Identity, inspiration, impact: how art contributes to social empowerment and livelihood generation

In our second photo essay from South Africa’s Art@Africa gallery, we showcase more creative works along with curator insights on the art ecosystem.

Identity, inspiration, impact: how art contributes to social empowerment and livelihood generation

Sunday November 26, 2023,

5 min Read

Launched in 2014, PhotoSparks is a weekly feature from YourStory, with photographs that celebrate the spirit of creativity and innovation. In the earlier 730 posts, we featured art festival, cartoon gallery. world music festivaltelecom expomillets fair, climate change expo, wildlife conference, startup festival, Diwali rangoli, and jazz festival.

Being in the right field at the right time and in the right place can trigger off a wealth of opportunity for creative professionals. Hard work and deep connections can scale such a venture to greater heights, as shown in the journey of the Art@Africa gallery in Capetown, South Africa.

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“My wife and I have been involved in the creative industry for over three decades. About ten years ago, we saw an explosion of South African Art developing, and we wanted to be an active part of it,” gallery founder Dirk Durnez tells YourStory.

“Due to the past apartheid scenario, many artists are still deprived from access to expensive materials, tools and a studio. This is what we provide. The project is called Kunye Colab,” he adds.

The Art@Africa gallery and sculpture garden present visitors with an accessible showcase of South Africa’s vibrant art movement. See Part I of our coverage here, as well as earlier photo essays on art in Africa from St. George Gallery (Ethiopia), Forster Gallery (Zanzibar), COP22 artworks (Marrakech), and Essaouira (Morocco).


Art@Africa’s projects are entirely self-funded.

“This allows us to keep our independence. We don’t do religion and politics. We focus on the positive,” Durnez explains.

Going beyond canvas and paint, the gallery offers emerging artists more expensive materials and equipment needed to create artforms like sculptures.

“We offer a stocked and equipped studio for scholarship through residencies and training programs,” he adds.

Durnez has over three decades of international experience in the museum, entertainment, and art industry. The Kunye Colab was established as a platform to support emerging artists (kunye means together in the Xhosa language).

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“We invest time, energy, and our 38 years of experience and enthusiasm into young artists, displaying them amongst the crème de la crème. We create cross-pollination of established and new talent,” he says.

The Art@Africa initiatives are conceptualised and driven by Dirk and his wife Katlijn Durnez. Promoted artists, some of whose works are featured in this photo essay, include Barney Bernardo, David Griessel, Eben, Talita Steyn, Kara Shoeman, Kobus Walker, Anina, Kobus, Jane Moodie, William Sweetlove, and Paul Kneen.

“Thanks to our extensive network, we connect South African talent with local and international investors,” Dirk Durnez says.

The gallery team offers themed artwork for architects and interior designers in homes, offices, gardens, hotels, and other developments. 


“We also look to create a significant, positive experience by addressing issues of women empowerment and climate change. We focus on the beneficial impact South Africa has had on the work of artists,” says Durnez.

“One of the major themes carried throughout the gallery is the idea of South African identity,” he affirms.

Many of the works display an aspect of cultural and traditional identity combined with the importance of technology in modern times.

“For a country that is ever questioning stereotypical identification, they should connect to us and see how our artists’ work expresses changing and evolving ideas of identity, and the positivity associated with the cultural infusion of South Africa,” he enthuses.

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“Our creative platform shows how art unites us. South Africa is one of the most diverse countries in the world. It is time to give back to the country that has given me so many creative opportunities,” he says with gratitude.

Durnez’s early artistic influences came from his family–his grandfather was a classical marble sculptor, his father was a jazz musician, and his mother was a silk painter and floral artist. In the course of his career, he has interacted with hundreds of artists and artisans.

“The main strength of South African art is that it is genuine. Our art tells real stories that come from the heart,” he affirms.


“We represent 17 artists permanently and have been showcasing over 150 artists in the past six years,” Durnez says. The gallery has around 250 works of art in stock.

Every month, the gallery organises the launch of a solo or group exhibition.

“We also organise tours, and invite schools and other groups to participate. In cooperation with the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, we organise a range of collaborative art events,” he says.

Looking back at his journey, Durnez is excited to be in the midst of the art world in South Africa today.

“My success is in the fact that I have been fortunate to be able to design and build large exciting projects worldwide, and now use this knowledge for the benefit of talented young people,” he says.

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“Every day is exciting and it gives me immense pleasure to work with young artists,” he affirms.

Durnez also offers tips and words of advice for aspiring artists. “Read books about art, history and popular science. Watch documentaries and listen to podcasts," he suggests.

"Open your horizon. Visit galleries – both physical and virtual,” he adds.


“Network with other artists and participate in as many possible group exhibitions and art competitions, but also beware of the many sharks in that world,” he cautions.

The long and winding road ahead calls for perseverance and discipline.

“Practice, practice, practice your skills and don’t be shy to use modern technology. Skill matters, honest art matters,” Durnez signs off.

Now what have you done today to pause in your busy schedule and harness your creative side for a better world?


Dirk Durnez


(All photographs were taken by Madanmohan Rao on location at the gallery.)

See also the YourStory pocketbook ‘Proverbs and Quotes for Entrepreneurs: A World of Inspiration for Startups,’ accessible as apps for Apple and Android devices.

Edited by Swetha Kannan