Ngezinyawo: Migrancy through a thoughtful loupe at WAM.

One Tito Zungu’s envelopes which he sent home in the 1960s. The epitome of migrant labour, these envelopes told his loved ones a story about the big city he was not able to with words. Photo supplied.

One Tito Zungu’s envelopes which he sent home in the 1960s. The epitome of migrant labour, these envelopes told his loved ones a story about the big city he was not able to with words. Photo supplied.

Occasionally, you come across a curated exhibition so attuned to delivering on its promises, your heart sings. Fiona Rankin-Smith with years of curatorial expertise yields an impeccable reflection on migrancy which informs without being didactic, moves without being maudlin and will touch you very deeply. The magic starts before you even enter the museum.

Last week, composer Philip Miller debuted a sound installation in WAM’s vestibule. Entitled Extracts from the Underground, it’s a beautiful idea, articulated like his TRC Cantata a few years ago. This sublime work, which bleeds into Braamfontein’s streets with its projected sounds and visuals, has as libretto a 1967 Fanagalo dictionary. On opening night, last week, precious operatic moments were sung by choristers. The libretto? A ledger listing injuries incurred by miners, dating from the 1930s.

Miller’s work is astounding. But its impact should not be allowed to overrule the rest of the exhibition. Works grab you by the eyes and knock you sideways by virtue of thoughtful juxtapositions and intelligent reflections on the issues at hand.

From Michael Goldberg’s heart-catching 1970s Hostel Monument for the Migrant Worker, which conjures up harsh hostel realities, to photographs by Gideon Mendel, David Goldblatt, Gisèle Wulfsohn, splaying open different, heartbreaking aspects of SA migrancy; from Claudette Schreuders’ sculpture of a black woman with a white child, to Ilan Godfrey’s photograph of a prostitute in a forest and overpoweringly fine narrative photographs of illegal miners by Mark Lewis; from traditional and contemporary beadwork to Tito Zungu’s exquisite envelopes celebrating the big city and touching his own homesickness, the show is rich with diversity.

Coupled with educational challenges to stir your heart and head, the exhibition includes William Kentridge’s marvellous 1991 hand-made film ‘Mine’, which reverberates with a compilation of mining footage, and in turn thunderously speaks to Miller’s work.

You might leave this exhibition with sore feet: there’s a fair amount of space to cover. But you will certainly leave it with a full heart. Migrancy stretches deep into many of our histories. It’s an exhibition which earns full critical marks and deserves many re-visits.

  • Parking near WAM is awkward; rather pre-book parking.
  • Miller’s work is screened until June 26.
  • A version of this review appeared in the print issue of the SA Jewish Report.

Exhibition: Ngezinyawo – Migrant Journeys is at Wits Art Museum, Braamfontein. It is curated by: Fiona Rankin-Smith, Peter Delius and Laura Phillips and is on show until July 20.

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Lara Lipschitz: On hilariously keeping that chin up

"You want me to do WHAT?!" A still from Lara Lipschitz's Chin Up. Photgraphy: Devin Toselli.

“You want me to do WHAT?!” A still from Lara Lipschitz’s Chin Up. Photgraphy: Devin Toselli.

Actress Lara Lipschitz (26) has enjoyed stints in local soapie, Isidingo and top musical Jersey Boys, but she’s hungry for more: “I’ve always wanted to make my own show,” she told the SA Jewish Report recently, in speaking of her series of YouTube films, Chin Up. <<A version of this story appeared in the print version of the SA Jewish Report.>>

“It’s about stuff that happens to me as a career actress that I think is funny. Putting my work out there is about the accessibility of the internet, and it’s free. I’m a kind of a late bloomer,” she blushes. “I’m young, I should know about the internet, but it has taken me a long time to get connected to the world. I’ve also realised that there aren’t so many people who are doing it. There’s really only a handful of people doing it, including Anne Hirsch, and Derek Watts and the Sunday Blues guys…  so there’s basically this space. And it’s not oversaturated.

“If you monetise the video, with advertising putting out work on YouTube has potential to make money. If you reach 20 000 views in South Africa, you earn money every time someone views your video.” She’s not that concerned about this side of things, yet; “I know that there’s currently a phenomenon of professional Youtubers – who are mostly teenagers – who speak dirty in the camera, or whatever – and have millions of followers.

“In terms of making money, I believe there’s potential for it to become a show or the seed of a show, which is one of the other reasons I’m doing it.

“I have tried to do random jobs, which are related to the film and theatre world, like styling or make up or research, but I don’t enjoy any of them. I’m prepared to work hard. I’m prepared to work for free on my own stuff or on acting stuff.

“Also this show has made me realise how much I love this kind of work. It’s also enabled me to give voice to a new dream for myself. I would like to become a producer and have my own production company. There’s space for it in South Africa. There’s not enough here.”

“I’m loving the creative process. It’s more satisfying than being in any production. You think: here’s my idea; let me write it down. Who can I cast? Are they available?  Where can we shoot? You organise the whole thing. Shoot it. Edit it. And put it out there. And it’s like wow! It’s real.”

While Lipschitz plays the main role in Chin Up, she is supported by performances from other people in the acting fraternity, including her contemporaries and friends, Aimee Goldsmith and Claudine Ullman as well as established performer, James Cuningham. “James is a dear friend of mine. He lectured me a little at Wits, and he’s helped me enormously. But it was with some trepidation that I approached him to play my father!” she laughs. “I didn’t want to insult him. But he was very amenable. I have a well known face or a famous person in every one of my episodes and getting them to perform without the expectation of being paid hasn’t been hard for me. They want to be part of something cool and original.”

Very cognisant of the fact that people must be paid in order to earn a living, she adds, “they’re very aware that this is a passion project, and it’s a favour.” And it may well have creative babies.

This new step in her career has been a long time coming, but it also represents an important break in routine for her. “Jersey Boys was an amazing experience,” she’s unequivocal. “I didn’t originally audition for it, and then I auditioned for Dirty Dancing, which was at the same time. I didn’t get in. But someone was cast for Jersey Boys and she pulled out”… the short end of the tale was that she auditioned over Skype and became part of the Jersey Boys company, as an offstage swing.

“I’d never been in a big musical. It was a crash course for me. As a swing, you have to learn multiple roles, multiple versions of the same song. I played three different roles. It’s frustrating to be an offstage swing. You have to be there, for every performance, all warmed up and ready and on standby. And if no one needs you, you go home at the end of the performance, without having performed at all. And it’s a lot of waiting.

“That took its toll on my soul and my ego. I went with them to Singapore, and I was with them for three months, which was amazing. And then it came to Jo’burg and I got to perform all three roles a few times. But I will never be a swing again. It’s a thankless job, and it’s the hardest, in so many ways: for one thing, you’ve got to be as good as the cast when you go on.

“With this show in particular, it’s hectic, because it’s fast paced and tight. If you’re one beat off, you can ruin the whole show. I travelled with it to Cape Town.” The next leg of Jersey Boys’ tour was Korea and Kuala Lumpur and it was then that Lipschitz’s contract came to an end and she elected not to renew it.

“It was a weird decision for an actress, because there are not lots of jobs out there waiting for you. And it was a decision that was made the more difficult because they offered me Carmen Pretorius’ role as she tot into The Sound of Music. But my mind was made up.

“I really needed a break. I wanted to come back and make my own work,” she is earnest about the idea of getting Jersey Boys fatigue. “You have to keep getting re-inspired and re-motivated, somewhere, somehow, all the time. The audience can tell if you’re bored with your role.

“It’s like being in a soapie,” she adds. “You have to really love your role. For example, if I got Sally Bowles from Cabaret, I would do it for five years and not mind, but for just a chorus person, it must get really boring.”

After Jersey Boys, she did one commercial – “which was like winning the lottery: I had auditioned for hundreds!”, she got a new agent, and she has been “auditioning and auditioning and auditioning and auditioning and getting callbacks and almost getting a movie and almost getting a series… and then nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing… and then I was going out of my mind. I need to be active. I need to take control of my career. I can’t just sit around and wait for an audition because they are so few and far between, for my look or whatever.

Chin Up, which is about having courage in the face of creative failure, doesn’t romanticise. “It’s a little sad,” she chortles. “But acting is not a glamorous career choice at all. I’m not showing the good parts. There are a lot of successful parts in my career. The bad parts are the funnier ones. The agent, for the record, is not based on my current agent. And my dad is not a dentist,” she grins. “But he does relate to the material. It’s really rewarding when people laugh.”

Each episode is about 6 minutes in length: “I will aim for a shorter length, going forward, which I’ve learned is more pragmatic. There are different contexts in which it gets seen. If it was on television, it would be 18 minutes.” She’s currently writing a pilot episode of that length, even without knowing the ardency of the market for this type of thing in South Africa.

“It does get disheartening, at times, but then I remember why I’m doing it. It’s growing me as writer, actress, producer… it’s so much easier to complain. I know there are millions of flaws, but if I were to think about every issue, I wouldn’t put it out. It would paralyse me. I don’t have a budget.”

Her photographer boyfriend Devin Toselli is assisting her with the project, which they started late last year. Chin Up now has five editions.

Next Thursday evening from 19:00, Wolves in Illovo hosts the official launch of Lipschitz’s Chin Up series. The event will feature screening of all five episodes plus live performances from local bands Stolen Pony and Yo Grapes, which feature in Chin Up (011)447-2360.

 

Missing: finely crafted but dated

Susan Danford and John Kani, as Anna Ohlsson and her husband Robert Khalipa. Photograph by Andrew Brown.

Susan Danford and John Kani, as Anna Ohlsson and her husband Robert Khalipa. Photograph by Andrew Brown.

It’s not everyday that you get the chance to see veteran actor John Kani performing on stage, and the experience of watching this ostensibly vulnerable old man with rapier-like wit and electric timing is precious. The man has a magnetic stage presence; his performance in Missing is simply magnificent and will bring tears to your eyes. The play is, however, dated, and but for a superb production team and lovely collaborative energy, leaves you with little to upset your emotional equilibrium as you leave the theatre.

As apartheid became more and more intolerable to the thinking and proactive intelligentsia of the left wing of society, more and more people went into self- or government-imposed exile. They made lives for themselves out of Africa. Children were born. Degrees were earned. The world continued to turn. Almost a generation away, it’s an interesting exercise to ponder the mindset engendered in the children of exiles.

Enter the Khalipas. Robert Vuyo Khalipa (Kani) is married to Swede Anna Ohlsson (Danford) and they have a young adult daughter Ayanda (Ngaba). They are eminent members of Stockholm’s society, enjoying wealth, academic merit and respect from their peers. Indeed, everything is picture perfect, when gazed at through a superficial loupe.

When you scratch the surface, however, many holes and sadnesses become apparent. For as long as he’s been in exile, Robert has yearned to be back in South Africa. To give his expertise to the newly established democracy. To stretch his limbs in the rural environment. To pay tribute to his late parents who died while he was in exile.

It is the late 1990s/early 2000s in South Africa. Thabo Mbeki is president and the unfulfilled gestures of Nelson Mandela to embrace what Robert has to give is at the forefront of Robert’s hopes.

The spanner in the works is one of his mentees, Peter Tshabalala  (Ntshoko). His presence brings about the spectre of betrayal and one-upmanship, of opportunism and smarminess and hurt openly inflicted over the years, and of the difficult feelings from an improvised and too-quick and shallow ‘sorry’.  Effectively, Tshabalala is the foil that lends this family’s existence discomfiting edge.

But it is the performance of Kani in collaboration with Danford that keep you focused and on the edge of your seat throughout this intense, if wordy, piece. As a couple, they cohere with a sense of honesty that offers a generous give and take between two people who love one another and have been together for decades. Together, their stage presence is both elegant and sophisticated: as you would expect European academics and masters (or mistresses) of industry, at the top of their game, to be.

A low point in the work is the casting of youngish performer, Ngaba – we’ve seen her recently as Mrs Lyons in Blood Brothers – in this work, she fits uncomfortably into the age of the character she’s performing.  At first she seems to be an opinionated teenager, but when plans for her marriage and a mention of her medical degree are mentioned, it is clear she’s an adult with her own sense of identity. There’s a forcedness to the persona she offers, which doesn’t convince.

The play itself, fraught with some cleverly engaging and unexpected narrative junctions, and a set change without the luxury of an interval, is a complex and meaty one; the fact that it reads as freshly as it does, given its very specific and historical setting, is attributable to fine direction and focus.

  • Missing by John Kani is directed by Janice Honeyman with design by Mannie Manim (lighting), Patrick Curtis (set) and Birrie le Roux (costumes). It is performed by John Kani, Susan Danford, Apollo Ntshoko and Buhle Ngatha, at the main theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, until July 13 (011)832-1641.

Cry the beloved Hunger

The community shrieking their worth in cohesion, in Hungry. Photograph by Sanmari Marias.

The community shrieking their worth in cohesion, in Hungry. Photograph by Sanmari Marias.

An ambitious work, which fills the auditorium with a messy residue of many stories that are either unresolved or resolved so without narrative challenge that they fall flat, Hungry is a play  lent life support by its design, but it doesn’t hold its own in the storytelling, performative or direction stakes.

Like its name suggests, this is a play about hunger as a result of poverty in a generic township, called Lusaka. It’s also about corruption and abuse in a whole range of aspects. And with an astonishing disregard for the power of the medium of theatre, it’s populated with crass over-acting and a disrespect for the audience, couched in gimmicks in which performers spill into the audience, demanding money or sex or body searches. These elements are invasive: don’t touch me physically while I watch your play – perform convincingly enough to touch me emotionally or spiritually.

Coupled with this is a script which reveals the white performers in the cast as insensitive and crude in their interface with the township dwellers.

We meet Gaddafi (a performer whose name is not mentioned in any of the theatre’s press material), a community leader, styled so much on rhetoric from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that he lacks cohesion with the play itself. He is supported and then subsumed by his sidekicks Mpho (Chokwe) and Maponyane (Molele), in a split of the narrative which slides off ambiguously into financial corruption: this part of the story is told in an element of the set which reads as the home of journalist Johan: wheels on the staircase make this clear, but not before some silly ambiguities set in.

We meet Johan (Auret) and his young adult son Dries (McEwan), with their own issues to bury. In what seems to be a journalistic fact-finding mission, they land up further messing up the lives of a township family, already governed by the vagaries of poverty – and its offspring – illness, hunger, abuse and sex crimes. There are faint echoes of the heartbreaking story line in Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country in a contemplation of how a family gets broken by the lure of money in the big city, but it’s told limp-wristedly and you find yourself working really hard to try and believe or be empathetic toward any of the characters.

And what do we get out of the whole experience? It’s a meandering, messily told tale about values. It’s too long, fraught with red herrings and not convincingly researched: no one knows where the daughter of the township family is, but Dries, a white novice in township values, finds her on a seemingly first attempt – she’s a city-based prostitute – and makes a valiant attempt to get her to talk about her mother, instead of having the proffered ‘suck and fuck’ for R50. It doesn’t tally: neither character is sufficiently developed for this grotesque aspect of the play to hold.

But what drives you and makes you sit up straight in the audience, is how the set interacts with the narrative. As a journalist, Johan handles a very large video camera for his work. Oddly, it seems mostly when his son works the thing that the footage is broadcast onto the set, developing a resonance between what the cast is experiencing, and what you experience, in the audience. Comprising sheets of torn and otherwise mangled plastic, there’s a beautiful sense of the vulnerability of skin, broken, scarred and damaged cast across it.

The set, itself, filled with these untrammeled bits of detritus, is magnificently threatening: it’s a space, replete with hanging fluorescents and bits of brick, that speaks eloquently of disuse, dis-ease and social disease, and enables and transparent embrace of the guitarist, whose raw sounds lend texture to the work.

Sadly, in entirely, Hungry is a very weak show: it reeks of the amateur community engagement that is apartheid’s miserable legacy. And it hurts and disrespects its performers with insufficient direction and structure. It’s a missed opportunity: Pretorian audiences deserve better.

  • Hungry, written and directed by Aubrey Sekhabi, with input by Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom and research by Otsile Ntsoane features design by Wilhelm Disbergen, is performed by a cast of 14, including Brandon Auret, Sanku Bakaba, Tshallo Chokwe, Cameron McEwan and Josias Molele and performs at the Arena theatre, State Theatre Complex, Pretoria, until June 8 (012)392-4000.

Of God, sex and other taboos: Deconstructing Dogma knocks socks off

No Country For Old Women, Diane Victor's important triptych in glass and smoke.  Photograph supplied.

No Country For Old Women, Diane Victor’s monumental triptych in glass and smoke. Photograph supplied.

When it comes to shock and horror, religion is a magnificently fruitful reservoir for metaphors ad images, which lend themselves to being fabulously twisted to digress toward sexual and political overtures. Karen von Veh, Professor of Visual Art at the University of Johannesburg clearly had a lot of fun in researching and putting together this exhibition which tears strips off religious, in particular, Christian art. It also celebrates the wonder and value of South African art: many of the works draw from private collections or are really complex to move and exhibit; in many ways, this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see several of these pieces in a gallery context.

As you walk into the space, you are confronted, from across the trajectory of the whole gallery space, with massive side-by-side portraits of Jesus Christ and Osama bin Laden: faces that each in their own way, led to worlds being set on fire. You get the urge to bypass everything in the show, to rush up to these works and drink them in. Coined collectively as ‘Communist and Socialist’, the diptych is by Conrad Botes, and embraces both a hard-edged drawing skill, and a sophisticated sense of choreography with irony. The faces are made of a plethora of quasi pornographic and devilish cartoon figures that override and underplay the iconic status of both of these men. The works stretch your understanding of what it means to mythologise a character as they hit you in the solar plexus.

There are several other pieces on this show by Botes – two beautiful extrapolations on the Cain and Abel story which, a la Kierkegaard and his rhetoric around Isaac and Abraham in his Fear and Trembling, force you to think considerably more about the perspectives and biases in the stories you may have been privy to since you were a small child.

Jacki McInnes’ Wife’s Lot presents the monumental rotundity of a kneeling female form cast in heavy salt. It’s a play on the biblical tale of the woman married to Lot, who never was named in the bible, but who disregards God’s injunction not to look at the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah and thus is turned into a pillar of salt. It engages, too, with the heaviness of patriarchy. It’s a very fine work indeed: the artist has developed the metaphor of a woman in a farm labour context, in a drawing using burnt tyre soot and oil on paper, which is also exhibited, but this piece is less convincing than the sculpture.

While several pieces by Majak Bredell embrace an understanding of the role of the virgin in the material, which stretches from Eve to Mary, they’re loud and brash and resonate with other mythologies around goddesses. Above all, they clash almost crassly with the considerably more subtle and responses by artists of the ilk of Diane Victor, Wim Botha and Christiaan Diederichs.

Indeed, Victor’s monumentally important triptych, No Country for Old Women, drawn with smoke on glass, is a work that takes your breath away. Not only is it a complex and sophisticated engagement with socio-religious and personal issues that organised Christo-centric religion throws up for Victor, but it is also immensely beautifully made. You would get the urge to kneel in front of the piece, were it not for its almost arbitrary positioning.  It feels morally wrong to be able to look through this work and see bits of UJ’s campus, or the underside of the gallery’s pelmets. .

There are many pieces de resistance in this troubling and dramatic show, but perhaps the strongest and most riveting – and  controversial – piece is Wim Botha’s Commune: Suspension of Disbelief, a work which the artist created in 2001 as part of his Standard Bank Young Artist award show of that year. The piece comprises a rendition of Jesus Christ suspended from the cross. Only there is no cross holding the figure, which is made of hundreds of bolted-together bibles in different languages, and carved beautifully, from this idiosyncratic medium. As you walk around this delicately wrought figure, you understand how the pages of the texts are made to form the substance of the body. It’s the kind of work you have difficulty in pulling yourself from, in a contemplation of both incredible beauty and mind-boggling confrontation of dogma.

Replete with humour, sadness, magic and naivete, the exhibition’s primary strengths are in the more solemn and more subtly controversial pieces, which are often in danger of blowing your mind – casting images that will stay with you forever.

“Deconstructing Dogma: An exhibition of transgressive Christian iconography in South African art” was curated by Professor Karen von Veh and was shown at the UJ Art Gallery, during May 2014.