The universe in a classical guitar


He laughs at the idea of being the “darling” of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, the eighth edition of which started last Saturday, but classical guitarist James Grace has been an important festival drawcard, performing during the last three years of the festival to capacity-packed venues. This year he performs a solo recital again; but he will also accompany a chamber concert and will perform as a soloist in the closing concert. He has nothing but praise for the initiative of the festival, coined as it has been by Richard Cock and Florian Uhlig. “It might look small on paper,” he says “but it punches way above its weight.”

Opting to play guitar seemed an obvious choice for a young man of a particular generation, in England, when the Beatles were burgeoning and pop stars were growing out of their parents’ garages. Grace, born in 1978, weathered all the conventional, well-intentioned questions: “Guitar? Do you sing? Do you have a band?”

“The whole band thing,” he says, “with the possibilities of electric guitar and amplification – with mechanisms and accessories – is nothing to do with what I do. The guitar for me is the instrument you have the most physical contact with while you play it. All that pushing and plucking … it’s very intimate. You hold it against your chest, and armed only with your hands, fingertips and fingernails, you experience the most extraordinary resonances with your body.”

Grace speaks also of the kind of simplicity honed by Hermann Hesse over a recorder in his novel, The Glass Bead Game: “An acoustic guitar, unlike most instruments, is something you can just pick up and play. You can take it anywhere. You don’t need to plug it in, or have to drive a truck to transport it. You don’t need to take it apart and put it together again,” he says.

Born in Kent, England, Grace grew up in a house full of music. His dad also played the guitar, and as an eight- or nine-year-old, James started private music lessons. He immigrated with his family to South Africa at the age of 10 – on the impetus of a football scholarship which his dad, a housepainter by trade, won – and James learned guitar from then Stellenbosch lecturer, Dietrich Wagner.

He returned to the UK to finish his high school education, where he was tutored privately in guitar by Carlos Bonell and then went on to study at the Royal College of Music in London, an experience he describes as “amazing!” At the college, between 1997 and 2001, Grace was what is known as a foundation scholar, which means that he successfully auditioned for a place each year and was sponsored by the institution, based on the quality of his performed work each year. “At the Royal College, I really got to see the best of the best in this field, from all walks of life.”

But a love for Cape Town was ignited in his adolescent heart in those precious years between the age of 10 and the beginning of high school. Referring to both South African cousins and the magnificence of South African rain storms, Grace knew he would be back. After he graduated from the Royal College of Music in London in 2001, he spent time in Qatar in the Middle East.

“After that I wanted to come back to South Africa. At that point in my career, I felt I could make my own way more convincingly than in London, for instance, where there are a lot more professional classical guitarists. Being in South Africa” – he has been teaching guitar for 20 years and heads the classical guitar department at the University of Cape Town – “gives me space to do what I want.”

The disciplines of teaching and recording vie in his calendar and heart: “I love teaching. It’s a very rewarding experience for me. As a music teacher, one plays a significant role in someone’s life: it’s a very unique position. You are not a parent or a friend, but there is a trust and a very special relationship that remains impartial. You inspire them. They inspire you.

“Recording is another version of making music and listening to it. It is important for posterity. Every album reflects certain stages in your personal life.” In 2007, Grace started his own recording label, Stringwise Records. “It gives me the opportunity to record what I want, to be in control of the process. The company handles everything from CD production to cover design.

“CD stores are closing, these days,” he comments on the need for artists to be proactive not only in making work, but also in marketing it. “People come straight to the artist via a website.”

Stringwise has a vision that extends beyond releasing great CDs. It plans to create an opportunity for selected graduates in music at a South African university to study further abroad. “It will be structured to provide a leg up to would-be professional musicians,” Grace emphasises that it is not for beginner musicians in need of financial assistance.

This year’s JIMF is themed ‘Alla Turca’, and as festival director Cock explains, the programme explores not only Turkish aspects in Mozart’s work, but the idea of exoticism generally. “Much of my repertoire is Spanish,” says Grace. “I’ve always loved Spanish music; there is no shortage of it in this festival’s programme.” He cites the exoticism and mystery of the classical guitar as one of the aspects that made him fall in love with the instrument.

In his solo concert on February 4, Grace will play “fantasy inspired music, featuring works from the Suite Española  (Spanish Suite) by Isaac Albeniz, the evocative Invocacion y Danza (Invocation and Dance) by Joaquin Rodrigo [whose Concierto de Aranjuez Grace performs on February 7 at the Linder Auditorium] and Fernando Sor’s popular Gran Solo.”




Visual riffs, beautiful portraits


SIMPLY MAGNETIC: Artist Proof Studio’s Bambo Sibiya’s portrait of jazz great Hugh Masekela.

How do you blend jazz – an abstract but very specific musical genre – with visual art? On one level, it seems natural – the idea of some cool riff being translated into a glorious autographic line – but when you think of an art audience, will this gel? Will this be meaningful to everyone who looks at the work? The project might make you think of the powerful collages of veteran artist Sam Nhlengethwa, but curator Tumi Tlhoaele clearly comes from the next generation in her competent and cool straddling of the chalky line between beautiful images and fabulous sounds, in putting together a real gem of a show that coincides with the Jazzuary Masterclass hosted by radio station Kaya fm.

The exhibition features the work of seven visual artists; the brief was premised on the work of jazz greats such as Philip Tabane, Hugh Masekela, Johnny Dyani, Letta Mbulu, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Pat Matshikiza and Winston Mankunku Ngozi, each artist was told to make work that “responds to, reflects upon and interprets the music.”

Dangerously wide, in a sense, but one that has been resolved satisfyingly, in the most part. As you enter the space, which is part white cube, part jazz venue – there are Drum covered pillowcases and a worn in leather settee, with a cat on it that is quite territorial – you are assailed in the best possible way by Bambo Sibiya’s beautiful and magnetic drawing of jazz great Hugh Masekela. Blending friendly and explorative draftmanship with paintings, different circular reflections of South Africa’s leaders and icons behind Masekela’s wise and wonderful face, this is an important work which in its ambit and reach fills the whole oblong space of the Res Gallery.

Effectively, it is such a strong work that it could easily erase the presence of everything else on show, with its captivating sense of life. You look into Masekela’s charcoal eyes and you can hear his music. From this great work, it feels like a bit of a come down to engage with the more abstract works of artists such as Palesa Mopeli who works with rubber innertube, constructing sculptural networks that slither and glide against the wall and suspended from the ceiling. They resonate with the influence of Nicholas Hlobo’s approach but relate fairly abstractly to the exhibition’s underlying theme.

Malcolm Jiyane’s reflection on jazz is about crowds of moving people, indicated with an energetic sense of visual rhythm. A multi-instrumental jazz artist, Jiyane’s small but intense pieces whorl with implied sound and jiggling bodies, but you need to stand up close to grasp their visual impact. They do not call you in from the street.

Energy is, similarly what drives and holds the painted works of Layziehound Coka and Ayanda Mabulu. The latter’s large political piece draws together many reflections from a reference to the French Revolution to complex and grotesque layers that deal with sacrifice and bloodshed. It’s a large work, too big for the position it holds in the gallery, and its loudness prevents you from looking from far enough or near enough. Further, while there’s nothing wrong with the work itself, it’s a bit of a hard-to-read anachronism in the context of this exhibition.

And if you feel nostalgic for the work of Nhlengethwa, look at that of Neo Matloga. Indulging in collage like Nhlengethwa, Matloga doesn’t run too closely to the veteran artist’s metaphors. Rather, he constructs his own in a series of relatively small, deliciously quirky collages which really make you want to dance.

But then, there’s the work of Neo Mtsoma, which answers all those unasked questions raised by Sibiya’s piece, about the portraits of the jazz performers themselves. In this body of work, you see a dignified digression from the abstract playfulness of the more autographic pieces. You see the honour and the passion, the loneliness of the performer on stage, and the ugly beauty of the effort to make great music.

  • Considering Genius is curated by Boitumelo Tlhoaele. It comprises work by Layziehound Coka, Malcolm Jiyane, Ayanda Mabulu, Neo Matloga, Palesa Mopelia, Neo Ntsoma and Bambo Sibiya. It is on show at the Res Gallery in Rosebank, until January 28. Call 011 8804054 or visit or


How to garrotte a sacred Jewish cow


I WANT IT ALL AND I WANT IT NOW: Lara Lipschitz plays the indefatigable Dapha in Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews. Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

Jewish identity is one of those things so thick with potholes and heavy humourless traps that you know you will be standing on toes, whatever you say. From Israeli politics to Holocaust history, levels of ritual observance to over protective mothers, it’s also a modern day culture totally fraught with psychoses and whole histories of emotional dysfunctionality, which in so many contexts is basically untouchable. You laugh unwittingly at some of this stuff, and you will have the Anti-Defamation League at your door forthwith. Enter New York Jew, Joshua Harmon. His work Bad Jews (2013) cocks a snook at everything, as it intelligently and ruthlessly splits open the whole range of taboos in Jewish culture, behaviour and context, and what you get is a sophisticated and easy to watch play which boasts beautiful and satisfying structure, and leaves you reeling with splayed values.

It will offend people, of that you can be sure. Be that as it may, under the direction of Greg Karvellas and with production design crafted by Saul Radomsky this play is very close to flawless. But arguably, its magic ingredient is Lara Lipschitz who plays the central role of Daphna.

We’ve seen her as a swing in big musicals, she’s had small roles in television soapies, she started her career with an experimental one-woman show based on a story by Roald Dahl and created her own web series called Chin Up, but in this role Lipschitz truly comes into her own. Armed with a classic “jewfro”, which is almost like a separate character in the cast, and a pair of seriously unplucked eyebrows, Lipschitz’s Daphna is spunky and articulate, tactless and passionate as any enlightened young lass conflicted with all the opposing values of what it takes to be Jewish upon her. She’s gung ho about Israel and plans to be a woman rabbi. She knows the whole complicated shtick of feminist Judaism and Jewish feminism, she understands the role of privilege and is not afraid to call anything by its name. She’s rather terrifying, but she’s very real and it’s a mix of bluster and bravado and passion that makes her utterly magnetic as a character and the fabulous vortex of this work.

And when she comes eyebrow to eyebrow with her two boy cousins, Jonah (Oli Booth) and his older brother Liam (Glen Biderman-Pam), who brings along a non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Ashley Carine de Lange) just after their grandfather’s funeral, the sparks fly with acerbic abandon and well-aimed barbs. It’s a barrage of intelligent and hugely spiteful insults aimed to damage like only Jewish internal politics can, with doubling-back, transparent bravado and hefty dollops of emotional guilt wherever you dare to look.

While it’s hard to look beyond Lipschitz’s enormous stage presence, it’s an instructive exercise. The whole work is immensely well cast. Biderman-Pam as the stressed older cousin speaks repressed Jewish identity with his very posture. He embraces the muscular role with verve and finesse, malice and vulnerability which is hastily shut up with knee-jerk response aggression. In the role of his seemingly detached brother, Booth too is superb. Jonah is a role which touts its own level of bravado, but also its own level of gut-wrenching sincerity with simple gestures that create important emotional turnarounds in the work. And young De Lange embraces her role as the non-Jewish blond girl which spins the whole marrying out yarn with hilarity and delicacy, with mature aplomb. She is exactly right in her presence and interpretation for this role.

Having said all of that, the play teeters around the edge of cringeworthiness, but Lipschitz’s authoritative and frankly beautiful performance never allows it to become pathetically stereotypical. There’s a taut spine throughout this work which enables you – whether you’re Jewish or not – to see both sides of the myriads of issues. The play is funny, but it’s not laugh-a-second funny or foolishly self-deprecating like much hackneyed Jewish theatre is. It’s about heritage and culture, the complicated idea of marriage and ghastly operatic song. It’s about white privilege and the pathos of Holocaust history. And above all, it’s about life – and a trinket bearing the traditional ‘chai’, a combination of Hebrew letters which represents the number 18, and connotes life.

In short, Bad Jews is brilliant, but it’s not forgettable or flimsy entertainment. Don’t miss it.

  • Bad Jews is written by Joshua Harmon and directed by Greg Karvellas. It features design by Saul Radomsky (set and costumes), Daniel Galloway and Benjamin du Plessis (lighting), Gerhard Morkel (construction) and Ash Zamisa (painting) and is performed by Glen Biderman-Pam, Oli Booth, Ashley Carine de Lange and Lara Lipschitz, at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 14. 011883-8606 or visit
  • Read about Lipschitz’s web series Chin Up here.
  • For a broader reflection on how Bad Jews touches our contemporary society, read this.

What a glorious show!


LAUGHING AT CLOUDS: Grant Almirall plays Gene Kelly playing Don Lockwood. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre

Quite often, in the arts, you find yourself experiencing something that trails a long history of film  and stage musicals, of iconic dance moves and schmaltzy narrative that has irrevocably slipped into cliché. Mostly, this kind of candy floss cuteness that is passed down from generation to generation gets tired not only in its message but in its delivery. Occasionally it gets spoofed. But very seldom, are you privileged enough to see something in this traditional line that has been so flawlessly and meticulously translated onto the stage with so much love that you can weep at its impeccable beauty and authenticity, as you are swept away on the lyrical romance that it promises – regardless of who you are. This is what you can anticipate in Singin’ in the Rain, currently onstage at Teatro.

We’re in New York. It’s 1927. The world is in a state of emotional and creative high – it’s just weathered a world war and feels on the cusp of another. There’s a frenetic sense of aggressive positivity and possibility in the air. And culture, by way of film, is shifting and shaking its own identity into terrain unmarked by the technology of the time: the talkie is going through its birth pangs.

Of course, Singin’ in the Rain was a 1952 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film about films that made the leads, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds – in the respective roles of silent movie star, Don Lockwood and chorus girl Kathy Selden – seriously famous, effectively putting them on a par with the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s ear in terms of universal cultural recognition – but more than the performance of Kelly and Reynolds, it’s the choreography and the music and how they fit together that are quintessentially so happy that they’re unforgettable.

So, here we have a stage version of this enormous musical with a giant reputation and a whole bunch of theatre challenges – from a star who has to sing and talk squeakily and obnoxiously out of sync and out of tune (Lina Lamont, played by Taryn-Lee Hudson) to the imperative of really making it rain on stage. And they’ve done it. They’ve really done it.

Every little nuance, every little 1920s sashay and fringe, and every big gesture of love and hate, of spite and malice and new ideas is as frisky and fresh – and genuinely funny – as it was onscreen in 1952. This is a flawless show, which unapologetically presents values that may be considered politically inappropriate in our contemporary world, but it’s a show, headlined by Grant Almirall and Bethany Dickson as Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden respectively, that will leave you with a dance in your head and a sense of hope in your heart.

Featuring a cast of both seasoned and young performers, it’s a show that fits together like clockwork and runs seamlessly, but never feels staid or formulaic. It seems a very early comment to make in the year, but it’s sincere: if you treat yourself to one big musical this year, make it this one.

  • Singin’ in the Rain, directed by Jonathan Church, is written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and features songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. It is designed by Simon Higlett (set and costumes), Tim Mitchell (lighting), Ian William Galloway (video), Robert Scott (music supervisor), Larry Wilcox and Larry Blank (orchestration), Andrew Wright and Kelly Evins Prouse (choreography). It is performed by Duane Alexander Grant Almirall, James Borthwick, Bethany Dickson, Taryn-Lee Hudson, Anne Power, Mark Richardson and Steven van Wyk, supported by an ensemble comprising Claire Boswell, Thalia Burt, Mila de Biaggi, Stefania Du Toit, Ambre-Chanel Fulton, Richard Gau, Samuel Hyde, Kent Jeycocke, Catherine Lane, Michelle Lane, Sebe Leotlela, Anton Luitingh, Hope Maimane, Kenneth Meyer, Raquel Munn, LJ Nelson, Jarryd Nurden, Stephan van der Walt and Richard Vorster. It features a live orchestra under the direction of keyboardists Louis Zurnamer and Kevin Kraak: Jacobus van Wyk (drums), Graham Strickland (double bass), Carl Ashford (reed), Brian Smith (reed), Leagh Rankin (reed), Mike Blake (trumpet), Mike Magner (trumpet) and Nick Green (trombone). It is at Teatro, Montecasino until March 13. Visit
  • And what does this say about South African audiences? Read this piece.

Humble plum jam: a cipher for poisonous secrets



UNCOMPROMISING: Jan Groenewald, the performer and playwright of Pruimboom delivers a direct and relentless tale.

It’s odd how the conjured image of a fruit can be such a potent conveyor of horror and sadness. Think of Mark Behr’s The Smell of Apples (1993) or Renos Spanoudes’s The Apple Tree (2002). Jan Groenewald’s Die Pruimboom (the plum tree), an Afrikaans play, fits in this uncomfortable and memory-laden sub-genre, which ultimately, is about the connotations that the smell, texture and taste of a fruit – or the jam which it is turned to, in the case of Pruimboom, can be twisted on its axis and can speak of terrible memories, monsters and demons.

It’s a bleak tale of loss, of advantage taken and of ultimate victory, but victory that is tinged with the sadness of impossibility and the emasculating ghoulish shadow that childhood abuse casts over a whole adult life.

Jan is 13 years, seven months and seven days, when everything that he thought he was, gets irrevocably broken, and we’re taken slow motion through three defining days of his life. While never stooping to graphic description, the play is deftly written – its climaxes are alternatively  very subtle and terrifyingly sacramental – and it is performed with a sense of dignity that doesn’t prevent words and realities to tumble over one another breathlessly.

And while you feel incredulous that a 13-year-old boy would have the ability, the temerity, the words, the presence of mind to look his molester in the eye and make a bargain with him, you will such a turn of events into life.

The work is arguably bruised by at least two parallel narratives that are happening at the same time as Groenewald’s performance. There’s a videoed sequence that is played by way of a set. Rather than only illustrating the text, it heaves and clashes, loops upon itself and presents a jumbled mix of values, including tarot cards, a CGI-designed boy chasing a kite and scenes in a hospital context. At first, they resonate powerfully with the words, and there’s a heart stopping moment which brings a church and a post office into an overwhelming clash of values, but as soon as they loop and present their narrative again, your attention fights to hold onto Groenewald’s words and not be swept into the rhythm of the projected story.

Similarly with the music. There’s a bit of Vivaldi and other composers, piped into this play’s digital presentation. At times, you catch yourself being swept away by the phrases and nuances in the music, forcing you to lose your hold on Groenewald’s words, or to consciously hold so tightly to them that the act of watching becomes stilted.

But the play is an important one: touching the uncomfortable place that Sarah Blecher’s riveting recent film Dis Ek, Anna (reviewed here) evokes, which threatens to rip the guts out of the strict moral behaviour of Afrikaans society, the work is both a fable and a horror story. It’s subtlety and its frankness keeps it overwhelmingly human.

  • Pruimboom is written and performed by Jan Groenewald and directed by Erik Holm. It performs at Foxwood Theatre in Houghton, on January 23 and 24. Call 011 486 0935.
  • Pruimboom is one thing. But the energy in the audience, quite another. Read this piece.

Hard to stomach, Egoli seems to have too many cooks


What is it that makes a theatre director muddy his own clarity of thought and compromise something utterly wise and moving, with quick and nasty literal gimmicks? Matsemela Manaka’s Egoli, first published in 1980, is a powerful paean to manhood and the collective challenges it faces, but this production of it has mixed success in the rash of grotesque horrors it thrusts at its audience.

More than that, it’s a play that so flagrantly ignores basic precepts of audience comfort that it can be a really frightening experience that reaches beyond the performances, the narrative or the context. It is clear that the director wanted to evoke the kind of terrifying, claustrophobic entrapment miners face daily, for you, who has paid for a ticket and sits in the audience, and in doing this, he succeeds, but perhaps there should be a disclaimer or two at the door or the box office.

You cannot get out of this space without walking through the stage, once the work begins to unfold. You may wish to – on opening night, a woman in the audience actually vomited in response to the drama onstage. There are terrifying strobes and an environment which at times is completely brutal in its description of loss and mourning, shock and anger.

It’s sad: In 2006, there was a production in this theatre complex of Es’kia Mphahlele’s The Suitcase, directed by James Ngcobo with set design by Nadya Cohen. The idea of the horror of sudden loss was absolutely unforgettably conveyed with the crash of a metal dustbin lid. It was a gesture so simple and so devastating and shocking that it reached far beyond its simplicity.

Egoli begins with an astoundingly fine metaphor that evokes that bin lid crash in its wisdom and subtlety, in representing the mine shaft elevator, but sadly there is scant follow through on such sophisticated thinking and much of the work, with the exception of some untouchably lovely a capella work, is violent and crude.

Also there are other elements in this work which seem to overlook the fact that the audience is the final component to a play. If you only speak English, you may well miss some 70% of the work’s nuances. If you’re not able to turn your head completely around, like an owl, you may not be able to see all of the work in entirety: the performers use every corner of the theatre, including areas behind the seated audience. While this is effective, it’s also counterproductive.

Having said all of that, this tale of the horrendous challenges faced by men is at times so achingly beautiful and tragic, it will take your breath away. A work that presents South African miners in delicate three-dimensionality, Egoli is a series of stories within stories about love and hate and humiliation and terror and premature loss and politics, and in this respect, it succeeds in the same way that iconic texts like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) reflects on the humour and fear and crushing inevitability of men in a mandatory situation at war. It’s headlined by nuanced and superb performances in the authoritative hands of Hamilton Dhlamini opposite Lebogang Motaung – as Hamilton and John respectively.

While the texture of the work is convincing and tight, mine tales are mine tales and struggle tales are struggle tales. Knitting the two together feels contrived and the story’s central kernel is a flawed one because the association of the two men feels impossibly coincidental. But it’s a narrative flaw that’s easy to forgive in the face of bigger theatre sins: Gritty and deep, clever and rich, the work, if you’re able to overlook the vomit-inducing elements, the constriction and threat to audience safety, is replete with such developed subtleties and symbolic gestures that its wild leaps toward brutal literality make it feel as though there’s a director too many at work here.

  • Egoli is written by Matsemela Manaka and directed by Phala Ookeditse Phala, mentored by Makhaola Siyanda Ndebele. It features design by Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Onthatile Matshidiso (set and costumes) and it is performed by Faith Busika, Hamilton Dhlamini, Billy Langa, Katlego Letsholonyana, Mohlatsi Mokgonyana, Lebohang Motaung and Alfred Motlhapi, at the Laager Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until January 31. Call 0118321641 or visit
  • Arguably, the success of the environment overrides the critical success of the play itself. Read this piece.

JAG’s brave curators, absent support


Most recognisable girl in the room: Daniel Gabriel Rosetti’s 1866 Regina Cordium, on show in the JAG’s centenary exhibition.

As you walk into the majestic space of the Edwin Lutyens-wing of the Johannesburg Art Gallery – through the entrance that faces the railway lines – you are confronted with two utterly superb Dumile Feni drawings. They tower over you as they reach, in their characteristic brutal charcoal linework toward the space’s high ceiling, effectively taking your breath away.

And, by the time you have meandered through the rest of the exhibition spaces constituting the celebration of the building’s centenary, you kind of wish the Dumiles had indeed taken your breath away, and that that was all you’d seen.

Not that the quality of the work on display is bad; rather the all-pervading sense of neglect hangs like a pall over the gallery, which shows its most precious gems in earnest honour of the building’s milestone. But further to that, a lack of guidance or literature and the absence of any gallery staff – it was a Sunday early in the year that I visited – leaves the space feeling ominously mausoleum-like.

The entrance you use finds you slap-bang in the middle of one of the curated exhibitions, but there’s nothing to advise you of this fact; you walk hither and yon until you encounter a different exhibiting context. And still, nary an indication that this is the second of the suite of six exhibitions curated for the building’s milestone. This lack of pamphlets or information or help of any description leaves you focused more on where one exhibition ends and the next begins, than on the work itself.

There is, admittedly, a large text on each of the exhibitions’ introductory walls, but you have to find it to appreciate it. And just over a month after the grand opening, a lot of the letraset-like letters stuck onto the walls are beginning to peel off.

While the exhibitions individually and collectively speak of much focused work and thought by the curators, and are clearly projects at great pains to showcase the JAG’s wonders, there are unforgivable horrors in how the museum’s maintenance is neglected. Yes: the roof has been attended to and hopefully over the last couple of rainy days has proved watertight, but there are so many areas in this beautiful space that suffer the indignity of rot.

Maybe two thirds of this museum should have been shut to the public, for the centenary and the remaining third be given the careful attention to detail on lights, walls, floor and ambience it deserves.

Having said that, the exhibitions’ curators must be lauded for bringing out old treasures and precious secrets from the JAG’s holdings – some you may know well – they may be your favourite favourites that resonate with times past in this gallery’s auspicious history, including the Picasso harlequin drawing, the Whistler etchings, the Siopis Melancholia painting that launched her popularity in the 1980s and the 1866 Daniel Gabriel Rosetti Regina Cordium, arguably the collection’s most recognised paintings.

Others you may not have seen before, such as a remarkable piece by Gerard Marx near the gallery’s entrance that reflects in a three-dimensional mosaic on an aerial view of Johannesburg, and a glorious Adolf Jentsch landscape and some incredibly fine John Koenakeefe Mohls. And yet others may trigger your memory of exhibitions that you’ve loved. There are some stunning works by Gladys Mgudlandlu, Jackson Hlungwanes to make you gasp and fierce and haunting works by Valerie Desmore.

In the space containing the display of African traditional works – from the collection of the Oppenheimer family, the display of objects might be encased in glass cabinets, but this doesn’t blur their unequivocal magnificence. From decorative vessels to headrests, walking sticks to figures, these mainly wooden pieces honours its promise of being among the best in the world.

The exhibition of Pre-Raphaelites curated by Sheree Lissoos is delicious, if you can pull your eyes from the flawed teal walls on which they’re hung and look through the ill-lit glimmer. It’s a crying shame: the works are jewel-like, reflecting a mid-19th century work ethic, touching on values opposed by radical artists such as the Impressionists. In these conjoined rooms, curated with a sense of the works’ emotional and historical value, you understand why the paintings are scorned as mawkish, but also to appreciate how all-consumingly beautiful they are.

Still armed with nothing, by way of literature or explanation, your ramble may lead you to the exhibition of works on paper, where you will see some Daumiers, a Hockney and some Kentridges to knock your socks off, or you may reach the exhibition of video art in the JAG’s most modern wing which was built in the 1980s.

In this latter exhibition, alongside wall signage, there is an open door, through which you see a stash of broken gallery furniture: if this is part of performance art, it is not marked as such. There’s also a very large unlabelled abstract painting on the wall alongside the men’s lavatory: was this too big to have been moved? Why is it unlabelled?  It is somewhere between that point and the Mohau Modisakeng video work that you cannot see because it is labelled as such but not switched on or working, that you experience the desperate need to get out of JAG altogether, before you lose all hope altogether.

The JAG’s centenary is an important series of exhibitions. Not only because of the work showcased, but also because in its upkeep and staffing it reveals the kind of benign neglect that you see in the Pretoria Art Museum, discussed here. At the JAG, however, there’s an urgent focus on the part of the curators to hold onto what we have by way of culture. But it’s a gesture that so obviously lacks support from the civic bodies under whose responsibility it falls, it is quite simply a disgrace.

  • The JAG’s centenary on until March 1 comprises: Curator Sheree Lissoos’s exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work; Encore, an ensemble of the JAG’s popular favourites; Moments in a Metropolis, curated by Tara Weber, is an exhibition of work on paper; Pastoral Pieces: Significant African Objects is curated by Karel Nel and Philippa van Straaten; South African Art 1940-1975, is curated by Antoinette Murdoch; and The Digital Underground, a glance at electronic and digital art, is curated by Musha Neluheni. Call: 011-725-3130