Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Column: Joburg Art Fair 2013

First appeared
Thursday, 03 October 2013


Ross Douglas thought he was in a tight spot.

He had done his best to make sure that the 2013 FNB Joburg Art Fair would meet the diverse needs of artists, gallerists, collectors, sponsors, media and general visitors. He’d secured new galleries – from Cape Town, from other African countries and from Europe – whose presence as exhibitors would grow the Fair’s national, continental and international profile.

He’d sought a balance between business and aesthetics, creating an unpretentious but impressive space that would be equally welcoming to schoolkids, hipster poseurs, wealthy buyers and skint bohemians. There would be refreshing, thought-provoking, beautiful work on display; there would be uninspiring stuff too, but that could hardly be helped. Some of it was familiar to those who travel the South African visual arts circuit, but much of it was new. 

Column: Opening Atkinson's Cave

First appeared
Thursday, 26 September 2013


It was a sunny Sunday in Cape Town – the first the city had enjoyed in weeks – and the locals hanging around Government Avenue were making the most of it, lethargic but supremely content as they basked in the slanting light of the late afternoon. My interest, however, lay indoors. There aren’t many galleries that stay open seven days a week, but fortunately the Iziko SA National Gallery can be relied on in this regard; there’s something vaguely reassuring about its obligation, as a public institution, to do so.

Of course, the Gallery has courted its fair share of controversy over the years, and this is as it should be – debates about our country’s priorities result in contestation over the use of public spaces and resources. Perhaps because of such disagreements, those who curate the National Gallery, its temporary exhibitions and its permanent collection are forced into a process of ongoing self-assessment. What is our purpose? Why do we own the works that we do? What can be proudly displayed and what would we rather hide? How do we justify our recent purchases or revivify staid material?

Film: Art on Screen and Munch 150

First appeared
Thursday, 26 September 2013


Film has become an established part of the art gallery experience. Indeed, the creative possibilities of video installations (digital or otherwise) are so appealing that many visual artists, after turning their hands to movie-making, find “traditional” practices like painting, drawing, sculpting and print-making staid by comparison.

With the Exhibition on Screen project, however, a strange inversion occurs: the gallery becomes part of the cinema experience. The brainchild of documentary maker Phil Grabsky, the Exhibition series “aims to allow art lovers to enjoy, marvel and delight at the works of some of history’s greatest ever painters” through “event films” about major exhibitions that would otherwise be less accessible.

Column: Fragmenting Africa

First appeared
Thursday, 19 September 2013


I should start making appointments.

There’s a certain appeal in the romance of the free urban observer, traversing the city in search of interesting sites – a South African flâneur-on-wheels (apartheid geography has left most of us addicted to cars and taxis). But in Joburg on a Monday morning, when busy and important people are going busily and importantly about their work, you really do need an appointment.

Column: Minnette Vari and Excavation

First appeared
Thursday, 12 September 2013


A few months ago, readers of this column may have caught me grousing about the Cradle of Humankind: “The threat of bathos hangs over the heads of all who drive north of Krugersdorp in search of themselves,” I wrote.

Since then, however, I’ve returned to the Cradle a couple of times – fossil-hunting at Cooper’s Cave, stargazing at the Maropeng Hotel – and I’m pleased to report that my opinion has changed. If you’re not too precious about it, and don’t adopt an idealistic or naïve primitivism in your approach to the landscape, it is just possible to gain profound (albeit fleeting) insights into the long arc of human development, to glimpse some of the connections between what we were and what we are. 

From Starlight to Sunset

First appeared
Thursday, 12 September 2013


How much Andrew Lloyd Webber can South African audiences take?

I put myself to the test last weekend, watching Starlight Express and Sunset Boulevard on consecutive nights – secretly hoping, I think, that it would be an unpleasant ordeal and that I’d be in the mood for a mighty put-down of Sir Andrew. After all, it’s de rigueur in many theatre circles to pour scorn on all things Lloyd Webber, chastising him for sentimental schlock and second-hand renderings of opera lite. 


Column: Senzo Shabangu and empathy

First appeared
Thursday, 05 September 2013


Who cares about Syria?

I don’t mean that rhetorically. It’s a useful question to ask if you want to understand the geopolitics of our particular historical moment. Barack Obama asking Congress for permission to launch a missile strike; David Cameron failing to get support from his parliament; Europe endorsing the prospect of an attack; the likelihood of Russia and China blocking UN Security Council resolutions; Iranian bravado; Israeli skittishness. These are all predictable outcomes of global dynamics and domestic machinations. 

Column: Rushing Against the Grain

First appeared
Thursday, 29 August 2013


The day started badly, when a steward on flight BA6413 from Johannesburg to Cape Town spilt a litre of milk into my lap. A faint odour of stale dairy became my constant companion.

Things improved with a visit to UCT – the primary purpose of my Cape sojourn – and, in a fit of enthusiasm at odds with the grim weather, I decided to squeeze in a visit to the National Gallery. Nothing seems very far away from anything in Cape Town, so I didn’t factor in much travel time to get round the mountain to the area that people still call “The Company Gardens”.

Column: Benon Lutaaya's children

First appeared
Thursday, 22 August 2013


If you are that much-celebrated, much-denigrated, much-pitied entity, the “African child”, the world has fairly clear ideas about what your options are.

There are the obvious continental clichés: orphanhood, kwashiorkor and conscription into the Lord’s Resistance Army are top of the list. In South Africa, the prevailing narrative seems to be that after avoiding mother-to-child transmission of HIV, you will still have to navigate your way past rape, drugs, alcohol and crime – all the while caught in a schooling system setting you up for failure, with the prospect of unemployment or exploitation to follow. 

Column: Et in Arcadia Ego (or: Johann Louw, Larry and Me)

First appeared
Thursday, 15 August 2013


I have a dog called Larry.

No (to pre-empt a question that has been asked many times before), I did not give him this name. He is an “SPCA special” and acquired his distinctly un-canine designation long before I met him. But I will admit that it makes him sound less like a dog and more like the guy you had a beer with at the pub last night.

Perhaps this aggravates the anthropomorphism that defines our relationship. I attribute all kinds of human characteristics and emotions to Larry that are almost certainly not there in his small Labrador-crossed-with-who-knows-what doggy brain. Sure, he has learned words like “Sit”, “Breakfast”, “Water”, “Ball”, “Down” and “Outside!” – but does he really wonder, lying on his cushion at night, if God exists?

Column: Black Like Us

First appeared
Thursday, 08 August 2013


The growing contempt in which many South Africans hold president Jacob Zuma has various consequences – some predictable, some curious, but all traceable to individual and collective disdain for “Number One”.

There is the lionisation of Julius Malema and Kenny Kunene, men who should long ago have been pushed off the public stage (and perhaps into prison) but who now have new roles as Economic Freedom Fighters. There is the more encouraging trend of growing support for viable opposition parties such as the Democratic Alliance and Agang. And there is the strange phenomenon of Mbeki nostalgia. 

Column: On Eloquence and Stuttering

First appeared
Thursday, 01 August 2013


A fortnight ago I referred in this column to the television show The West Wing, that popular (albeit fictional) bastion of liberal American politics created by Aaron Sorkin. So it is with some reluctance that, at the risk of sounding like a Sorkin acolyte, I mention his latest undertaking The Newsroom. But the second season of The Newsroom hit South African TV screens this week, and I can’t get it off my mind.

In the US, the season premiere was watched by some 2.2 million people – good news for the number crunchers at HBO, because this figure is marginally up from last year. The critical reception suggests that many viewers who had disliked the show for its preachiness (“the first season of The Newsroom was an abstract, sweeping and often frustrating sermon on everything that is wrong with the news media”) are relieved that “the second season is just going to show how the news is made”. Others, however, can’t bear the prospect of yet more “wit and dazzle” from the “insufferably high-minded characters” who populate the show.

Column: The Inscrutable Simon Stone

First appeared
Thursday, 25 July 2013


Sometimes you feel that you just couldn’t be bothered. Couldn’t be bothered to dress properly for work, to make idle chit-chat with your neighbours and colleagues, to smile at strangers when you get into the elevator, to pick up your pen or your spade or your chalk or your keyboard, to listen attentively to friends, to romance your spouse.

You do all these things, but you do them begrudgingly, and you move slowly between tasks. You wade through the treacle of indifference. You wonder if it’s a lack of sleep, exercise or nutrition; you half-heartedly diagnose your own anxiety, existential directionlessness or some other malaise. 

Column: Christianity and Rock Music

First appeared
Thursday, 18 July 2013


The religiose nutcases of the American right are at it again. Unable to tolerate the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow federal benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married (there are only twelve states where this is currently possible) and worried that this will open the floodgates to, horror of horrors, equal rights for gay people, they’ve vowed to fight back. From certified hate groups like the American Family Association and the Traditional Values Coalition to the good ol’ Republican Party itself, they are girding up their loins – pardon the expression – for a battle against “unholy” homosexual alliances. All in the name of one little Old Testament verse, Leviticus 18:22.


Preview: Credo

First appeared
Thursday, 18 July 2013


I sat in the semi-lit auditorium of the Z.K. Matthews Hall watching Jonas Alber put the members of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra through their paces. The German conductor was doing what conductors do best: demanding perfection from each instrument, bringing them into synthesis, stopping them with a disappointed flick of his baton, correcting, starting again.

There were human instruments too – a full-voiced choir, which also repeated itself, line after line, until Alber was satisfied. They were joined for a few bars by Sibongile Khumalo, one of South Africa’s foremost songstresses. As Khumalo’s voice soared and then faded with the ebb and flow of the rehearsal, I imagined Matthews hovering somewhere up in the flies. No doubt he would have been pleased by the symmetry of it all.

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