Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Column: JAG Snag and Another Country

First appeared
Friday, 02 May 2014


Having followed a circuitous route through the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) to find Reiner Leist’s Another Country, I knew I was in the right place when I saw Chris Hani staring at me.

Actually, in Leist’s photograph, Hani’s calm but implacable eyes are looking into the middle-distance, just over the photographer’s left shoulder. Perhaps, with the hammer-and-sickle star of the South African Communist Party logo behind him, he is caught in a moment of pensive idealism. Perhaps, hindsight wants to suggest, he is pondering his own mortality.


Column: Rorke's Drift - The Jumuna Collection

First appeared
Thursday, 24 April 2014


I got into trouble the other day for telling a Twitter acquaintance of mine that his pastor is “full of shit”. I’m usually mild-mannered and tend to avoid using Anglo-Saxon four letter words in public. But Twitter has a weird effect on one’s sense of social etiquette. Suffice it to say that I apologised – for the language, if not the sentiment.

What was it that got me so riled? A summary of a sermon that read: “It is not a mistake to be born poor. It IS a mistake to remain poor.”


Column: RED

First appeared
Thursday, 17 April 2014


In 1968, before conflicts in Britain between the state, employers and trade unions became forever associated with words like “Thatcherism” – although the vested interests of those three entities had already become entrenched as the primary considerations in labour disputes, to the point where workers themselves were often sidelined – something remarkable happened. 

At the Ford Motor Company plant in Dagenham, on the banks of the Thames in London’s East End, the sewing machinists went on strike. There were only a few hundred of them, out of a total workforce numbering tens of thousands, yet this marginal group caused the factory to shut down and created a national controversy – for two reasons. Firstly, although it was not recognised as a “skilled job”, their stitching of car seat covers was crucial to the production process; without it, no vehicles rolled off the assembly line.


Column: Traces of Ecstasy

First appeared
Thursday, 10 April 2014


Nowadays, every time I open a newspaper or news website, tune into a radio or TV bulletin, or check my twitter feed, the title of Sipho Sepamla’s poem “Da Same, Da Same” echoes in my mind. Is it just me, or is the South African news cycle a bit “samey”?

Oscar Pistorius, Shrien Dewani, Nkandla. Throw in a ministerial gaffe, a story of government misspending, a Democratic Alliance PR blunder, a bit of Economic Freedom Fighters rhetoric, a service delivery protest, a labour dispute, an incident of police brutality, the clandestine workings of the ruling alliance ... and you’ve got yourself a front-page formula. 


Review: Queen at the Ballet

First appeared
Thursday, 03 April 2014


Sean Bovim didn’t invent the “rock ballet”, but he can be considered a pioneer in the genre. Queen at the Ballet has, since it premiered in 2012, become the flagship of his fleet; after successful stints in Cape Town, it has now made landfall in Johannesburg (where it will be on the Nelson Mandela stage at the Joburg Theatre until 13th April).

The show is based on a winning premise: the iconic anthems of a great band, the creative joy and pathos of its famous frontman’s biography, neoclassical ballet mixed with a range of other dance styles, and a dash of pageantry in costuming and sets. For the most part it lives up to this billing, although there were a few lapses in execution at the opening night performance I saw.


Column: George Hallett, nomad

First appeared
Thursday, 03 April 2014


Each of the images in A Nomad’s Harvest, the George Hallett retrospective on display at the Iziko National Gallery in Cape Town (until 9th July), could be seen to relate aesthetically and thematically to the title of the exhibition. Hallett has travelled to and worked in dozens of countries, driven by an admixture of compulsion, restlessness and sheer curiosity, amply demonstrated by the photographs displayed.

One series in particular, however, seems to present a group of mirrors reflecting something of the nomadic photographer himself. They are images of a gypsy community in Yorkshire, captured four decades ago, hinting at both the liberty and the poverty of this way of life; one can imagine why Hallett, ambivalent about his South African roots and uncertain of his status as a temporary exile in England, would be drawn to the gypsies as symbols of deracination.


Column: Crossing Paths

First appeared
Thursday, 27 March 2014


The hadeda controversy shows no signs of abating. Is this ungainly creature, Bostrychia hagedash, in fact a noble bird – a worthy (albeit distant) relative of the sacred ibis worshipped by the ancient Egyptians? Or is it just a loud, gawking, squawking cretin that is annoyingly good at pooing on objects from a great height?

I suspect that most Joburgers, like me, have a love-hate relationship with hadedas. We love them as local icons (hadedas are found across sub-saharan Africa, yet they have a distinct Jozi identity linked to the city’s many lush suburban lawns, trees, sports fields, parks and, of course, piles of rubbish). We dislike them for their haughty demeanor and their melodramatic heavy-flapping take-off, but we occasionally hate them for their aggressive calling, which wakes tired parents and sleeping children and overworked professionals and hungover students alike in the early hours every morning.


Column: Serengeti Crossroads

First appeared
Thursday, 20 March 2014


If you have ever been a member of a writers’ group, or submitted a manuscript to an editor, or signed up for a creative writing course – in fact, if you’ve ever been involved in any literary activity for a sustained period – there is one piece of advice that you’re sure to have heard: “Show, don’t tell!”

Don’t tell readers that a character is nervous or scared; show us how he fidgets, how he smokes a cigarette. Don’t tell us that a landscape is beautiful; show us the details of shape and light, of depth and height, so we can experience the perception of beauty. And so on. 


Column: Pistorius and Shades of Grey

First appeared
Thursday, 13 March 2014


I’ve been more cynical than most about the Oscar Pistorius trial – specifically, about the frenzied coverage of the trial by that impossibly vague entity we call “the media”. But I have to admit that (apart from an occasionally self-congratulatory or self-important tone) South Africa’s journalists have done an impressive job thus far.

Sure, there is the chicken-and-egg question of whether news platforms are just responding to an existing public obsession or have, in fact, helped to grow what seems to be an insatiable appetite. Setting this aside, however – it confuses rather than clarifies to use words like “sensationalism” – there is a substantial journalistic achievement in balancing detailed coverage of the case with other, bigger, more important stories.

Column: History doesn't laugh

First appeared
Thursday, 06 March 2014


Whether you like it or not, we live in the age of the selfie. The ability of both public and private individuals to leverage this ubiquitous visual meme to good effect – social, political or otherwise – is a significant aspect of their brand identity management (to use the marketing phrase du jour).

Barack Obama got it right when, after being re-elected in 2012, he tweeted a picture of himself hugging his wife Michelle with the caption, "Four More Years". This rather professional-looking photo was retweeted some 780000 times, boosting Obama's good-guy and family-man image around the world. It also broadened the genre of the selfie – which does not, it turns out, always need to be self-portrait in order to qualify. 

Column: Queer and Trans Art-iculations

First appeared
Thursday, 27 February 2014


Homosexuality – or, more accurately, homophobia – has been making headlines and trending in social media recently.

The year started with the world’s attention turning to Russia where, in a farcically butch build-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, Vladimir Putin’s government criminalised any form of “propaganda” in defence of “non-traditional sexual relations”. 

Column: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid

First appeared
Thursday, 20 February 2014


Newtown is under construction again. The venerable Market Theatre building is being dwarfed by new highrises and their scaffolding exoskeletons. Men in hard hats converse earnestly over unrolled plans or send sparks flying with angle grinders. These are good signs for an area of Johannesburg that had begun to fray at the edges, losing the impetus of the earlier phases of urban development that accompanied the launch of the Newtown Cultural Precinct over a decade ago.

City spaces, public buildings, houses – all human constructions require constant maintenance and renovation, or natural forces of decay will take their course. Grand edifices, literal and figurative, eventually collapse. This is not necessarily a bad thing; many human undertakings are execrable affairs. Empires crumble, emperors die, and attempts to stave off mortality fail (as ancient statues, their ears or noses missing, confirm). 

Column: Co-authorship

First appeared
Thursday, 13 February 2014


If you didn’t know this already, dear reader, it’s time for me to come clean: your Thursday visual arts correspondent does not specialise in the visual arts. I warned you in my first column that I can’t paint (or sculpt, or draw, for that matter). I lack the brazen confidence required of a conceptual artist. So the role of artist-as-critic was never an option for me.

Worse than that, I have no formal training as a consumer of, or commentator on, art. Barack Obama put some noses out of joint recently when – trying to affirm the value of non-degree tertiary qualifications and to punt the US manufacturing industry – he claimed that students leaving high school should consider how they “can make a lot more with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree”. To me this was like water off a duck’s back; I have never so much as enrolled in an art history course. 

Column: art and scholarship

First appeared
Thursday, 06 February 2014


Art and scholarship are often perceived as uncomfortable bedfellows: artistic production is caricatured as an anti-intellectual outpouring of emotion, and academic responses to works of art are assumed to be dry, unfeeling and anti-creative. In my experience, quite the opposite is true.

Many of the artists I admire spend just as much time reading and researching as they do experimenting in the studio; their work is the result of both cognitive and affective engagement with their subject matter, inviting (but not demanding) a similarly nuanced response from those who view it.

Column: Faces of War

First appeared
Thursday, 30 January 2014


As I sat in the parking lot of the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, listening on my car radio to the Democratic Alliance press conference announcing Mamphela Ramphele as the party’s presidential candidate, I couldn’t help but imagine the ghost of Steve Biko hovering over proceedings.

Would he give his blessing to the political union of these two women in opposition to a corrupt African National Congress: one his partner and fellow-activist, the other a former journalist who helped to expose the cover-up of his death in detention? Or would he condemn Ramphele for betraying the Black Consciousness Movement – this DA merger the final straw after her slow co-option by white liberals into academia and business? 

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