Oh, the things you can do with humble tools!


The world in a swath of brown paper: Liezl de Kock in Heart’s Hotel. Photo by Gemma Middleton, courtesy CuePix.

DO YOU REMEMBER casting shadows of animals made of your own little fingers and hands, on the wall, when you were a small child? The thrill of that level of interpretative magic which makes something unexpected happen in the context of ordinariness is something we as human beings should never allow ourselves to forget. And thanks to utterly remarkable theatre practitioners such as Toni Morkel, Liezl de Kock and James Cuningham, we won’t.

It is always such a splendid privilege and treat to get to see Morkel perform. She lends a blend of sinister humour which is unique and completely magnetic. Ditto for Liezl de Kock, who Johannesburg audiences last saw opposite Andrew Buckland in the wonderful Crazy in Love. When you hear that these two inimitable physical theatre giants are collaborating in a work, your only real questions should be where? And when? Hearts Hotel featured as one of the pickings of this year’s Wits 969 Festival, and hopefully it will enjoy legs, further down the line.

And while all the names on paper shine and sparkle in your mind’s eye, they certainly don’t disappoint in their performances in this quirky apocalyptic tale of motherly love, new beginnings, terrors in the night and a very poisonous scorpion. It’s a work that brings together the rich and simple idea of play in such provocative ways it will singe your heart and leave you aching for more.

When you weep at a death that is evoked with the smoothing out of wrinkled paper, or gasp at the way in which distance and nearness are conveyed by shadows alone, you become susceptible to an easy melding of different realities, and you get sucked into a work of such creative magnitude that it will shift your values. Hearts Hotel comprises a whole range of low-tech theatre crafts, from shadow puppetry to mime. It reflects ideas such as destruction by fire, great distances travelled on foot, big waves in the ocean and the playfulness of a baby with succinct gesture and great wisdom, that will make you laugh with glee and surprise.

Such a range of richness is carried by an economy of tools but a generosity of creative energies that you will feel like a child being exposed to great classics for the very first time.

The language in the work smacks of something East-European in its flavour and sense of tradition, but nothing is pinned down. The devilish horned hats also fit into something which you might not know, but will recognise as a time worn custom, replete with its own rituals and choreography.

Perhaps the only casualty in this work is the looseness of the grand narrative, which holds it all together and is not consistently easy to follow. But in the bigger picture of the work, it’s not a catastrophe – even if you’re not savvy of the apocalyptic nature of the piece, or the madness of the situation in the empty abandoned hotel, even if you do not understand where the curious stranger fits in, or where there be scorpions in this hostile landscape, you will still be swept away by the humble and soaring texture of its unequivocal generosity of magic.

  • Hearts Hotel is directed by James Cuningham assisted by Binnie Christie. It is performed by Liezl de Kock, Toni Morkel and Christelle van Graan as part of the Wits 969 festival for 2016, in the Wits Downstairs Theatre, which ended on July 24.

A broken train passed this way


THE train that couldn’t: Jenna Dunster plays one of the few survivors of the Blaauwkrantz train disaster. Photograph courtesy Cuepix. Photograph by Madeleine Chaput.

AS SHE APPEARS on stage brokenly and almost distractedly singing words and phrases from the Christian hymn which begins “Immortal, Invisible, God only wise…”  Jenna Dunster in the role of Hazel Smith hauntingly sets the scene. The set of Immortal is sparse, but for some large stones and a diagrammatic reflection of the ill-fated Blaauwkrantz Bridge, the other ‘character’ in this play.

It’s a fresh and candid reflection on a very famous Grahamstown story which in 1911, saw a train, heavily loaded with both passengers and stones freshly quarried for the building of the city’s Anglican cathedral, fall from the bridge crossing a gorge between Grahamstown and Port Alfred. Seven-year-old Hazel was one of the few survivors of this tragic accident and playwright Peter Terry casts the whole horror of the experience through her eyes.

The work elegantly and without artifice sheds a sensitive light on what life was probably like for an average family living in the British colonies during late Victorian times, and Dunster does a fine job of articulating seven-year-old foibles and fascination for the beach and her siblings. It’s the calm before the storm: If you read the blurb in the programme or know a smattering of Grahamstown history, the plot of this work would be known to you. The challenge then, for the creative team that evolved this project was roughly threefold: the context, the build-up to the horror and the aftermath.

The context is handled with a sophisticated reflection on the way in which the Eastern Cape is drenched with the historical blood of much internecine and tribal warfare, and hauntingly beautiful echoes of the Xhosa beliefs and rituals are depicted as rising from the ravine, lending the work spiritual rumblings far more uncontrollable and unknowable to a Victorian context than the sedate churchly manners observed by the colonialists occupying the land. The Xhosa gods of the area become implicit presences and witnesses.

As the accident becomes immanent in the telling of the tale, the work is enhanced with an extremely successful use of sound that makes you gasp with the shriek of the train in anticipation of catastrophe. Throughout the work, the sound, the rhythm of the train on its tracks, the noise of a fall are handled agonisingly and beautifully, painting the sense of the landscape in your mind’s ear. But the build-up of this catastrophe through Dunster’s performance at this point feels rather bland.

You don’t find yourself gripping the edge of your seat tightly, or notice your knuckles turning white as the catastrophe hits. When Hazel loses her loved ones quite literally before her eyes, you do not feel the sense of brokenness that you think you should. The prosaic nature of the work at this point begins to bruise the overriding potency of the story’s construct.

And what we’re left with is an aftermath that doesn’t really leave you with the potency with which the work began. Yes, there’s a dramatic element in which Hazel turns her eyes, wretched with grief back at the church and condemns these ‘stones of God’ which took away her family. And indeed, it will make you rethink the historical sanctity of Grahamstown’s defining Cathedral of St Michael and St George which adorns the city’s central square.

But the ordinariness of Hazel Smith’s life after the accident, dovetailed with the accident itself and the dramatic context of the ravine, pales into inconsequence, and while the structure of the work promises a symmetry of how the piece began so hauntingly, this is not an opportunity grabbed by the throat, and the piece seems to end mid-thought.

It’s a lovely work with a great heart and soul, but there’s a little fire missing from it. In reading the piece’s programme notes, you expect to go home in a state of emotional shock and political fire. You don’t.

  • Immortal is written by Peter Terry and directed by Chris Weare. It features design by Andrew Botha (set and costumes) and Kieran McGregor (lighting) and is performed by Jenna Dunster, as part of the Wits 969 festival for 2016, in the Wits Amphitheatre, which ended on July 24.

Broken Bird, Fly Free


OUTSIDERNESS personified: Elu in the Goatfoot God — Pan. “I’m on the outside. An outcast in the dance community. They’ll never accept me. I don’t know why,” Elu told dance critic Adrienne Sichel in the 1990s.

A DANCER WHO was capable of provoking guttural fear in his audience and critics because of the unstinting quantity and quality of beauty, bravery and intensity he was able to give his performances, South African choreographer and performance artist Elu, passed away suddenly after a six-week illness, on July 17. A dancer not afraid to shatter all traditions relating to dance in the name of the fierceness and the magic that he was creating, Elu was a quietly spoken person, with strong opinions and passionate beliefs. He contributed significantly to the performance art discipline in South Africa and was the life partner and creative collaborator of Steven Cohen from 1997.

Born in Pretoria on June 17 1968, Elu was trained in contemporary dance and classical ballet at Pretoria Technikon. But it was from 1992 that he began developing his own approach to the medium of dance, engaging with the world from within a perspective enhanced by his unremitting readiness to push the boundaries of his body and his audiences.

Elu debuted professionally at Barclay Square in Pretoria in 1992 with a work called The People’s Lib and When to Pass the Ashtray and he created several other pieces over the next couple of years, for platforms such as the Dance Umbrella and the Arts Alive Festival. Elu met and began collaborating with Steven Cohen in 1997 in a turnkey work for both their careers, called The Art of Kissing, which was part of the Arts Alive Street Theatre festival, of that year, but was also staged as an impromptu performance outside the Supreme Court of Johannesburg, where the couple stood on a podium and kissed for several hours. Inside the court, anti-homosexual legislation was under review, at the time.

Describing himself as an “Afrikaans-speaking pagan working with an English-speaking Jew”, Elu – a name he adopted, which is an acronym for “Elephant Lion Unicorn”, playing into the therianthropic nature of the creature that he was most comfortable recognising himself as – was profoundly supportive of Cohen’s developing ethos. Between 1997 and 2002, Elu and Cohen together made deeply important works for the growing discipline of guerrilla performance art in South Africa. These significantly anarchic pieces dealt with the notion of impromptu appearances for audiences that were not sanctioned by the safe environment of a theatre or dance stage, and included Living Art, a suite of four seminal works, for which Cohen won the Vita Art Award of 1998.

There are unforgettably beautiful images captured by photographers such as the late John Hodgkiss, Caroline Suzman and John Hogg in works by Elu including Intersection, choreographed by Cohen, where Elu danced in a tutu with a gun strapped to his head in busy intersections of Johannesburg, to speak of the violence in our society. In a series of works entitled the Goatfoot God, Pan, Kudu, Tristesse and Broken Bird respectively, Elu developed a rich and meaningful iconography which was about the serenity of a mythical entity and the rottenness of a contemporary urban society corrupted from within. He was a dancer able to explore frenetic ferocity as he was able to express extreme vulnerability and beauty with his face and body.

His work of 2001, Dancing with Nothing But Heart broke new ground. It was premised as a comment on a lack of funding for the arts and was performed at that year’s Dance Umbrella. The work had no music and no costumes. Elu was naked and danced with an ox’s heart, bought from the inner city butchers for a few rand.

Cohen and Elu were head-hunted by Régine Chopinot of Ballet Atlantique in Paris and invited to spend a one-year research residency in La Rochelle in 2002. Elu was a central collaborator and co-choreographer with Cohen in I Wouldn’t Be Seen Dead in That which was developed in La Rochelle and travelled to South Africa to be the key note work of 2003’s Dance Umbrella. But it was also in that year, that Elu performed Pan 1 and Tristesse at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

Elu’s exceptional repertoire reflected upon him as an intensely beautiful and sophisticated performer engaging the realities of paganism and the challenges of a world fraught with confusion and evil in a way that was timeless and seductive. His contribution to the field of dance was never, during Elu’s lifetime, given the pride of place it truly warranted. Elu’s struggle for the last decade of his tragically short life was sadly not unique in the arts fraternity in South Africa. He died alone, away from the ability to make new work, excluded from the reach of critical acknowledgement, financial support or medical assistance. An outsider – as he described himself to art critic Adrienne Sichel in the 1990s – to the very bitter end.

Iron fists in knitted red gloves


LOOKING out for number one: Michael Mazibuko and Zabalaza Mchunu. Photograph courtesy witsvuvuzela.com

FORTY YEARS AGO the Market Theatre was established in Johannesburg. It was the same year as the Soweto Uprising. South Africa was suppurating in a mire of apartheid, to the backdrop of sanctions, disinvestment and states of emergency. Terrible people were doing terrible things. This period was the incubator for some of this country’s most articulate and outrageous and important protest theatre. Enter Jefferson Tshabalala and the theatre narrative continues in this generation with as much aplomb, bravery, terrifying hilarity and hilarious terror as you can stomach.

Secret Ballot is conceived and written for the Facebook-twitter-instagram generation, the young people who in a few weeks will be voting for the very first time in their lives. And it very skilfully weaves a flagrant thread of cynicism through all the currently trending political rhetoric, from the tenderpreneur to the permissiveness of an entitled middle class, coloured by its naivete and its inability to not have its attention frittered away by Pokemon GO.

Featuring “the Brotherhood”, four men with red gloves, shades and bling, offset against “Number One”, it’s a beautifully crafted, hard-hitting piece of theatre which goes chillingly close to the bone in touching the nuances, lies and twisted choreography around the truth, that we see in real life.

The work often has the momentum of a mob in itself, in terms of the political tints and tones it casts on everything from popular songs and slang to the national anthem, bringing in everything from sexual innuendo to hero worship in a way that gets its audience into a froth of enthusiasm.

Tracing the levels of corruption against the trajectory of the lives of contemporary political figures in South Africa, the work is not, however, two-dimensional. It speaks of children’s temptation to steal sugar as a metaphoric extrapolation on how an entitled society is born and grows, as it casts a powerful net of fresh and feisty political diatribe and satire for the next generation.

But this is no dull evening of clever words – the play is very cleverly woven into song, and the songs are splayed around the stage into some seriously funny choreography, backed by a diverse and interesting set, in which unfortunately the swings were only decorative, but the playground metaphors, bringing in childish songs like the nursery rhyme ‘Row, row, row, your boat…’ or clapping routines habitually practiced by toddlers and filtering them with economic, political or seriously sinister overtones.

There’s no happy closure to this roughly Orwellian play  – you will leave it with your heart beating fast from the energy of the material, but your brain ticking over about the future. Having said that, more than the work as a self-standing play, this piece heralds a new generation of political satire. Jefferson Tshabalala: remember this guy: his work is important. And it’s brilliant.

  • Secret Ballot is written and directed by Jefferson Tshabalala assisted by Mbali Malinga, with design by Karabo Legoabe (costumes and set) and Mandla Mtshali (lighting). It is performed by Zabalaza Mchunu, Tony Miyambo, Lereko Rex Mfono, Micheal Mazibuko and Tsietsi Morobi. It is part of the Wits 969 Festival and performs again on July 21 at 7pm in the Wits Downstairs Theatre. wits.ac.za/witstheatre/whats-on/969-festival/969-festival-programme-information/


Of goosebumps and brokenness


DOES this hurt? Dwang # 6 by Richardt Strydom. Photograph courtesy Johannesburg Art Gallery.

THERE’S A CLINICALITY to this intense body of photographic work that repels your inner being and makes you want to turn away and then run away really quickly before you encounter the works in detail. But that same inner being of yours knows that if you do this, you will be caught. And punished. If you have been through the officialdom of a schooling system under apartheid, with its mandatory medical examinations, you will know why. Richardt Strydom brilliantly offers a body of work that makes you feel as though you shouldn’t be looking, but once you do look, it is difficult to turn your gaze away.

Premised on an extract from Jean-Paul Sartre’s powerful preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (first published in 1965), an electrically relevant text which embodies similar nerve-endings to Franz Kafka’s haunting tale Report to an Academy, the work is not only about handpicked “promising adolescents branded with the principles of western culture…”, it’s also about the unspoken horror of colonialism. Sartre goes on to promise the reader than when they have finished reading Fanon’s vital text, “… you will be convinced that it would be better for you to be a native at the uttermost depths of his misery than to be a former settler.”

In several visually clean and professionally hung series of photographs, Strydom engages a whole litany of the realities of being raised as a white, Afrikaans-speaking youth under the pall of apartheid. This is not just another politically astute exhibition, but it is something of a horror show. However, under the wise and astute viewfinder of this photographer and the exhibition’s curator, Musha Nehuleni the work on show presents none of the blood and guts that a traditional horror show might offer, but rather implied intimacies, a sense of suicidal values and a sense of medical exploration that tramples into the notion of invasive sexuality. They’re immensely uncomfortable images that will haunt you.

The mesmerising reality of this exhibition is that it is not sensationalist. There are no genitals on display, or acts of “real” violence. All the photographs focus on the head of the sitter. The suicidal gestures involve fingers pointed in the child-like framework of a make-believe gun. The sexual innuendo is something you draw out of the images of fingers in mouths. You look at each man photographed, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up. Because of the gestures, the context, the surrounds.

Further there is a video piece that segues together footage of these pseudo medical examinations which recall the kinds of things that were imposed upon young boys during apartheid – ostensibly to check their readiness for the army which was mandatory at the time (only here the idea of pre-pubescent boys has been superseded by the presence of men). The work is overcast with soundbytes. One man is explaining why he would like to become a sex worker. Another speaks of how things snowballed into a violent situation after he had imbibed one too many. The voices are difficult to hear, difficult to listen to, as you hear them. The blending of these invasive facial examinations by a white hand, devoid of a medical examination glove, with this soundtrack is more horrifying than watching a staged display of atrocity.

But a strange dynamic was operative in the space last Sunday. One of the temporary walls closing off parts of the downstairs exhibition area was dismantled, roughly, revealing the rest of the enormous space filled with broken furniture and fragments of rubbish and dust. A charismatic church was singing hymns somewhere in Joubert Park. The presence of this broken bit of the gallery and the beauty of the church songs bounced and rumbled off the works on Bleek with such an energy it felt planned. Difficult to establish if it was, but either way, it gave the experience of visiting the exhibition a local context and a resounding resonance that hammered home all of those race values and left a residue of goosebumps that will take some time before they subside.

  • Bleek by Richardt Strydom, curated by Musha Nehuleni, is at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in Joubert Park until August 14. 011 725 3130

Stumped by an Apple: the need for new blood in this industry


THE FRISSON OF excitement at the start of a new play is in the air. The audience is exuberant but alert, as soon as the lights drop, silence prevails. And focus. The play begins. He walks on stage. And out of his mouth sprout words I do not understand. Is my evening ruined? Should I run out in high dudgeon? The performer has agonised over this work, he’s rehearsed, he might be nervous. What would happen if I stayed and listened?

The actor speaks isiZulu, but he does so with such a directness, with such body language and such engagement that even without a respectable knowledge of the language, you’re swept away in the current of the work. And as you stretch your mind and your focus to attempt to see what he’s doing, as you listen to the response of your fellow audience members who do understand, something remarkable happens. Actually two things happen.

Firstly you quickly gain some inroads into the language. The more you listen, the more you begin to recognise things. You recognise the names of characters. You recognise repeated elements in the story that lead to a climax in pace, in narrative. You begin to make assumptions about the prepositions in the language and the beauty of the sentence construction. And the use of timing. The props clearly represent different characters, and the dialogue with the props flesh these things out. It’s a very interesting – and humbling – exercise which is as much about seeing a work from the outside in, as it is about the idea of empathy.

Secondly, it’s a fascinating South African exercise. I do not understand isiZulu because I am white, because I was educated in the 1970s and 1980s during the thick intensity of apartheid, and because I was raised by a family who didn’t think it necessary for me to do so. And the years have passed and the enthusiasm it takes to learn a new language sits on a back burner.

Sitting in an audience where everyone is falling about with laughter at the tragicomic elements unfolding on stage and not being able to understand them is intensely disempowering, but it also puts you almost in the shoes of thousands and thousands of South Africans for whom English is maybe their eighth language, and their awareness of the nuances and asides you can conjure up in English might not be that strong. It’s a case of almost because most black South Africans without the privilege of an English-medium education who work in urban centres are able to use English as a tool, by necessity. Us locally-born whiteys managed to live for generations without the need to learn anything beyond, perhaps, Afrikaans, which was, in any case compulsory in the schooling curriculum.

Yes, given that English is generally the language of common parlance in Johannesburg theatres, it was remiss of the theatre in question not to have advised that the play is all in isiZulu. But having said that, had they done so, I would not have elected to see it. My Zulu is far from sufficiently sophisticated to understand the words, let alone the nuances of a play. And had I not seen the piece, I would not have encountered the focus and energy and intensity of Sifiso Zimba, a performer who I will be interviewing on this blog shortly.

So, what does this mean? I saw Apple, a piece by Zimba, directed by Omphile Molusi. I know Molusi’s work and have been following it for some years, which is why I elected to see the piece. I loved it, and I was moved to tears at points in it, but I didn’t understand why. Maybe I didn’t understand anything at all, and was simply influenced by the people around me. So, I cannot review it. But there are so many young South Africans who could.

The arts writing industry, thanks to social media and the apparent immediacy it presents, makes every person with a Wi-Fi connection and a keyboard able to tout their own opinions, no matter how foolish, biased or downright vicious they are. What lends art criticism credibility? Not the sensation or the glamour but the track record of the critic. So many young publications, or young editors, fall into this trap of getting people who know not what they do to voice a critical opinion on the arts, because with the current machinery of publishing, you can and it’s cool and trendy to give the next generation a chance.

Traditional art critics, who write not for that shimmer of sensationalism, but for the value they believe they give the industry, who go the extra mile in ensuring their criticisms are balanced and justified, are fast becoming a dying breed. Why? No jobs. No money. No interest.

But what happens when a young Zulu-speaking person in the audience reaches for her keyboard or pen to say something about this work? Whether she says it in English or isiZulu, suddenly something begins to turn on its axis. Maybe her theatre opinions need refining or justifying. Maybe she’ll shoot from the hip and voice an emotional opinion which feels raw. But the investment she will make of her time to do so, has the power to begin the momentum that will in time make that pendulum swing back.

And back it shall swing to a world of proper arts writing, but it shall swing with the added bonus of a respectful multiculturalism: an acknowledgement of the joys and horrors of how language can empower and can handicap you. A fantasy? Maybe. But one worth articulating. Congratulations to Wits969 for giving Apple, straight from the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, a platform.

Supported by the Constitution, betrayed by the world


TOUGH girls do cry: Ayanda Rose Fali, Ayanda Sibisi, Tsholofelo Ross and Khanyisa Nanabe (seated) simmer in their performances. Photograph courtesy The Critter.

HOW DO YOU represent sexual violence on stage? It cannot be sexy. It cannot be comical. It cannot be beautiful. It cannot be explicit. It also cannot be abstract. Your audience has to go away from the spectacle shattered with an understanding of the horror, the irrevocable violation that has occurred. Seasoned playwright and director Phyllis Klotz, cofounder of Benoni-based Sibikwa, has crafted a searing play in Chapter 2 Section 9 that touches all of these bases, and has the potency of becoming the torch song for black South African lesbians.

Premised on the equality clause of the Constitution, the work, performed in a heady amalgamation of South African languages is an assemblage of different interviews with women who have experienced the private loopholes in this clause. Women who have been rejected by their parents, their children or the police. Women who have been brutally – and sometimes lethally – raped by men intent on ‘curing’ them of their homosexuality. Women who have borne the brunt of being shamed for being different from the rest of their community. Women who have had to reconstruct and justify the most private intimate aspects of their lives to strangers. Because they’re gay. It is performed with a fresh and magnetic sense of authenticity by a very young but extremely articulate cast.

In many respects, like Murray Nossel and Paul Browde’s important performance initiative, Two Men Talking, the piece is premised on words rather than graphic depictions of violence. The curious thing with a work like this, is if you read the newspapers and watch TV, if you look at photographic exhibitions and speak to people, the horrendous concept of so-called corrective rape perpetrated on black lesbians in the townships of South Africa is something you should have heard of.

The dreadful anecdotes of gang rape and murder that black lesbians have suffered in the name of their being different from society are stories with horrible endings that have tragically become predictable in the trajectory which has been told over and over again. Only the victims’ names and faces differ. And yet, the tales in this play are told with a burning bluntness and a frankness that is utterly electric, and at no point in this 90 minute show can you pull your attention from this work.

The set features a bleak yet potent set which comprises bare white trees with photographs of victims of corrective rape hanging on their branches like fallow fruit. It has the words of the equality clause written boldly across the stage. And it is brought to life with intense orange hues, but also with the haunting a capello singing of the cast, at times supported by Isaac Molelekoa on keyboard and violin, at times in tune with the mournful energies of their stories.

Teasing apart the complication of sexual identity, from how one’s parents, grandparents, siblings and children respond to it, to grappling with church values, the work explores the question ‘what is a lesbian?’ in the same way that it puts the question of ‘what is an African?’ under the loupe. Can a lesbian not be allowed to want to have children? Why is homosexuality considered unAfrican? And while the cast rarely interface with one another, leaving the stories as stories being recounted rather than narratives re-enacted, each of them led by Tsholofelo Ross who holds your eye and your heart even when she is sitting quietly, embraces the piece with an authenticity that is raw, a sense of self that is credible.

  • Chapter 2 Section 9 is written and directed by Phyllis Klotz based on research by Collen Mfazwe and Janneke Strijdonk-Xulu. It is designed by Isaac Molelekoa (music composition), Sarah Roberts (costume and set) and Stan Knight (lighting) and is performed by Ayanda Rose Fali, Khanyisa Nanase, Tsholofelo Ross and Ayanda Sibisi, in the Amphitheatre, Wits Theatre Braamfontein. It is part of the Wits969 Festival and performs again on July 16 at 6pm. wits.ac.za/witstheatre/whats-on/969-festival/969-festival-programme-information/  It also performs at Pop Arts Centre in Maboneng, downtown Johannesburg on August 6 and 7 and as part of Vavasati, International Women’s Festival on August 18 and 19 at the Arena, State Theatre in Pretoria.

Bad men, rotten clouds and ambiguous shades of evil


TRUST me: Robyn Penn’s portrait of one of the most wanted men in the world, scientific spin-doctor, David Koch. Photograph courtesy David Krut Projects.

YOU MIGHT NOT be able to recognise that your boss is a psychopath. Until, of course, her behaviour gives her away. Evil or madness in a human being in real life is not easily recognisable. People don’t run around bullying and destroying other people’s lives with a great big gargoyle on their heads, so that you can steer clear of them.

Representing evil in art is complicated. Should it be ugly? Should it be enticing and thus dangerously beautiful? Either position, if taken to an extreme endangers the value of the representation: anything too exaggerated slips off into the realm of crudity or simplicity that is undermining. In her current exhibition that engages with the cancer of doublespeak and spin-doctoring in the eye of a cripplingly polluted world, Robyn Penn achieves a level of balance which will disconcert you down to your very toes.

Released as a documentary film in 2014, Merchants of Doubt, directed by Robert Kenner, is based on the text by historical scientists Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway of 2010, that exposes how politically conservative scientists in the United States weighed in to debates surrounding environmental issues such as acid rain, the danger of smoking, the hole in the ozone layer, deliberately confusing a layman’s understanding of the environmental status quo for financial and political gain. Without cluttering up her narrative with the specifics of the controversy, Penn presents a body of work that considers polluted clouds and these men with their sinister agendas.

Her portraits of Frederick Seitz, William Nierenberg, Robert Jastrow, Charles and David Koch, Fred Singer and Milton Friedman are the most magnetic aspect of this tightly woven and compelling exhibition, and once you’re sucked in by them, you get seduced by the cloudscapes and their subtleties.

But these are no ordinary portraits. Premised on highly conservative and traditional photographs of these men, her works, primarily in black and white paint, take the faces of white scientific clout and corrupt them physically. Here’s a crooked eye. There are a pair of raw red ears. This man’s face is smeared down one side as though a painterly stroke was tearing at the fabric of its symmetry. This bloke’s piercing blue eyes puncture a loose and flabby face lending it a sinister tone that is nightmarish.

There’s something of German Expressionist Max Beckmann’s self portraits in the heavy line work, the wise and developed understanding of the planes and textures of these faces, the use of tones and tints with a bold hand and a bracing directness, but it shows an aspect of Penn’s repertoire that her followers and fans have not seen for a long time.

Penn’s cloud paintings fit more recognisably into her contemporary oeuvre but these cloudscapes, against a dark ground are heavily impregnated with strong colour. They’re heavy with rage rather than rain, and filtered with the kind of pollution you see on Johannesburg’s skyline at twilight. Is it beautiful? Or rotten with filth? The same issues of good and bad are threaded together and presented with directness and ambiguity to make you think.

Further, in this exhibition we see Penn playing with a diversity of approaches to intaglio – some interesting if imperfect forays into mezzotint, and some of her beautifully descriptive line work in delicately coloured sugarlift, aquatint and hardground, featuring the curious abstraction that drawing a cloud is all about, as well as a jewel-like, but suspiciously scary sense of colour. While you gaze into the heart of these green and red and orange lines with their calligraphic energy, you cannot help but wonder if they depict poisonous gases and the imminent collapsing of the air that we breathe, that we thought we understood.

Central to the exhibition is a sculptural work which retranslates the idea of a cloud into a bronze-cast tumour with cauliflower texture and a weightiness that you can feel in your lungs as you look upon it.

Cloud of Unknowing is a smart and sophisticated exhibition that lacks smug slickness or earnest didactic content – the work is beautifully rendered but has the humility and spirit of discursiveness to leave you both aesthetically pleased and morally troubled at the same time.

  • Cloud of Unknowing, by Robyn Penn is at David Krut Projects in Parkwood, Johannesburg, until August 6. 011 447 0627 or www.davidkrut.com

A sjambok to make you sing


SCARED monster: Blessing Ngobeni’s Tax Payer. Photograph courtesy mpefm.com


WITH A TOUCH of Pablo Picasso, a hint of Hieronymus Bosch, a foray in the direction of Norman Catherine and another towards Mmakgabo Sebidi, not to mention some hefty nods to George Grosz, the work of Blessing Ngobeni seduces all your senses from the moment you walk into the gallery space. This, his fourth solo exhibition in the astonishing trajectory of awards and opportunities as well as disappointments and challenges that he has faced, attests to his indefatigable spirit and sheer lust for life.

The Song of the Chicotte is the result of his own inner working engine which draws across the values of art history with a thirsty intensity that doesn’t allow him to lose his own voice or become derivative. This body of work digresses from earlier pieces by Ngobeni in that it also rests on certain new energies he’s imbibed in a New York residency and a graffiti workshop, in Nantes, France earlier this year. These are characterised by his use of bluntly brash and neon colours, which in the hands of a lesser artist might have seemed gimmicky or tacky. But Ngobeni’s fierce sense of purpose – comparable on a level with the work of Nigerian contemporary artist Victor Ehikhamenor with its sure, rapid linework and intermingled calligraphic sequences – overrides any notion of flippant tricks.

As an essay on several different types of slavery – from within colonialist values to those defined by the paying of taxes – this body of 12 large works fills Circa’s dramatic space, teasing apart the notion of the chicotte, which is a nastier relative of the sjambok, used in colonialist times, often lethally.

But more than the historical references of atrocity, or the classical art references, as you look and follow the lines of logic in the huge figures built up of hundreds of visual anecdotes and snippets of everything from newspaper articles to monsters, you can see strong shades of Bitterkomix-like values in the way in which Ngobeni speaks of sex, violence and social exuberance, with two-dimensional images interfacing, overlaying and underplaying more complex visual associations. Indeed, there’s a hint of the kind of complicated narrative handled with a dexterous simplicity that American artist Kara Walker dabbles with, as well, in her visual tales of horrendous atrocity concerning sexuality, identity and slavery in her works.

There’s a long line of cynicism that threads through these astonishingly energetic works, with a viscosity that is both extremely disturbing and viciously hilarious at the same time. You can’t look at these works flippantly or quickly: as you walk into the gallery space, they grab you by the innards and won’t let go until you have allowed yourself to be sucked into their complicated interstices and tried to figure out what parts of the body you are looking at and how the details relate to the whole. You emerge dizzied, but replete with the cut and thrust of something amazing.

  • The Song of the Chicotte by Blessing Ngobeni is at Circa Gallery, Rosebank until August 6. 011 788 4805 or circaonjellicoe.com

Intimate days of wine and roses


CHAMPAGNE and susurration: Karin Preller’s painting ‘Whispering’. Photograph courtesy Fried Contemporary Art Gallery.

INSTINCTIVELY, YOU CAN hear the gentle, almost innocuous concatenation of 1960s office party dialogue as you look at these paintings, with the delicate clink of glasses and the understated and polite chatter, the men in their tuxedos and cufflinks and the women in their cocktail best. You can almost smell their perfume as they whisper. This is Karin Preller’s latest body of exhibited work, and in many respects, while it rests firmly on her own traditions of foraging through personal photographic archives, which she has established over many years, it takes unprecedented leaps in refreshing and important directions for her oeuvre.

Intimately ensconced in what is known as the Collectors’ Room of the Fried Contemporary Art Gallery, these seven pieces in blue tints and tones boast brushmarks which are looser than we’ve ever seen of Preller. What happens is the hard-boiledness and the irrepressible sense of perfection takes a side seat to something far more compelling, less containable and more indicative of the artist’s maturity.

While the works are dim in their tonality and present a slice of life that can at times feel harsh, the energy and subtlety of the work gives it the gravitas to stand on its own, and yet, as in The Unofficial Party, where a young woman in her shift dress sits on a verandah chair and smokes, a playful pathway into the untrammeled sexiness of the era, the fabric of the time, is honed.

And similarly, there’s a painting which takes a detail of another work, called Function 1960s and blows it up. Here, the two women side by side, become almost gestural shapes. But what they seem to lose in their polished sense of identity, they gain in terms of the subtlety and the directness of the painting itself. You look upon the relationship of startling hints of venetian yellow against the deep teal of the work, and the swathe of colour which describes the dress of the woman on the right, and you think directly of the work of German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, sans the crude and harsh colours.

Less emotionally bleak than her previous body of work, Preller’s Extracts, which also includes three strong slice-of-life drawings in charcoal on paper, is an immensely vital development for her as a painter. Looking at these pieces, it feels as though Preller’s whole career of working with photographs, memories and the cloying intractable nature of paint was pointing toward this kind of direction.

  • Extracts, an exhibition of new work by Karin Preller is on show in the Collectors’ Room at the Fried Contemporary Art Gallery, 1146 Justice Mahomed Street (formerly 430 Charles Street) Brooklyn, Pretoria, until July 23. 012 346 0158 or www.friedcontemporary.com