Swiss-South African culture exchange flourishes

The Visions of Paradise exhibition in Cape Town. Steeve Juncker

The Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia, has been promoting cultural exchange between Switzerland and South Africa since the fall of apartheid ten years ago.

This content was published on April 10, 2004 - 11:54

Cultural ties have strengthened since the opening of a liaison office in Cape Town.

“Every beginning is difficult, but we managed it,” said Mirjam Asmal, head of the Pro Helvetia South Africa liaison office, which has been up and running since 1998.

The office is housed in the Swiss consulate in Cape Town and works closely with the Swiss diplomatic service in South Africa. But the bureau maintains a certain independence.

The main aim of the office is to promote cultural exchange between individuals and institutions from both countries. This can include dance, theatre, the visual arts, music or literature.

“At the beginning it was a difficult undertaking, because South African artists often lacked the financial means, so there weren’t the right infrastructures,” Asmal told swissinfo.

But in 1999, the situation improved. Pro Helvetia was able to benefit from the opening of a Swiss Development Agency (SDC) coordination office in the capital, Pretoria, which was mandated to support the local culture scene.


Asmal says she is pleased with the work that the office has carried out during its six-year existence.

“We are now well-known in the country,” she said. “Every year, we are contacted by about 150 to 200 people working in culture, who are either looking for local support or are interested in an exchange programme with Switzerland,” added Asmal.

Asmal says that there are now regular projects and a strong artistic network between the two countries. But there is still one problem – the lack of money.

The highlight of 2004 is expected to be the anniversary celebrations for “ten years of the new South Africa”.

The Pro Helvetia office has been working together with the South African embassy in Bern to organise a number of cultural events to mark the occasion.

Asmal says the main event, a festival of South African contemporary art, will take place in the Schlachthaus theatre in Bern in the autumn.

“It’s the biggest South African culture event in Switzerland,” explained Asmal. “Until now it was mostly Swiss artists who went to South Africa.”

Visions of Paradise

Another event planned for this year is an exhibition of Swiss and South African contemporary visual art, called Visions of Paradise.

Zurich-born Karin Frei is the curator of the display, which is due to go on show in the Joao Ferreira Gallery in Cape Town.

Frei won a grant from Pro Helvetia last year to come to South Africa to do some research ahead of the exhibition.

“I asked artists from Switzerland and South Africa what their vision of paradise was,” Frei told swissinfo.

“The exhibition is a cross-section of art, architecture, design and social network. It’s the artists’ private visions of the future, in the end a very socio-political thing,” she explained.

Art scene

Frei has spent the past three months getting to know the South African art scene. “It was also very important to me to start the exhibition here in South Africa, so that people could see the combination of European and South African artists with their own eyes,” she said.

Frei says the exhibition will also be shown in Europe, starting in France. But when it will come to Switzerland and where it will be held has yet to be decided.

Pro Helvetia South Africa’s next goal is to expand into the surrounding region. The SDC is already planning such a move.

An agreement is in the pipeline, which would allow the Pro Helvetia liaison office to extend its activities to neighbouring countries, including Mozambique, Angola and possibly Zimbabwe.

swissinfo, Jean-Michel Berthoud in Cape Town (translation: Isobel Leybold)

In brief

The liaison office in Cape Town opened in 1998 and is one of Pro Helvetia’s youngest offices.

It is the second office on the African continent – there is another office in Egypt.

Pro Helvetia South Africa works closely with the Swiss diplomatic representation and the SDC. The office aims to extend its activities to neighbouring countries.

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