'It seems Africa, the Cradle of Modern Art, tragically resembles more a coffin than a cradle," says Beezy Bailey, one of South Africa's leading contemporary artists, and co-founder of the Art for Africa project, which is about to mount a major sale of British and South African art at Sotheby's on 21 September.
The "coffin" refers to the appalling poverty and Aids-related diseases which are killing the equivalent of three Airbuses full of people every day in southern Africa; the "cradle" is the movement producing some very fine art which is increasingly capturing the attention of international collectors.
Bailey, along with Tara and Jessica Getty, has persuaded leading British and South African artists to donate work for the London auction, the proceeds to go to programmes for education and poverty alleviation, mainly in rural areas (see panel).
The Gettys, members of the billionaire oil family, have lived in South Africa for years and, through their Africa Foundation, have built schools, clinics and other facilities in some of the poorest places in the world.
The Africa Foundation, with a well-ordered structure on the ground, will funnel the funds raised to the people who need it most. And in rural South Africa, where a (very) basic schoolroom can be built for £3,000, a small amount goes a long way.
Out of all African art, South African art is suddenly the most fashionable. "It's an extraordinary time for contemporary artists in this country," says Michael Stevenson, one of the leading dealers in Cape Town. "Right now there's an energy and an integrity that you just don't see anywhere else in the world. We saw it in Brazil and other places and it doesn't last forever. But it's here now."
It is being reflected in rising prices in galleries and auction houses. A work by Marlene Dumas, a South African who now lives in Amsterdam, was sold last year for more than $3m (£1.8m), the highest price ever for a living woman artist (or a dead one for that matter). Her Would Jesus have done the same? has a more modest Sotheby's estimate of £15,000-£20,000.
William Kentridge is also right up there with the biggest artists (and opera producers) of the day, featuring in Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world, alongside the likes of Gustavo Dudamel and Tom Hanks. His contribution to the Sotheby's sale is one of a series featuring a globe of the world, done in his hallmark pastel and charcoal on an old copy of The Illustrated London News (estimate: £15,000-20,000, a low price for a Kentridge).
The sculptor Dylan Lewis has also broken new ground on the international market with his bronze leopards, which now command prices in the hundreds of thousands. Lewis is one of only a handful of artists ever to have had a solo sale at Christie's, his 2008 solo sale proving so successful that it was repeated this year.
The Sotheby's auction includes works by other South African artists who are making names for themselves on the international stage: Deborah Bell, Pieter Hugo and David Goldblatt are all commanding rising prices for their work, mostly outside their native South Africa, where the presiding taste is still for traditional oil on canvas whereas the new generation often works in more edgy materials, mostly photographic.
Goldblatt, now in his late seventies, is regarded by some as the most interesting of all contemporary South African artists. For years he was better known as a magazine photographer, but since the 1960s he had been quietly snapping away at disused gold mines, abandoned cemeteries, dusty roads that go nowhere in the veld, and faces of old Afrikaners; in recent years his work has been eagerly sought after.
Two previous charity art auctions for Art for Africa, held in Johannesburg, saw buyers paying prices well below the going rate. A member of the Oppenheimer family, thinking he was generously doing his bit for charity, bought a Dumas at what turned out to be a third of its market value. To counter that, Bailey and the Gettys have moved this auction to London and persuaded some British artists each to donate a work: Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk and Jonathan Yeo have all got pieces in the auction, with estimates ranging from £100,000-150,000 in the case of Gormley, to £2,500-3,000 for Emin. Terry O'Neill has contributed a superb photograph of Nelson Mandela (£4,000-6,000) and Bob Gosani, who was one of the very few working black photographers in apartheid South Africa, has contributed a wonderful picture of Mandela as a young man boxing on a Johannesburg roof-top in 1957.
"In our African culture, there is a word ubuntu which means concern and kindness to others," says Bailey. In Africa both are desperately needed.
Art for Africa, Sotheby's London, 21 September (www.sothebys.com)
Bids for change: Where the money will go
*Nkomo Primary School in rural KwaZulu Natal offers a microcosm of the opportunities and problems facing South Africa. At first glance, it all looks wonderfully hopeful, as the shining morning faces troop willingly to school – a string of basic brick structures with tin roofs set around a dusty playground.
But behind this bright picture lurks a darker side. Nomusa Haslot Zikhali, the formidable headteacher, has a special list of what she calls the "most vulnerable children", many of them orphans living in what are chillingly labelled "child-headed households", or CCHs – shorthand for "both parents dead". There are 153 of them, or 17 per cent of the under-13s, some of them already with full-blown Aids. In a village with one overburdened clinic, a lone doctor who comes twice a week, and the nearest hospital 80 miles away, many will die before they even finish school.
"Most parents die without documents so the children don't have birth certificates," says Nomusa. "Children here become sexually active at age 12. There is nothing much for them to do – no television, no cinema, no sports facilities, no electricity even to do homework. So they go home and have sex – and get Aids."
Without Nomusa there would not even be a school. Ten years ago she was an ordinary teacher working at the nearest school – six miles away. So she galvanised the local community into starting its own school, using trees as classrooms, with 220 children and only one teacher. "The government tried to send people to help but they said they wouldn't teach under a tree."
What happened next is a lesson in what can be achieved with a bit of determination (Nomusa has plenty) and some money. Africa Foundation's man on the ground, Isaac Tembe, provided 35,000 South African rand (about £3,000 in 2000 prices) for the first brick-built classroom, and helped her to raise R200,000 to build another seven. There are now 900 children and 23 teachers.
In a country where the subject of Aids is largely taboo, Africa Foundation has paid for specialist teachers to come to the school to talk about it and demonstrate the use of condoms, which are available free, and has financed the overcrowded clinic. It has also built classrooms in 19 schools in the area.
On this sunny morning in this beautiful part of the world, the innocent Zulu faces filing into the Nkomo classrooms seem to offer real hope. The reality is different.Reuse content