Arts and Culture

11Jul

Column: Kid's eye view of Gaba and Bopape

First appeared
Thursday, 11 July 2013

 

Recently I’ve been taking my four-year-old daughter with me to art galleries. As an advocate of the arts in education, I could pretend that these visits are part of some grand early learning programme – but the truth is that they’re driven by the logistical necessities of nursery school holidays.

Nonetheless, there are advantages to a multi-generational reviewing practice. For example, when a piece of lazy concept art or a pseudo-avant-garde squiggle makes me want to throw up my hands and declare, “A child could do that!”, I can actually test this claim. (Fortunately, a glance at her merry crayon doodling is usually enough to reassure me to the contrary.) 
04Jul

48 hours at the National Arts Festival 2013

First appeared
Thursday, 04 July 2013

 

It would be easy to say that the fragile state of Nelson Mandela has hung like a pall over proceedings at the 2013 National Arts Festival. That is, however, simply not accurate. Certainly, there has been more-than-casual, more-than-usual browsing of Twitter feeds and catching of news headlines. But the fact is that the Festino crowds – artists, audiences, producers, consumers, service providers, hipsters, partygoers, vendors and travelling bohemians – gathering in Grahamstown are simply going about their individual and collective business more or less as they have been doing for years.

04Jul

Column: Anthea Moys vs Grahamstown

First appeared
Thursday, 04 July 2013

 

By the time you read this, Anthea Moys will, inevitably, have lost her fifth and penultimate contest with the people of Grahamstown.

Things started in warlike fashion last week as, hopelessly outnumbered, Moys took on SABRE (South African Battle Re-enactments) to depict a 1745 Scottish rebellion. Then she danced alone against Ballroom and Latin teams, before trying to match two choirs note for note. Chess and soccer bouts followed. Tomorrow, she will be beaten up by members of East Cape Shotokan-Ryu Karate. 
27Jun

Column: Kentridge's Drawing Lessons

First appeared
Thursday, 27 June 2013

 

Who is South Africa’s greatest living artist? Most people, if pressed to answer this rather unfair question, would give the name of William Kentridge.

“Greatest” here could mean most famous, most widely recognised, most written about or most frequently awarded. It could mean most highly valued at auctions. It could mean most prolific or most diverse – Kentridge’s oeuvre extends from prints to film, from drawing to sculpture, from tapestry to opera. It could also mean most distinctive: despite this diversity, there is an aesthetic and thematic unity to Kentridge’s work.
27Jun

Hats Off! ... Flanders & Swann in SA

First appeared
Thursday, 27 June 2013

 

The big drawcard at Montecasino last weekend was John Cleese. The Monte Python and Fawlty Towers star had promised to give an account of his life and work – albeit both necessarily abridged and comically digressive – via conversation with radio host John Maytham and a Q&A session with the audience.

Few of those sitting in the spacious Teatro auditorium would have guessed that, to gain further insight into Cleese’s career and its place in the history of British comedy, they could walk around the corner to Pieter Toerien’s more modest Studio Theatre. There they would have found Jonathan Roxmouth and Louis Zurnamer performing Hats Off!, an irreverent tribute to the musical duo of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann.
20Jun

Column: Whiteness, Mandarin and Stephen Hobbs' cities

First appeared
Thursday, 20 June 2013

 

“Whiteness” is in the spotlight again. Every few months or so, someone points out how whiteness remains normative in South Africa some two decades after the end of formal apartheid. Technically, I suppose, this means that whiteness never actually leaves the spotlight – all the more reason to critique its dominance.

Trying to make whiteness less central is a paradoxical undertaking. Public debates about whiteness almost inevitably end up reinscribing that centrality: taking what is implicit, making it explicit, castigating it, and then allowing it to become implicit again. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling sometimes that it’s just too easy for me to be a white person in South Africa.
13Jun

Column: The art and science of Body Worlds

First appeared
Thursday, 13 June 2013

 

Richard Dawkins has, of late, become a little boring. His anti-religious polemics are starting to take on the character of those fundamentalist tirades (and more modest expressions of faith) that he so righteously opposes. This wasn’t always the case. When he was more of a scientist and less of a pontificator – a paradoxical attribute for an atheist, but not an uncommon one – Dawkins made important claims for the capacity of science to increase our sense of wonder and, indeed, to facilitate quasi-mystical experiences.

He challenged, for example, poet John Keats’ complaint that the “cold philosophy” of science could “unweave a rainbow”: that is, make it less beautiful by explaining it. For Dawkins, by contrast, understanding the science behind natural phenomena (and sometimes being reminded of how much more we have yet to learn or discover) can still make our encounters with them sublime. From this point of view, science is the champion of artistic creativity, not its enemy.
06Jun

Profile: Janet Suzman

First appeared
Thursday, 06 June 2013

 

“I’m not English,” Janet Suzman tells me. “People just think I’m English because I talk nice” – here her accent flattens ever so slightly, her tone of voice self-mocking. “But really I’m a Joburg girl, born and bred.”

It’s after 10pm, and we’re talking over a crackling phone line. Suzman is in the Cape for a few days before returning to her home town to reprise her role in Lara Foot’s play Solomon and Marion, which she first performed in 2011 (the production will travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town and then transfer to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival). She’s just stepped off a plane from Durban, having spent most of the week in and around the farming communities of East Griqualand.
06Jun

Column: The Brother Breaks the Bullion

First appeared
Thursday, 06 June 2013

 

The Brother Moves On is an exercise in transience. The very name of this difficult-to-define collective – part underground band, part arts ensemble – expresses the principle that its members aren’t expected to stick around for too long.

Most of what they do happens in fragments. Although they have produced two albums and are technically on a “Quantum Leap” tour, which will see them performing at venues across southern Africa, there is a deliberately provisional quality to their brand. The music itself seems to be in a perpetual mode of jazz-style improvisation; listening to their recorded tracks, you feel the risky ephemerality of live performance.
31May

Column: A second look at Subotzky

First appeared
Thursday, 30 May 2013

 

It’s almost a year since I first saw Mikhael Subotzky’s Retinal Shift at the 2012 incarnation of the National Arts Festival – or, at least, saw part of it. The exhibition was divided between venues on different floors of the 1820 Settlers Monument, the multi-storey building that looks like a spaceship run aground on Gunfire Hill above Grahamstown. Upstairs were four components of Retinal Shift, each exploring Subotzky’s long-standing fascination with the reciprocal activities of looking and being looked at, of seeing and being seen.

I Was Looking Back is a collection of photographs from the artist’s portfolio of the last decade, with subjects ranging from prison life to private security. These twin concerns, with their shared relation to surveillance and law enforcement in a crime-ridden country, resonate with the police footage displayed in the 2011 work CCTV. Here Subotzky creates a compact visual symphony, conducting twelve small feeds on one screen like so many instruments in a chamber orchestra and bringing them to a crescendo of ostensible justice: once apprehended, the perpetrators are shown (like victims of a prank) the camera that caught them out.
23May

Column: Valley of Grace / All our Mothers

First appeared
Thursday, 23 May 2013

 

Perhaps the most important thing that works of art can “do” is to surprise. This does not mean simply to shock – provocation for its own sake can be valuable, but it’s usually too easy (and sometimes, as Brett Murray discovered last year, artists can cause great offence and public outrage beyond proportion to the actual images they produce). Nor is it merely to perplex, playing obscure games with audiences, viewers or readers.

Genuine surprises occur when a work of art escapes its own bounds, transcending even the artist’s conception of its possibilities and flouting the consumer’s expectations: the familiar is made strange, the mundane becomes haunting.
23May

Johannes Phokela at the Venice Biennale

First appeared
Thursday, 23 May 2013

 

It’s not uncommon to hear Italians make statements like: “There is no such thing as Italy.” This may seem a little melodramatic, not to mention factually inaccurate, but after some explanation it makes sense. As with many countries in Europe – the continent that bequeathed to the world the dubious idea of “the nation” – Italy’s history, culture and geography evince strong tensions between the regional and the national.

People from southern Italy share bitter anecdotes about advertisements for apartment rentals in northern cities that specify “not for those from the south”. This north/south anxiety is just one part of the story. Medieval and renaissance conflict between neighbouring “city-states” resulted in a strong sense of autonomy and mutual distrust, which was reinforced in the twentieth century despite (and sometimes because of) Mussolini’s attempts to forge a united fascist idiom.
18May

Column: Hopper and Waits

First appeared
Thursday, 16 May 2013

 

Edward Hopper wasn’t always a “great American artist”, as he is described nowadays. For many years he slugged it out as a commercial illustrator. He only sold his first painting at the age of thirty; it wasn’t until he was in his forties that his work as a painter was self-sustaining.

He was often at odds with visual arts fashions, toying with the impressionism of Manet and Degas and then settling on a distinct brand of realism when abstraction was all the rage. He produced dark, gritty urban images and lonely interior scenes, landscapes and depictions of rural architecture; “I’m more interested,” he affirmed, “in sunlight on buildings and on figures than in any symbolism.”
09May

Column: On Photography and "Exposure"

First appeared
Thursday, 09 May 2013

 

In the age of Instagram and 12-megapixel smartphone cameras, everyone is a photographer. We can’t help ourselves – as Susan Sontag famously wrote, “It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph, to turn experience itself into a way of seeing.”

Sontag’s observations, which were penned in the 1970s, seem eerily prophetic of the effect of social media on how we perceive ourselves in the world: “Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form ... everything exists to end in a photograph.”

02May

Column: Sex scandals ... and Sekoto

 

The arts and humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand have been in the news recently – for all the wrong reasons. Between descriptions of “sex pests”, accounts of lecherous lecturers and even accusations of rape, journalists have found plenty of scandalous material to report on.

Those of us affiliated to Wits, staff and students alike, are angry. We are angry that, in at least one instance, the university’s legal representatives appear to have ignored complaints against a lecturer. We are angry that the basic trust and good faith on which all teacher-student relationships are built has been eroded. We are angry because an atmosphere of distrust and accusation and counter-accusation is open to exploitation on the part of both the accuser and the accused.

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