Broken Bird, Fly Free

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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.

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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.

Performer Dudu Yende: icon, diva, sister: A tribute

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Dudu Yende (pictured) larger than life actress, performer and contemporary dancer, was known and loved for her irreverent manipulation of the English language. A passionate outreach collaborator, a loving mother and a generous friend, recognised as an icon, a diva and a sister to so many, passed away suddenly on April 24. She was in her late 30s.

The foil in the audience in internationally respected choreographer Robyn Orlin’s groundbreaking 1999 work, ‘Daddy, I’ve seen this piece six times before and I still don’t know why they’re hurting each other,’ Yende was also critically respected for her role in the film God is African, directed by Akin Omotoso in 2003. Her most recent work was another Orlin collaboration: ‘Have you hugged your Venus today?’ which debuted in Berlin last year.

“I had these five beautiful African big women being Venus,” said Orlin from her home in Berlin, “and the piece never got to South Africa, because all the venues and festivals I approached considered it too expensive. It really showed Dudu beautifully as a performer. It was my first piece with a big set. It was cast with a mixture of actresses, singers, opera singers… it had a great European tour. And it will never be shown again, now that Dudu is gone.”

Expressing devastation at the loss of Dudu, Orlin remembers teaching her at the Market Theatre Laboratory in the mid 1990s. “I did a beautiful piece with her class, called Shoes. And she was absolutely marvellous. She was an incredibly talented person. And smart.

“She was a very proud, yet genial person,” Orlin remembers. “She didn’t speak about her personal stuff easily.

“She came in on the Daddy work fairly late in the casting process. I knew I wanted to use her, but I wasn’t sure how. So I gave her some ideas and I told her that I wanted her to go out and get somebody to dance with them. My whole thing was to show black women as powerful women and she just ran with it. She was really, really lovely. And she was too unusual to be a headline act.”

Dan Robbertse, director of the Market Theatre Laboratory at the time that Yende studied there, remembers her as a committed but ever entertaining student. “She had one hell of a personality. Sometimes she was quiet and gruff and she would pop out of nowhere with a brilliant one liner that floored all of us.

“She loved to play with language, making nouns into verbs and twisting meanings on their toes. English was like a playground for her. She invented new phrasings for things that had people in hysterics.

“Dudu was often late for class,” he recalls, mentioning that she was slightly older than her peers in the theatre course. “We decided to handle latecomers by making them write a fictional narrative excuse to explain away their lateness. Dudu’s responses were always so fresh and funny that we always forgave her, and kind of hoped she’d be late more often so that we could read more responses from her.”

And she was full of surprises. Robbertse remembers “About a week after her graduation from the Lab, Dudu gave birth to her son, Bendu. No one was even aware that she was pregnant. It has become like an urban legend.”

The creative director at outreach initiative Dudu Yende Creations, Yende was born and raised in Thokoza township east of Johannesburg, where she also went to high school. A frequent collaborator with Oupa Malatjie and Peter Ngwenya, she was a performer whose enthusiasm and love for her craft spilled over with abandon into her audience’s awareness, and she was the kind of presence on stage that you just fell in love with, she articulated such an honest sense of being.

Yende’s elder son Bendu Melodious explained that though she had been of frail health since last December, doctors had not explained the cause of death to him.

Yende leaves two sons, Bendu Melodious (18) and Surprise (15), extended family and hundreds of friends.