Arts and Culture

28Jul

HALF ART: Madiba jiving ... and better ways of spreading joy

First appeared
Friday, 24 July 2015

 

After reading this column, you may well think: “Okay, wise guy. What did you do for Mandela Day?” This would be a perfectly fair objection. So let me admit at the outset that I did nothing of any tangible value to anybody else last Saturday.

To be honest, I had almost forgotten that it was July 18th until I stumbled across a sign declaring a rather scrubby patch of grass “Nelson Mandela Park”. Initially I was pleasantly surprised by the coincidence; on reflection, it seemed rather banal. All around the world there are tracts of land, in various states of repair or disrepair, named after Nelson Mandela – why shouldn’t this unremarkable site, a few hundred metres from Bremen main station in the north-western reaches of Germany, be one?

28Jul

HALF ART: Two sides to every Eurozone crisis

First appeared
Friday, 17 July 2015

 

The Eurozone is in crisis, but you wouldn’t know it along the banks of the Rhine. Here in Bonn, where the river follows a gentle north-western curve on its way from Koblenz to Cologne, daily activity continues pretty much unabated. On sunny days there is a gentle, pleasant bustle; on rainy days, tasks are completed with grim Teutonic determination.

Vessels of all kinds – cargo barges, ferries, tourist boats, rowing sculls – plough their way upstream, downstream and across the water. Cyclists and joggers track the contours of the river on pristine paths. Riverside bars and restaurants do a consistent trade: never quite brisk, never quite slow. The talks in Brussels earlier this week about what to do with Greece’s debt seemed very far away, even though Bonn is only two hours’ drive from the Belgian capital. 

28Jul

HALF ART: Maimane and Marx

First appeared
Friday, 10 July 2015

 

Mmusi Maimane is a good-looking guy. The camera, as they say, loves him. You get the feeling that, if he hadn’t gone into politics, he could have been an actor, a model ... or at the very least a Top Billing presenter, if he wasn’t quite so earnest (Top Billing doesn’t do earnest). He’s a charismatic public speaker. He’s a snappy dresser. All in all, he offers a combination of appealing features that is rare – if not unprecedented – in South African politicians.

His detractors have, however, criticised this glossy packaging. Writing for BDlive, for example, Gareth van Onselen repeatedly complained during Maimane’s rise through the ranks of the Democratic Alliance that the man is all style and no substance, all Hollywood and no policy. I take the view that politics is, sadly, primarily about style: it’s how you come across to audiences at a rally or on TV, it’s how you are perceived by members of your own party, it’s the brand you offer to potential voters. 

26Jul

HALF ART: "Sex at Dawn" and "Daughters"

First appeared
Friday, 03 July 2015

 

The neat summaries supplied by media coverage of books tend to do a disservice to complex topics or arguments. This certainly applies to Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. The book, by spouses and co-authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethà, is often presented as an academic endorsement of promiscuity – based on the idea that our ancestors didn’t practice or advocate monogamy until the advent of agriculture some 10 000 years ago.

The image thus conjured is of troops of peace-loving, libidinous proto-hippies living in nomadic foraging communities where everyone slept with everyone and it didn’t matter who was the father of which child. Enter farming, the concept of land ownership, the passing of property from father to son, and – over time – the patriarchal-capitalist complex that continues to degrade and disempower women. 

02Jul

HALF ART: In the time of democracy?

First appeared
Friday, 26 June 2015

 

Next week sees the opening of TWENTY: Art in the Time of Democracry at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery. The exhibition, curated by Gordon Froud, was first displayed last year in North Carolina – a debut marking South Africa’s second post-apartheid decade – and will also be traveling to the Beijing Biennale. These international points of reference are worth noting, as the likely reception of the exhibition in this country (it has already had a stint at the Pretoria Art Museum) differs substantially from responses to its incarnations in America and China.

Froud’s previous experiments in group shows at the UJ Gallery have been ambitious and thought-provoking, and TWENTY promises more of the same, with over 200 works by 115 artists crammed into the space. Despite these numbers, and the impressive list of contributors – which includes, to name a few, William Kentridge, Mary Sibande, David Goldblatt, Sam Nhlengethwa, David Koloane and Diane Victor – TWENTY does not claim to provide an overview or survey. Instead, it is offered as “a slice of life” (perhaps a “snapshot” would be a more appropriate metaphor).

02Jul

HALF ART: Memory Card Sea Power

First appeared
Friday, 19 June 2015

 

What a difference a week makes.

Last Friday, South Africa certainly had more geopolitical credibility: Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir had not yet arrived in the country, and so had not yet given our feckless “leaders” the chance to renege on our commitment to the Rome Statute that gives authority to the International Criminal Court.

A week ago, Rachel Dolezal was still “mixed race” (black, Native American and white according to her own description) and was still head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. She has since lost those two facets of her identity. 

02Jul

HALF ART: Beethoven, Blackness and Bonn

First appeared
Friday, 12 June 2015

 

Regular readers of this column will know that the “art” part usually has to do with the visual arts (the other part is less predictable). But this week’s musings are on a musician – and perhaps a little literary introduction is required.

Nadine Gordimer produced almost fifty books over the course of her career, but none has a title as striking as her 2007 collection of short fiction: Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. Between the covers the material is perhaps less arresting, bearing that combination of somewhat plodding realism and unconvincing experimentation that marks much of the writing from the last decade of her life. 

06Jun

HALF ART: Doing (and re-doing) Mandela

First appeared
Friday, 05 June 2015

Nelson Mandela is a tricky subject for visual artists; producing a likeness of the great man is a high-risk undertaking. His face was famous even when he was hidden from public view. After his release from prison, he was photographed daily for two decades. These images are so vivid in our collective consciousness that attempts to generate a “realistic” portrait inevitably disappoint.

Over the years there have been some shockers. Perhaps the silliest, and one of the more prominent, is the statue in Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. The one in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria is a much better effort, although that proved something of a poisoned chalice for its creators, who are now referred to as “the guys who hid the rabbit in Mandela’s ear”. 

06Jun

HALF ART: Othello and Post African Futures

First appeared
Thursday, 28 May 2015

 

Ostensibly I’m in Germany to work on Shakespeare; for centuries, Germans have viewed the man from Stratford not as a British export but as “ganz unser” (entirely ours), which makes him a less divisive figure here than he is in South Africa. Sometimes, however, the primary object of my research is German baking.

Breads, pastries, cakes – savoury or sweet, you name it, the Germans bake it. Tim Noakes and the banting diet would be laughed out of the country. For me, the pleasure of consuming German baking lies not just in eating but also in procuring: admiring the dense-packed shelves, trying to decipher the labels, ordering through pointing and bad pronunciation. 

23May

HALF ART: Willem Boshoff in Venice

First appeared
Friday, 22 May 2015

 

For thousands of years, human beings have sought to leave traces – to inscribe some marks of themselves in a world that would otherwise happily ignore them while they live or forget them when they die. Until fairly recently in human history (aside from architects and builders, leaving behind monumental constructions paid for by the rich and powerful), this act of inscription was a privilege reserved for artists and the literate few.

In the age of social media, by contrast, we can all leave daily traces of ourselves; we can build huge virtual repositories of these traces, curating them more or less as we wish. It is unclear how permanent such digital archives will be. But, for now, anyone with access to the Internet can adopt the archetypal role of the artist and the scribe.

23May

HALF ART: VeniceVeniceVeniceVeniceVenice

First appeared
Friday, 15 May 2015

 

In the early months of 2015, the art world took in a long, slow breath ... So that it could, at the beginning of May, start talking excitedly and almost ceaselessly about a place, an event, a biennale – THE biennale – that it regards with something like veneration. All together now: VeniceVeniceVeniceVeniceVeniceVeniceVeniceVeniceVenice!

The 56th installment of La Biennale di Venezia is underway. The yachts of the rich and famous are moored on Riva degli Schiavoni and elsewhere around the Venetian lagoon, artists and their corporate or state sponsors are trying to make their voices rise above the noise, and a few hundred thousand other visitors are gorging themselves on the feast of art works displayed across the city.

23May

HALF ART: Kultur and Caliban

First appeared
Friday, 08 May 2015

 

In my previous column I wrote about Mawande Ka Zenzile’s latest exhibition, Statecraft, at STEVENSON Gallery in Cape Town. Some of the works (a combination of cow dung, earth, gesso and oil on canvas) lend themselves to ready interpretation through iconographic allusions. There is one image, however, that I’m still puzzling over; its points of reference are diffuse and difficult to reconcile. 

Titled “Destroy This Mad Brute (Caliban and Miranda): The end of an allegory”, the painting is in the first instance an explicit citation of US Army enlistment propaganda from 1917. In that picture, the “mad brute”, looking like King Kong, wore a helmet labelled “militarism” and carried in his right arm the bloodied club of “kultur”. In his left arm he clutched a helpless, half-naked woman. Emerging from a body of water, behind which lay smoldering ruins, the ape-man stood on a shore marked “America”.

29Apr

HALF ART: Mawande Ka Zenzile's Statecraft

First appeared
Friday, 24 April 2015

 

“Timely” is an overworn adjective that, although intended as a compliment when describing an artist’s work, can do it an injustice. The works of art that have the greatest impact on me are both very much of their time and insistently out-of-time: that is, they respond to the world in which the artist lives but they also express a vision that extends beyond (or, to use a romantic word, “transcends”) the contemporary moment.

Such works belong to the present but will offer new insights to future viewers, readers and audiences. To be “timely”, by contrast, is to risk being bound in time; to be relevant today, and out-of-date tomorrow. This form of timeliness is doomed to become moribund – like King Goodwill Zwelithini, attributing xenophobic violence to a “third force” as if the Nats were still in power.

29Apr

HALF ART: Germany and South Africa - Past and Present

First appeared
Friday, 17 April 2015

 

Citizens of the “global South” spending time in the “global North” are torn between nostalgia (in the original sense – longing to return home) and a form of colonial cringe. We miss familiarity, even as we are thrilled by novelty; pride in the places we come from is matched by a nagging suspicion that things actually are better in the places to which we have come.

We should, of course, guard against such value judgments. They are emotive rather than rational, they tend to be based on generalisations and they stem from an ahistorical impulse: the desire to ignore how and why societies differ, and to assume that difference implies hierarchy.

12Apr

HALF ART: Academic optimism and Ian Houston

First appeared
Friday, 10 April 2015

 

Terrorists attack places where people congregate: shopping centres, high-rise buildings, public squares, educational institutions. In one sense, then, the recent attack by Al-Shabaab on Garissa University College in Kenya is similar to that on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013. In another sense, they are two very different symbols; the slaughter of 150 students is a different “category” of atrocity.

The Garissa massacre could be seen as an extreme violation of academic freedom and all that it represents. Viewed like this, Garissa puts into perspective the gripes of those of us who work in tertiary education. A spate of articles in prominent publications over the last year or so have bemoaned the decline of autonomy and intellectual curiosity and pretty much everything else at American and British universities, making life at South African universities seem dreamy by comparison.

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