Slab’s Pale Natives passes the test of time with distinction

The guys: Lionel Newton, James Cairns, Antony Coleman, Iain Paton and Ashley Dowds. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.
The guys: Lionel Newton, James Cairns, Antony Coleman, Iain Paton and Ashley Dowds. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

  If you were white, young and English-speaking in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s in South African suburbia, you may’ve been privy to a particular lexicon of words like ‘tit’ (nice), ‘jislaaik’ (an expression of wonder), ‘kotch’ (vomit) and ‘boghouse’ (toilet). We were under cultural embargo. Apartheid was rife. The army had every young white man in its cross-hairs. And the culture of the time was tinctured by the bravado-filtered-hypocrisy specific to white South Africa in the run up to the first democratic elections in 1994. This alphabet of idiosyncratic values was embraced by playwright/performer Paul Slabolepszy; what a treat it is to see one of his classic dramas grace our stages again. Paying tribute to the late Bill Flynn who originally reprised the role of powder-blue-safari-suited Eddie, who whips up the comic element of the piece with astonishing savvy and is played now by James Cairns, this play is simply brilliant. It serves you a slice of nostalgia, rich with triggers to make you laugh, cry and remember, its sophisticated comic timing defines serious moments forever. Five guys in their mid-forties arrange a stag party. They were schoolmates 25 years ago. Each is a sensitively crafted, beautifully performed stereotype, which you recognise instinctively. Eddie is not overburdened, with his hilarious blend of stability, ineptitude and folly. He’s a rising damp specialist with a wife and kids. His earnest doggishness protects him from the nuanced bigger picture. Roux (Antony Coleman) is a loser to his fingertips, in his green shirt and striped wide tie. He’s living in his garden shed while his marriage crumbles. Ashley (Ashley Dowds) is the one who ‘made it’. Though he drives a flashy car, he has skeletons in his closet. With his combed, neatness, he’s the one you creditably picture as the boy who’d rather read than be in a rugby scrum. Many-married Dave (Iain Paton) is the foil for their party: it’s the eve of his third wedding. And then there’s Kyle (Lionel Newton). His teenaged swearing and fornicating credentials earned him his peers’ awe. Today, in a t-shirt under a dressy jacket, with his cigarette clasped between index finger and thumb, he reels from a life lived in the shadow of one-upmanship. Pale Natives is a coming of age story, not structurally very different from Cairns’ play ‘Dirt’. In crafting it, Slabolepszy held up a mirror to white South Africa on democracy’s cusp, rotten as it was with embedded racism and homophobia. He’s spiced heavily it with slang, an interface with local ad slogans and songs like Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, and others from the 1960s. In flaying open ordinary society, the play reveals poetry in the unlikeliest of situations. Not only about a stag party, it touches the core of life and death, success and failure. Armed with invectives against privilege, cigarette smoke and hard liquor, it never slips to sweetness, but runs with delicious fluidity that belies its two-hour length.

  • Pale Natives, written by Paul Slabolepszy and directed by Bobby Heaney is at the Market Theatre until May 11 (011)832-1641.
  • This review was first published by the SA Jewish Report:

    Donkey Child and the power to dream


    Complete magic doesn’t often happen in life. But when it does, it needs to be embraced with an unequivocally full heart. Last month, there was a production onstage at the Hillbrow Theatre (formerly the Andre Huguenot Theatre) in the heart of flatland Johannesburg that reached beyond the quota of magic you might think you deserve in one stage production. The season was short, too short, but it made one four legged beast comprising rubbish, into something immortal and tear-evoking and it touched hundreds of children in their hearts, forever.

    Donkey Child is the curious and wild tale of a heavily pregnant woman (played by Vishanti Kali), a stranger, coming into the midst of a community. She pushes and struggles and gives birth to … a donkey. But this is no ordinary donkey. It’s a puppet made of commercial detritus and operated by several puppeteers. But it is handled with such a joyous sense of empathy, that you fall in love with it, polystyrene cups for shoes and strings for legs though it may have, and you can’t let go.

    The production, which tells a tale that is biblical in proportion, focusing on bullying and xenophobia on its most basic levels, brews more magic than that which sits on the donkey’s back, however. It was the fruit of the efforts of Gerard Bester and Lindiwe Matshikiza, amongst other collaborators and it is focused on touching the children of Hillbrow. There were lots and lots of children onstage – in roles varying from the chorus to main characters, like 11-year-old Kabelo Ndlovu, who really steals the show.

    This child is like something out of Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum: too small to be considered adult, too big in his emotional sensibilities, his understanding of nuance and of irony to be considered a child. Dressed as he is in camouflage overalls, he grabs your eye immediately and lends the work a paramilitary flavour, which you can’t quite explain, but are transfixed by. You laugh with him, yet he’s sinister. The role he plays is complicated and emotionally rich.

    Generally, kids on stage are problematic. They might think they’re cuter than what they are. They might not be easy to direct. Maybe they might be too young and unlettered to read their words. They’ve more errant energy and are more difficult to discipline.  And legally, they’re complicated: you need to have alternative child-casts if you want one child onstage. But oh. The children in this work carried the magic of the story and its four legged creature with a dignity that belied their youth. Choreographed and directed with sensitivity and focus, they came together and seeped into the storyline with a sense of purpose that gaves Donkey Child a Greek-tragedy-like essence, vitality and import.

    Daniel Buckland plays another mysterious but pivotal character in the work: dressed in white overalls, he converses with the children and the donkey with a wooden hoop and his extraordinary choreography. There are moments in this work where you need to pinch yourself to remember that this is actually happening before your eyes. It is the kind of beauty that makes you remember why life is so precious. And why it matters to be able to celebrate it.

    The Donkey Child project slipped into public consciousness via facebook and the courage on the part of its creators to experiment and simply play. Not only does it represent a work ethos and a spirit of fierceness in creative dynamics, but it yields something completely magical that will blow you away.


    Gogol’s insanity onstage and utterly delicious

    Taken In: the cast of Government Inspector. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.
    Taken In: the cast of Government Inspector. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

    Occasionally one comes across a production in which the behind-the-scenes fun factor of the work spills out with such abandon and into the audience that it becomes immediately contagious. This is far and away the case with the current production of Nikolai Gogol’s Government Inspector, which in terms of the outrageous costumes and supremely developed characters bears comparison with Sylvaine Strike’s recent award-winning rendition of Moliere’s The Miser.

    In a sense, sitting in the audience of this Russian farce which has been worked over with a gentle South African veil of iconography, including bribery and foppery is like being in the actualisation of a novel by Franz Kafka, Günter Grass or Lewis Carroll (or a hybrid of the three). There’s a moment where it feels like you’re looking at a circus etching by Max Beckmann that has come to life.

    Director Jessica Friedan yields an understanding of the use of the artifice in theatre in Gogol’s work, which is simply delicious: There’s a line between funny and terrifying that most of the characters, including and especially the land owners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, played by Dimakatso Motholo and Gillian Wittstock respectively, embody, thus carrying the work with a sense of Gogol veracity that will make you laugh. A lot.

    Government Inspector is the work of utterly fabulous collaboration and lots of enthusiastic nods must be cast in the direction of not only set designer Zewande Bhengu, but also the costumier, Andrew Hofmeyr. Their contribution both palpably assist in making the work the inimitable success it is: the level of creative freedom that is being swung in this work can only be described as outrageous, and it fills the interstices of this work with wisdom and savvy.

    But further to this level of loving the Russian dramatist who wrote so dirtily and wittily of parochialism 150 years ago, is the manner in which the narrative unfolds. Even the rolling in and out of different elements of the set, plays beautifully into the mix of a synthetic world view and the understanding that this is a play and not an attempt at real life.

    It’s a farce of the best kind, leaving the audience in the know, but the cast out on a limb: the mayor (Peter Terry) receives a notification that a Government Inspector will be arriving incognito to examine the town. Hysteria breaks out and ultimately the wrong person is not only fingered, but wined and dined, bequeathed and betrothed and celebrated for all the wrong reasons.

    Terry is a fabulous mayor – not only does he show us his superb acting chops (which we haven’t seen on stage for quite some years) – but he does so with a generosity of collaborative skill which makes you understand the benefit that his work brings to the younger performers.

    Matthew Lotter as Ivan Khlestakov is the other professional counterpart, and he whips up his character into a frenzy in all the right ways. Just short of corpsing all over the stage, he offers a reflection on this role of a scoundrel who lands by chance with his bum in the butter, which such largesse and energy, you will fall in love with the idea of him.

    Reading between the programme’s lines, the rest of the cast are students. There are some astonishingly fine performances here, and some weaker ones there, but by and large, this production is handled with such intelligence and professional focus that the lesser experienced or talented youngsters are swept off their feet and into the thick of the madness and brilliance of the tale. Clocking in at almost three hours, this is a highly watchable and frankly unmissable piece.

    The Mayor and the Police: Peter Terry and Lucky Mqoboli. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.
    The Mayor and the Police: Peter Terry and Lucky Mqoboli. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.
    • Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol is adapted by David Harrower and directed by Jessica Friedan. It is performed by Zoe Beavon; Melody House; Matthew Lotter; Sabelo Makhubo; Campbell Jessica Meas; Nomathamsanqa Mhlakaza; Kirsten Mohamed; Obett Motaung; Dimakatso Motholo; Lucky Mqaboli; Jövan Muthray; Michelle Schewitz; Peter Terry; Searatoa van Driel; Saskia van Ryneveld; Gillian Wittstock; Jonathan Young; and Nonkululeko Zandamela and features production design by Andrew Hofmeyr (costumes); and Zewande Bhengu (set). It performs at the Downstairs Theatre, Wits Theatre Complex in Braamfontein, until April 30. (011)717-1376.

    Skierlik: Celebrating what needs to be celebrated


    Philip Dikotla recently completed a run of his play ‘Skierlik’ at the Soweto Theatre. The work has received much attention and acknowledgement since its professional debut at last year’s National Arts Festival, but it’s not without flaws and it is curious as to why it seems no one is helping this work develop into something really great.

    Your biggest challenges in watching Skierlik are its one dimensionality and its pacing. It tells the horrible and true story of a racist fanatic young Afrikaans-speaking farmer, descending one day in January 2008, out of the blue, gun at hand on Skierlik, an informal settlement in the North West Province. He killed at least four people.

    Soon’s the story’s impact is declared, it vanishes. Other than a focus on the eye of the narrator through which the story is told, there’s no character development, no nuance, no pondering of reasons behind this atrocity. In many ways, the horror becomes as small a blip on the radar as it tragically probably was at the time, in the news.

    So, how does one tell of a horrible event onstage? Tom Fontana invested wisdom, humour and poetry into the bad men he scripted in the TV series Oz. As did the  writers of Yizo Yizo, screened several years ago on SABC. The writers of A Human Being Died That Night, onstage recently, walked this thin path too. We must look evil square in the eye, even or especially if it fries our brains and moral instincts.

    But further, the pacing of Dikotla’s words – while it may sparkle in the stand-up comedy format, for which he’s known – in the context of relating a story that horrifyingly damages an understanding of what life means to those who stand in the wake of a shooting of this nature, it doesn’t gel. There is no build up, no climaxes, no ebb, no flow. The words are beautiful, but they roll out with such a regularity that the drama falls between them. And with it, the narrative’s impact shatters.

    And that is all: the work is without a set; the performer wears industrial overalls, everything for this work to fly is contingent on the content and delivery of the story.

    My perplexity comes to a head in reflection on responses Skierlik has garnered from the industry itself. While it’s fabulous that 24-year-old Dikotla has the drive, courage and spunk to take the event, which touched him, as an 18-year-old, and steer it not only onto community stages, where it first saw light of day, but to the National Arts Festival and beyond, the work needs help. Before it needs awards. Or unmitigated praise.

    In 2012, Dikotla won the Arts and Culture Trust Impact Award for Theatre. Last year, Skierlik was play of the year in the Zabalaza Community Theatre Festival and it’s an easily traveller, which makes it appealing for would be funders. But the laudatory awards and money floodgates should help to grow a work to greatness, and not yet let its maker rest on his laurels.

    Its story it hits you in the face and then stops. Dikotla as a writer and a performer, with a tweak here and a nudge there, surely can make his audiences feel hit in the face, but also turned inside out and ravaged and forever scarred by a tale told well.

    Hillbrow deserves better

    Maria (Sasha-Lee Kelly) and Jimmy (Pierre Kok). Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.
    Maria (Sasha-Lee Kelly) and Jimmy (Pierre Kok). Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

    It is hard to imagine a production premised on the hurly burly melting pot of society that the suburb of Hillbrow in Johannesburg has always been, as weak. But the work written and directed by John Badenhorst playing at Wits Amphitheatre this week has almost no redeeming features.

    With a flimsy one-dimensional tale cast around the fact that Hillbrow was sanctuary for people who didn’t quite fit into apartheid’s categories, and things happened around, above and below the rule of law, the work is supported by actors so unformed and uninformed and wooden in their offering that you can almost visualise the words they have learned earnestly and off by heart.

    The highlight of this soporifically staid piece which stumbles and drags and suffers too many castless transitions, in spite of one moment of lovely choreography, is in fact the radiogram in the corner of the set, which lends the work one spot of time-related colour. That said, such scant attention is paid to the authenticity of the set it feels insulting to the era, ten years into apartheid, where aesthetics mattered and manners hid the monsters of bigotry.

    A comment from the designer in the programme notes which speaks of how the time frame of Hillbrow in the 1950s is “relatively unfamiliar” is actually offensive: in this day and age, where research is fuelled by google which has the capacity to criss-cross the world and timeframes with abandon, it feels bizarre that something within lived memory of some of the audience was not accessible by the designers. Youth should never be allowed to be an excuse for incompetence.

    Like William Styron’s 1979 shattering classic, Sophie’s Choice – made into an unforgettable film with Meryl Streep in 1982 – the work is narrated through the aspirations of a young writer, but sadly, Pierre Kok in the role of Jimmy Horwitz is no Stingo.

    Indeed, all that befalls Jimmy, from a sexual awakening to losing friends to murder, are handled with such a lack of style or grace or adult reflection that they leave you completely untouched. He is not only unconvincing as a narrator, but he embodies the role of a Jew, living in a post-Holocaust, émigré culture as though this is nothing at all.

    The programme notes and publicity material of this work do not indicate the level of drama education that this faltering young cast of nine have been privy to, which lead you to assume they must be professional. If this is the case, however, this industry is in dire straits: the work reeks of a lack of intelligent research, a lack of developed nuance and a lack of conviction.

    But wait, there’s more: it’s a matter of utter perplexity that the venue of the Amphitheatre, which comprises three rows of permanent bleachers with movable slippery plastic cushions and no seats at all, on which it is virtually impossible for an adult to find a comfortable sitting position, continues to be used to showcase work. The venue is diabolically bad and can only make a weak production seem worse. What were they thinking?

    Maria (Sasha-Lee Kelly) and Paulie (Oupa Sibeko). Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer
    Maria (Sasha-Lee Kelly) and Paulie (Oupa Sibeko). Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer

    Hillbrow written and directed by John Badenhorst, based on a text by Brian Portelli, features production design by Jo Glanville and lighting by Julian August. It is performed by Pierre Kok; Sasha-Lee Kelly; Phillipa Bedford; Tiffani Cornwall; Ivan André; Tutu Zondo; Oupa Sibeko; Benjamin Bell; and Devon Welmers and is at the Wits Amphitheatre until April 25 (011)717-1376

    From antennae to toe, it’s a tight ship of a show



    From the showtime-evocative energetic start to the complex interracial love story which brings it to closure, The Astounding Antics of Anthony Ant, written by Natal University’s Pieter Scholtz in 1985 during the thick of apartheid, sees light of day with a freshly painted coat of rhetoric that sharpens and refines political bluntness, hypes up the entertainment factor and yields a production completely devoid of weakness.

    Director Francois Theron accompanied by a production team of heavy weights in the industry, including set designer Stan Knight, choreographer Shelley Adriaanzen, lighting specialist Jane Gosnell and costumier Sarah Roberts, introduces a fabulous group of mostly new talent, and the story is funny and friendly and delightful without being too saccharine or scary. The beauty of using a story without a European history of performance is that it retains freshness that will hold even the grown-ups enthralled.

    The hilarity stakes are raised with the interjection of the ‘ant’ prefix or suffix in the oddest of places, which even the grade one learners with whom I saw the play responded to beautifully: Miscre-ant, Arrog-ant, Observ-ant, Assist-ant, Ant-teek, Sybil-ant, are just some of the characters populating the show.

    Handled with gentle authority, the play is given the credibility that it warrants as a part of a serious theatre genre. From antennae to toe, it’s a tight ship of a show, from which you come away with great satisfaction. Featuring music ranging from contemporary song Jika by Mi Casa, which gets the littlies jiving before the action even begins, to a gentle corruption of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mary Ann’ (1973), there’s true magic here.

    Focused on the comings and goings of ant life, which slur a bit from the truths of the biological dynamic of an ant colony, including the presence of a queen and the gendered nature of workers, we meet the eponymous Ant-hony (Matthew Berry) (pictured), who encounters an old ant, a yellow ant, a mad aunty and several baddies in the tale which is focused on saving the world, eradicating evil and falling in love: all the good stuff that makes it worthwhile. And every performer in this cast of eight deserves a special mention: but it’s the one throwaway line in the racial tussle central to the plot that encapsulates it all. While everyone condemns Mary-Ant (Suzaan Helberg), the tale’s romantic interest as a yellow ant, Ant-hony realises with true boyish charm that she’s actually a girl, which is of far more weight than the other prejudices.

    • The Astounding Antics of Anthony Ant, directed by Francois Theron, performs at the National Children’s Theatre, Parktown until May 4 (011)484-1584.
    • A version of this review was first published in the print version of the SA Jewish Report:

    Basson Angelier dances with heart and guts in the name of fundlessness

    Photograph supplied.
    Photograph supplied.

    Eleven years ago, South African-born dancer/choreographer Steven Cohen and his partner Elu created a piece called Dancing With Nothing but Heart. Debuting on the Dance Umbrella of 2003, it featured a naked Elu dancing with an enormous ox heart in his arms. No costumes. No soundtrack. No lighting. Just heart.

    The press material came with the warning that full frontal poverty was part of the gig and that it aimed to be offensive. It was a gesture made in the absence of dance funding. An issue which hasn’t gone away.
    Mari-Louise Basson Angelier, a Johannesburg-educated dancer, currently living in Marseilles, France, last month did something similar in Johannesburg, and while the aesthetics of her distinctive approach may be more consciously polished, the issue she raised echoed that of Cohen’s.

    Two racks of fresh meat were hung from the ceiling of the Dance Factory in La Morte d’Une Fleur (A Dying Protea) and a dish of potatoes with a knife was situated on the floor. And then there was the rope. Sisal rather than silk, an aesthetic prerequisite of aerial dancing, it hung from the reaches of the ceiling. The work was backgrounded by sounds of violence, of media dialogue, of snatches of Philip Glass material.

    The muscularity of Angelier’s performance in this work, which enjoyed a brief, self-funded season at the Dance Factory and appeared in a different manifestation at a tribute to choreographer Vicki Karras a few weeks later, belied the smallness of her physique. At once she embraces the whole stage with the fearsome drama of her approach, governed as it is by beauty, and its corollary: violence.

    The passion she articulates with her sinews, bones and muscles is caught within the parameters of her small frame, clad as it is in a brief black leotard which she complements with leggings once the rope becomes part of the piece.

    While she explains that the meat and potatoes, which she peels at one point, reflect an acknowledgment of African funereal culture, this doesn’t resonate as such in the work. Rather, the gesture has a presence of its own and the intimacy of holding a potato in one hand and separating the flesh from the skin with a blade in the other takes on a monumentality that is almost frightening in its vague yet direct reflections.

    In the Vicki Karras tribute show, this element of the work was absent; allowing you in the audience to feel your heart and soul soar as the dancer defies gravity with much gravitas, twisting and coiling her body with the rope: it’s harsh, it’s direct and it’s in your face.

    The work is a comment on the moribund nature of the dance fraternity and was beautiful cloven to the idea of creating a season of performance out of nothing. Resting on nothing but the desire to make work, La Morte d’Une Fleur was simply searing.

    Photograph supplied.
    Photograph supplied.
    Photograph supplied.
    Photograph supplied.

    Berk: “Raising capital SA filmmaking’s biggest challenge right now”

    “I’m always happy to be there,” says veteran television director Barry Berk. He refers to the seven SAFTA (South African Film and Television Awards) nominations his debut feature film Sleeper’s Wake earned, for best film, best director, best writer, best actor, best editor, best cinematographer, best sound design. Last weekend, it walked off with best cinematographer (Willie Nel).

    He spoke to My View on the eve of the announcement of the SAFTA winners for 2014. “I’ve had a plethora of nominations, but very few wins.” Berk, who has twice been a judge on the SAFTA panel, shot to prominence after winning a best director award in the early 1990s.

    The idea of making Alaistair Morgan’s eponymous 2012 debut thriller novel into a film was suggested to Berk by the writer Damon Galgut. It tells of a transgressive relationship: 46-year-old John Wraith survives a car accident in which his wife and daughter are killed. He had fallen asleep at the wheel. And then there’s 17-year-old Jackie with demons and traumas of her own.

    “I read it and I loved it,” says Berk. “I gave it to a producer friend of mine, Ken Kaplan and we set up making it.

    “Raising capital”, is in his opinion the film industry’s biggest challenge in local filmmaking today. “It’s difficult because very few South African films see a return. This has to do with the size of our cinema-going population. On the other hand, our ticket prices are very cheap. If you go and see cinema on the West End, you would pay about £18 or £20.

    “And then there’s quality. Because our budgets are so small, because the return is so small, it’s very difficult to make a film. People who go and see movies want to escape for an hour and a half. They’re not always willing to take the chance to see locally made shows – they might come onto satellite television.

    “One solution is we start creating films we can export. The only way you can make money is if you sell overseas. Even if you do incredibly well here, not [slapstick SA humour veteran, Leon] Schuster-well, but in the R10 000 000 to R15 000 000 bracket, you’re earning a bit of money, but it’s not two years’ worth of work.

    “Everyone gets paid. Except me. On Sleeper’s Wake, I reinvested my fees into the film,” he says, speaking of a dream film that’s been knocking around in his head for years, set in 1790 in the Cape and premised on true stories within slave culture. But, he confesses, wouldbe funders pall at the idea of this idea: it’s too expensive.

    He supports the idea of crowd funding, but concedes that the budget for making a film is too high for projects like kickstarter or indiegogo. “Barmitzvah money,” is the source he laughingly says you go to for film funding. “Private money.”

    Berk was born in Cape Town, studied drama at UCT and film at New York University. He directed the second season of the watershed SA television series Yizo Yizo in the late 1990s, a couple of years after returning from New York.

    He came to film out of sheer love. “My dad had a 16mm projector. He loved films. On Saturday nights, he and my mom would go to the movies. On a Sunday mornings we would get together with my folks in their bed and he would ‘tell us’ the movie.

    “In 1993, on the cusp of 1994, I was planning a thesis film and I just thought, why am I making another film about America? I realised I wanted to be in South Africa.

    “I got a break with New Directions who commissioned me to make a film called Angels about two Bergies living in Cape Town and won Best Director at the industry awards of the time.

    “Then things came up. Curious Pictures which is now Quizzical Pictures approached me for jobs,” he subsequently directed and had a hand in writing the SABC 3 series The Lab and Gaz’lam, for SABC 1, amongst other projects.

    “I have my toe in the pond,” he offers about current projects. “I’m writing a script for someone, but I’m also recording music with Laurie Levin, from home. Music is my first love, before film; now I’m producing, recording, engineering, even putting together ditties, but I’m a little reticent to sing.” Digital equipment for recording is affordable enough to create a CD and market it from home.

    Berk is optimistic about the future of film in South Africa. “We’re making more films than ever, annually. What we have to do is be able to market our films overseas. The same way that back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was Australian film. Everyone cited Australian film and wanted to see it because it’s Australian film. If we can get there, we create a brand South African film, then this industry that can really start flying.”

    Jodi Bieber takes on the behemoth of maleness

    Jodi Bieber’s photographic exhibition Quiet lifts the curtain on the veneer of manhood, carbonised as it is by generations of society. It casts such a sense of the sacrosanct, you might be tempted to take off your shoes to see the work.

    There’s an astonishing moment in Aisling Walsh’s 2003 film Song For a Raggy Boy in which the words of the great English poets are uttered by the uncouth youngsters of an Irish Reformatory in the 1930s. It brings on goose-bumps and it makes you look at them and at the world in which they are portrayed with a different eye. A kinder one. One that acknowledges that things are often much more nuanced than we are led to believe.

    Something similar happens in Jodi Bieber’s exhibition of 35 posed portraits of men. It resonates with a youtube clip that some weeks ago went viral on facebook, engaging with the three most destructive words a boy could be made privy to: “Be A Man.”

    Bieber has embarked upon this project with a compelling and developed understanding of how men suffer from stereotypes. It’s a corollary, in a sense, to Real Beauty, a project she embarked upon examining the notion of beauty in women. But Quiet pushes in the face of statistics that recall that South African society is one of the most violent in the world and that its perpetrators are in the majority male.

    It’s a primordial thing. Since human beings lived in caves, by virtue of physical size and stamina, the males did the hunting and the women, the gathering. Young testosterone-filled men are conscripted to fight wars conceived of by older power-mongering men. There are millions more reflections of this understanding of the male as the perpetrator. The stereotype is a behemoth in proportion.

    But as a cat may look at a king, so might a white female photographer stare this behemoth down. Bieber chooses to raise the curtain and look at the individual behind it. And like with the wizard of Oz, the great and terrifying becomes someone quite ordinary. The men – from across socio-economic, cultural, geographic spectra of this country – pose in their underwear. In their homes. Some confront the camera directly, but not all. Some are at the peak of their virility, others inhabit bodies which are ageing. Each has described himself in a few words; while some try and slap in a marketing punt, most speak in a pared down poetic to describe themselves.

    “The Devil,” offers multi-tattooed photographer Pep Toni Bonet Mulet, as a description of himself. “I am one in a million,” says choreographer Fana Tshabalala, a sentiment echoed by Eduardo Farinha “I’m the one and only…” There’s an essay in each of these compelling images, but not only one that is about words and images.

    Bieber paints these portraits with the light and her reach for the soul of her sitters. Art critic Matthew Krouse sits on the edge of his bed, a pile of Yiddish literature on the pedestal. There’s a scar down the abdomen of financial advisor Gerald Sadleir. Justin Badenhorst sits in the shower. A ceramic cat is Leon Fester’s companion. A photograph of a pregnant woman is juxtaposed with Rohan Dickson’s round-backed body on his bed.

    There’s also a ‘noisy corner’, which features three monitors bearing footage of sport, war, power, and a playlist of 11 songs behind headphones that embrace the stereotypes of victor, hero, crook. But you don’t have to go there, and it is not allowed to break the silence in the space.

    In the potency stakes, this exhibition’s biggest drawcard is the interface between the work and the gallery’s atmosphere. It’s like a sacred space; if you anticipate being erotically titillated by these photographs, you might be disappointed: You might find titillation in a far deeper place, however: seeing male humanity hidden beneath a generations-old mask.

    For a photographer like Bieber who teeters between the media and the gallery, and doesn’t flinch at the most uncomfortable of issues, the exhibition promises international legs, not only as a publication but also as cipher to unpick hard and fast rules of society.

    • Quiet by Jodi Bieber is on show at the Goodman Gallery in Parkwood, Johannesburg, until April 26. 011-788-1113.



    Robyn Sassen has been an arts critic since 1998. She writes for several online and print publications including the Sunday Times, the SA Jewish Report, the Mail & Guardian, and