Ten arts writers selected for the inaugural Nirox arts writing workshop

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IN TUNE WITH THE LANDSCAPE: A work by Angus Taylor at the 2014 Nirox Winter Sculpture exhibition. Photograph courtesy Angus Taylor.

What does it take to be an arts writer? Ten enthusiastic and new arts writers are about to find out. Each has been carefully selected to participate in the inaugural Nirox Foundation Arts Writing Workshop which takes place at Nirox Sculpture park, near the Cradle of Humankind, north of Johannesburg over this weekend and the next.

Nirox Foundation director Benji Liebmann has been instrumental in bringing together senior students from the University of Johannesburg and the University of Pretoria in an arts writing initiative that will see them develop their craft under the guidance of independent art critic, Robyn Sassen, over two consecutive weekends in April.

A Place In Time, curated by American academic Helen Pheby in collaboration with Art Project director Mary-Jane Darroll is this year’s Nirox Winter sculpture exhibition. It opens to the public this year on May 7. But in the weeks before the opening, Nirox sculpture park will be alive with the sound of arts writers sharpening their words.

Sassen is delighted to announce the names of the ten writers selected to participate in this, the inaugural Nirox arts writing workshop: Monica Blignaut (Pretoria), Janine Engelbrecht (Pretoria), Nolene Gerber (Pretoria), Muziwandile Gigaba (Johannesburg), Leandré le Roux (Pretoria), Shenaz Mahomed (Pretoria), Lelani Nicolaisen (Pretoria), Cheree Swanepoel (Pretoria), Elani Willemse (Pretoria) and Colleen Winter (Johannesburg).

Selected on their academic credentials, their experience and their ability to describe their own writing priorities, the writers will each be commissioned to interview and write about a selected contemporary South African artist. Their writing will be polished and shaped over the next fortnight and Nirox Foundation will be publishing between six and eight of their pieces in a new publication relating to the forthcoming exhibition.

Visit http://www.niroxarts.com

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Intoxicated by the freedom to make art

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STEEPED IN HUMILITY AND HARD WORK: David Brown passed away suddenly. Photograph by Robyn Sassen

Arguably one of the most important sculptors in South Africa of his generation, David Brown passed away tragically suddenly on March 18 in Cape Town. My View was privileged to have interviewed him in January.

He balked, laughingly and humbly, at the idea of being a South African institution, but his deeply cynical, darkly hilarious works from the 1980s formed a curious backbone to what South African sculpture was – and is still – about. Akin to the harsh absurdity that German Expressionist artists like Max Beckmann and George Grosz articulated in the mid-20th century, the work is eerie and witty, explicit and dramatic.

“It’s hard to make pretty things in South Africa,” he spoke of his series, the Eleven Deadly Sinners, shown in 2015 at Woodstock’s Smac Gallery. Inspired by the Roman busts in the corridors of FTSE, it’s about “the banal professions: Butcher, Soldier, Lumberjack, Boxer … complicity is the theme. These are the ugly side of humanity.”

Brown’s Smac show was his first in over 20 years. “Freedom is intoxicating,” he expressed aversion to the gallery circuit.  “You walk into the studio. Put on some rock ‘n’ roll. And engage the material. It’s a good thing, but you slip out of the public eye. Art is not like running a race, but if you can crack a big commission, it helps. I don’t know what’s going on in the art world right now. I just make things.”

Inspired to be a sculptor by his father-in-law, the artist Cecil Skotnes in 1975, in 1986 he rocketed to the attention of South Africa’s art world, with Tightroping. It was a winning entry in a competition mounted by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, which had just built a contemporary wing. Brown’s work was chosen with that of Willem Snyman, Gavin Younge and Bruce Arnott.

Tightroping, featuring a man and a woman splayed at outlandish angles to one another was installed in front of the gallery, facing Joubert Park. “It became a favourite place for wedding photographs,” said Brown from his gorgeous studio in Cape Town’s suburb of Woodstock, the repurposed high-ceilinged red brick building which was once a brewery.

“I made it in my first proper studio: a broken down dilapidated ruin of a building on the border of District Six. It just fitted: the front hit the door and the back hit the wall.”

But Tightroping’s saga didn’t end there. Ten years later Brown was telephoned out of the blue by JAG’s director, Rochelle Keene. “‘Are you sitting down?’ she began. ‘You won’t believe this. Your sculpture has been stolen.’ I was horrified,” he described how the heavy bronze piece had been violated. “The female figure on the rocket was wrenched off, as was the flag.

“All that was left was the figure on the back of the chariot with a megaphone. The woman must have been thrown over the wall. I thought it would have been chopped up for scrap metal immediately. The JAG flew me up there to see the damage. Some people thought it should be restored. Some thought it should we should just forget about it. They moved what was left into the museum.

“Seven years later, the artist Willie Bester phoned me: ‘Hey, I found your sculpture on a scrap yard,’ he said. ‘I’m putting it up in my garden; it’s got a big crack down the middle. Can you fix it?’ I visited Willie and discovered it had a huge wide crack. Fortuitously I think someone in the scrap business had seen it as something that might have had some value and they put it aside. The work had a stainless steel blade, which was still there, amazingly.

“Willie was so crestfallen that the thing had to be returned to the JAG. He’d paid R5 000 for it. Then the Sunday Times did a story on it. I don’t know how they picked up on it, but the scrap yard got a fright, and they paid Willie his R5 000.

“Then it came back here. It stayed in the studio for about two years. I had it up on a winch hanging against the wall and then finally – the JAG didn’t have money – I actually fixed it for nothing. The gallery sent me the remaining piece of the sculpture. I was working with the industrial foundry, so I got a dirt cheap price for that and the transport. And that was the end of it.”

He slipped easily into a philosophical tone about the fallibility of things. “It’s all about the dynamic of making things. The supreme freedom. In the end, it doesn’t matter really, whether they get sold or smashed up for scrap.”

Brown, who was an immensely prolific and intrepid explorer of new ideas and new ways of expressing them, felt strongly about how South Africans don’t look after sculptures. “They buy a Merc and clean it every day, but they buy expensive sculpture and expect to look after itself. It’s devastating. My wife Pippa and I were in Berlin for a year and we saw all the monuments and sculptures. They’re all immaculately polished and they look beautiful.

“Maintaining a sculpture is neither expensive nor difficult. When my sculpture was installed in the gardens of the University of Cape Town, I trained a young man, Nicholas Shemane, to restore sculptures. He goes there three or four times a year: cleans them; checks all the bolts are tight; waxes and polishes the bronze, so it looks great. There are 64 sculptures in the collection and he does the whole lot. It’s a job. You’ve just got to know how to make a beeswax polish and you need a panelbeater’s buffing machine and a few rags and some scourers. That’s all.

“The complete disregard for public sculpture is not about malice. It’s benign neglect. I believe there won’t be anything left in 50 years… art is understandably right down there in priorities, but still …

“In the 1980s, there were so many competitions, so many awards, so much was happening. I think some of the most interesting art was made then. But that seems to have all fallen away,” contemporary young artists disappointed him. “They all want to be superstars. Tomorrow. Our art world has become isolated and competitive. The collaborative generosity I knew from people like Neels Coetzee, I don’t see any longer today.”

As a young sculptor, Brown, who was educated at Westerford High School and UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Arts taught at the Ruth Prowse Art Centre briefly. “I worked like a demon: Teaching three days a week, working the rest of the time. I think I was an okay teacher, but I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to make.

“Anyway, I have kind of survived. And miraculously I have gotten this far.”

Brown, born on February 3 1951 in Johannesburg, died from a suspected aneurysm and heart attack while surfing in Muizenberg. He leaves his wife, Pippa and son, Jules.

Of tumbling walls and elephants in the auditorium

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FOR THE LOVE OF TRUTH: The Vizier (Lebohang Motaung), the prostitute (Kelly Eksteen) and the solder (Jovan Muthray) confront each other. Photography by Sanmari Marais

CAN ONE REALLY ever successfully conflate politics with art, yielding a resolved and engaging artwork and a convincing political gesture at the same time? Art and theatre history is littered with the casualties of this earnest cleaving together of values. And often political crudeness will hammer the nuances in the artwork into submission. Allan Kolski Horwitz’s play Jerico is sadly another casualty in this litany, but it plays an important role in opening this country’s theatre industry to new work and new perspectives.

Jerico aligns a reflection of the Israelite invasion of the eponymous biblical city with that of the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So far so good: land grabs and ownership come to mind. And this controversial position is one which many may support vehemently – as many may argue against, with fury in their hearts – but this is not the work’s greatest problem. In attempting to breach biblical unfairness with contemporary discrimination, the work becomes infinitesimally complicated, and Horwitz’s use of actors doubling up in several roles is problematised by their distinctive physicality and the similarity of the period costumes in which they’re all decked, barring some completely fabulous headdresses from the State Theatre’s wardrobes.

While you’re struggling with not knowing who is who, the work is punctuated troublingly with scene changes and transitions. And whilst on paper, this is not a bad thing, each interregnum between scenes features a snippet of filmography, looking at some aspect of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unless you have a grasp of the subtleties in the issues, the meaning of these glimpses into contemporary warfare is not clear: created in a bizarre kind of a dreamscape, the visuals are migraine-inducing and blurred, the words feel as though they’re being articulated from the wrong side of a megaphone, and the context is mashed together. The snippets become a little like the broken chunks and crumbs of a bad dream once you’ve woken up. And the presence of this contemporary Israel scenario remains like a pall hanging over the work: it’s not directly engaged with, and becomes a bit of an elephant in the auditorium, conjoined rather bluntly with the words “Free Palezion” emblazoned in red on the set.

So the story unfolds: The two spies (Lebohang Motaung and Jonathan Taylor) have personal narratives that conflate with one another in several ways, and the play rather successfully sees them acting out their domestic lives concurrently. But all is not as it seems. While the famous biblical tale of the Canaanite prostitute, Rahab (Kelly Eksteen) giving the men protection and a way out before the place is destroyed under God’s hand, is told according to the original story, Horwitz has developed a backstory to it all. He fleshes out the spies as conflicted men with the kinds of issues that real people face: weaknesses in the face of a beautiful woman; instinctive distrust for one another; digressions in their own loyalties and moralities.

The work is long and heavily driven by much biblical dialogue and not a lot of physical drama, but it does offer satisfying narrative curves and recesses – in tandem with the city’s shattering walls, there’s a shattering of internal social walls in the work’s denouement. But you have to work quite hard to access these strong turning points in an otherwise rather text heavy, circumstantial piece.

Clearly, the Israeli West Bank barrier wall, built between 2000 and 2003 separating settlements inhabited by Israelis from Palestinian areas is a cipher to a lot of Horwitz’s material in this play, and his story implicitly points at a crumbling of these walls in the biblical Jericho style. This is, however literally left to the last bit of filmography in the work, and the effectiveness of the analogy is left diluted.

Having said all of that, Jerico is part of an initiative to bring back theatrical relevance to the State Theatre. The facilities have been invested with friendliness – there’s a functional restaurant on the theatre’s grounds and there’s an usher at every corner waiting to guide you around the corridors. While the space – on a Saturday evening – is still in many respects ghoulishly empty, the environment is beginning to feel alive.

  • Jerico, is written and directed by Allan Kolski Horwitz, with design by James de Villiers (soundscape and visuals) and Lionel Murcott and Nandipha Kubheka (set). It was performed by Kelly Eksteen, Tshego Khutsoane, Lebohang Motoung, Jōvan Muthray and Jonathan Taylor at the Momentum, State Theatre complex in Pretoria, March 2-19.

Bohemian Rhapsody’s glorious underbelly

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ANYWAY THE WIND BLOWS: Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of a painter, impeccably played by Robert Fridjhon. Photograph courtesy The Daily Maverick.

WHAT AN ABSOLUTE joy to watch a brand new piece of theatre crafted with compassion, structured with wisdom and levity and put together with an impeccable sense of focus. Robert Fridjhon brings you a back story for British rock band Queen’s most famous song ever, Bohemian Rhapsody, breathing muscular, colourful life into suppositions, in a complex, nuanced, rollicking monster of a production that you want to be able to bookmark and return to, again and again. Watching this production, you want to press “pause”, so that you can catch your breath, from time to time, in the wealth of nuance, language and thoughtfulness it unpacks.

Considered a mock opera by some, speculated as a musical interpretation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment by others, the complicated song which has various parts and features rich haunting and unforgettable harmonies, tells a weird story of love and hate, murder and hell, but the true back story has never been revealed.

Fridjhon casts a magnificent presence over this heady work, which effectively raises the bar for theatre of this nature. Arguably, it will redefine Fridjhon as both performer and writer. Teasing the song’s lyrics apart, but never disrespecting them, this is a quirky story of a painter whose career is thwarted by poverty, a philandering character called Lazarus and paranoia, amongst other things. It’s a grim tale brought into vivid and intoxicating focus with beautiful language, a whole gamut of art historical asides and puns, and a reflection on the 1970s when the song was born that will leave you with the smell of linseed oil in your heart and head.

Don’t expect to see a musical interpretation of the song, but if you do love the music and know it well, this theatre work offers deeply intelligent resonances with the music, which is deftly threaded through its texture. But even if you don’t know the song, the play is robust, watchable and wise enough to hold its own. Structured elegantly with refrains and satisfying narrative rhythms of repetition, the work sees Alan Swerdlow’s direction at its very best, and a mature understanding of the interface of set with sound, which never stoops into being gimmicky or invasive while it flawlessly retains credibility and an almost gothic sense of horror.

It’s another brilliant achievement for Pieter Toerien and Montecasino: something truly not to be missed.

  • Bohemian Rhapsody: The Untold Story is directed by Alan Swerdlow and written and directed by Robert Fridjhon. Featuring set and lighting design by Alan Swerdlow and Francois van der Hoven, it performs at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino in Fourways until April 17. Call 011 511 1818 or visit http://www.montecasinotheatre.co.za

Tamed by the Little Prince

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THERE’S A STARMAN WAITING IN THE SKY: Magic and whimsy bring The Little Prince to life on stage. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

THE CHALLENGE OF translating arguably one of the world’s most well loved stories, replete with fantasy and symbolism that reaches into the hearts of the crabbiest of grown-ups, is not to be sneezed at. Director Francois Theron has achieved something quite extraordinary in this production of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s 1943 classic The Little Prince, which to its great credit, earnestly holds on to the beautiful language of the original translation into English.

Not kowtowing to the temptation of technology, the piece is beautifully crafted. It features a very simple yet ingenious set which allows everything its own space – from the helpless broken aeroplane moored in a relentless desert in Africa, to the splendour of a king’s throne. But more than the careful manipulation of sound and light and clear fun in the creation of costumes, the work features delicious quirks in small and unexpected ways, which resonate like gems.

“We are the roses”, declare Lea Vivier and Waydene Laing, properly, with coyly arrogant pride which is quickly stripped to the mark by the Little Prince (played on opening night by AJ Mathee).  There’s a splendid interplay of earnest solemnity in the face of a mad little gesture, that has the power to turn a cameo performance into a highlight. Indeed both Vivier and Laing sparkle in several of their many roles, offering a blend of eastern mystique with innocence, as they depict everything from the Rose to the Snake.

The necessary light reflexive understanding of the complex challenges that this immensely simple yet deep tale embody, is, however, not consistently developed in this production, and the rich language is bruised by occasionally shouty wooden performances, which convey the words accurately, but in many instances, compromise the soul of the moment.

This cast of five enthusiastic performers work really hard to tell this tale and present the nuggets of wisdom which jump out at you and make you cry in the reading of the text. But alas, you feel the weight of the effort in this production. Further, it features very difficult language which might bamboozle – or worse, bore – your average five-to-eight year old, who may get lost in the work’s subtleties. It’s a Catch-22: the language is essential to the piece, but our child audiences don’t have the focus to imbibe it or be seduced by its beauty.

But can one viably represent a tale so anachronistic and iconic as this in such limited parameters? Not really a children’s tale, the work embraces love and loss and death and folly with an ambit that spans generations. It pokes fun at the things that adults think are important and conveys an understanding of beloved magic that like the Little Prince himself is so preciously ephemeral, you have to hold onto every word and nuance.

Not a perfect production, but an admirable foray into something great, this rendition of The Little Prince should be approached with an open heart. After all, as the Fox (Dean Christian) tells us, what is essential can only be seen with the heart; it is invisible to the eye.

  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is adapted for stage and directed by Francois Theron with design by Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Dale Scheepers (sound). It is performed by Dean Christian, Waydene Laing, Brandon Lindsay, Kabelo Mashika and Lea Vivier, and features a rotating child cast comprising AJ Mathee, Michael Mathee and Samuel Straw. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until April 17. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

A line seared into the sand

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DANCING WITH NOTHING BUT HEART: Sand, watermelons and passion in CDCE’s Terra Cha (Flatland). Photograph courtesy cdcedance.pt

You don’t conventionally associate Portuguese culture with the rough and tumble, fury and passion of contemporary dance and its smashing of aesthetic precepts and reinventing of new possibilities. This astonishing paean to the land by CDCE, a dance company supported by the government of Portugal presents not only a fresh spin on a society that doesn’t often rise to cultural prominence but also a restored understanding of how folklorish values and hard-hitting contemporary energy can mesh.

A group of traditionally dressed men and women chant and heave in Portuguese, in an astonishing bit of filmography which fills the hollow space of the UJ auditorium and reverberates in your head, with its colour and density. You may not be able to access the poem they recite or the meaning of its contents, but you are swept away by the inward-looking earnestness of their presence. It feels like you are in the presence of a religious ritual of great and terrible moment.

And then you realise it all rests on the sand.

The work is premised on a thick layer of soft sand which resonates and absorbs the light to become a matter almost transcendent. It is as though the sand is a sixth dancer in terms of how it rumbles and splashes, how it hides dancers and exposes them, how it is black with shadow and impenetrably gold, or pink or blue, lending tone and texture to this extraordinary piece.

The sand consumes you and fixates you but the dancers absolutely mesmerise. It doesn’t feel legal or possible, actually, to be able to move one’s body or that of another dancer as though it were a disarticulated doll or a dead body. These unbelievable performers under the hand and eye of fellow performer and the piece’s choreographer, Nélia Pinheiro, defy the way in which their bodies were made as they cock a snook at the very principles of gravity. It’s dancing that utterly takes your breath away.

But blending the deep rich melody of traditional music with the white noise that is an unfortunate trend in contemporary dance, is sadly, a factor that bruises this otherwise close to perfect bit of work. The numbing absence of music, replaced by the ugly technological buzz emphasises an element of monotony to this piece – and while the movement is so big and wild and frenetic, against the backdrop of this techno-buzz, it becomes soporific.

But you have to maintain your focus: armed with a couple of chairs, a watermelon, a table and a watering can, these six dancers define what it is to make passionate love to the land. Phrased around dissonance and opposites, this is a muscular and convincing piece of dance. A privilege to experience, and easily the pinnacle of this year’s Dance Umbrella, so far.

  • Terra Chã is choreographed by Nélia Pinheiro and designed by Ólafur Arnalds (music score); Modas de Cante Alentejano (sounds); Gonçalo Andrade (soundtrack); José António Tenente (costumes); and Paulo Graça (lighting). It is performed by Gonçalo Andrade, Fábio Blanco, Nélia Pinheiro, Constança Sierra Couto and Ivanoel Tavares of the CDCE dance company from Portugal. It performed at the UJ Theatre in Auckland Park, on March 1 and 2, as part of Dance Umbrella 2016. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za