A burnished menagerie

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KING of the beasts, at rest and with mirth, a work by Michael Teffo. Photograph by Robyn Sassen.

IS IT CARVED wood? Or is it burnished clay? Maybe it is made of flesh and blood? Nothing is completely obvious in this biblically loaded exhibition of beasties which you know and others from the annuls of sculptor Michael Teffo’s sense of whimsy. Either way, you will want to eat the texture of these pieces,  currently on show at the SA Association of the Arts. Collectively, the work has a rich numinous quality to it, that doesn’t allow you to categorise what you see with ease. And as such, these monster-animals are compelling and friendly, magicking the smallness of the gallery space into something uncontainable.

There are close to 30 works in the narrow exhibiting space at the far end of the venue, and yet, they sit comfortably together – maybe waiting, like the sculptured hedges in Stephen King’s The Shining, to move surreptitiously when you aren’t looking.  Either way, the play of three dimensional work with relief carvings that are inked up and hung on the walls, is a complex curatorial achievement that doesn’t fight for air.

The biblical essence of this body of work is strong, but stronger is the manner in which incidents in the original chunks of what seems to be driftwood are given voice. There’s a dog that’s also a cock in this collection. And a frog that casts the limits of frogness to the wind. There’s a lion that embraces the joys of his power with a torsion that is as much about ‘lionness’ as it is about a gnarled piece of wood worked on with love and focus.

It’s an exhibition of whimsy and the bible that will engage the curious child in you, but this is not to say that the work is unsophisticated or childish. Rather, it is about grabbing the quirky essence of a beast and allowing it to peer through the reddened or blackened surface of the medium and in doing so, skip the boundaries of taxonomy, with levity and grace.

Curiouser and curiouser

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EVERY which way: Geometric forms, a drawing in charcoal and chalk on brown paper, by Gordon Froud. Photograph courtesy Total Exposure.

AS YOU ENTER the upstairs space, courtesy of the architects of the Standard Bank Gallery, there’s an implicit sense of event. This is obviously always the case. But it’s enhanced several-fold in Gordon Froud’s first major retrospective. How? Curatorial decisions have dramatically place a massive polyhedron in your face. This exhibition is about time – but it’s also all about space and geometry and God.

But ah! you might cry, as you summit the staircase, this polyhedron is stumped. It’s got blunt points. It’s dramatic, sure, but there’s something artisanal about it. And then you step a little closer and look at the tessellation wall works, which surround said polyhedron. They may you feel as though you have stepped into a child’s kaleidoscope on crack. And then you realise they’re made of black plastic coathangers and cable ties, and the blunt edges of the polyhedron are appropriate because the whole object is made of giant traffic cones. It is then that the world begins to turn on its axis for you as you engage with this extraordinary exhibition.

Mooted as a mid-career project, this exhibition sees Froud in his mid 50s, offering sophisticated and carefully articulated summation on all that he’s been working on and interested in through his career. And while the geometry is central to it all, there’s an ethos as to where this geometry is found and how it is extrapolated that keeps you curious to the very end.

But more than that, Froud takes the whole of the upstairs gallery space and uses it with clarity and empathy. It’s a humble exhibition that is about the real skills of looking and drawing on supports such as brown paper, but a proud one too, that examines a great diversity of artmaking approaches. Ultimately, it is satisfyingly balanced in the layout of work, which takes you through four ‘chapters’ of possibility.

You do, however, emerge from this exhibition remembering Froud’s fondness for all things Alice in Wonderland.  Not because there’s a Cheshire Cat secreted in the interstices of the lines and circles here, but rather because the mathematical ethos of Lewis Carroll’s madcap ideas are spun under the surface of these works.

And while as a body of work it touches on everything from Jewish to Christian to Hindu to Buddhist splays of spiritual values, it also doffs a cap to Leonardo’s thinking and sees a spot of geometry in the world as it stands. In doing so, it evokes the thinkings of György Doczi on proportional harmonies in nature and everything else.

That said, a couple of series in this exhibition, including the photographs of the figure in geometry, feel almost too diagrammatic and if you’re not in the know in terms of mystical values, they may leave you cold. Similarly, a series of embossed images toward the chronological closure of the show feel so busy that you cannot look at them. But Froud is an interesting character and this exhibition really does go the extra mile in offering something for everyone. It’s astonishing to acknowledge that all of this is the work of one artist.

And further to everything, this society has a troubling relationship of not being able to celebrate its own. For whatever reason. Often an artist needs to go overseas and earn ticks from the so-called “International community” before he or she gets a nod from local establishments. Froud’s show here and now kind of bucks this trend, but for a mid-career show to be mounted in the latter years of as prolific a practitioner as he, feels uncomfortable. However, as you walk through the four chapters of this exhibition, so do you realise that this is most likely where serious fine art in contemporary society is pointing right now: the invested thought. The carefully drawn line. The gesture that is unashamedly analogue. This is an important show for all the right reasons.

  • Harmonia: Sacred geometry, the pattern of existence by Gordon Froud is at the Standard Bank Gallery, central Johannesburg, until June 15. 0860 123 000.

Mud and the meaning of perfection

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LOOK into my eyes: Muziwandile Gigaba’s Ntwananhle I.  Photograph by Muzi Gigaba.

SOMETHING COMPLETELY ASTONISHING is currently on show at the University of Johannesburg’s FADA Gallery. Named Ntwananhle and the R2 Boys, this exhibition is only up for another day or two, but it’s a gallery visit you won’t regret. This is Muziwandile Gigaba’s masters exhibition and it serves to present this young ceramicist, draughtsman and printmaker within the context of storytelling that takes oral tradition to new, and intensely relevant heights.

Born in 1984 in the KwaZulu-Natal township of KwaMashu, Gigaba draws from an upbringing that was immersed in the simple narrative values defining rural life. In developing his oeuvre, he ciphons out the purity and magic of stories handed down from grandparent to grandchild. You see this shimmering with directness and sophistication in his work, whichever way you look.

Ntwananhle and the R2 Boys crafts a rich and nuanced tale about ritual and presence, fantasy and poverty. It’s at once resonant with ancient storytelling traditions as it is grippingly contemporary. But you do not need to know the intricacies of the tale in order to sit at the feet of these pieces in awe.

Gigaba’s large scale linocuts, while skilled in the sweeping linework and strong reflection on proportion, anatomy and character they embrace, play second fiddle to his ceramic work. They’re biblical in their reach, but almost too painterly in texture to be unequivocally legible as linocuts.

Also, their presence is compromised. As you walk into the gallery, your eye is caught by the impeccable attention to sculptural detail in the ceramic pieces, and it just does not let go. Ntwananhle I and II are hollow works in the aspect of a sculptural bust. They contain electric lights. By and large, this doesn’t feel necessary – the works are so contained and provocative, so detailed and mysterious, they light up on their own. Gigaba’s use of texture and text he intertwined into the surfaces of the pieces are simply breath-taking.

There’s much more than you can grasp in a first visit to this show – some of these ceramic heads have a slot in them, like a money box. It’s a gesture which offers a sardonic look at the concept of saving money but also comments on the preciousness of work of this nature: use these to insert your coins and when they are full, you have to smash the piece to get at your stash.

There’s a hanging construction of ceramic moths in the second part of the gallery space. This is less engaging because of its several nature: it’s busy and is designed to act like a vignette hanging in front of an installation shot from Nirox sculpture garden in Krugersdorp. It’s a not completely successful, whimsical aside to Gigaba’s Ntwananhle tale that feels a little more literal than the heads.

So, when you look at Gigaba’s ceramic heads, you might think of the ceremonial Epa masks of the Nigerian community of Yoruba. The large, almost pendulous orbs peer back at you with a kind of imperial sense of importance, and the detail and texture on the pieces make you want to never stop caressing them with your eyes.

Also on display are selections of Gigaba’s drawing books, which offer a pointed reflection on the artist’s beautiful line work and wise focuses. Gigaba’s is a name to remember, taking the humble medium of mud to new and extraordinarily dignified levels.

  • Ntwananhle and the R2 Boys by Muziwandile Gigaba is at the FADA Gallery, Bunting Road Campus, University of Johannesburg, in Auckland Park, until March 1. 011 559 4555.

Behold: Echidna, monster of monsters

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ON the wings of Samothrace: a detail of Nandipha Mntambo’s Echidna. Photograph courtesy Stevenson Gallery.

THE SMELL OF resin assails you as you enter the space. It makes your nose sting, your eyes water, but the first work that you confront, a 3m-wide monoprint with gold leaf, grabs you and casts your discomfort into abeyance. As you fall into the urgency of this work, entitled Wild Thoughts, you might vaguely think you’ve hardly ever seen paintings or prints by Nandipha Mntambo before, but you’re too engrossed to step further. The work is roughly abstract but presents a parabola of thought and an engagement with colour and mark making that reveals Mntambo’s authority with this approach too.

Mntambo rose to prominence with her work Europa in 2008, an astonishing therianthrope, mixing the head of a mythical beast with her own. An artwork that conjoined animal fur with human flesh, live performer with constructed image, it was scary and sexy, provocative and disturbing at once. It was a work that made you look. And remember.

Now, almost 10 years later, with many exhibitions and accolades under her belt – this is her seventh solo at Stevenson – you get to see Mntambo stretching toward new heights. She’s still working in the mythical traditions, but her work is less obvious and even more potent.

On paper, The Snake You Left Inside Me is a modestly-sized exhibition. It features just 10 works. But when you arrive in the space, you will be overwhelmed, not only by the residue of resin in your nostrils, but by the energy, the sense of abstraction and the maturity of these pieces.

And so, as you wrench yourself from the work in the gallery’s vestibule, you get to see Moonlit Shadows and Wild Thoughts: works on paper using gold leaf that blast you in your solar plexus, with their complex simplicity. You will also see corrupted drum-like works – Mother and Child, Hubris and Ouroboros. They feature Mntambo’s signature use of animal skin stretched on a frame. You are able to look at them with a kind of dispassion, exploring the subtleties, understanding the nuance in the pieces.

Well and good, you might think, satisfied that this is a powerful exhibition. You might at that point turn to leave the gallery space. Don’t. There’s more.

Behind the wall separating the second gallery space from the third, lies Echidna. As you intrepidly enter the space – it’s dark and the work has the advantage over you – you come upon something that conjures up the disturbing realism of the work of Australian sculptor Patricia Piccinini, or that of Chinese sculptor Liu Xue. Only, it’s more. It’s like the denouement of a story, the classic pièce de résistance.

Echidna is gloriously half-woman/half-snake, reaching as she does from ancient Greek narrative. She’s the monster of all monsters, evoking in a poetic and understated way, the classic Winged Victory of Samothrace in the thrust presented by the resin-rich fabric, the potency of the pose, even though (or especially because) it is headless. The creature’s tail embraces the room with a furry muscularity that will make your hair stand on end, but will leave you unable to look quickly.

Balancing intelligent curatorial decisions with exceptionally fine work, The Snake You Left Inside Me offers a glance at the relevance of mythological contortions. It is a potent and terrifying exhibition that will not leave you untouched, as you walk back through the space, something squirming uncomfortably in your belly.

  •  The snake you left inside me by Nandipha Mntambo is at Stevenson Gallery, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until January 19 2018. Visit stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.
  • The gallery will be closed from December 16 until January 8.

Quarried wisdom in a vestibule of bling

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COMING out in all directions: Michele Mathison’s Extrusion. Photograph courtesy Whatiftheworld.

IT BEGINS WITH the stairs. Brutally bling-filled, impenetrably shiny and black, the introductory aspect of the Keyes Art Mile in Rosebank, the project of several wealthy consortia, which contains the Whatiftheworld gallery is not what you could describe as friendly. It’s pristine and shiny, slippery and steep and the hostile staircase leads to a vestibule which is dark and sterile, unpopulated and so designy you feel unable to breathe, in case you exude too unblingy an approach and get summarily tossed down those stairs by one of the strict-looking security guards for breaking fashion rules.

But as you let your eyes temper a little in the gloaming, you find them resting on Michele Mathison’s Parallax. This astonishing knot of real street lights feels at once like a mixture of an allusion to a traffic accident and a playful manipulation of the world itself. It evokes the extraordinary things that Mathison has done in the past with picks, creating rhythm and flow, song and fluidity with recalcitrant objects.

And as you cajole yourself into walking through that black marble space, your lonely footsteps creating sad little ‘plinks’ on the shined up surface, the sterile and expensive designs in the shops nearby looking forlorn, you reach the gallery proper. It’s a brightly lit space, and Mathison’s works on show give you pause. Yes, on one level, they fit the racy and shiny ethos of Keyes Art Mile, but they do so with a gentle dignity, not working on its crassness, but rather exploring the simplicity of its approach.

There are tricks in the works that belie the substantial nature of the medium. But these gestures never slip into the notion of the one-liner. When you realise that what you’re looking at in a work such as Distension – a series of wall-mounted pieces – is not a loosely stretched piece of fabric billowing from a canvas-stretcher, but rather a substantial body of carefully cast fullness, something dramatic leaps through your sensibilities. You get the joke, but you don’t move on, gripped as you are by the seductive presence of the works.

They wax and they wane, singing ancient songs of Zimbabwean stone and odes to what can be done with untempered steel. There are works which are rusted and others twisted against the grain. The abstraction of the pieces is beguiling and mesmerising, as the title of Mathison’s exhibition dodges and veers against political references and descriptions of the abstract relationships between stone and metal that he has constructed here.

It’s a beautiful exhibition, and one imminently worth experiencing even in this rich and newish space, because it offers a generous and intimate levity to works that could otherwise have been ponderous or self-indulgent.

  • States of Emergence by Michele Mathison is at Whatiftheworld, Rosebank, Johannesburg, until August 19. 012 358 6750.

Tales of sound and fury, signifying everything

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BROKEN figures, polluted landscapes. Works by Blessing Ngobeni. Photograph courtesy Everard Read Gallery.

TAKE AN ALREADY angry and energetic approach to art making with a political edge, and exacerbate it with shoddy politics, unethical behaviour and the distressing circulation of the notion of ‘alternative facts’ in the country and the world, and you get Blessing Ngobeni’s current solo exhibition – the seventh in his career thus far – which probes and bashes against the horror of our times, using his intellect, his paintbrush and his anger as part of his tool box.

Ngobeni’s work has a reputation of unrelentingly splicing art historical references together, from across the spectrum, as it quotes and dissects the instruments and politics of our times. Often really crudely. Masked Reality sees an evolution in his approach, and if you consider the gallery space at large before you allow yourself to be sucked into the individual works on display, you will recognise an iconicity that digresses from his former works which boasted less of a clear composition than these.

Still, you see echoes of Bitterkomix and Norman Catherine, of the grotesque sexuality that is present in between-the-world-wars work of German artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit period of Expressionism, such as Georg Grosz, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix. There are bodies here which like those represented by Hieronymus Bosch of hell, centuries ago, are nothing but big pairs of buttocks farting poisonously into the ether. There are other bodies which boast grotesque breasts filled lumpily with malignant-looking red contusions and lesions. The psychological horror known as vagina dentata – vagina with teeth – is reflected as a green claw with sharp nails.

And the work is also extremely violent in its making. Heavy paint is splashed with purpose across these compositions, chunks of text from newspaper form part of the palette, where heads of characters are premised with the face of a snarling jackal or a fierce pig.

The centre piece of the exhibition is an installation contained by the oval space of Circa with a kind of gothic terror. Queen of Scavengers is suspended from the gallery’s ceiling and extends to the floor, featuring a demonic figure made of what seems to be papier mâché, which has myriads of blind black dolls attached to its fingers. As you enter the space, it feels as though you’ve walked into a horror film, and your adrenalin pumps and urges you to flee. But you don’t. You want to look further.

The dolls – children’s play things made of plastic – are blind because their eyes, too, like the rest of their little faces and bodies, are spray-painted black in the direct and almost haphazard manner for which Ngobeni has come to be respected. It’s a violent cauldron of an image which has tremendous impact, but as you come closer to it and feel it attempt to blind your sensibilities from the two-dimensional works on show, you might question its value.

Unlike the paintings and drawings, the work feels more ostentatiously dramatic. Ngobeni’s appeal has been in the deeply evolved images he creates with multiple references layering one another and fighting for your eye in the same image. This Queen of Scavengers seems out there to make you look. And once you have looked, you must draw your eyes away, to the more evolved material.

Having said that, it’s a Queen emblematic of Ngobeni having the creative stamina to continue reinventing himself. He has established a signature modus operandi and critical respect. Queen of Scavengers is the opening of a new chapter, and makes you both afraid and enticed in your desire to peer into Ngobeni’s future.

  • Masked Reality by Blessing Ngobeni, is at Circa on Jellicoe in Rosebank until February 25. 011 788 4805 or visit circaonjellicoe.co.za

Love in the time of Palmyra

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I looked away, and it was broken: “Man Turns Away” (2016) wood and oil colours by Clive van den Berg.

During the 1980s, Clive van den Berg made a series of unutterably fine lithographs focusing on Pearla Seidle Gibson who used to wave the troops goodbye, as they went to war. It’s called Farewells; the works are small – almost inconspicuous, but for the understated poignancy that powers them. During the same period, van den Berg made energetic public installations with shards of coloured tiles. A Pile of Stones is a monumental body of work which draws together his rich embrace of colour with deep reflection that is about love, loss and holding tight.

On one level, it’s an immensely angry show confronting murderous homophobia in a world broken by religious fanaticism, but it takes the specifics of Syria and Iraq and pushes the details into a universal ennui. You come out of this exhibition wanting to embrace the people in your life because of how one can fall, or be pushed, lose or be lost.

The three-dimensional works evoke Anton van Wouw’s reliefs in their mood and detail. The difference is van den Berg elects to work with stubborn mediums, choosing wood over clay, steel over bronze casting. And the effect, particularly of the supremely potent installation in the middle of the gallery, is devastating. It offers a bleak, yet breathtakingly beautiful reflection of the messy tenderness of the human condition.

His Man Turns Away is a quiet piece, but one charged with emotional dynamite. It is a simple sculpture in wood and oil of a man, on a triangular support attached to the wall. His posture is so loaded with simple and irrevocable desolation, that it will continue troubling you. Why has he turned away? What does he leave?

But this is not only a sculpture show, and Van den Berg’s drawings and paintings on canvas and paper lend even more fierceness, but a great sense of perspective to the body of work. As it attracts you in with mad psychedelic shapes, so does it taunt your attraction with fierce gesture and brutal images. Van den Berg uses undiluted colour without tentativeness reflecting the pummel of angry fists smashed against rotten ideas on large canvases.

Harsh striations of electric blues and oranges maul and caress his images with anger and sadness at the horror to which the world continues to degenerate. And yet, yet amidst all that badness and madness, there is levity. There are men escaping torment as they camouflage themselves beneath spots of colour and shadows of lines.

Though focused so bleakly on the machinations of the Islamic State, this is not an exhibition that stands on a soapbox. Rather, A Pile of Stones attests to the fierceness of love and how it can withstand even death itself, but you have to look hard between the murderous anger, broken bodies and muscular drapery to reach this.

When you visit this exhibition, do not forget to peruse van den Berg’s ink on paper works in the gallery’s Viewing Room. It’s a body of 31 drawings conceived with a frank line and an exploratory boldness which lend cogent reflection on an artist at once political and emotional, universal and specific; a man not afraid to go head to head with a block of wood or a lump of steel, and one who can wield a stylus bearing ink with acuity and conviction. It’s a beautiful exhibition.

  • A Pile of Stones by Clive van den Berg is at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until February 15. 011 788 1113.

Thirty years of gods, bulls and other beasties

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WORTH worshipping? Johann Moolman’s Place of the Rain Bull, a work in stone and rusted mild steel. Photograph courtesy Fried Contemporary Art Gallery.

FIFTY YEARS, A hundred or more from now, what will archaeologists retrieve to establish who we were as a society and what made us tick? Shape-Shift, a retrospective exhibition by Johann Moolman contemplates that idea of obsolescence with a strong sense of history but not without a wry grin at the hubris of our society.

Moolman’s name, if you’ve been following visual art for awhile, hasn’t been headlined in local commercial galleries for some time, and this exhibition makes it feel the time is right for a revisit of these quirky, curious and beautiful pieces, made with a strong hand, potent craftsmanship and a capricious sense of possibility. The show comprises paintings, sculptures and relief works, but also altered found objects.

But while the work feels prolific, the space is limited, and as you walk into the gallery, you feel bombarded: the show seems to cram too much into too small a space.

As you move deeper into the space, however, this shifts. The gallery’s main space comprises one large room, one smaller room and a garden, into which the work spills. Curiously, the smaller room in the establishment doesn’t feel as cluttered as the large space – rather, the closely ranged pieces feel like a friendly crowd. They cluster with a sense of their own poetry and the installation is a comfortable one, resonating with the kind of curatorial ethos that was achieved in Wits Art Museum’s retrospective of the work of Peter Schütz last year.

There are two clear poles in the material – while some of it tends toward naturalism, some of it reaches toward a diagrammatic reflection of values and it is the latter which makes you smile and gives you a sense of awe. To its credit, the work is not curated with a numbingly rigorous sense of chronology and early works neighbour later ones, offering a fine and witty sense of repartee.

As you run your eyes up the length of a tall thin piece to discover a delightful head with simple horns, you realise this is much more than a simple stick. It’s a god. It’s a rain bull. It has presence. Run your eye down the work, and in some instances you will discover emblematic breasts, a pregnant belly or a penis jutting out of the work – delightful signs that give this creature a therianthropic nature: is this a man or a beast? Is it a girl or a boy? Is it a mix between the two?

It evokes the tall drums from Ghana, Ashante and Luba culture, which are gendered – as well as figures in African traditional pieces, as it touches on the succinctness of Brancusi’s sculptures.

And yes, this work flits between values cast by European modernism in relation to an African aesthetic and more self-conscious contemporary manoeuvres. But after all the vociferous debates surrounding this kind of approach, you need to be able to see the items for what they are. This rain bull’s head is clearly an evocatively shaped stone and yet mantled and horned as it is, it becomes something else. This shaped stick is a portal into another world, and that squat form is a symbol of sexuality. Tribute is paid to Henry Moore, to our human ancestors and to our traditions of ferreting histories.

It’s the kind of show that deserves a national museum space and a gallery season that warrants long contemplative hours of looking and thinking, but in the absence of all these wishful ideals, and even in the absence of a corridor of space between some of the works, it is still the kind of show that will touch you in a multitude of ways, and the tightly-packed crowd of close to 60 works becomes forgivable in the light of the thrill you get in being able to see a trajectory of 30 years of thoughtful incisive work.

  • Shape-Shift by Johann Moolman is at Fried Contemporary Art Gallery, 1146 Justice Mahomed Street (formerly 430 Charles Street) in Brooklyn, Pretoria until August 13. 012 346 0158 www.friedcontemporary.com

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 www.niroxarts.com