Why do you collect art Marty?

Posted by Martin G Britz on

Why do you collect art, Marty?

Many people have asked me this question over the years, and it's one of those questions that one simply cannot answer easily, not me in any case. It warrants some explanation. I don’t collect art, you see, I collect stories told by dear friends of mine, hidden in the images of their artworks. I collect memories of people and places that are dear to me, reminding me of who I am, of what I believe in, and the lessons I learned along the journey of becoming the man I am today.

To the new ones ...

For those of you, the new ones, the inquisitive ones, who have been pondering on the thought, should I, or shouldn't I begin collecting art? Let me say this, be warned, it will change your life in more ways than you can possibly imagine, its an addiction, unlike any other with no known cure or rehab.

For the others, the experienced distinguished group of "elders" ... 

This group has been hunting for quite some time. Like me you have lived with this addiction for many years, perhaps even decades, barely surviving the relentless onslaught on house and finance. Like me you have stooped down on all fours, crawling into the deepest dustiest corners by the likes of countryside antique dealers, old-style stacked to the roof pawn shops, not the new modern-day kind, old forgotten family-owned art galleries, and even picture framing shops, in the hope of finding one, hidden away waiting to be revealed in all its glory. Waiting for your hands to pick it up, and give a home to it, to love and treasure it. To you, I say, alas there is no hope or cure for you. Your longing will never end, knowing that somewhere out there that piece awaits, will never be silenced. It will drive you relentlessly forcing you to attend art auctions, either the real brick-and-mortar ones or in the ones living in the vastness of cyberspace.  You will devour classified ads in newspapers, it will even drive you into the dark secret recesses of rooms and attics in the small town country cottages occupied by grey old ladies, who perhaps in another decade, acted as muse to one of the bohemians, receiving an artwork to remember the strange creature by .. who knows..

1984, The 16-year-old Marty is intrigued by some sort of magic ...

I began working in the warehouse of the auction room owned by late father, George A. W. Britz, at the beginning of 1984. He specialized in auctioning fine art, antiques, bronzes, Persian carpets and collectibles. Many of the lesser know contemporary black fine artists active in Soweto at the time, frequented the warehouse to come and present their latest works to my dad. These artists were shunned by the mainstream commercial white-owned galleries in Johannesburg, at the time, mainly due to the fact that they did not have the right "qualifications". My father, however, supported them as the bright abstract colorful compositions had great appeal on the auctions, and offered alternative access to the market for the artists.

It was there in the warehouse, that I met the Soweto old master Eli Kobeli (1932-1999), early one Saturday morning. Less than an hour later, I had purchased my first original painting from the old master of Soweto, or as he called himself, the black Chagall. As Eli unrolled the bundle of artwork he brought with him, "Ghettos" and I first met, and I experienced the unseen power, which I have heard so many of my father's clients refer to as "it speaks to me". Yeah, right I always thought...

But, lo and behold, here I was and I believe "Ghettos" was speaking to me. At first, I kind of shook my head a little, rapidly closing and opening my eyes to make sure I am focussing correctly, but I was, no hallucinations. Somehow stirred up my emotions, strangely causing me to feel happy and alive as I looked at it. Not quite understanding the strange power of this piece of colorful paper.

The bright, vibrant abstract shapes of houses, people, and animals, swirling around in the hustle of a township street came alive as it filled the confines of the paper. Somehow it was moving, alive, magically picking me up and dropping me there, in that street, in the middle of it all. I could hear the taxi’s blowing on their horns, the kids shouting as they ran down the road with their dog, the smell of corn being roasted on open coals, and for a second I was really there.

I was astounded. How could it do that? What unseen power did it have? Was it the paints, was there some kind of visual trickery involved? My healthy inquisitive brain was working overtime, I was intrigued and puzzled. Perhaps it was the way the sunlight hit the vibrant colors adding to them an almost supernatural luminescence. Maybe it was Eli’s deep soothing voice hypnotizing me as he described the scene to me, or perhaps, I wanted to impress my father by buying an original work of art. I don’t know what it was, but I had to have it, this thing of beauty and magic.

A few weeks later, looking at it, now my most prized possession, hanging on my bedroom wall, beautifully framed, it somehow gave me a sense of accomplishment, of self-worth, and a weird strange feeling of purpose. Unbeknown to me that day, my meeting with Eli and his artwork, would determine the course of the rest of my life. It would help me grow and mature into adulthood, discover what I believe in as a man, and ultimately what I believe my purpose on earth is, this purpose culminating 35 years down the line, manifest in the pages of my book, “South African Fine Art – The Soweto School of Art”. which identifies and defines the first black fine art movement, or school of art, emanating from the African continent.

International academics have described it as “marking a significant milestone in the history of art”. The fascination and intrigue of artworks, have not diminished one bit over the years, it has just grown stronger and more precise, as I continue to search for and collect the treasures created by my old friends now long gone.

You're still the one ...

Believe me or not, although I understand somewhat more of the magic they hold, it still moves me today. Each time I come across one of the old works that survived through the decades, as I run my fingers across the surface of the oils, or gently rub the tissue-thin paper between my fingers, the magic happens once again, filling my mind with their memories. Inevitably, at these times, I find tears running down my cheeks. My friends are long gone now, but their stories surround me, still assuring me that all will be well as if they were still here. I can see them sipping black labels perched on tree stumps, under the old oak tree up in heaven, having a good laugh at me as they always did, for being far too serious …

Hamba Kahle, my fathers, keep my stump open and my black label cold until we meet again …

That’s one segment of what collecting art has meant and continues to mean for me…

But hey, that’s just me… Maybe all you are looking for is a “nice picture frame” on the wall matching the curtains and the coach.

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