The bank that’s an art gallery

31 December 2003

You’ll have to remind yourself when you walk into Absa Towers North in Main Street in downtown Johannesburg that it’s actually a bank, not an art gallery – you’ll be overwhelmed by the spectacular original art in the building.

There is a small art gallery in the building, but most of the artworks are housed in the offices and reception areas.

It’s a wonderful space in which to display the artworks, and when the building was commissioned in 1999, the major artworks were commissioned at the same time, allowing the architects and artists to work together to ensure that the building accommodated the artworks perfectly.

The Absa head office is on the east side of the city, and consists of four office towers. It’s a quiet side of the city, with a police satellite station positioned nearby. The streets linking the buildings have been pedestrianised and are linked by the Absa Square, a quiet space with benches and trees under which to relax and unwind.

When you walk into North Towers, you’ll be struck by a huge colourful mural, by artist Karel Nel, entitled Place of Nurture. Ahead of you is an escalator positioned in a circular well, sparkling with aluminium and steel, and the promise of great things. As you get to the top of the escalator you’ll be dazzled by the huge six-storey open space in front of you, in neutral and clinical shades of whites, greys and metallics, with rows of windows, and large charcoal-coloured granite tiles on the floor.

It’s the perfect setting for the six-storey tall tuft carpet banners by Norman Catherine, woven by rural men. There’s five of them and you’ll find it hard to pull your eyes away from them – they soar into the space, with 42 distinctive, square, colourful faces on each banner.

When you do pull your eyes away, you’ll be drawn towards the 11-metre high untitled Walter Oltmann wire sculpture in a corner of the huge foyer, depicting replicas of carved African stools. It weighs half a ton and had special steel supports inserted into its middle to prevent it from sagging. It’s magnificent.

And up the next escalator, and around a corner and through several doors, you’ll be knocked out by the huge metal Mobile City, created by Lewis Levin, Paul Cawood and Susan Woolf. It’s a mobile of the old city of Johannesburg and the newer, modern city, perfectly balanced and taking up two floors of space. It’s moving slowly, making a cycle every 20 minutes. It has a magical, enchanting quality that will make you want to linger.

Absa describes these three works as the “three wonders of the world”, and it’s a fair description. But there are many more treasures to keep you enthralled.

There’s the large tapestry panel by Andrew Verster, woven by rural women; a six-metre panel by Karel Nel; a five-panel work by Annette Pretorius, and other large works on every floor adjacent to the escalator.

Every executive has an original artwork hanging on his or her office wall. These fortunate people can take time out from meetings and banking to marvel at Jacob Pierneef, Helen Sebidi, Irma Stern, Speelman Mahlangu, Walter Battiss, Anton van Wouw, Solomon Malope, Gregoire Boonzaier, Alexis Preller, Maud Sumner, Eli Kobeli, and Leonard Matsoso, among many others.

What is Absa Bank
Absa is an amalgamation of four banks: Volkskas, Allied, United and Trust, which took place in the early 1990s, and is now South Africa’s largest bank, employing 35 000 people. Volkskas had the largest art collection that formed the basis of today’s collection, which now numbers 20 000 works, valued conservatively at around R70-million.

In previous years, R3.5-million was budgeted for the purchase of artworks. These days R100 000 is set aside for acquisitions, and Cecile Loedolff, manager of art and functions, has the enviable task of spending that money. She does this by keeping track of artists, visiting galleries and exhibitions, and has a panel and an external art adviser from Unisa to advise her on purchases.

Loedolff believes that Absa has the largest corporate art collection in the world, all original and all South African, dating back to 1900. It’s a well-balanced collection, with all media represented. In some cases she has up to 40 works of certain artists.

Loedolff is busy sifting out undesirable works in the collection, and has been selling prints and oils that don’t fit the profile of the collection. She has re-allocated 13 000 artworks around Absa’s countrywide branches.

L’Atelier Award
Absa encourages the development of artists in another, significant way: they sponsor the annual L’Atelier Award, which is the most lucrative and prestigious local art awards, co-organised by the South African National Association for the Visual Arts. It’s open to 21-35 year-olds, and the prize is R70 000, plus 3-6 months in an apartment in Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris, an artists colony where the winner will mix and learn from novices and masters from around the world.

The first winner of this Award, back in 1986, was Penny Siopsis, a major artist today. Other winners include Diane Victor, Isaac Khanyile, Paul Edmunds, and Virginia MacKenny.

There are four merit award winners each year, who each receive R15 000.

This year up to 600 entries were received, out of which the best 100 were selected, and reduced to the top 10 finalists, whose work is on display in the Absa Art Gallery. There’s a national selection panel, and the final judging takes place in Johannesburg. Over the past six years the winners have all been from Johannesburg.

Tours of the Towers are conducted by Loedolff, by appointment. She says the collection has a world reputation, and tourists “can’t believe what we’ve got”.

Does all this art make a difference to those working in this rarified environment? Yes, it seems so. There’s always an exhibition running on the first floor outside the open-plan and elegant canteen, overlooking the Catherine banners.

A wonderful resource, not only for Absa employees but for the people who live in and visit Johannesburg.

Source: City of Johannesburg website

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