Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Dirty Dancing redux

First appeared
Thursday, 15 November 2012


Last year, before Mitt Romney received the Republican presidential nomination and it seemed likely that the GOP would choose an even worse candidate, my wife and I found ourselves deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Although it has become a Democratic stronghold under Barack Obama, Virginia was traditionally a conservative “red state” (nicknamed the Old Dominion); driving along its winding roads through pristine forest, you feel like you’re going back in time.

Some background information: since first watching Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey fight the prudish community of Kellerman’s Mountain Resort some 25 years ago, my wife has viewed Dirty Dancing 34 times. So it seemed inevitable that, before we crossed the state-line, we would visit Mountain Lake Hotel – the “real” Kellerman’s and the location for most of the filming.

The Art of Banking

First appeared
Thursday, 08 November 2012


If I had a dollar for every time I’ve written the words “Standard Bank” and “art” in the same sentence ... Well, at current exchange rates, I could probably cover my minimum monthly credit card payment and not much else. But the point is that the Standard Bank Group has received a lot of positive publicity from its substantial arts sponsorship portfolio: the National Arts Festival, the Young Artist Awards, jazz festivals and of course its gallery and visual art collections. The arts community or, to phrase it in economic terms, the arts sector – producers, consumers, organisations, promoters – tends to look appreciatively on this patronage.

It’s fair to say, however, that Joe Public is skeptical (if not downright cynical) about banking institutions nowadays. This is an international phenomenon, one that has intensified since 2008, but it has specific local dimensions too. So how can a company like Standard Bank commemorate its 150th year without alienating existing or potential clients? And how can it leverage its involvement in the arts to achieve this? That was the challenge faced by Standard Bank Gallery curator Barbara Freemantle and her colleagues in assembling The Art of Banking: Celebrating through Collections, an exhibition intending to show off selected works (without “showing off”), to tell the Standard Bank story and simultaneously to articulate something about South African history.

Ardmore: We are because of others

First appeared
Thursday, 25 October 2012


Ardmore: We are because of others

Fée Halsted

(Fernwood Press, 2012)


In my experience, there are four kinds of people who use the word “ubuntu”.

There are the windbag politicians and pseudo-ideologues, who trot it out as part of the empty rhetoric that constitutes their public pronouncements – typically in an effort to avoid taking personal responsibility for something. There are the entrepreneurs and corporations who turn the word into a money-making opportunity, offering workshops, books and DVDs on things like “ubuntu” management techniques. There are naïve citizens and consumers who make vague references to it because it ostensibly affirms something about being “South African” (as if there were no other place in the world where reciprocity is viewed as integral to human relationships).

But there are also people who use the word with integrity and sincerity, because it encapsulates something about their lived experience. When Fée Halsted invokes the term and the concept to describe the Ardmore ceramic art community, it’s difficult to be cynical in response.

Kat & the Kings

First appeared
Thursday, 18 October 2012


If post-apartheid South Africa can be summed up in one phrase, it is “a dream deferred” – that memorable alliteration from African-American poet Langstone Hughes, borrowed by Mark Gevisser for the title of his biography of Thabo Mbeki. “What happens to a dream deferred?” asks Hughes. “Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” Or does it “fester like a sore” and “stink like rotten meat”?

Undoubtedly, many South Africans grew disillusioned under Mbeki, not only because of his individual failures as president, but also because it became clear that the national “dream” of racial reconciliation and socio-economic transformation was far away. Those who supported Jacob Zuma’s rise to power have since had to confront the folly of their dream of a “people’s president”. And people like me, who once hoped that Zwelinzima Vavi’s COSATU would grow in integrity as a political force, have also seen our dreams dashed in the recklessness of recent labour disputes.


*The* Story of Philosophy?

First appeared
Tuesday, 18 September 2012


The Story of Philosophy: A History of Western Thought 

James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom

(Quercus, 2012)


If you’re a denizen of that vague economic, political and geographical entity known as “the global South”, you may take affront at the notion implied by the combination of this book’s title and subtitle. Philosophy is not the sole preserve of the West, and its story cannot be adequately narrated from an exclusively Western perspective. What about Confucius and Lao-Tzu? What about Zoroaster and the Buddha and Rabindranath Tagore? What about Frantz Fanon and Leopold Senghor?


Fugard, Sisyphus and the Blue Iris

First appeared
Thursday, 20 September 2012


The last time I met Athol Fugard, he was following a technical rehearsal of The Bird Watchers – his thirty-fourth play. Sitting in the auditorium of the Cape Town theatre that carries his name, Fugard leaned over and told me in an almost-conspiratorial whisper: “I’m working on something new.” The playwright’s eyes sparkled as he showed me a typescript of The Blue Iris.

That script is now a performed reality: after premiering at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown earlier this year, the play has come via Cape Town to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg (an American production recently completed its Los Angeles run). Fugard, who is based in San Diego, has returned to South Africa to take up a three-month residency in Stellenbosch and – you guessed it – he’s working on something new.

Desperately seeking recognition

First appeared
Wednesday, 12 September 2012


“Fame is a form of incomprehension,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges, “perhaps the worst.” Borges had in mind the great Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes, but also his most famous creation: the deluded would-be knight, Don Quixote. Fictional characters that are established in the public imagination can become ‘real’ or ‘historical’ figures – in which case, we might ask, what’s it like for them to be the subjects of this incomprehension? Is it different to, say, Robbie Williams bemoaning the experience of celebrity as he sings, “I’ll be misunderstood/by the beautiful and good...”

Dorfman's Delirium

First appeared
Thursday, 30 August 2012


Ariel Dorfman has only visited South Africa twice, but the Chilean-American playwright’s connection to the literature and theatre of this country is a long-standing one – based primarily on friendships with people like Barney Simon, Nadine Gordimer and Mongane Wally Serote. Indeed, in the preface to his recent book Writing the Deep South, which offers “mirrors for South Africa” in essays about the United States and Latin America, Dorfman affirms: “I should have been born in South Africa.”

20th Century Masters: The Human Figure

First appeared
Thursday, 30 August 2012


Art historians are wont to match shifting representations of the human form with significant shifts in the collective self-consciousness of our species. This narrative starts with “The Mind in the Cave”, as the title of archaeologist David Lewis-Williams’ book has it: the shamanic-creative impulse behind the earliest rock paintings. Then there are the totems and fertility statuettes and ritual masks of so-called “primitive” peoples.

As in most human enterprises narrated from a Western perspective, the ancient Greeks usually get a mention at this point – the kouroi and korai (male and female) sculptures that were the precursors to more famous classical anatomical studies such as the Diskobolos and the Dying Gaul. After that, apparently, artists forgot how to portray the body naturally or realistically for more than a thousand years, until Michelangelo and his High Renaissance mates came along.

"War Horse" and SA-UK theatre dynamics

First appeared
Thursday, 09 August 2012


Make no mistake: War Horse is big. Before Steven Spielberg’s film version appeared last year, the stage play – based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 youth novel – was already established in London and New York as “the theatrical event of the decade” on the West End (according to the British Times) and the best production on Broadway (as rated by Time magazine).

The story in the show – an epic First World War narrative of the relationship between a young man, Albert Narracott, and his horse, Joey – is only tangentially connected to South Africa: the spectre of the “Anglo-Boer” War looms over the Narracott family. But the story of the show is important to this country, for its critical accolades (multiple Tony and Olivier awards) and its commercial success (the highest-ever weekly gross on the West End) both stem from a South African creation.

Notes from the National Arts Festival 2012

First appeared
Thursday, 12 July 2012


Every visit to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown brings its disappointments and consolations.

Often the disappointment comes from missing those shows and exhibits that EVERYONE is talking about – for me, in 2012, these included Brett Bailey’s Exhibit A and Afternoon of a Foehn by French company Non Nova. While Foehn delighted audiences with its playful creation of characters and mini-narratives out of plastic bags floating on air, Bailey undertook his now-customary task of producing site-specific work that makes participants feel deeply uncomfortable about their temporary occupation of the space: Exhibit A evokes the voyeuristic and racist horrors of the ‘human zoo’, challenging viewers to confront their own complicity in turning ethnic difference into spectacle.

Then there are the consolations – the reassurance of the familiar, such as walking into the foyer of the hilltop Monument that is the Festival’s hub to hear Richard Cock and his orchestral ensemble holding an audience in thrall at one of the free sunset concerts. Or seeing a favourite actor do something new: Lionel Newton in Rats, performing a trio of monologues that combine nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe with present-day South Africa. Or, let’s be honest, discovering a new spot to eat and drink and talk into the small hours.


Reason/emotion, business/arts, cheques/poetry?

First appeared
Thursday, 28 June 2012

Between Humphrey Mmemezi’s credit card and Jacob Zuma’s spear, “arts” news headlines in recent months have reinforced the perception that artists and politicians just don’t get along. This has, inevitably, had a negative effect on the relationship between art and business. But savvy media consumers may have discerned a prior, more insidious discourse that has been distorting that relationship for much of 2012.

The advertising agency for Nedgroup Investments decided to emphasise its ability to invest money “sensibly” by telling radio listeners and showing TV viewers how reason and emotion are constantly at war within the human psyche. Reason is “analytical”, “focused” and “efficient”; it can be associated with scientists, academics and computers. Emotion, on the other hand, is “spontaneous”, “impulsive” and “unpredictable”; it can be associated with impetuous musicians, crying divas and sensuous dancers (along with bickering couples and sportsmen throwing temper tantrums). “Because emotion is more powerful than reason,” they warn, “we keep it as far from your investments as possible.” In summary, we are told, “Emotion writes poetry, reason writes cheques”.


The New Soweto Theatre

First appeared
Thursday, 07 June 2012


The apartheid state did its best to turn black South Africans into automatons – semi-citizens with no sense of individual complexity, identity or pride who would perform manual labour (as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”) for white people in the industrial, commercial and domestic spheres. To facilitate this destruction of individuality, it attempted to entrench both material and intellectual privation in the lives of those forced to live in designated “native” or “bantu” areas.

Such a calculated programme of rural and urban infrastructural neglect included, of course, the arts: apartheid’s promulgators went out of their way to inhibit the development of galleries, theatres and other creative spaces in townships and so-called “homelands”. Of course, they funded white artistic pursuits, and they tried desperately to control these. But black South Africans were told that art was not for them.


Review: Mntambo and Marinovich

First appeared
Thursday, 24 May 2012


Protest comes in different forms. There is the impressive spectacle of a march; there is the quiet but bold act of a dissenting vote by a ruling party parliamentarian. In the visual arts, there is the angry, bitter satire of “Hail to the Thief”: Brett Murray’s ongoing evisceration of the corrupt South African (elite) body politic, the latest manifestation of which is currently on display at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

Then there are artists whose work constitutes a subdued protest – directed not at individuals or institutions but at social phenomena, at the rank injustices that are so much a part of the human experience, especially in a country like South Africa. Such protests can also take the form of celebration: celebrating opposition, or beauty in despite of inequality, or perhaps simply survival. The twin exhibitions sharing the split-level space at the Standard Bank Gallery arguably fall into this latter category.


AT LARGE - extract

First appeared
Sunday, 06 May 2012

Mary Corrigall, arts journalist and Books Editor at the "Sunday Indy", kindly published an abridged extract from my new book AT LARGE: REVIEWING THE ARTS IN SOUTH AFRICA in anticipation of the official launch this week. Here is the full version - adapted from the introduction to the book.

For some years now, arts-loving South Africans have bemoaned the reduced column space allocated to arts reviews in the country’s newspapers or their online equivalents, the limited experience and knowledge base of journalists commissioned to produce arts-related stories, and a decline in the quality of arts writers’ prose (indeed, of general editing standards). This has, according to received wisdom, been accompanied by the marginalisation – or even, as both cause and effect of apparent public indifference, the parochialism – of ‘niche’ magazines, journals and websites catering to arts-oriented readerships.

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