In honour of the three women in the photograph

LettersofStone

When you approach this book, you might think “Holocaust biography” and sigh with a sigh replete with a sense of been there, done that; what more could be said about the European Holocaust? But you’d be completely wrong. Steven Robins’s Letters of Stone is a beautifully constructed, imminently thoughtful contemplation of history, persecution and lost souls. Treading gently on well worn histories and narratives, this is an important publication, written by an immensely astute anthropologist, but also a deeply real human being. Not only is it positioned for scholars of the Holocaust, but it also takes on a vast litany of historical and persecution realities and offers a fresh perspective on the understanding of the rents that these multiple acts of genocide through Europe inflicted on individuals and on society.

Beginning with a haunting period photograph of three mysterious women that occupied a space on Robins’s parents’ sideboard when he was a young boy, the text offers an energised and well-written insight into Robins’s foray into the identity and lives of these three women, his grandmother and two aunts. But it’s not just a familial account: citing the thinking of Roland Barthes in his approach, Robins carves out a very rich understanding and representation of what a photograph means to us as human beings, and the traces and echoes of memories and life that this image on light sensitive paper evokes.

Further to that, Robins uses this photograph as a cipher not only to discover the very sad trajectory of the lives of his family members, who his father never spoke about, but he also uses it as a key, with which he accesses family letters as well as a reflection on the German persecution of the Herero community, of the faux science of eugenics, and a very intimately woven reflection on Jewish – or more broadly, xenophobic – persecution in general. Thus, the text is able to remain deeply intimate and personal, but also universal in its reach.

The book is emotionally revealing as it cuts close to the bone, considering Robins’s anthropological education and interests and how so much intersects with his being in South Africa, a country which closed its doors to European refugees, and also one that rendered apartheid a discriminatory tool. Touching on everything from the stolpersteine (the stumbling stones, established as public testament to the Jews removed from their homes) in the streets of Berlin to the journey he undertook to discover the story his father consigned to silence, this is a truly beautiful and tragic read, which is difficult to put down, not only because the prose is thoughtful and well formed, but also because the story is so heart wrenching and human.

Part of the problem with Holocaust testament is the enormity of the phenomenon. Some six million Jews were murdered during this period – and it’s a number impossible to understand. Rather than attempting to cast statistics and well-trodden facts at his reader, Robins broaches the history from within, and the three mesmerising women from his family sideboard become the tragic heroines which lend this book its inimitable texture and wisdom.

  • Letters of Stone: From Nazi Germany to South Africa by Steven Robins is published by Penguin Books, Cape Town (2016).
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Books that redefine the universe

By Sinead Fletcher

  • Sinead Fletcher is a third year fine arts student at the University of Johannesburg who recently took part in the Arts Writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen.
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A man for all books: Professor Buzz Spector. Photograph by Sinead Fletcher.

“MAKE YOUR OWN book, Buzzy,” was the instruction that a three-year-old Buzz Spector remembers most clearly as the trigger that started his illustrious career as a book artist.  Arguably one of the superstars of the Booknesses Colloquium and Exhibition – currently on show in Johannesburg – Spector spoke to My View whilst he was in South Africa for the opening and conference hosted at the end of March.

His mother’s instruction came with his first 16-page, brown craft paper book that was sewn with red yarn. This was the paper in which his three-year-old’s sister’s diapers, freshly delivered from the laundry came wrapped in. Spector explains that this moment and this investment of a kind of creative autonomy, planted the seeds of interest which began his exploration and fascination with the book.

These days, armed with qualifications in the field from the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and the University of Chicago, Spector, who is currently a professor of art at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art at Washington University in St Louis, enjoys exploring the making of artists books by way of altering already established archival, record keeping encyclopaedias and almanacs, which boast graphically and typographically identical layouts. Working with great writing – philosophical or fiction – is a difficult process, he says,  as it requires him to explore and read the texts carefully and deeply.

Not every book that makes for great reading served his purposes though. Many do not “suit my method,” he says, explaining that he can go many years before finding books which are suitable for his forms of book alteration. The criteria which Spector follows to find his ideal book include the institutional nature of the text, the quality of paper that the text is printed on, the sturdiness of the binding, the physical properties of the dust jacket and the presence or absence of mould or mildew.

“All of these concerns, from root materiality to critical reading, have to be in play for the work to begin.”

Spector knows South African art making well. He considers Willem Boshoff, who he’s known since 1995 a “kindred spirit”. Articulating great admiration for the work of William Kentridge, Spector also mentioned that recently he has become more aware of books made by artists such as Stephen Hobbs and Stephan Erasmus.

Having worked at a few paper mills, over the years, including Dieu Donné in Brooklyn, New York, Spector says he has been “impoverished” with his selections of paper thus far and is now “looking for the buffet” after being exposed to the work of Mary Hark and other young South African artists.

Describing the Booknesses Colloquium as having had a quality of urgency that showed both in the enormous emotional investment of professionals associated with the University of Johannesburg people – David Paton especially – and in artist book collector Jack Ginsberg’s desire to enable the exhibit to spark a transformative social interest in South Africa, he said this urgency was reflected a sense of caring and desire which, within the international community, he explains, “promotes urgency in reawakening our interest to go out and promote our practise.”

Spector spoke of the multiple panels in the Colloquium, which focused on a rich mêlée of books-related issues, including the notion of the book’s relevance to culture as well as the problem of the book being exhibited as a stillness of form whose “meaning arises in motion.”

  • The Booknesses exhibition, comprising the collection of Jack Ginsberg and curated by David Paton, is on show at the FADA Gallery on the Bunting Road Campus of the University of Johannesburg and the UJ Gallery on the Kingsway Campus, until May 5. Contact David Paton on: dpaton@uj.ac.za or 082 888 4859. Or visit website: http://www.theartistsbook.org.za/

Graphics to appall the gods

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ONLY connect: Scarily bad graphics in Tabita Rezaire’s lightbox work, Dilo.

Let’s take apart the internet, Matrix style, she says. Let’s reveal it as the crass, manipulative, racist mechanism that it is, she says. It’s a cancer in our midst, premised on shallow values and colonialist mindsets, she argues. Let’s heal ourselves of the rubbish it brings into our lives. Nothing wrong with these sentiments of Tabita Rezaire. Just a pity about the exhibition’s presentation.

Exotic Trade is French-born Guyanese/Danish artist Rezaire’s first solo exhibition, and while it expresses really fabulous ideas about Ifa divination and binary mathematics, about knowledge that is stolen and knowledge that needs to be remembered, it lacks the kind of visual sophistication that would give all this thinking the dignity of gallery support.

In this way, the Goodman Gallery’s hosting of this material as it is seems misplaced or not sufficiently thought through. Comprising several large scale projections, and a number of Diasec prints, filled with kaleidoscopic detail that draws together visual values from Nigerian ancient cultures and Egyptian ones, as well as a fabulous trio of cast bismuth crystal snakes called Celestial Hiss, which is arguably the highlight of the whole show, the body of work is increasingly mesmerising and discomforting, but not for the right reasons. When you reach the display of the pink gynaecological chair, complete with stirrups and a looped video, entitled in all earnestness, Sugar Walls Teardom, you might have to control the urge to laugh out loud with uncontrollable abandon or run in unabridged horror: it’s like the final scene from Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, only you are ostensibly the subject.

The most troubling aspect of this exhibition which promises a yoga outlet, however, is the graphics of the different bits of videoed material. They’re compiled with the kind of unsophisticated hand that discovers for the first time the huge variety of fonts on Coreldraw and wants to use each and every one of them. There’s a stilted quality to the graphics – and an uncomfortable and obvious ways in which images of Rezaire herself are segued with a reptile – which pleads for a more sophisticated collaborator and deeply damages the validity and impact of the message she’s trying to convey.

You might come to this exhibition wanting to be mesmerised, wanting to lose yourself in the folds of possibility that it promises, but instead, you’re confronted with a poorly made video presentation that starkly tells you how bad the world is and how you need to realign yourself with the “politics of pleasure”.

The opening video Premium Connect, bombards you with 13 minutes of information: it’s a little like something from Orwell’s 1984. Only this is Big Sister and she is, what she describes herself as a “Black womxn [sic] in the face of colonialist and capitalist exploitation”, but still, she’s policing your very core, with her political correctness and alienating language in tow. If you want to come to a gallery to see good art, this isn’t it.

  • Exotic Trade by Tabita Rezaire is at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, until May 17. Call 011 788 1113 or visit goodman-gallery.com.

Living in the love of a broken people

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THE people shall decide! The cast of Itsoseng, (from left) Khanyisile Ngwabe, Akhona Namba, Thabiso Rammala, Katlego Letsholonyana, Alfred Motlhapi, Rea Segoati and Dimpho More. Photograph by Mpho Khwezi.

IT WAS STORYTELLER extraordinaire Gcina Mhlophe who once commented that the art of storytelling lies not so much in the tale but in the telling. She could well have been referring to Itsoseng, a beautifully crafted love story in a time of disappointment and a place of poverty.  It’s a rich and well choreographed work which tells a story as timeless and as tragic as Romeo and Juliet.

Written by Omphile Molusi in 2008, this extraordinary tale of broken dreams and pure love is mostly in Setswana, but it is honed and moulded and performed with such a sense of commitment and focus, that you don’t have to understand the Setswana to be able to roll with the story’s punches and laugh and cry with the characters’ joys and horrors.

In previous manifestations of this play in this theatre, it took the form of a monodrama, where the central character, a young man named Mawilla, offers insights into his whole community with nuance and gesture. Now, with a cast of seven, the work is fleshed out in a different way and with different levels of energy that infuse the material. It is very astutely cast and the conflation of Mawilla (Thabiso Rammala) and his ‘home boys’ Saxa (Alfred Motlhapi) and Buda 6 (Katlego Letsholonyana) is fierce in its sensitive portrayal of the dynamics of childhood and youth. The women in the cast, however, under the quiet leadership of Dimpho More in the role of Dolly, lend the work its fire and its music. Intertwining beautiful harmony with protest action, the work is tight and well defined and the performers intelligently directed.

Each performer shines in his or her individual way, which enhances the sense of texture in the work. And what Motlhapi can do with a simple shopping trolley simply beggars belief as he conjures up a whole history of a disused and destroyed shopping centre that’s one pivot of the tale, with this humble vehicle.

Itsoseng is a real township just outside of Mafikeng in the North West Province, which was formerly part of Bophuthatswana under apartheid puppet ruler, Lucas Mangope. This play describes a tale of blind anger and protest, of broken economies and shattered political promise. And given the way in which the hopes and dreams of the broader community rest upon mob energy and hollow commitments from government, it’s a work which hangs with prescience on contemporary South African realities.

Flawed only in its use of shebeen noise and stage smoke which is simply too big for the Barney Simon theatre, Itsoseng is an important work for South Africans to see. For the injustice it portrays. For the beauty with which it portrays it. And for the delicious cast of magnificent young talent.

  • Itsoseng is written by Omphile Molusi and directed by Lesedi Job who has been mentored in this capacity by Kgafela Oa Magogodi. It features design by Hailey Kingston (set), Nthabiseng Makone (costumes), Nomvula Molepo (lighting), with incubates Jabulile Precious Mangqangwane (lighting), Sinenhlanhla Zwane (set), Sabelo Mavuso (sound) and Nthabiseng Malaka (costumes). It is performed by Katlego Letsholonyana, Dimpho More, Alfred Motlhapi, Akhona Namba, Khanyisile Ngwabe, Thabiso Rammala and Rea Segoati, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg until May 7. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za.

Framed by a blade of fire, a spot of glue and a miscellany of limbs

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THE lady ponders: Rebecca Haysom’s collage The Tiger’s Bride. Photograph courtesy Circa Gallery.

AN UNCOMFORTABLY DIZZYING association between the ideas of feminist magical realist writer Angela Carter and between-the-wars German collagists John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, seems the most appropriate way of describing the wild and terrifying humour, explicit and witch-like sexuality and rough and tumble gamesplaying in this, the first solo exhibition of Rebecca Haysom.

Entitled The Tiger’s Bride, this tender and quivering yet seemingly bruised body of close to 40 works, is collectively about quirky humour, dark laughter and the slithery teasing apart of mythical practices, fairytales and idioms. And art history is tossed into the mix too. Here’s a sprinkling of Dalí, there’s a quotation from Rembrandt and another from Van Dyk. Nothing is sacred beneath the robust yet delicate scalpel of Haysom as she slices off limbs and reattaches them at fantastical angles, blending tigers and women, forcing scale relationships that are off the radar and constructing roses of papier mâché billed Make her Cry.

This latter work is a witty play on what you see. There’s a fabulous scene with a very young Maggie Smith in the Richard Attenborough musical satire Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). From far, the character played by Smith is demure and welcoming to young men and wouldbe conscriptees. But as the camera pans in, there’s something so garish and terrifying about her, that the values change irrevocably. As you gaze on Haysom’s bouquet and realise that these petals are solid and tough, something similar happens and the image becomes cruel and scary rather than sweet or romantic.

Evoking the work of South African book artist Kathleen Sawyer, Haysom’s work splays the values associated with old European fairy tales: tales of mermaids and witches, magic spells and big skirts. The Emperor’s New Clothes is present here, as is Prince Charming.

It’s a wonderland whirligig of an exhibition, albeit a precarious one: be careful what you find yourself admiring, it might just not be exactly what you think it is. That lady is a tiger, and the joke may be on you. While some of the works seem like one-liners, the more you look, the more they suck you into their depths of the kinds of possibilities that you can create with a spot of glue and a quick, sharp knife, ranging from biblical association to pornography.

The one work which seems anomalous in this collection is a large landscape painting at the end of the gallery on a sheet of loose canvas, which hangs like a curtain. More like a stage set than a work like the others, it offers a concatenation of values that chime oddly and will leave you unsure of yourself and of what you’ve understood by the rest of the work.

Is it all a stage set in the context of play acting? You can’t really be sure. Either way, understated and thoughtful, witty and bizarre and above all, reliant on a sense of careful construction of body parts on paper and ideologies in the artist’s head, this is a potent exhibition which is an embodiment of play and earnestness, with blurred boundaries between the two.

  • The Tiger’s Bride by Rebecca Haysom is on show downstairs in Circa Gallery Rosebank until April 29. Visit circaonjellicoe.co.za or call 011 788 4805.

Nothing to fear, Gruffalo’s here!

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ONE roar and all resistance crumbles: Sisonke Yefele is The Gruffalo. Photograph by Nardus Engelbrecht.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if you were all alone in a forest, with a yen for a nice big nut, and a knowledge that there were creatures for whom you would be lunch? A brave brown mouse, played by Nombasa Ngoqo captures the hearts and sense of adventure of little ones as she tricks the fox, the owl and the snake into believing she’s tougher than them in this South African version of the West End’s The Gruffalo.

It’s a-screech-a-minute scenario in a deep, dark wood, with the very young audience members, who love the “He’s right behind you!” sequences of shouts in this show, of which there are plenty. It’s a character which, penned by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler in 1999 in a storybook took the world by storm.

The Gruffalo – played by Sisonke Yefele – is a monster who’s quite easily frightened, in truth. He’s a madcap combination of various scary elements, such as horns and poisonous warts, deliciously potent claws and orange eyes, and the story’s largely about who can be more hilariously scared than who. It’s also a tale of friendship and trickster behaviour and an understanding of the soft spots of the monster you can conjure up in your mind.

Brought to fantastic life on stage with bright colour and intense sound, replete with a cuddly Gruffalo costume, it’s a rollicking bit of theatre which the littlies will know from their exposure to other levels of Gruffalo rhetoric. He’s everywhere, in the form of stuffed plush toys, games and songs. While the piped music often fights with the performers’ voices and you lose some of the work’s nuance in the lyrics, this is not a hassle for the toddlers on board, who want ultimate victory for the mouse and a chance to pat the Gruffalo himself.

  • The Gruffalo is a stage adaptation of the eponymous children’s story book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. It is directed by Tara Notcutt and performed by Mandisi Heshu, Nombasa Ngoqo, Ayanda Nondlwana and Sisonke Yefele at Auto and General Theatre on the Square, twice daily, until May 7. Visit gruffalolive.co.za or call 011-883-8606.

Baby in a pickle

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BIG issues: (from left) Koketso Motlhabane, Aubrey Poo and Izak Davel. Photograph courtesy Joburg Theatre.

THE DELICIOUS PRESCIENCE of a bit of Brecht in Johannesburg this month, in the wake of the start of the #ZumaMustFall movement cannot be understated, and this complex, political, thoughtful and challenging extrapolation on the surreal humour of injustice and Solomonic solutions in The Caucasian Chalk Circle hits the mark with accuracy, insanity and abandon. It’s a fabulously layered work which brings in great dollops of Brechtian principles, spiced up with a frisson of Alfred Jarry resonance and lots of rudeness, a peppering of contemporary freedom issues and generous sprinklings of slapstick physicality.

It’s a work which allows each one of its large cast to shimmer, with wit and seriously quirky characterisation, but it’s not flawless. This is a problem in the original work, but it’s one that proves unresolvable by this director and cast.

Framed in contemporary times – which would have been roughly the 1940s – it’s a very shoutily performed prologue and is punctuated with service delivery issues and a land grab, that lends it the lingo in contemporary parlance in South Africa. There are two arguments: a business of self-sustainable farming goes head to head with one of farming for profit. It’s goats against potatoes. And the issue gets explored and developed with the tool of a play within a play. Or rather two plays – the first deals with a young woman with noble values and the second with a corrupt judge.

This is all well and good, but this land issue is not revisited at the end of the play. Yes, there’s a metaphorical sewing of associations between the situation of the child in the one tale, and that of the land in the other, but the dots are not connected for clarity’s sake, and you’re left hooting and clapping at the end of the work, but still anticipating a bit more.

Narrative flaws aside, the work does feel long and over acted in parts, and while you can doff your hat to Brechtian values, and wow in admiration of Aubrey Poo’s delightful sense of authority as he sings and embraces the whole stage, sometimes the diction is so loud that it is incomprehensible. Having said that, it’s a rollicking historical essay featuring ingenious set design decisions which comprise a miscellany of wooden crates and some beautiful stark landscape drawings in white chalk on a black ground.

Further, the work is very articulately choreographed and there is an astonishing sense of visual balance in the onstage bizarreness. Koketso Motlhabane plays Grusha, the young woman central to the first tale who by happenstance feels pity for the abandoned baby of the Governor. She manifests an utterly lovely stage presence, an admirable counterfoil to Neka da Costa’s interpretation of the governor’s wife, and her beautiful singing voice lends her role the kind of cohesion which makes you sit up and focus.

Humour and catastrophe segue together in this messy and unsettling tale of intrigue, lifelong promises and justice, compassion and money, which above all, is about the craft of performing.

  • The Caucasian Chalk Circle is written by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Alistair Beaton and directed by Lebohang Motaung. It features design by David Sizwe Arends (set), Allan Kolski Horwitz (costumes) and Timothy Le Roux (choreography). It is performed by Neka da Costa, Izak Davel, Marcus Mabusela, Mimi Mahlasela, Koketso Motlhabane, Nyeleti Ndubane, Aubrey Poo and Jacques Wolmarans, and performs at the Fringe, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein until April 23. Call 0861 670 670 or visit www.joburgtheatre.com