Wafer: Telling of murder with a simple palette and a mature eye

Untitled, a painting in oil on canvas (2015) by Mary Wafer

Untitled, a painting in oil on canvas (2015) by Mary Wafer

It requires a particular level of maturity to take a concept and work with it until it reaches a point of abstraction, but a very unique sense of artistic muscle and wisdom that can keep that abstraction relevant to the casual viewer. This is what Mary Wafer achieves in her current exhibition at David Krut.

Entitled Ninth Floor, the body of paintings and hard ground etchings shown here is not excessive in size. It’s primarily monochromatic and hinges very directly onto a poem by Chris van Wyk, about the alleged killings in the late 1970s that took place at John Vorster Square in central Johannesburg, under the pall of apartheid.

The stories that sullied our world then are graphic and terrible, and most of the facts surrounding the multitude of people who openly rejected the ghastly machine of apartheid, and how they died or were tortured, are not completely known. Lies and misinformation colour that bleak period in South Africa’s history in layers of words and bureaucracy hiding gestures, cruelty and loss.

In this exhibition,with an astute eye and a ruthless sense of composition, Wafer touches all she needs to. But the work is not about the blood and horror of being pushed out of a ninth floor window in the police headquarters of a city ravaged by racism. It’s also not about the dockets and police records, the words and accounts. And yet, it is.

When you look at these works, which visually focus on the repeat patterns and rhyming visuals evoked by Venetian blinds in a huge building, clad in glass and bricks, you get a sense of texture. But it brings also a sense of horror, particularly when the uniformity of the pattern is disrupted.

Arguably, the title of the exhibition and the presence of the works operate in tandem: you can’t separate them and retain that freshness of horror that legibility of unspoken brutality. But this is a moot point: you approach the images ensconced as they are in the title of the exhibition and all that it connotes.

Having said that, the body of work here is impeccably produced. The etchings are printed flawlessly. The lines break the surface of the work with a sense of industriousness. Evoking the etchings of Dominic Thorburn from the 1980s and earlier, dealing with the industrial and motorised monsters that gave apartheid its scary face, Wafer’s body of work is beguilingly simple: they don’t allow you to glory in the texture of the mark making, but keep drawing you back to the presence of the gesture.

Ninth Floor is a heady exhibition without being prescriptive or blatant. It’s a tour de force body of work by a mature artist. You can see all the works in the space of maybe fifteen minutes, but their presence casts a grim resonance in your sensibilities which is frankly haunting.

  • Mary Wafer’s exhibition Ninth Floor is at David Krut Projects, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, until August 6. 0114470627 or davidkrutprojects.com
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Running on Empty: work full of soul

Audrey Anderson's Blinders in Hindsight, a work in ink on wood. Photograph courtesy Gallery2

Audrey Anderson’s Blinders in Hindsight, a work in ink on wood. Photograph courtesy Gallery2

The first thing that strikes you when you enter this gallery space is a sense of plenty: artists Audrey Anderson and Ross Passmoor are very different practitioners with distinct visual signatures and skill. They’re young, but their individual approach is established and keenly honed. And while there are not hundreds of works in this intimate gallery space, the two diverse perspectives meet and concatenate and converse and create a joint portrait of this city that is engaging and beautiful, light on the eye and meaningful on the heart.

This is Running on Empty, an exhibition which embraces a cynical understanding of the rush and thrust of the condition of Johannesburg, with a bold grip and an uncompromising reflection.

Anderson works primarily in ink on wood. The support is as supple as skin, and the medium as incisive as though it were applied not with a paintbrush but with a scalpel. Her line work is calligraphic, yet her embrace of the quirks of naturalism is sound and without pretence.

Flirting with the idea of an architectural drawing and hinting tantalisingly at the drawing traditions which informed a pre-digital graphic design and advertising industry, her work has its own internal razzmatazz, which reflects a frisky inner city, with its grey men in suits – and in water, as it embraces the architecture and the mixing and ringing of foliage with architecture. The works are whimsical yet layered, easy to look at yet deep.

Conversely, Passmoor works with a guttural approach – his is a meaty line, in which he explores the texture and nuance of electric wiring and great blocks of construction that together form huge engineering achievements like bridges or tunnels. Working with monograph and etching, Passmoor demonstrates a strong drawing hand reflecting on the bigness of architecture from the outside.

The works are bold and unapologetic, celebrating how the rough plate under the pressure of the intaglio press bruises and mottles the paper, offering a reflection on this city which is poetic without being sentimental, nuanced, and yet never obvious.

The intimacy evoked in the give and take of these two artists is palpably engaging. There’s a duet, a conversation here that you hear as soon as you enter the space. It’s not a great big conceptual gesture that will change the world with great thrusts of bravado or academic speak. Rather, it’s a celebration of skill and beauty and a confession of great love for this city, with all its hurly-burl, drama and panic.

  • Audrey Anderson and Ross Passmoor’s exhibition Running on Empty is at Gallery 2, 140 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, until Saturday July 4. 0114470155 or visit gallery2.co.za

Perfection in love and dance that really matters: Roméo and Juliette

Of ghosts, brides, death and loneliness. Juliette, danced by Sara Shigenari in a scene from Romeo and Juliette. Photograph courtesy www.dancetabs.com

Of ghosts, brides, death and loneliness. Juliette, danced by Sara Shigenari in a scene from Romeo and Juliette. Photograph courtesy http://www.dancetabs.com

Occasionally in life, if you are really lucky, you get to see a work which reaches with delicacy, directness and supreme intelligence into the history of its own technical tradition and pulls out something so fresh and unique that it takes you until you get home to catch your breath and bask in the realisation of perfection. But the impact of its beauty will stay with you for the rest of your life. This is what you would have been privileged to experience in the Geneva Ballet’s Roméo & Juliette.

Several years ago, Martin Schönberg, artistic director of Ballet Theatre Afrikan choreographed a dance work in response to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It was a piece of dance which effectively redefined the music. Joëlle Bouvier’s work on the overture to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet music does just this: if you’ve been in the presence of this segueing of dance and music, Shakespeare and the idea of love, you will never again be able to hear the Prokofiev, without in your mind’s eye seeing this extraordinarily simple yet immensely evolved work.

The creative team responsible for this work reflects on a reality of contemporary times: audiences know Shakespeare. Audiences don’t, as a rule, have patience for long, overblown renditions of things. The practicalities of frilly costumes and massive complicated sets don’t always justify their presence. Director Philippe Cohen and his team have taken the original Romeo and Juliet, and glanced with a ruthless wisdom and an impeccable intellect, at not only the history and tradition around this play and how it has been translated on so many levels over hundreds of productions. They’ve pared it down to an hour and ten minutes’ worth of some of the most unspeakably beautiful dance you will get to see in this country.

There’s a resonance of gestures of love so tender and so final, you wish to weep, but force yourself not to, because you don’t want to miss a single nuance. Sara Shigenari dances Juliette opposite Nahuel Vega who is her Roméo: there’s such a palpable yet immensely affectionate give and take between the two of them, you can almost hear their hearts beat, as you can hold onto believing this is the real teenage manifestations of Shakespeare’s ill-fated lovers.

The work contains deliciously sublime fight choreography and a set comprising one great smooth crescent of a platform which embraces the stage and becomes the world, with subtle nuance of light and movement which plays across it. There cannot be a more beautiful and lonely articulation than of the slight young woman within a shroud that doubles as a wedding veil. The scene where Juliet’s corpse is raised on sticks, also explodes envelopes without losing the plot and makes you completely incredulous as to what you are seeing.

And yes, the specifics of the original story are edited out of the equation, but are they really necessary? Geneva Ballet presents the nub of the Romeo and Juliet story. You are left the richer for the manner in which it is abbreviated and constructed. This dance company has just completed their second ever South African collaborative tour: hopefully it is not the last time South African dance audiences will get to see the remarkable magic that this team of creative sprites makes. But if it is, the legacy of this simple yet supremely complex work which teases the eyes and bewilders the heart, gives hope: beauty really has a place in this world.

  • Roméo & Juliette, based on the play by William Shakespeare is directed by Philippe Cohen and features creative input by Joëlle Bouvier (choreographer), assisted by Rafael Pardillo and Emilio Urbina; Sergei Prokofiev (music); Rémi Nicolas and Jacqueline Bosson (set); Philippe Comeau and Joëlle Bouvier (costumes); and Rémi Nicolas (lighting). It is performed by Serafima Demianova (pianist); Vladimir Ippolitov, Nathanaël Marie, Sara Shigenari; and Nahuel Veganovel (principals) and Céline Allain, Yumi Alzawa, Valentino Bertolini, Louise Bille, Natan Bouzy, Ornella Capece, Xavier Juyon, David Lagerqvist,  Virginie Nopper, Angela Rebelo, Simone Repele, Sarawanee Tanatanit, Geoffrey van Dyck, Lysandra van Heesewijk, and Madeline Wong (Geneva Ballet company). It enjoyed a brief season at the Nelson Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein which ended on June 21.  011-877-6800 or joburgtheatre.com

Oliver brings the sheen and texture of Industrial Age London to Parktown, seamlessly

"He asked for more?!" with Samuel Hertz as Oliver, Kayli Elit Smith and Miles Petzer as Mr and Mrs Bumble and Ben Kgosimore as the Beadle. Photograph courtesy www.jozikids.co.za

“He asked for more?!” with Samuel Hertz as Oliver, Kayli Elit Smith and Miles Petzer as Mr and Mrs Bumble and Ben Kgosimore as the Beadle. Photograph courtesy http://www.jozikids.co.za

Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist is one of those stories that has been consumed by the children’s theatre industry, thanks in part to the eponymous West End and Broadway musicals of the 1960s featuring glorious songs by Lionel Bart. It’s also been deemed a children’s story because the main protagonist is but 9 years old. In truth, the tale is a quirky one, bringing together the harsh contradictory morals and deeply violent behaviour endemic to the squalor of 19th century English society. In this version of the work, Francois Theron yields a sterling mastery that balances between the heaviness of the original piece and how the musicals injected sweetness and readability into it.

Part of the work’s sublime success is through the creation of its texture; the stuff of which Industrial Age London is made. From the signage on the walls to the raggedy and posh curtains which signify the set change, life is germinated and fleshed out in the set, costumes and the casting of the work.

Showcasing Kayli Elit Smith in the role of Nancy, opposite Luciano Zuppa as the inimitable Fagin and Ben Kgosimore, the core of the story is embraced with a sense of crafted verity that will keep you spellbound, whether you are five years old and have a scant understanding of the work’s tensions, dynamics and trajectory, or you are fifty and have read the original 15 times. Smith has a powerful stage presence and she gives the fragile, tragic heroine Nancy the spine and guts to make her leap out of the book and onto the stage.

Zuppa projects a roly-poly Fagin, offering insight into the sinister nuances that such a character upholds. He’s fun, yet immoral, bad yet it’s difficult to pinpoint his level of evilness, in contradistinction, for instance, with Kgosimore’s Bill Sykes, who is so chillingly cold, his very presence makes your hair stand on end.

There’s a satisfying interplaying of cast members and the children are beautifully co-ordinated to sing and dance and interact with the theatre’s appurtenances which brings grubby suburban London into Parktown, seamlessly. On opening night, Gabriel Poulsen was Oliver. He embraces the realities of this small boy in a world rotten with other people’s greed that rendered him an able cog in their evil plans, with an integrity that belies his extreme youth.

But more than all of this, the story of the workhouse foundling Oliver Twist is told from the inside out and the novel only reveals the grand narrative at the end, where you encounter Agnes Leeford and understand who Monks is. Arguably, the only version of this work which turns it upside down is the 1999 mini-series of the work, written by Alan Bleasdale and featuring such luminaries as Robert Lindsay, Julie Walters and Keira Knightley, among others. And what is revealed when the audience is put in the know, while the narrative unfolds, is the fabric of the story is robust enough to take such a turn about.

Sadly, this is where the National Children’s Theatre’s version stumbles a little: it sticks to the original sequence of events and omits the more graphic ones. Granted, the tale is harsh and terrifying. Murder is part of the tools used to tell it. It would be inappropriate to present this level of horror to young audience members, but Theron has begun his version with the child telling his own story: this adds an inestimable value and depth to the material, but is not followed through in the second half of the work. Rather, after interval, we fast-forward through Twist’s tribulations in coming to terms with his extraordinary childhood. Nancy is magicked off the scene and Oliver becomes a child adopted and everyone lives happily ever after: if you know the narrative well, or have been watching the play carefully, a couple of untied threads peek through.

Overall, this is forgivable: The Adventures of Oliver Twist is an exceptional production that blends sweetness with harshness in a way that never jars. But be warned, the tale wriggles and squirms and diversifies and changes tack frequently. It’s not all song and dance and children under the age of 8 might become restless or bewildered.

  • The Adventures of Oliver Twist, based on the novel by Charles Dickens is adapted and directed by Francois Theron with design by Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Nicol Sheraton (choreographer); Graham Brown (set); Willie van Staden (scenic set up); Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes). It is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Ben Kgosimore, Miles Petzer, Schoeman Smit, Kayli Elit Smith and Luciano Zuppa, with four alternative child performers playing Oliver: Samuel Hertz, Gabriel Katz, Gabriel Poulsen and Max Stern, and three alternate child ensemble casts comprising: Claire de Korte, Lethabo Mwase, Boitumelo Phaho, Kathryn Price, Paige Schmidt and Isobel Shires; Kathleen Clark, Tlholego Mabitsi, Tlhopilwe Mabitsi, Tlhotlego Mabitsi, India Milne, Julia Smith and Casey Watson; and Nandipha Backler, Yarden Dagan, Pascalle Durand, Talitha Komen, Tyler Komen and Ricci Waksman. It is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 19. 011-484-1584 or nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Unsurpassable Afrikaans dignity and bizarreness from Kellermann, Basson

Antoinette Kellermann plays Ella Gericke in her curious, gender-confronting  situation. Photograph courtesy www.netwerk24.com

Antoinette Kellermann plays Ella Gericke in her curious, gender-confronting situation. Photograph courtesy http://www.netwerk24.com

The power of gender as a signifier for being in the world is incontestable. Consider all the transgender debates setting fire to social media and fingering critics as suffering from irretrievable bigotry, when they use the wrong pronoun for a trans individual. The sex of a stranger has nothing to do with you, but when you see someone who you cannot categorise quickly and subliminally as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, the stability of some part of your worldview is threatened.

And this is confronted deliciously and with an evolved sense of how it troubles your place in the world in Manfred Karge’s astonishing turn of the era play, Jacke Wie Hose, written in 1982 and translated here in a fiery, scintillating Afrikaans, which will keep you completely focused, even if you don’t understand every nuance. The work, featuring the inestimably fine Antoinette Kellermann, is one of those stage pieces which makes you remember why theatre is a medium worth paying money to attend.

The ethos and coherence of the play as well as its bizarre confrontation with a world troubled by war, begs comparison with Joel Grey’s portrayal of the sinister Emcee in the 1972 film of Cabaret as it forces you to think of Oskar Mazerath, the formula-smashing self-made dwarf central to Guenter Grass’s classic war novel The Tin Drum (1959).

As Die Broek Pas tells the between-the-world-wars Weimar Germany story of a woman, Ella Gericke, who lived, undetected, as a man, through two social orders, because of bureaucratic error and the need to remain financially relevant. This is not an erotic double-take. It’s not crass cross-dressing that expects you to “be in the know” and titter behind your hand. The challenge of the individual mirroring her society and the actress slipping into this curiously ambiguous, yet dangerous role is met with such a sense of grace and wisdom that you will be haunted by her performance in its vulnerability and sense of theatrical muscle.

Further to that, the work features many voices, a talismanic reflection on the era under scrutiny, yet one performer, impeccably directed. This give and take with a multitude of voices is handled with a device built into the set, which casts elements into ghoulish green, sinister red or grotesque white light, which can be upsetting to one’s general state of complacency, appropriately.

Similarly, the set’s backdrop is designed to enable digital projection, featuring images drawn from World War Two dynamics. There’s a wisdom and an astuteness to the approach which never allows the blood to flow from war narratives crassly into the sacred space of the environment, but keeps its sense of horror intact and in tune with the story.

More than any of this, and the uncompromising, riveting tightness of this work about love and death, horror and compromise, is the use of Afrikaans. Arguably the first play in this language staged by the Market Theatre in at least the last two decades, the work is inflexible in its embrace of high Afrikaans. While many South Africans educated in this country probably do have a working knowledge of the language, the seductive texture, simplicity and complexity of the material is priceless, making this easily the theatre experience of the year, so far.

  • As die Broek Pas, written by Manfred Karge and translated from the German by Willem Anker is directed and designed by Marthinus Basson, with lighting design assistance by Wolf Britz. It is performed by Antoinette Kellermann, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until June 28: 011 832 1641 or markettheatre.co.za

Battlefields: An exhibition of blood and ghosts that cries for balance

BurgerFrancki01South Africa’s landscape is layered with history and filled with residues – even dried reservoirs – of great masses of blood spilled in battle – as is virtually every other place in the world that has been lost and gained, caught in tussles and fought over. Photographer Francki Burger has embarked, in her current exhibition, mooted Battlefields in a thoughtful and subtle project that considers the sites of South African battles and the archival volume of material and memories that inform selected spots.

On paper, it’s a remarkable project. In a broader context of experimental photographers over the last couple of years, given the availability of the technology, it’s not unique. Our battle sites, neglected though they may be administratively or in their sense of upkeep and beautification, remain points of huge fascination for many creative or history-savvy people. Indeed, the layering of images, given digital technology is something that many artists are playing with.

So, what gives this exhibition its edge? Why should you visit it? In a word, one set of images: Burger’s diptych, which faces you as you enter the space: Isandlwana I and Isandlwana II: of her body of 17 works, these are unequivocally the most successful and engaging. Striations lend the ostensibly quiet landscapes, one containing a cairn of stones, texture, but look more carefully and these are strands of tough African grass. Or are they? Perhaps these lines which so bruise and characterise the two images of the site of South Africa’s most brutal wars, are scratches on historical negatives or the skeletal gestures of dead soldiers. Either way, you walk away from both those images with a sense of satisfaction. The concept informing the work and its visual impact lie comfortably hand in hand.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the other works on show here: while sometimes the subtlety is so nuanced, it is invisible and leaves the image unforgivably inscrutable, drab even; in other works, the play and layering of images is too bold, leaving the engagement with historical ghosts too obvious and lacking mystery. And there’s a dreadful bubble in one of the works, a casualty of faulty framing that shouldn’t have a place in a professional gallery, no matter the quality of the rest of the work: the bubble pokes you in the eye and doesn’t allow you to see the work unsullied by its presence.

A project of this nature should knock your socks off and frighten your next footstep into trepidation and concern as to what may lie, historically in the folds and interstices of earth below it. For that to happen, the works should be uniformly balanced in that gracious and oft elusive level of tonal, contextual and historical delicacy. In this show, it isn’t.

  • Francki Burger’s exhibition Battlefields is on show at Speke gallery (downstairs from Circa) in Rosebank until June 6. circaonjellicoe.co.za