Art collection to help with student fees

Liselotte Hardebeck​, the German benefactor at the height of her youth.

Nobuntu Sibisi never met Liselotte Hardebeck. By the time she became aware of the woman who partially funded her master’s degree in commerce she was too ill to see visitors. Sibisi yearned to meet her. The Umamawothando trust set up by Hardebeck towards the end of her life, had sustained the ambitions of the Eastern Cape- born Sibisi who had dreamt of breaking out of the cycle of poverty that residents of the small village in Mount Frere were seemingly trapped. Neither of her parents enjoyed formal employment since she started school.

Tower of Babel II (1975) By Alexis Preller. Pierneef’s The Farmstead ou see it as a norm when you grow up in a community like that. It seems normal to wake up at 5am and fetch water. As I grew up I realised I didn’t want to live like this for the rest of my life.”

It was under her own steam and support from her sister that she managed to leave Mount Frere and complete an undergraduate degree in 1997 at the University of Transkei, but it was fundamental Happy Hanukkah assistance from Hardebeck’s Trust from 2012 to 2015 that allowed Sibisi to reach her full academic potential — she received distinctions for her Masters in Commerce at the University of Johannesburg and has as a result secured a promotion at the company she works for.

The Fees Must Fall crisis has drawn attention to the crippling difficulties for impoverished students to get ahead. Sibisi is one of the lucky ones. There could be others in future; Hardebeck’s education trust is about to get a significant financial injection in the next couple of weeks as all her valuables will go on live and online auctions run by Strauss & Co. The lots which amount to around R4-million attest to a life of wealth and privilege that Lisolette and her husband Walter enjoyed. However, the meticulous way in which this couple collected art and other valuables, retaining every receipt so that the provenance of the objects could be traced, implies they had always intended to leave their legacy for others.

Why or when Walter and Liselotte left Germany for South Africa is not known. It appears to have taken place before or during WW2 and of the Jewish faith, you could presume they were escaping Hitler’s Nazi rule. There are little hard facts to go on; only their extensive art collection and belongings shed light on their lives and speak for them. Walter was taken 25 years ago and Liselotte perished from cancer in 2014.

When Susie Goodman, general manager at Strauss & Co, and Alastair Meredith, her colleague in the art department, arrived at the Hardebeck’s Houghton home, an old Cape Dutch house, they stepped into an untouched museum of sorts — Liselotte had not lived in the home for a year before her death. Everything was as she had left it and as Goodman and Meredith began to sort through their things, they gradually pieced together two lives that seemed dedicated to collecting art and beautiful objects. They were culture vultures par excellence; they kept every exhibition catalogue, theatre or live music concert ticket. There home was like a time-machine, according to Meredith.

“They had done little renovations to the house since the ‘50s. It still had an old Aga (stove). The artworks still hung where they had been placed since they bought them.” The Hardebecks bought all the collectable artists of that era. “From a chair in the study you could see an Irma Stern and three or four (Alexis) Prellers,” recalls Meredith. The Hardebecks art collection must be unparalled, containing a number of Pierneefs, works by Walter Battiss and Alexis Preller. The Tower of Babel II (1975) and Archaic Sandals (1948) are the two standout Preller works that have already caused a buzz in art circles.

“Karel Nel (the artist) was astounded when he saw them. They have not been seen in public since the ‘70s,” says Goodman.

The Hardebecks’ appear to have been very committed art collectors in that they conducted in depth research into the South Africa art scene, indicated by their extensive art book collection.

“I got the sense that they didn’t just collect art, they kept reading up on it. They communicated with artists. There is correspondence between Walter and Irma Stern. He asked her to send works by train and he returned those he didn’t like. It was a different time,” says Meredith.

Sibisi isn’t going to miss the live auction in Johannesburg. Seeing the works will give her deeper insight into her benefactors and allow her to closely observe and celebrate the collection of funds to benefit people like herself. It wasn’t only the money that she valued but the emotional support during her studies. “I was in a state of crisis, not only financially, but emotionally too. I was pregnant, had relationship issues and was about to give in my studies altogether.”

When she was retrenched from her job, the Trust provided her with rent — “this is usually unheard of.” The Umamawothando Trust allocated Sibisi a coach and she overcome the “challenges and learnt life-long lessons I am still applying now. Mrs Hardebeck will never truly know her impact. Her generosity and spirit lives on in me and I am now focused on ways on giving back to my community,” says Sibisi.

This article first appeared in the Cape
Times on 8 November 2016.


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