Arts and Culture 2007-2015


David Lurie's Encounters

First appeared
Thursday, 25 April 2013


Constitution Hill is a remarkable place. For those of us who are only occasional visitors, each trip is a vivid experience saturated in a particular mood.

On the day of an important judgement at the Constitutional Court, with a bit of media buzz and some bright Johannesburg sunshine to show off the innovative architecture, it’s hard to resist a mild feeling of euphoria – here is the beating heart of South Africa’s democracy, the legislative culmination of the freedom struggle.

On other days, when the sky is grey and a blustery wind comes over the ramparts of the Old Fort, and the prison buildings are emptied of tourists, a different atmosphere descends. The curious combination of renovation and dilapidation has a twin effect: cell doors stand open, declaring freedom, and political tyranny is a distant memory; but the place still seems haunted by the ghosts of prisoners and warders past.

Column: Sculpture in The Cradle

First appeared
Thursday, 25 April 2013


It’s difficult for The Cradle of Humankind to live up to its profound name. Day-trippers from Johannesburg often have high expectations, hoping that a 45-minute drive from one of the biggest metropolises on the African continent will bring them to an archetypal, primitive, sacred space: a place where they can stare into the prehistoric past and confront their own distant origins ... or something like that.

Unfortunately, epiphanies are as elusive here as they are in the city.


Jersey Boys

First appeared
Friday, 19 April 2013


Ours is an era of knowing too much about how musical stars are born – or, rather, how they are made. For over a decade, the Simon Cowell/Ryan Seacrest model has been a dominant force in the music industry. From a marketing point of view, it’s sheer genius: consumers feel they are empowered to create their own singing heroes and heroines, record labels have pre-prepared audiences for their new releases ... everyone’s a winner.

Don’t get me wrong. I far prefer Idols – or Masterchef, or any competitive platform that allows for a display of skill – to that banal form of Reality TV in which the only talent evident is the ability to alliterate: Tia & Tamera, or Toddlers & Tiaras, or keeping up with that family whose names all begin with the letter K.

Column: When words fail art

First appeared
Thursday, 18 April 2013

Isn’t it annoying when artists refuse to talk about their work? Asked about a piece of writing, music or sculpture that they have spent hundreds of hours carefully crafting and polishing – obsessing over every nuance – some artists will say things like, “Oh, I’m not really sure why that’s there” or, “I don’t actually know what that means”.

I understand, of course, that muses work in mysterious ways. Sometimes artists can function as conduits for creative energies and ideas that seem to come from elsewhere, or at least emerge unmediated from their subconscious. I also accept that artists don’t want to prescribe or delimit the responses of readers, audiences and viewers who encounter their work. Ambiguity is central to any artistic project; if there is no ambiguity, art becomes polemic.

Column: The Carnival

First appeared
Thursday, 11 April 2013


A recent incident at the Castle in Cape Town was a sobering reminder that the suppression of artistic freedom looms over South Africans as a credible threat. It was also, however, a salutary lesson in the extent to which things are much worse for artists in other parts of the world.

On a scale of 1 to 10 – with 1 being Facebook complaints by “concerned” citizens who don’t approve of an artist’s moral or ideological views, 5 being almost everything Lulu Xingwana did while Minister of Arts and Culture, and 9 being the ruling party’s response to The Spear in 2012 – it was probably not much more than a 3.


Column: In Praise of Technique

First appeared
Thursday, 04 April 2013

The first installment of my new Business Day arts column ...


Tretchi has been at it again.

Vladimir Tretchikoff died six years ago, but his work still has the power to divide the art world in two. When his famous “Chinese Girl” – often referred to as the “Green Lady” because of the unusual hue that the painter gave his subject’s skin – was auctioned at Bonham’s last month, there were some who considered the price of £840 000 (about R12 million) a steal. After all, this is the original of the most reproduced print in art history. Take that, Mona Lisa.


Curl Up and Dye

First appeared
Thursday, 28 March 2013


Anyone who enjoys the theatre will admire and appreciate the work of people like Yvette Hardy – most of them teachers and arts activists – who are dedicated to introducing children and young adults to the pleasures and provocations of the stage. Indeed, Hardy’s recent Naledi Award for “a significant contribution to the advancement and development of South African live theatre” is evidence of the esteem in which this work is held.

That’s not to say, however, that we would choose to share an auditorium with teenagers. My heart sank when I discovered that the audience with which I would be watching a preview performance of Sue Pam-Grant’s Curl Up and Dye was comprised mostly of high school learners.


First appeared
Thursday, 28 March 2013


It’s an old theme in conversations about the arts: the disjunction between production and reception, the slippage between an artist’s vision of his or her work and the ways in which it is experienced by viewers, readers and audiences. The greater power lies with the consumer; works of art become autonomous entities as soon as their creators share them with others. Their meaning ‘belongs’ to those who encounter them.

The halting communication – the miscommunication – between artist and audience is, of course, invigorating. When literary theorists, for example, declare that “the author is dead” or that it is fallacious to make claims about a writer’s “intentions”, they are simply celebrating the fact that the same text will signify different things to different people (which is true of anything that operates in the symbolic domain).

Making Way: Contemporary Art from South Africa and China

First appeared
Thursday, 21 February 2013


It was a sight that demanded interpretation.

Athi-Patra Ruga, wearing stilettos and stockings, his upper-body and head hidden under a large cloud of balloons, was stuck outside a revolving door. He and his collaborators had walked from Joubert Park, across downtown Johannesburg, to the Simmonds Street headquarters of Standard Bank, where they were due to appear at the opening of a new exhibition at the bank’s gallery. But Ruga and his balloons couldn’t fit through the door.

It is tempting to portray this in allegorical terms: the tired and hungry artist barred from the corporate stronghold, unable to access the wealth within. The Standard Bank brand, however, is strongly associated with arts sponsorhip – so that reading doesn’t work. Instead, Ruga’s interrupted journey, his incomplete arrival, has a much broader symbolic value; it represents, felicitously, the central motif of the exhibition itself.

Afropolis: City, Media, Art

First appeared
Thursday, 07 February 2013


In November 2012, a teenager at Phineus Xulu Secondary School in Vosloorus shot and killed a fellow pupil. It was a too-familiar tragedy, a story complicated by allegations that the victim of the shooting was a notorious bully and by the nature of the weapon used – a service firearm belonging to the shooter’s mother, a police officer. But making sense of it requires more than just the bare facts of the case.


The Island - from "Amandla!" to "Nkandla"

First appeared
Thursday, 24 January 2013


The marketing material for this production of The Island affirms that the iconic anti-apartheid play "is just as resonant in today’s South Africa as it was when it first appeared": "We are still doing battle in our contemporary democracy for freedom of expression, and … that might be at odds with the dignity of the State." On the poster, the shadows cast by two silhouetted figures become the distinctive shapes and colours of the national flag; we are clearly being encouraged to find some post-apartheid significance in this version.


The arts in SA in 2013

First appeared
Thursday, 06 December 2012


My editor at the Financial Mail asked me to write a piece about the arts for the FM "SA in 2013" supplement. What follows is some educated guesswork, based on what happened in 2012 ...


As far as South Africa’s artists are concerned, in 2013 things will be as they have been for – well, for at least the last two thousand years.

The arts are, by turns, prominent and marginalised. Artists, likewise, are both celebrated and threatened, praised and despised. Some thrive on state, corporate or private patronage; others thrive by turning the mystique of the neglected or oppressed artist into a source of liberation.

We are wrong if we think that South African history has placed its artists under unique pressures of exile, censorship and boycott. We are also wrong if we think that our contemporary artists work under unique conditions. Our race, class and gender politics, our violent-corrupt-improbably-functional society – these are manifestations of global phenomena that both constrain and inspire artists worldwide.

Shakespeare and the Coconuts

First appeared
Thursday, 29 November 2012


Shakespeare and the Coconuts: On post-apartheid South African culture

Natasha Distiller

(Wits University Press, 2012)


One of the most prominent themes in Shakespeare’s plays is unity. Union, reunion, reconciliation, compromise, synthesis: these are made manifest at the level of plot and characterisation, and emphasised in speech after eloquent speech. Yet “Shakespeare” is a word – a symbol, an historical figure, a body of work – that has, if anything, a deeply divisive effect. Mention of Shakespeare tends to invite a love-him-or-hate-him response, forms of Bardolatry or Bardophobia that are typically reductive.

You’ve heard them before. Shakespeare is a universal genius. OR Shakespeare represents colonial oppression. OR Shakespeare’s words are the acme of poetic expression. OR Shakespeare stands for linguistic imperialism and the homogeneity of “Englishness”. The fact is, however, that Shakespeare is and does all of these things, often simultaneously; the sooner we (thespians and theatre-goers, film makers and consumers, teachers, students, writers, readers, critics – the whole lot of us) can get our heads round this paradox, the better.


The hen that lays golden eggs

First appeared
Thursday, 29 November 2012


Having mastered the art of stumping her parents by repeatedly asking “Why?”, my daughter has moved on to “How?” This presents new problems. While a series of “Why?” questions can eventually be stopped with a philosophical, “Because that’s just the way it is”, lots of “How” questions are more or less impossible to answer.

When we’re reading Jack and the Beanstalk, for instance, she asks: “How does Jack’s hen lay golden eggs?” Quite frankly, I have no idea. But there is another “golden egg” matter I’ve been pondering recently, the explanation for which is somewhat less mysterious. Coincidentally, it is also related to Jack and the Beanstalk.

Art on the mines

First appeared
Thursday, 22 November 2012


The first time I encountered the work of Jeannette Unite, I felt highly uncomfortable. Here was an artist asking me – with my part-liberal, part-Marxist politics and my passive eco-activist sensibilities – to see beauty in the heavy machinery of industry, to revel in a “mining aesthetic” despite the contentious place of mining in South African history.

That was two years ago, when Unite’s exhibition Headgear was on display at AngloGold Ashanti’s headquarters in Newtown. My knee-jerk reaction was to question the association of art and capital, to assume some kind of artistic compromise in the apparent celebration of industrial landscapes and the curious nostalgia for engineering feats of the past.

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