Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Column: Fascism, Cubism and "Palimpsest"

First appeared
Thursday, 14 August 2014


What constitutes fascism? This question has been implicit – and sometimes explicit – in a number of recent debates in the South African public sphere. Definitions vary, often diverging from the term’s historical origins: Mussolini’s Italy and its invocation of the ancient Roman symbol of the fasces, a bundle of sticks tied around an axe that represented local authorities’ claims to rule by force or the threat of violence.  

For some time now the F-word has been used by those who are wary of the militaristic discourse of the Economic Freedom Fighters. Certainly, Julius Malema’s rhetoric is often that of a demagogue. But as Benjamin Fogel has pointed out, it is difficult to apply fascism’s “specifically European historical context” to post-colonial or post-apartheid states. 


Column: From sitting to selfie

First appeared
Thursday, 07 August 2014


It happened a few minutes before I left my office to drive to the Standard Bank Gallery in downtown Johannesburg. Like a few million other people across Gauteng and the greater Highveld / Vaal region, I felt the earth move under my feet. Three stories above ground, it didn’t seem a particularly potent tremor – although it lasted for a while – and, looking down at the street below, I saw no signs of disturbance or dismay. Life carried on as usual.

Listening to the radio as I travelled down the M1, however, I got the feeling that this had been a BIG THING. Seismologists gave their professional opinions and the citizens of the republic of talk radio weighed in with their own accounts. A glance at my Facebook and Twitter feeds confirmed the event as the local news story of the day. Everyone wanted to share his or her experience of the quake. 


Column: Time Passes ("Folly" and "Ausencias")

First appeared
Thursday, 31 July 2014


Last week the apocalypse came to the University of the Witwatersrand – its arrival announced not by the Four Horseman, but by a posse of academics, artists and writers participating in the “End Times” colloquium. We discussed the pervasiveness of catastrophic narratives and imagery in literature, popular culture and public discourse.

This is a global phenomenon with acute local iterations. The South African story has long been associated with eschatological hopes and fears. The hope of salvation or reconciliation is matched by a (largely white) fear: not of environmental collapse, global warfare, devastating industrial accidents or deadly epidemics, but of a violent revolution to upend the racial inequity on which this country was built.


Column: Justice and Injustice

First appeared
Thursday, 24 July 2014


My grandfathers were of that generation of white English South Africans whose heads were filled with Victorian and Edwardian witticisms, songs and nonsense poems – snippets which they had no doubt inherited from their parents and grandparents, and some of which were passed on to my parents and to me.

Here’s one (a playful variation on the stoic Biblical principal that God “sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”): “The rain it rains alike upon the just man and the unjust fella – but mostly on the just, because the unjust stole the just’s umbrella.” More ponderous or polemical versions of this complaint are to be found throughout the long history of recorded human thought. Basically, life’s not fair; good things happen to bad people, and vice-versa. 


Column: "Talking" at the National Arts Festival 2014

First appeared
Thursday, 17 July 2014


The fortieth annual National Arts Festival has come and gone, and with it the usual clutch of minor controversies. These disagreements are part and parcel of the Festival experience, adding grit and texture to what might otherwise become a self-congratulatory exercise for the various communities that constitute the South African arts sector.

Independent Newspapers journalist Mary Corrigall kick-started things with a provocative piece suggesting that the Festival programme has become both “unwieldy” and “predictable”, and that it remains fatally skewed towards theatre – to the detriment of the visual arts and dance. Corrigall painted a wry portrait of “festinos”, the loyal supporters who make their way to Grahamstown each year. 


Column: accounting for taste?

First appeared
Thursday, 10 July 2014



If, as a child, I found myself flummoxed by the ways of the world, my father – a former Latin teacher – would help me make sense of them by sharing some ancient Roman wisdom. For example: why can’t we all just get along? (This profound question covered all manner of conflicts, from disagreements with my sisters over TV programmes and music albums to, say, the ideological framework of the Cold War.)

De gustibus non est disputandem,” he would explain.

Chacun à son goût,” my mother would chime in, providing a French alternative.


Column: "Crazy" creators

First appeared
Thursday, 03 July 2014


Eccentric. Mad. Visionary. Insane. Inspired. Odd. Unique. Lunatic. These words are frequently used to describe artists – indeed, they are used together so often that they almost seem synonymous. The cliché of the nutcase artist is perennially popular. And, apparently, there is science to back it up.

Last week, The Atlantic published an essay by neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen expounding her theories about why “creativity is so often accompanied by mental illness”. As Andreasen points out, this is not a recently-established link: she quotes (somewhat out of context) Aristotle and Shakespeare on the topic, before citing nineteenth- and early twentieth-century studies on “the close association between genius and degeneracy”.


Column: People from far away

First appeared
Thursday, 26 June 2014


In the late 1980s, when I was still a lad – even though, to correct all those idealistic songsters, the world was no longer young – my sister was a highland dancer. This meant that, every so often, our family would attend a “gathering”: a recreation of traditional highland games on the Highveld.

Kilts would twirl, bagpipes would blast, overweight men would sweat at the caber toss and the tug o’ war. Boerewors rolls would be on sale as a reminder that we were not, in fact, among the heather and the hills of bonny Scotland. But, to my adolescent mind, if you ignored the flat Joburg accents you could sort-of kind-of believe you were somewhere north of Hadrian’s Wall. 


Column: Tricks of light and shade

First appeared
Thursday, 19 June 2014


South African Breweries (SAB) spends a lot of money on advertising, marketing and sponsorship. Indeed, the sheer volume of adverts produced by SAB over the years has ensured that, every now and then, it hits the right note (Nostradamus made so many predictions he was statistically guaranteed to get a few correct, and even a broken clock is accurate twice a day).

Sometimes SAB has taken advantage of the national zeitgeist – remember white Mike and black George drinking Castle Lager together in 1990? Sometimes it has been bold enough to manufacture a unified national identity through idealised beer-drinking cricket, rugby and soccer supporters. SAB adverts can induce patriotic responses; they also run the risk of banality. Sometimes, they just get it horribly wrong. 


Column: The World Cup and "Africa Junctions"

First appeared
Thursday, 12 June 2014


Brazil kicks off against Croatia later today, marking the start of a month of global football fanaticism. The FIFA World Cup is a brand without parallel, a money-spinner par excellence. Of course, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association is so corrupt it makes the politicians and businessmen who cooked up the Arms Deal look like a bunch of choirboys. But all that will be temporarily forgotten while the on-field drama and spectacle distract our collective attention.

Or will it? This time round, the voices of protest from citizens of the host country have been louder than before. Nowhere is football more important than in Brazil. Yet Brazilians know that FIFA is holding their government to ransom; they are not happy about gross misspending, white-elephant stadia and brazen legal manipulation to suit broadcasters and corporate sponsors. 


Column: The young Beats and "Horror vacui"

First appeared
Thursday, 05 June 2014


Daniel Radcliffe and his agents have been hard at work breaking the primary association of the actor with the Harry Potter franchise: in recent years he has been cast in classic plays on the West End, stage musicals on Broadway, horror and spy films in Hollywood. But there are times when, unexpectedly, his protracted portrayal of the boy-wizard helps rather than hinders a new role.

Young Potter escapes a troubled family life and is ushered into a world of magic and adventure – which, he soon learns, is also dark and threatening. In Kill Your Darlings, which opens in South African cinemas this week, Radcliffe again dons the horn-rimmed spectacles and awkward demeanor of a character who is discovering an enchanted, exciting, violent place. 


Column: Samson Mnisi in Soweto

First appeared
Thursday, 29 May 2014


Vilakazi Street is in Soweto, but it doesn’t always seem of Soweto.

To outsiders, it is the most famous stretch of real estate in the township – a status guaranteed to it as the place both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu once called home, and as the heart of the precinct associated with Hector Pieterson and the student uprising of 1976. As a result it’s tourist-oriented, full of curios and lined with mildly overpriced restaurants. In many ways, Vilakazi Street is to Soweto what Cape Town is to South Africa (for one thing, it’s where white people seem to feel most comfortable).

But that’s not to say the residents of Orlando East aren’t terribly proud of it. Or that the beautiful and good of greater Soweto don’t enjoy hanging out there on evenings and weekends. Well-known cities – and really, Soweto is a city in its own right, not a township – inevitably take on a rather clichéd iconography; Vilakazi Street meets this need no less than the Calabash, the Orlando Towers, Regina Mundi in Rockville or Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown. 


Column: Safe

First appeared
Thursday, 22 May 2014


South Africa’s political opinionistas rarely find consensus. But everyone, it seems, agrees that the handling of Lindiwe Mazibuko’s departure for Harvard University – a departure, short-term or long-term, from the Democratic Alliance – has been an embarrassment to the party. Of course, this is hardly the first PR blunder by our official opposition.

Although the African National Congress more or less trashes its own brand on a daily basis, its electoral majority remains secure. The DA has to work twice as hard to win new voters as the ANC does to keep its constituency, and cannot afford to perpetuate the myth that leader Helen Zille is a white “madam” keeping her black underlings in check. 


Column: The Purple Shall Govern

First appeared
Thursday, 15 May 2014


Before she was the slightly ditzy doyenne of film awards ceremonies, the grand dame of the silver screen; before she was Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child, Karen Blixen or a latter-day Mrs Dalloway; before she was a stern nun or the devil wearing Prada, a crazy immortal diva or an Italian housewife in rural Iowa ... Meryl Streep was Sophie Zawistowski.

It was for Sophie’s Choice, back in 1982, that Streep won her first Best Actress Oscar. Her character, a Polish Auschwitz survivor living in post-war America, revisits the profound trauma of the concentration camp where she was forced to choose between her son and her daughter (she could save one if she let the other go to the gas chambers). 


Column: Deconstructing Dogma

First appeared
Thursday, 08 May 2014


Dan Brown wasn’t the first person to point out that the Church Fathers were not an altogether saintly bunch. But the melodramatic action and blunt prose of The Da Vinci Code certainly helped to popularise skepticism about the process by which, over the course of three or four centuries, these venerable figures refined Christian theology: deciding what would and wouldn’t be included in the Bible, separating “heresy” from “truth”, and generally making the early Church conform to their own image.

Of course, there have since been, and continue to be, substantial disagreements between Christians of various stripes. The greatest gulf is that between Catholicism and Protestantism, but minor denominational frictions abound; there are also appreciable differences between “Western” traditions and the “Eastern” orthodox churches. Nonetheless, certain tenets are accepted by all who profess the Christian faith. 

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