Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Column: Jenny Crwys-Williams and "After the Storm"

First appeared
Thursday, 11 December 2014


This Friday marks the end of an era in South African radio broadcasting. It also marks a new stage in my love-hate relationship with Jenny Crwys-Williams.

The redoubtable talk show host will be handing over her daily afternoon slot on 702m to Sam Cowen – although, the station has been quick to assure listeners, she will be keeping the book show that has been a key component of her on-air career.

When the impending change was announced in October, I said something trite along the lines of “Oh, that’s a pity”. My wife, overhearing this comment, was quick to accuse me of hypocrisy. “Why so sentimental? You’re always complaining about Jenny!” she railed. 

It’s true. Over the years I have griped to friends, colleagues and social media acquaintances about various aspects of the Jenny Crwys-Williams Show. I’ve felt obliged to bemoan the lifestyle stuff: food recipes, gardening tips, shopping promotions. I’ve gained a certain vindictive pleasure from complaining about how Jenny and her guests seem to find everything “gorgeous”, “stunning”, “fabulous” and “delightful”.

But here’s the thing: there are very few people who have done more than Jenny Crwys-Williams for South African literature and arts. She has been a relentless populariser of books in a country that is not at all bookish. Sure, she has erred on the side of promotion and not on criticism; sure, she has her favourites (crime fiction is probably her favourite favourite). As authors, publishers and booksellers will attest, however, the local literary scene would be much the poorer without JCW.

She has used her profile to great effect off-air: from fairs to festivals, from Big Book Brunches to the Bloody Book Week, if there’s a panel discussion or an author Q&A, Jenny’s holding the microphone. And it hasn’t just been books. Media literacy lessons through the “Ad Feature” with Andy Rice? Check. Cultural education with the “Music Guru”, Sean Brokensha? Check. Outside broadcasts from the Johannesburg Art Fair, Sci Bono Discovery Centre, Wits Art Museum, Liliesleaf Farm? Check.

It’s not just in a cosy, history-as-heritage kind of way that Jenny has engaged with South Africa’s political complexities and socio-economic challenges. To be fair, she can sound like your grandmother or an ageing schoolmarm when passing comment on current affairs, but this is also an effective way of getting interviewees to drop their guard – just ask Julius Malema. And remember her good cop / bad cop pairing with Jeremy Maggs?

My attitude towards Jenny Crwys-Williams is a useful barometer of how self-righteous I’m feeling as a member of the commentariat, not least when I’m wearing my visual arts hat. “All art is political,” you will often hear me declare. Well, yes it is – but not all art is political to the same degree, or in the same way.

I was reminded of this while looking at the works collected by Ricardo Fornoni in After the Storm (Res Gallery, 140 Jan Smuts Avenue, until 31st January). It would be fatuous, for example, to compare Andrew Robertson’s “Marikana” – which transposes Francisco Goya’s famous firing squad to the mining massacre – with any of the other images displayed according to this “political” criterion.

Izak Buys’ “Triptych of a Nomadic Monument”, three views of the Voortrekker Monument against a fiery backdrop, perhaps has an indirect political critique to offer. But the piece that “Marikana” is most productively dialogue with is Robertson’s other contribution to the exhibition: a rendition of a tree that is named after its GPS coordinates. What joins these two pieces is not content or theme but technique – digital prints that have a “painterly” look on the canvas.

The conversation that Fornoni is more interested in staging is between established and younger artists. French photographer Patrick de Mervelec’s black-and-white “Histoires de France” series, which dates to the 1980s, may be contrasted to the monochrome but sublime Fish River Canyon landscapes by Brett Eloff or Justin Dingwall’s portraits of sheep in anomalous settings (bedroom, dinner table, launderette).

Thokozani Mthiyane and Pierre Mathieu’s abstract works and Paul Shiakallis’ nudes, like Barbara and Zafer Baran’s “Pink Flower” and Charles Johnstone’s floating bather in “Heaven”, attest to an artistic jouissance that is not beholden to the political. Jenny Crwys-Williams would find them gorgeous. 



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