years. ‘My proudest moments have been working with and learning from, among others, Ibrahim Mahama, Wim Botha, Mmapula Mmakgoba Helen Sebidi, William Kentridge, El Anatsui, Yinka Shonibare, Michael Armitage, Athi-Patra Ruga and Liza Lou. Our exhibitions, which delved into the practices and worlds of these amazing artists, created very special memories for me.’

In time, Brundyn would like to see the development of new audiences for the visual arts, and for it to become more accessible to a wider spectrum of people. ‘For me cultural place-making has moved beyond the idea of being a “nice to have” and into an important role of ensuring economically viable, healthy, sustainable communities.’

Education is crucial here. And this comes down to the role of art as a language that must be understood to be effective. ‘Like any language, art has its own set of rules that are not always immediately apparent. To understand what is being communicated, we must be able to understand that language,’ she says.

Once the language is decoded and the conversation is in progress, the sky is the limit. ‘I have been awed by the standard of excellence in artists’ practices in Africa, and it is wonderful to see the world finally recognising the creative talent of our continent. A pivotal moment for me in this regard was hosting a group of high-profile museum patrons from London, Monaco, Milan and Zurich during Lagos Fashion Week and Art X Lagos in Nigeria. It was their first visit to Africa and rightfully it blew them away.’

And how do we, as art lovers rather than industry insiders, also contribute to the furthering of African excellence? Brundyn feels we should be cognisant of and celebrate our achievements.

‘The strength of a society lies in its continued economic and cultural growth. We have to support and elevate our cultural stars.’

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