Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Column: Jane Alexander

First appeared
Thursday, 23 January 2014


Last week I sang the praises of Braamfontein. I was there again this week, paying a visit to Jane Alexander’s Survey: Cape of Good Hope and Infantry with Beast, which are on display at Stevenson Johannesburg (until 7th February). Once more, strolling through Braamies, with Nelson Mandela presiding benevolently over the city’s affairs – his smiling face looking down from a banner decorating the bridge that bears his name – had left me feeling suitably sanguine.

The building that houses the gallery at 62 Juta Street is a rather unprepossessing grey block, but this did little to dampen my spirits; it is, after all, a hub of cultural and social activism in its own right, also home to the Institut Français and the Sonke Gender Justice Network. Inside, however, my buoyant mood was soon deflated.

Ruby Wax in SA

First appeared
Thursday, 23 January 2014


“It’s great to be here in Tuscany,” Ruby Wax commented wryly to her audience at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre. Then, after a pause, came the outrage: “WHAT were you THINKING?!”

Was this question directed at Pieter Toerien himself? Certainly, Wax wouldn’t be the first to remark on the location of his theatre in a casino and entertainment complex that is largely anathema to the arts. But Toerien knows South African showbiz inside out, and he knows how to draw people to theatres. He is above reproach on this score.

So presumably Wax was addressing the people of Johannesburg more generally – those who built Montecasino, those who keep it running and, of course, those who patronise it. “If Satan designed a shopping mall, this is what it would look like,” opined Wax.

Column: Falling short of Mandela's idealism

First appeared
Thursday, 16 January 2014


Nelson Mandela’s body has only been buried for a month, and already the ghost of the great statesman must feel disappointed in his compatriots.

It goes without saying that his former comrades in the African National Congress are up to their usual tricks (perhaps best represented by Nkandla-gate, which reclaimed the headlines just days after his funeral). And Mandela’s extended family have discarded the veneer of dignity they donned for the official mourning ceremonies to fight over his “legacy” – that is, money and prestige. 

The arts in SA in 2014

First appeared
Thursday, 02 January 2014


It was only fairly recently in human history that we started calculating probability. Our animal brains are not hardwired for the logic of the probable, functioning instead on instinct – and primarily on fear, both of the known and of the unknown. As Kathy Benjamin and Karl Smallwood have noted, “Early man didn’t have any concept of what percentage of bear encounters ended in being eaten. He only knew that he didn't want to be eaten. Our brains are not meant to instinctively understand any equation more complex than this: Bear = Run Away.”

Human beings, then, are prone to commit probability fallacies; we see patterns where there are none, or fail to see patterns where they do exist. Every day we make important decisions based on less-than-educated guesses or gut judgements. Our economic and political systems are, really, subject to irrational behaviour operating under the guise of informed prognostication (traders on stock exchanges are a good example, as are voters casting their ballots in democratic elections). 

Column: Lessons in Looking Down

First appeared
Thursday, 12 December 2013


There was a certain inevitability to the sense of bathos experienced by many of those who tuned their televisions to watch the memorial for Nelson Mandela broadcast from FNB Stadium earlier this week.

This anticlimax was partly a result of the arithmetical fervour prior to the event: so many heads of state, so many dignitaries, so many people expected to fill the stadium and spill-over venues across greater Johannesburg. It was partly caused by the rain which, symbolic blessing or not, affected attendance and created a patchy sound quality. And it was partly a consequence of the state of the South African nation immediately prior to Madiba’s death: no doubt many viewers felt a measure of gratification upon hearing president Jacob Zuma roundly and repeatedly booed by large sections of the crowd, but this hardly lent dignity to the occasion.

Column: Art and the Gaia Principle

First appeared
Thursday, 05 December 2013


In the arts world, as with planet Earth itself, there is a certain Gaia principle in operation. Over time, artists, works of art and the people who write or speak about them (critics, reviewers, scholars and other commentators) create a self-correcting dynamic.

Of course, there are other elements in the ecosystem: publicists, funders and, most importantly, arts consumers. But it’s reassuring nonetheless to see artists and critics amending one another’s contributions to the ever-growing mass of cultural production – sometimes by influencing each other, sometimes by directly or indirectly contradicting each other.

Column: Justin Fiske, Japan and the digital-analogue divide

First appeared
Thursday, 28 November 2013


I was not surprised to discover that Justin Fiske has lived in Japan, nor to learn that a few of the pieces in his exhibition But Men Do Not See It (at the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, until 7 December) were developed during his residency at the Akiyoshidai International Art Village near the southern tip of the main Japanese island, Honshu.

Fiske’s work straddles the division between the digital and the analogue. While he is intrigued by the capacity of the “virtual world” to present intellectual or visual puzzles, from abstract mathematical models to computer screensavers, Fiske is deeply suspicious of “over-technologised” and “mediated” experiences. Consequently he is inspired by nostalgia for the “machine age”, for the tangibility and transparency of pure mechanics.

Column: Soweto's Imagination Room

First appeared
Thursday, 21 November 2013


If there is a single phenomenon that best indicates simultaneously how far South Africa has come and how far the country still has to go in terms of racial transformation and integration, it must be White People Going To Soweto.

Of course, white people have been going to the place we now call Soweto for over a century, both to enforce and to challenge formal segregation. And “township tourists” have been bussed in on a regular basis for almost two decades. But as a Capital Letter Thing – worthy of an acronym – White People Going To Soweto really took off during and after the 2010 FIFA World Cup. 

Column: Silkworms and the Golden Goose

First appeared
Thursday, 14 November 2013


The silkworm is an honest soul. It hatches, it eats, it molts. It spins its little cocoon, driven by some unfathomable instinct, blissfully ignorant. Soon its life cycle will be rudely interrupted by a dose of boiling water.

If silkworm pupae are allowed to grow into moths and make their way out of their cocoons, the resultant holes diminish the value of their silk threads – so they are boiled to death instead, and often served as a tasty protein-rich snack.

Column: Strategies of portraiture

First appeared
Thursday, 07 November 2013


Richard Curtis is at it again – making sensible people like me gush and cry as he affirms those “extraordinary ordinary” things we want to believe are at the core of the human experience: love, sex, honesty, friendship, family and occasional sombre confrontations with mortality.

The writer-director of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually has a new movie out. About Time manages to turn a silly premise (an awkward young man learns that he can time-travel) into an understated, bittersweet but ultimately cheerful tale about growing up and growing old. Like its precursors it is quintessentially “English”, with the requisite quirky characters, self-deprecating dialogue and, of course, an American actress in a leading role. 

Dark new "golden age" of TV

First appeared
Thursday, 07 November 2013


In season two of Mad Men – set in 1962, the year in which Andy Warhol turned soup cans into art and the Cuban missile crisis became a global obsession – the advertising executives of Madison Avenue are forced to admit that they can’t run an agency without a dedicated television department. Diffident, awkward junior staffer Harry Crane makes himself the man for the job.

The early 1960s have often been described as the culmination of “the golden age of television”. There’s disagreement over what provided the gilding: was it the quality of the programming, or the quantity (both relative to what had been produced previously)? Was it the social impact – when, in America, 70% of TV-owning households tuned in on a Monday night for I Love Lucy and over 20 million Britons watched each episode of Coronation Street? Was it the economic consequences of such guaranteed national audiences? Or was it just that, for the first time, TV edged out radio as the dominant broadcast medium?

Column: The Jan Smuts arts strip

First appeared
Thursday, 31 October 2013


Though we know that objectivity is impossible, arts writers still gesture towards neutrality. Part of that gesture is coverage: making sure (in the case of visual arts) that we write about exhibitions at a range of galleries in different areas, about practitioners from across the possible demographic spectra and about a variety of artistic media, styles or techniques.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our favourites.

Often, in preparation for this column, I find myself drifting towards a hundred-metre stretch of Jan Smuts Avenue – a pocket of Johannesburg on the fringes of Rosebank before it becomes Parkwood, Saxonwold and other affluent suburbs. As arterial roads go, it’s fairly typical: an intersection with hawkers weaving through the traffic; pavements that track the rhythms of the day, washed clean in the morning but slowly littered as the hours go by; a garage; some squat blocks of offices and flats; a small selection of retail – scooter outlet, pool shop, tailor, locksmith, convenience store and of course the ubiquitous Adult World. 

Column: The Essops

First appeared
Thursday, 24 October 2013


When the Standard Bank Young Artists (SBYA) for 2014 were announced last week, Jozi put on a good show. At Randlords, 22 storeys above the streets of Braamfontein, guests enjoyed some of the finest views in the city as the peach-and-pink sunset faded to black, replaced by the bright lights of the skyscrapers downtown.

No matter how gloomy I may be feeling about the state of the nation, the continent or the big wide world, this annual ceremony never fails to put a spring in my step. And it’s not just the venue (indeed, if you think long enough about the historical and contemporary causes of social division with which you are complicit simply by attending an event at a swanky place with a name like Randlords, that on-top-of-the-world feeling starts to curdle somewhat). 

Column: Behind the Faces (Our Stories)

First appeared
Thursday, 17 October 2013


If the fragmented and bathetic correspondence between Sinead O’Connor and Miley Cyrus has taught us anything, it’s that the time has come to abandon the hopelessly naïve phrase “role model”.

Cyrus, I think we can all agree – assuming that “we” are no longer adolescents – is not the stuff of which role models are made. But she certainly is influential. I feel I am bound, using the now-standard measure of influence, to note that she has almost 15 million followers on Twitter; admittedly, on this score, she is still behind Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Britney Spears and fellow “thought leaders” (another phrase we should consign to the dustbin). Still, I think you get my point.

Column: Reverie Revealed

First appeared
Thursday, 10 October 2013


We all know about Swaziland, don’t we?

It’s a largely insignificant little kingdom presided over by a thieving monarch who takes every opportunity he can a) to enrich himself, his family and his cronies; b) to flaunt this wealth in the face of his impoverished people through extravagant spending; and c) to insist that he rules by some divine right, regularly warning citizens that God’s wrath will be visited upon them should they question his authority.

Actually, if you substitute “republic” for “kingdom” and “democratically elected president” for “monarch”, that is probably a fair summary of what much of the world thinks of South Africa. But we South Africans are a self-important lot, and it’s vital that – when we’re not wearing sackcloth and ashes and bemoaning the exceptionally bad state of our exceptional country – we have a neighbour to look down on.

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