Blacks and Blues

hallelujah

FUNEREAL energy: Bonga (Malibongwe Mdwaba) speaks at the burial of his friends.

THE HORROR OF hatred within a community comes firmly under the loupe in this important play, which boldly explores the underbelly and the universality of pain within a culture. Hallelujah! intertwines religious values with social bias, poetry with music and young voices with veteran ones. In short, it is an exceptional demonstration of skill on the part of its director, Fiona Ramsay.

Crisply structured, tightly engaged and beautifully rendered, this version of Hallelujah! is ingenious in its reflection on the potency of radio culture, which is the cipher for the heart of the story and the kernel of communication which forces its controversy on a public with its own views. Its set is simple and defined by clarity that conveys the retro directions in a contemporary era. From beige shoes with spats, to Brill crème, this is a work which feels like it’s the 1950s, but when you cast your eye and ear deeper into its tale and its values, you realise that it’s happening right now.

In 2000, Xoli Norman crafted this work which engages with the social monstrosity that has made so-called corrective rape (and murder) inflicted on black lesbians a real phenomenon. Horrifyingly, this phenomenon is still a part of our social fabric, almost 20 years later, and black lesbians remain vulnerable to the shards of a society broken by prejudice. This version of Hallelujah! digresses from the original production in that it has been reworked to accommodate several more characters. It also features poems written by Norman, specifically for this manifestation of the work.

Following the life of Bonga (Malibongwe Mdwaba), an aspirant poet, the play introduces you to his friends and his energies. One of his friends is a lesbian, named Lebo (Angelina Mofokeng). She’s also a poet and has a partner, Thandi (Mamodibe Ramodibe) and a young child. Passionately aware of the complexities her life’s realities bring, Lebo is central to the work, and carries a frisson of potency wherever she appears on stage. She’s deeply sensitive to insult, is patently aware of how bias and patronising comments slip into casual conversation and knows that her path is fraught with horror.

And it is upon the unthinkable manifestation of this horror that the play turns. Death and anger are the seeds sown in a drama that touches as sensitively on the stupid brutality of bias and hatred in a specific community as it paints a deeper image of the senselessness of baseless hatred – be it for another’s gender, skin colour or any other so-called leveller.

But the importance of this work is not only about the story it tells. In showcasing the skill of Wits student performers, alongside the pianism of the inimitable Tony Bentel, it casts a light on young talent in a way that will make you sit up and take notice. Blending very young performers with the presence of a veteran pianist brings an internal magic to the work and Bentel’s grey hair and fluency at the keyboard lends him the gravity and the universality of the eternal man at the piano keys, who is effectively an outsider in the tale, and because of this becomes a narrator of sorts. Also, the device of using one instrument, as opposed to a trio not only sketches in implied musical outlines of the bar, the Blues genre and the atmosphere, but it brings the piano muscular presence in the work, along the lines of what Makhoala Ndebele achieved in his direction of Zakes Mda’s Mother of All Eating,  a couple of years ago.

The Hallelujah! season was brief, but its impact has been significant for student repertoire, specifically as well as that of South African theatre at large. Look at this list of student performers’ names. Remember them. It’s not the last you’ll be seeing of them onstage.

  • Hallelujah! is written by Xoli Norman and directed by Fiona Ramsay. It features design by Daniel Philipson, Jemma-Clare Weil and Teneal Lopes (set) and Daniel Philipson (sound and light). It performed by Tony Bentel, Bhekilizwe Bernard, Harry Adu Faulkner, Ziphozonke Sabelo Gumede, Megan Martell, Sandile Mazibuko, Bathandwa Mbobo, Malibongwe Mdwaba, Angelina Mofokeng, Ulemu Moya, Mamodibe Ramodibe, Rose Rathaga and Kopano Tshabalala, at the Downstairs Theatre, Wits University complex, Braamfontein, until May 27. Visit wits.ac.za/witstheatre, www.webtickets.co.za or call 011 717 1376.
  • For a comment on the social context of this play, read this.
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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/

Journey to humanity’s heart, with a lens

By Israel Bansimba

  • Israel Bansimba is a third year fine art student at the University of Johannesburg, who took part in the arts writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen earlier this year.
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MAN with an eye for dance: Seasoned dance photographer, Denis Rion. Photograph courtesy youtube.com

THE MAGIC OF making a photograph work, according to Nantes-based veteran dance photographer Denis Rion (59), happens in the way in which it can capture light and movement. He was seduced by the medium at a young age and realised early on that this would be a lifelong affair. Rion was in South Africa for this year’s Dance Umbrella, as he collaborated with Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena on their work Corps. He chatted to My View about his career behind the lens and in front of dancers.

“Dance is a fundamental element of the culture and identity of each country I have visited,” he says, speaking of how his career has taken him all over the world. He is interested in capturing gestures and movement and his work’s resonance with the dance world felt natural from the start. His work has been characterised by his desire to capture and reflect on the idea of ‘the other’.

Characteristic of Rion’s dance photography is the black background. He explains this, deeming that blackness as neutral: “If the background is the decor, there is the subject plus the decor, but I’m only interesting at the subject, that’s why I use the black background in general.”

On his website, he comments: “My photos offer a still picture of what is most live in us: flesh and emotions, materials and colour, which highlight the magnificent force of movement and gesture, the richness of the diversity of body expression, like a journey to the heart of humanity.”

  • Rion’s work can be seen this week with the performance of Corps, danced by Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena in Infecting the City, April 5, 7 at Artscape, Cape Town. Visit infectingthecity.com/2017/

How to put on that tutu and dance, in spite of everything

By Assent Menwe

  • Assent Menwe is a third year fine arts student at the University of Johannesburg. She took part in the arts writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen.
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PAINTING and dance, courage and tutus: Tamara Osso. Photograph courtesy http://www.thatspace.co.za

TAMARA OSSO’S NEW work, Tutu, which debuted at the 29th Dance Umbrella earlier this month, is backed by a tale of escaping and reorganising social, cultural and personal structures and a focus on the complexity of the ease or difficulty with which the body moves. Osso spoke to My View about painting and dance, tutus and tradition, paralysis and movement earlier this month prior to the performance of her work at the Nunnery.

The work, choreographed by Shanell Winlock-Pailman and Laura Cameron is directed by Osso. It comprises four danced characters: the aloof woman, the busy lady, the man who doesn’t want to be seen and the unstable man. It is performed by Winlock-Painlman and Cameron as well as Nathan Botha and Kgotsofeleng Moshe.

Osso’s inspiration to write the story behind this piece came from her own practise in visual art and her love for movement: in addition to her dance credentials – she learnt classical ballet as a child and has been associated with several contemporary dance companies in South Africa, including Ballet Theatre Afrikan, Free Flight Dance Company, La Rosa Spanish Company and Moving Into Dance Mophatong – she graduated with a Fine Arts degree from Wits University in 2014. Blending her visual art with her dance-based endeavours, Osso is intent on creating a dance language which is fresh and unique.

Expressing frustration with her ideas that have often been forced to leap beyond the boundaries of being paintings, she says that some of her paintings were compromised because she felt an urgent need to express herself through bodily movement as well as with paint on canvas.

But this frustration and sense of urgency to use as much of her energy as possible in creating her work, rests also on her personal circumstances. The mother of a young boy with hemiplegia which is a condition that causes one side of the body to be paralysed, Osso focused Tutu specifically around not being able to move properly. Her gesture reaches from the personal into the universal: We can all relate to feeling physically limited or stuck; effectively our sense of stability in the world is one of the powerful factors that makes us relate to ourselves and how we experience life.

Under Osso’s directorial hand, Tutu describes how we all move differently; some faster and more slowly, based on our personal vulnerability.

To simply gaze into the face of Matisse

By Lilly Oosthuizen

StudentReviewMatisse

SIMPLE lines: Matisse’s confident line work is mindblowing.

ONE MOMENT OF awe in this widely publicised exhibition of the work of Henri Matisse is his quick and bold portraits: in particular his self-portrait; Mask (1945). Self-portraits are a looking glass into the world as the artist sees it, turned on himself; it is a tense moment.

These portraits are a great marker for how Matisse came to his famous paper cutouts. Following the line of the drawings, you can see how deft and confident his marks are. You could probably count the amount of marks he has made on one hand: each one with purpose and a crucial need to describe character.

These portraits are like signatures. They are so well practiced and knowing. You cannot copy the marks he has made without being completely sure of your hand. The marks are musical in their composition. You can imagine the artist’s hand; ba dum dum dum, flick swish swoop, all to describe a face. How beautifully he does it.

It is no surprise then, how musical his cutouts and his plates for the Book of Jazz are. They, like the portraits, are confident – each snip has such a precise yet fluid purpose. Although the work seems to be made with precision, it is not serious. The atmosphere in this exhibition is playful. His cutouts are joyous and they do indeed emit an enormous sense of rhythm and meaning.

Rhythm and Meaning takes the audience through the steps in Matisse’s career, from his student work right through to his paper cutouts. Although the story is a brief overview, the exhibition really gives insight into Matisse’s “signature” as it were, and how it developed.

  • Rhythm and Meaning is at the Standard Bank Gallery in central Johannesburg until September 17. 011 631 4467.
  • Lilly Oosthuizen is a third year visual arts student at the University of Johannesburg. She is currently one of the participants in a course in Arts Writing, given by Robyn Sassen

Ten arts writers selected for the inaugural Nirox arts writing workshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit http://www.niroxarts.com

On celebrating new voices

Shannon Glover and Luis David Valle Ponce in La Bayadere. Photograph by Lauge Sorensen.

Shannon Glover and Luis David Valle Ponce in La Bayadere. Photograph by Lauge Sorensen.

 

Take a bunch of young people in their early 20s, many of whom have never been exposed to traditional European arts like classical ballet. Open their heads to a technical rehearsal of principal dancers for a work that hasn’t been stage in the city for more than 15 years. And what happens? Magic gets cast into the ether.

These extracts below, in no particular order, were written by 14 third year Fine Art students at the University of Johannesburg. Taking part in a five-week-long course that aimed to introduce them to the reality of arts writing, they each produced a piece of writing on site, in response to their experience of watching La Bayadere in rehearsal.

Luyanda Mpangele was completely seduced by the floor to ceiling window in Joburg Ballet’s rehearsal space at the Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein. “Cue music and the beauty reveals itself,” she writes. “All but the section in which the dancers are swirling and lifting is in saturated colour. A burst of energy, a narrative of love, a tragedy and a loss all shown through what looks to be effortless dancing. Little to no footsteps are heard and you get so lost in the synchronised music and dancing, that you forget that these people, like yourself, are grounded by gravity. Their bodies have been reshaped to become one with music and movement.”

“Flexible, tangible, graceful, soothing and so heavenly,” writes Lesley-Ann Julius. “Their bodies look like sculptures. Classical Greek sculptures.” She acknowledges “Ballet looks technical. Each step has to match every music beat. One can easily get lost in the dance, which is concentrated, intense and complicated. It is gracefully intense.”

Boitumelo Mazibuko compares the figures to drawings by Michelangelo. “The gracefulness of the moves comes from vigorous and impossible postures. Their love has to go through excruciating phases and this pain makes their story even more beautiful in the telling,” she adds, comparing the lifts, twists and collaborative enthusiasm to a well oiled machine “but with grace and poise.”

Jean Bollweg writes of “an abstract grace of natural smooth movement captured in the human figure, writing of poetry in movement.”

“One sees the importance of the body,” writes Theo Khuvutlu, “how the dancer works with the neck, head, shoulders and back, showing angles created with the body. The male dancers move differently from the female dancers. Their bodies and costumes seem softer on the audience’s eye: the musculature and jaggedness of the females in their tutus is harsh.”

Alvernia Morgan writes of how the dancers are swept into the moment. “They do not let their mistakes define them nor their successes.”

Jemma Dwyer is in awe of the physical strength of the performers, commenting on the breathlessness of each movement.

Writes Keilauren de Vries: “Music is the foundation of the art. It brings life to the dance. It channels through the dancers’ bodies, creating a duo of elegance and emotion. The art takes ownership of the dancers. They surrender their bodies and minds to the art to be sculpted into pristine art forms. Line, form, texture and repetition come together through the bodies of the dancers with obsessive consideration,” she adds, referring to the nature of the discipline as militant.  

Pebofatso Mokoena considers the marks made by Vincent Van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky as evocative of the “feast for the eyes” that the “energy agility and elegance of the human form presents.”

“If you have ever wondered what shape one’s breath may take on if it could manifest into a physical form, it would appear as a delicate, effortless dance between a prima ballerina and a danseur. Just as the body functions as an holistic entity, in which every cell, atom and organ operate on a subtle level of synchronicity and perfection, so too does the synergy, communication and synapses between the protagonists: ballet dancers, choreographer and composer, to reveal a complex configuration of self awareness, body consciousness and innate trust. The job of a professional ballet dancer is to communicate a sense of effortless agility, juxtaposed with disciplined control and tension through a perfected body language, akin to the whispering flutter of a hummingbird and the muscular power and freedom of a robust stallion. A sense of breathtaking mesmerising awe is projected onto the individual dancers while one’s ears are moved by nuanced orchestrated music, emotively guiding each physical succinct movement,” writes Jessica Doucha.

“Each move, curve and muscle is defined and recorded by mirrors, shadows and reflections of light which bounces around this immaculate space,” writes Robyn Jacobs, acknowledging the demanding yet beautiful nature of the dance and also commenting on the privilege of being able to be “let into a dancer’s private space.”

Daniella Gil considers the dancers’ movements “soft, swift and strong”, writing of how the show keeps the audience “intrigued and in awe”.

Also aware of the sacredness of the space, Nabeelah Abed writes, “The light bounces off the petite body of the lead dancer, Burnise Silvius. Watching her male counterpart carry her through the dance, creates a feeling of excitement and passion. During the dance, the chemistry felt between the dancers is uncanny. They become one, and they move as one. Their bodies intertwine to create a perfect balance of emotion and dance.”

Thinking of post-Impressionist painter Edgar Degas who painted series and series of ballerinas, Thina Dube writes, “I was drawn to how this art is very technical and requires long hours of dedication. It requires the ballerina to deliver those emotions with movement as well as tell a story with her whole body.”

La Bayadere is performed by the Joburg Ballet September 12-28, at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein. Visit www.joburgtheatre.com for further details.