Attractions / Free State

Oliewenhuis – The city of roses divulges a gem

Updated Tuesday, 4 December 2018

I love strolling through the ground floor gallery of Oliewenhuis. Every time we return there is something new to grab one’s attention, usually contemporary – the museum is renowned for its contemporary collection and holds between 15 and 20 temporary exhibitions every year. The works are, more often than not, for sale, so it’s something of a glorified shopping experience. I can imagine acquiring some of these gorgeous works for myself!

Oliewenhuis is an art museum of note housed in a Neo-Dutch style mansion that served as residence for the Governor General of the then Union of South Africa from 1942, and later became the official residence for the State President of South Africa when he was in Bloemfontein. It is also one of the highlights of visiting the city, and a ‘must-see’ on anyone’s itinerary.

As one winds up the sweeping driveway towards the house, which no longer serves as a residence to the State President who has now apparently moved across the road, one’s eye is caught by the long length of garden below the house that serves as a park for picnics and lazy Sundays, and houses some beautiful cement and mosaic art – creations that evolved from a project involving fourteen Mangaung residents in a workshop-style approach at producing functional art that can be sat on, played on and climbed.


The sculptures include a rather audacious frog, over which children pour, and a piece known as ‘family chairs’ – a group of three sit in what looks suspiciously like a meditative pose, hands held, the central figure wearing what could be a cross, the one on the left with his eyes open but fixed – it’s a beautiful, larger-than-life piece. You can sit in their laps. They’re meant to be chairs, but I’ve yet to see someone actually in them – they’re too beautiful for anything as basic as sitting.

The garden at Oliewenhuis is regarded as one of the best in the city. The young Art Museum sits perched on Grant’s Hill, just above the suburb of Westdene, the gorgeous house named after a collection of wild olive trees said to grow in the surrounding hills.

It’s a sumptuous venue and a feast of art, garden, unrestrained splendour in the form of beautiful architecture, and, when the skies are blue, which they usually are in Bloemfontein, a perfect space in which to enjoy tea or lunch at The Terrace coffee shop and restaurant (note: they’re closed on a Monday). It’s small wonder that this is the venue for so many weddings in the city.

The garden in which the restaurant rests at the back of the museum is in turn a sculpture garden, with eleven sculptures from local artists selected to display their art here. The sculpture park only opened in 2005 and is used to demonstrate how a public space can incorporate art successfully. It works beautifully. Particularly as in the midst of all of this is the African Carousel, another functional sculpture that is actively used for children’s rides – you can buy a ticket in the museum, and proceeds go towards buying works of art.


The carousel is exactly as it sounds, a merry-go-round made up of a collection of sculptures of various animals, supplied by a group of artists, bringing art directly to children, and actively engaging them – what better way to introduce them to art than allowing them to climb, touch and ride it. The materials used for the sculptures are not usually used for outdoor public commissions and borrow heavily from European and African concepts of mythology. They are incredible.

Whilst children may not consciously be aware of the calibre of art on which they are riding, the essence of each beautiful creature touches the child who rides here. Although watching my son scoff an ice-cream cone not long afterwards, one would have been hard-pushed to imagine the aesthetic benefits to his otherwise insatiable nature!

Lunch at the Terrace restaurant was surprisingly good. The coffee shop overlooks the garden, so you get to view some of the sculptures, whilst lazying beneath canopied trees. Whilst the menu wasn’t what I would call adventurous, the food was good.

Certainly my warm vegetarian salad – jacket potatoes tossed with green beans, sundried tomatoes, feta, garlic and sliced mushrooms in a light bernaise sauce – was quite heavenly, and the others, who settled for a combination of lasagnas, fish and chips and home baked chicken pie, were all impressed at the service and the quality of the food. You can also have homemade burgers, burritos, potato wedges, steaks or a variety of sandwiches.


There is more to Oliewenhuis than the sculpture garden and the Terrace coffee shop, however. The permanent collection in the museum is the work of South African artists, most of them acquired through donations and bequests, and includes works by Thomas Baines, Jan Ernst Volschenk, Jacob hendrik Pierneef and Frans Martin Claerhout.

There is also an underground reservoir, discovered whilst planning for the African Carousel, thought to be built as a catchment  basin for the area and built in around 1902. It has since been transformed into an exciting exhibition space.

Walking trails that leave from Oliewenhuis and enter into the surrounding vegetation on Grant’s Hill, and are perfect for all ages, are there for the taking. All in all, a wonderful outing for the whole family – food, culture, fun and exercise all in one.

Bloemfontein Links