Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Column: "Artists have no fucking respect"

First appeared
Thursday, 27 November 2014


In Candide, a picaresque tale penned by Voltaire in the eighteenth century, the eponymous hero sees pretty much the worst of what life on earth has to offer.

Voltaire wanted to satirise the philosopher Leibniz, whose doctrine of Optimism declared: “Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Candide suffers, and confronts the endless suffering of others, until he comes to accept that human beings are selfish and venal and cruel, that natural disasters are inevitable and that God is not to be relied on for salvation.

After surviving earthquakes, shipwrecks, disease and numerous forms of persecution, Candide secures work for himself and a rag-tag band of fellows on a small farm. His concluding advice to them? “Il faut cultiver notre jardin (We must cultivate our garden).”


Column: Exact Imagination

First appeared
Thursday, 20 November 2014


There are flowers that bloom outside my back door in October and November each year. They came and go throughout the summer, but it’s in late spring that they put on their best show. Each flower is a masterpiece of geometry and colour: six perfect white leaves, three of them marked by bold yellow slashes, with a delicate purple bruise on top to match the Jacaranda blossoms.

If you’re a gardener, you probably already know that I’m describing the wild iris, Dietes grandiflora. If you aren’t, well, you know them when you see them – they’re common enough across South Africa. Yet I can’t recall noticing them at all until five years ago, when my daughter was born. Somehow, through the haze of sleepless nights and bleary-eyed days, I caught the bright miracle of the iris buds and their opening. Like most new parents, I was prone to alternating fits of maudlin desperation and lyrical insight; the flowers seemed to me a vivid, wondrous, reassuring phenomenon every time I looked through the back door. 


Column: Reading the rain and St John Fuller

First appeared
Thursday, 13 November 2014


It has been raining in Johannesburg all week – slow, sifting showers that, while not of biblical proportions, could at least be described as “Capetonian”. Those of us who recall potent thunderstorms breaking the afternoon heat in the Highveld summers of our youth, rather than this insipid coastal drizzle, may be inclined to invoke the dreaded twin C-words: climate change.

But fear not, fellow Joburgers. According to the man who will soon be chairing the United States Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which shapes America’s environmental policy, climate change is a “conspiracy” and a “hoax”. And if it isn’t, well, then it’s part of God’s plan and “increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.”


Column: Rachel Corrie and Gideon Mendel

First appeared
Thursday, 06 November 2014


Rachel Corrie was a rarity. She was an idealist who matched naivety with pragmatism. Her intelligence and honesty forced her to acknowledge the less-than-altruistic reasons that often drive superhuman beings like aid workers (egotism mixed with insecurity, restlessness, a hunger for the exotic, a desire to escape the narrow confines of home, the arrogance of assuming you can “fix” problems in other countries). But she also knew that this was no excuse for passivity.

She left a comfortable life in the United States and joined the International Solidarity Movement, working with Palestinian communities suffering under the iron fist of Israel’s government and army. She faced the despair that comes from trying to sweep back the tide of human cruelty and misery – yet she remained optimistic and chose to continue, contributing whatever she could in whatever way she could. 


Column: The Market and "The Colony"

First appeared
Thursday, 30 October 2014


Almost all statements that treat the citizens of a country collectively are dubious generalisations. It would not, however, be inaccurate to affirm that our nation was sent into a state of shock on Monday morning as South Africans learned about the killing of Senzo Meyiwa.

But humankind cannot bear too much reality; by Tuesday, we’d gone back to life as usual. Sketchy details about the criminal investigation have since emerged, keeping the death of Bafana Bafana’s goalkeeper-captain on the news agenda. Yet we no longer feel the visceral impact of that news, and have turned instead to talking in the abstract about gun violence, or about what this event means for local football, or about uncanny coincidences in morbid sports stories (Meyiwa’s passing was framed by the deaths of 800-metre runner Mbulanei Mulaudzi and boxer Phindile Mwelase).


Column: The city in the gallery

First appeared
Thursday, 23 October 2014


Regular readers of this column will know that I like to wax lyrical about Braamfontein: a little bit of gentrification (but not too much), a little bit of dilapidation (but not too much), and mostly just citizens of various stripes going about their daily lives.

There are students and entrepreneurs, foodies and fashionistas, businesspeople and buskers. And, of course, there are artists. But the thing about the galleries in Braamfontein is that they don’t feel removed from the buzz of the street beyond their walls. This is particularly the case with the current crop of exhibitions.


Column: Ebola, CNN and Zero Latitude

First appeared
Thursday, 16 October 2014


Ebola is dangerous. Ebola is scary.

The virus is especially dangerous and scary to citizens of a handful of countries in west Africa. There is no reason why it should be perceived as an imminent threat to people in America or Europe. But try telling that to CNN.

The broadcaster, doubtless spotting a ratings opportunity that would give it an edge over cable news rivals like MSNBC, has plumbed the depths – as low as television news reporting goes, which is to say, at the level of Fox News – in its sensationalist coverage of the epidemic.


Column: Postmodernity, from Brazouka to Beasts of Burden

First appeared
Thursday, 09 October 2014


You could tell, as the audience filed out after opening night of Brazouka, the self-styled “sensational dance story from the toughest streets of Brazil” (on at Joburg Theatre until 19th October), that people were unsure what to make of the show.

Was it a rags-to-riches biodrama about Braz Dos Santos, the boy from a fishing family who made his way from Porto Seguro to Paris and spread the gospel of the revised Lambada form “Lambazouk”? Was it a backing-track musical, an episodic narrative told through dancing duos and synchronized ensemble pieces? Was it a form of armchair tourism, a stage version of The Rough Guide to Brazil?


Column: On influence and Nhlengethwa's tributes

First appeared
Thursday, 02 October 2014


You can never predict how a work of art – an image, a novel, a song – will affect you. When I started watching Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom last week, almost a year after the film’s release, I knew the standard critiques. South African viewers have expressed resentment at the “outsider” perspective of the British-dominated creative team; non-South African viewers would have preferred a more dramatic biopic that was less respectful to the man, his long life story and its shifting political contexts.

I also knew the positive consensus points: Idris Alba’s depiction of Madiba, the rich cinematography, the detailed attention to period, the careful engagement with as much of Mandela’s book as film allows. But I didn’t expect that it would be Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (or, at least, Naomie Harris as Winnie) who made the greatest impression on me.


Column: People are people (Dark City Dreams)

First appeared
Thursday, 25 September 2014


My Russian friend, Nickolay – at whose invitation I travelled to Moscow last week – responds like a mystic philosopher to tentative enquiries about conflict in or linked to his country. “People are people,” he says. Russia-Ukraine military action? State censorship, both overt and covert (a recent example being the cancellation of the contemporary art fair Art Moscow)? US sanctions and the nascent return of Cold War rhetoric? “People are people,” he says.

On the one hand, this could be interpreted as misanthropic cynicism: “What do you expect from politicians? The powerful have always acted like this.” On the other hand, it could be a bold humanist declaration – equivalent to Sting and Billy Joel in the 1980s singing about how Russian and American citizens are basically the same. This is, of course, an ancient theme; we all bleed, we all fall in love, etc.


Column: Spy wars, exile and Dumile Feni

First appeared
Thursday, 18 September 2014


This week’s column comes to you, dear reader, like a message in a bottle from the existential island of an airport lounge. I am waiting to fly to Moscow, a journey about which I should probably be more vexed than I am. After all, the city’s name itself currently functions as a metonym for the machinations of Vladimir Putin – whether those take the form of calculated interventions in the Ukraine and elsewhere to destabilize the post-Cold War comfort of NATO and “the West”, or of hosting fellow-presidents (such as our own Jacob Zuma) in need of respite from angry citizens and hopeful of securing some dubious trade and nuclear power deals.

Instead, outside of working hours, I’m looking forward to a bit of head-in-the-sand Moscow tourism: Red Square, the Bolshoi Theatre, that sort of thing. Perhaps I’m feeling so blithely indifferent to politics, both local and global, because I’ve been cut off from current affairs for a while. First it was a week in the Karoo with no Internet connection and no cellphone signal; then a couple of days in Cape Town, which is (as any Joburger will tell you) equally removed from the Big Wide World; then it was verdict time for Oscar Pistorius, drowning out coverage of other news stories.


Column: Boyhood, "Untitled" and the extraordinary ordinary

First appeared
Thursday, 11 September 2014


For those South Africans familiar with the work of J.M. Coetzee, the title of Richard Linklater’s quietly epic new film Boyhood may bring to mind Coetzee’s “fictionalised autobiography”, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life.

Coetzee’s novel/memoir tells of a boy growing to and through adolescence with an acute awareness that his life is somehow marginal: whether in town or country, in the parochial Western Cape John feels peripheral, isolated, on the fringes. He is part of an Anglicised Afrikaner family in a South Africa that, in the early years of apartheid and not yet a pariah state, still felt very much like a backward former British colony – his is a decidedly “provincial” existence. 


Column: Whiteness and the Ethics of Aesthetics

First appeared
Thursday, 04 September 2014


It hasn’t been a good week for white privilege. Okay – by definition every week is a good week for white privilege. So let’s say instead that it hasn’t been a good week for white South African artists accused of entrenching whiteness as a normative identity and a dominant perspective.

An online petition addressed to London’s Barbican Theatre, demanding the withdrawal of Brett Bailey’s work Exhibit B from its September programme, has reached almost 14,000 signatures. The plaintiffs claim that Bailey’s installation, in which black actors replicate the freak-show display of Africans as exotic hommes sauvages in Europe during the nineteenth century, simply reinscribes the racist tropes and the habits of viewing that it claims to subvert. 


Column: Ferguson, Cirque Eloize and the Joburg Art Fair

First appeared
Thursday, 28 August 2014


Ferguson, Missouri has not loomed very large in the mainstream and social media content produced in South Africa. We have other fish to fry.

We don’t have a Michael Brown, but we have various instances of lethal force employed unnecessarily by the police. We don’t have national attention concentrated on one town where peaceful demonstrations turned into riots, tear gas and blockades in the streets; we do, however, have daily service delivery protests across the country in communities that are neglected by the state – protests that go largely unreported precisely because there are so many.


Column: Voices from the Koppie

First appeared
Thursday, 21 August 2014


Beyers Naude Square in downtown Jozi is pretty much what you’d expect a square in the middle of a big city to be.

It’s surrounded by a combination of older and newer buildings in various states of repair and renovation. There’s a constant background hum of traffic and urban noise but, as you approach the square's centre, you start to feel (if not hear) the quiet of open space, trees and even a patch of grass. People are eating lunch or reading newspapers or skateboarding or just watching the world go by. 

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