Of goosebumps and brokenness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Time Fails: a small novel with an enormous guttural reach

TimeFailsSearing the South African political and Jewish landscape with a glance that takes in everything from the bizarre realities of farming culture and land reclamation to the philosophy of the kibbutz and where it is flawed, Marilyn Cohen De Villiers’s second blockbuster novel is a real page turner.

When Time Fails tells the complex story of an Afrikaans-speaking white South African woman called Annamari van Zyl. A mote in the eye of Alan Silverman, the central most disturbing character of Cohen De Villiers’s previous book A Beautiful Family, Annamari’s tale leaps off in a different direction and while you don’t have to have read the first book, it helps yet in a sense bruises the reading of the second.

The dovetailing of violent narrative between Cohen De Villiers’s two books fleshes out characters that were only sketched in roughly in the first book and leaves its reflections more three dimensional, but your knowledge of how things unfold in a Beautiful Family, does, in many ways, rob the story of some of its surprise elements. Then again, the Alan Silverman link is a bloody thread that runs through the book and keeps you turning pages until the ultimate climax of the work, and there are fresh hairpin bends that will keep you rivetted.

A consummately skilled writer, Cohen De Villiers has woven a text that reflects on the contradiction, quirkiness, challenges and horror of a so-called ordinary white South African family on the cusp of apartheid. Mixed with a frisson of violence, a delicate handling of sex and a deeply empathetic reflection on farming culture in the country and how it was beleaguered and encroached upon in different ways, the novel is very compelling, and from the first moment where an envelope is received from the department of land affairs, to the last, which sees the promise of happiness in an unexpected way, you will be intrigued and moved.

Structured with a satisfying formula, When Time Fails begins in 2014 and then slides back through the trajectory of time to the early 1980s, framing the story in history and context. Sprinkled with the harsh values of racist bias, considering not only the black and coloured communities, but the Jews as well, When Time Fails is well researched and developed with a mature eye that doesn’t flinch at describing some horrendous scenes and levels of violence.

Cast as it is against the unyielding landscape of a farm in South Africa’s Free State province, the writing embraces everything, from the weather to the light, to the lie central to Annamari’s identity, which acts as the underbelly to the work. You do know roughly how the work will unfold, given the parameters of possibility it presents, but there are some sheer surprises that have the power to make this read an all night long one.

Again, as she did in her debut publication last year, Cohen De Villiers has yielded a tour de force in this book which fits very smoothly into the pastoral novel genre specific to this country. But more than just a plaas roman in the conventional sense, the novel throws up the inherent contradictions of Jewish South Africans, and also of people marred by sexual behaviour reflecting psychiatric illness. Blended with an understanding of incest and its taboos and the strong arm of affirmative action in fields as diverse as cricket and law, in bold yet very intelligent sweeps, Cohen De Villiers’s pen embraces everything from Hansie Cronje’s sorry saga, to Thabo Mbeki’s HIV and Aids remedies.

Arguably with an appeal that will embrace a wider fan-base than A Beautiful Family, When Time Fails is written with a candid pen, and a strong sense of plot. It is eminently readable and perplexing in the social and community-focused dilemmas it suggests. In short: read this book. Cohen De Villiers promises a third in her prologue, and already, it’s keenly anticipated.

  • When Time Fails is written by Marilyn Cohen De Villiers and published by Mapolaje Publishers (2015).

Impeccable Crepuscule

Dignity, sophistication and love: Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can Themba (Leroy Gopal). Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.
Dignity, sophistication and love: Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can Themba (Leroy Gopal). Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

It’s relatively easy to glamourise the 1950s. The fashions are beautiful and dignified. The architecture is poetic. The times were ripe with sex and possibilities: the world was on its knees after two major wars, and the cultural pendulum was swinging back: anything was possible. Truth be told, the period, in South Africa, in particular, was very far from glamorous. Apartheid was rife, and while the fashions were indeed beautiful and the Art Deco buildings of the time were indeed poetic, social and human values were rotten and injustice was like a cancerous rash spreading dully all over society. Enter Khayelihle Dom Gumede. This young man has taken a magnificent piece of prose by Can Themba and brought it to life on stage in a manner which not only celebrates the cultural nuances of the 1950s, but opens up the social underbelly of the period with a searingly sharp tool, aided by an exceptionally fine cast.

In short, Crepuscule is a doomed love story, based loosely on fact, between Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can (Leroy Gopal). Not only was their love hampered by moral taboos of the time, she being white and he, black, but it flew in the face of their other relationships, to say nothing of the miscegenation laws of apartheid that got lascivious cops checking bed frames for evidence.

But in the hands of Gumede, this impeccable piece of theatre is so much more than this simple yet complicated love story. It’s an essay on shebeen culture, and a reflective and full representation of characters in all their dimensions.

There are no real villains in this tale: you might expect the cuckolded husband, Malcolm (Conrad Kemp) to be reflected upon as the classic colonialist, the tight-fisted white man who lacks social savvy and nuance, and is easy bait for mockery in the vernacular, but under Gumede’s direction and with Kemp’s own developed reflection of the role, a great level of empathy is evoked and honed.

Similarly, Themba’s mother, played with astonishing charisma and authenticity by Thami Ngoma reflects not only a woman resigned with disappointment at her son’s love choices, but one who loves her son and must respect him, and one who has the emotional sophistication to tease and contextualise her own feelings.

Further to each rounded character development, which also features the extraordinary Lerato Mvelase who can be a drunk man as well as she can be a shebeen queen, Liquorish and Gopal raise the stature of the characters they perform to historical and emotional icons. You will be seduced by the delicious crispness of the give and take between them, and the succinct and subtle yet ever so sexy representation of their relationship.

But more than that, you will be haunted and intoxicated by the interjection of song – Sophiatown standards – and dance, and physical theatre and movement that gives this work its life blood. With palpably gorgeous language and featuring some truly brilliant set decisions by the inimitable Nadya Cohen, the work is compact and edgy as it is completely engaging. In short, it is flawless: a work where every nuance is thought through and taken care of, a product which offers a portrait of Sophiatown that jives and beats and weeps and lives. See it.

  • Crepuscule by Can Themba, is adapted for stage by Khayelihle Dom Gumede, mentored by Kgafela oa Magogodi. It features design by Nhlanhla Mahlangu (musical direction and choreography), Nadya Cohen (set), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Thando Lobese (costumes) and is performed by Leroy Gopal, Conrad Kemp, Kate Liquorish, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Lerato Mvelase and Thami Ngoma, at the Laager, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 2. Call 0118321641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Wafer: Telling of murder with a simple palette and a mature eye

Untitled, a painting in oil on canvas (2015) by Mary Wafer
Untitled, a painting in oil on canvas (2015) by Mary Wafer

It requires a particular level of maturity to take a concept and work with it until it reaches a point of abstraction, but a very unique sense of artistic muscle and wisdom that can keep that abstraction relevant to the casual viewer. This is what Mary Wafer achieves in her current exhibition at David Krut.

Entitled Ninth Floor, the body of paintings and hard ground etchings shown here is not excessive in size. It’s primarily monochromatic and hinges very directly onto a poem by Chris van Wyk, about the alleged killings in the late 1970s that took place at John Vorster Square in central Johannesburg, under the pall of apartheid.

The stories that sullied our world then are graphic and terrible, and most of the facts surrounding the multitude of people who openly rejected the ghastly machine of apartheid, and how they died or were tortured, are not completely known. Lies and misinformation colour that bleak period in South Africa’s history in layers of words and bureaucracy hiding gestures, cruelty and loss.

In this exhibition,with an astute eye and a ruthless sense of composition, Wafer touches all she needs to. But the work is not about the blood and horror of being pushed out of a ninth floor window in the police headquarters of a city ravaged by racism. It’s also not about the dockets and police records, the words and accounts. And yet, it is.

When you look at these works, which visually focus on the repeat patterns and rhyming visuals evoked by Venetian blinds in a huge building, clad in glass and bricks, you get a sense of texture. But it brings also a sense of horror, particularly when the uniformity of the pattern is disrupted.

Arguably, the title of the exhibition and the presence of the works operate in tandem: you can’t separate them and retain that freshness of horror that legibility of unspoken brutality. But this is a moot point: you approach the images ensconced as they are in the title of the exhibition and all that it connotes.

Having said that, the body of work here is impeccably produced. The etchings are printed flawlessly. The lines break the surface of the work with a sense of industriousness. Evoking the etchings of Dominic Thorburn from the 1980s and earlier, dealing with the industrial and motorised monsters that gave apartheid its scary face, Wafer’s body of work is beguilingly simple: they don’t allow you to glory in the texture of the mark making, but keep drawing you back to the presence of the gesture.

Ninth Floor is a heady exhibition without being prescriptive or blatant. It’s a tour de force body of work by a mature artist. You can see all the works in the space of maybe fifteen minutes, but their presence casts a grim resonance in your sensibilities which is frankly haunting.

  • Mary Wafer’s exhibition Ninth Floor is at David Krut Projects, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, until August 6. 0114470627 or davidkrutprojects.com

Five Lives: Love and hurt under apartheid


A tale of the relentless complexity of sibling lives and how they can intertwine and contradict and hurt each other, under the devastating pall of apartheid, just before democracy, Five Lives at Noon is a real page turner.

Meersman has created a bevy of characters which populate this text with a gutturalness and a sense of human grit that make you believe you will recognise them in the street. Tainted and broken and built and shaped by the racist laws that forged their roots, Joseph, Zukiswa, Mfundi, Francois and Bertie are roughly of the same age, but the enormous differences in their skin colour and spiritual make up have forced them into alarmingly radical directions.

This is no coming-of-age story. It’s a love story. It’s about sibling love and illegal love. It’s about marriage and disappointment. It’s about the horror of betrayal when the stakes are as high as they can get. Above all, it’s about the mire of complexity that being raised under apartheid represented for so many.

Underpinning the whole narrative is a tight and hilarious critique of the contemporary South African art world. The unequivocal highlight in this book’s writing is a description of the opening night of an art exhibition. It’s handled with the juicy acerbic wit of an insider/outsider in the arts community and Meersman infiltrates his words with as much visual caricature and wisdom as you can find in the best of the work of German Expressionist painter, Otto Dix. Even if you don’t know anything about South Africa or don’t resonate with the heavy dreadfulness of how things unfold in central thread to this story, this passage in the text is to be simply cherished.

With each chapter punctuated with genuine headlines and précis of media stories that rocked the city at the time, the work also features feisty thumbnail biographies of people like Harry Oppenheimer, Mangosutho Buthelezi and Chris Hani – very different and singularly important icons in the South African contemporary narrative.

If you are not South African or don’t have an internal memory of the goings on in the country during the early 1990s, however, you might find yourself a little at sea regarding these disruptions in the yarn that Meersman casts. Handled in a different font from the rest of the text, they are clear digressions but are not stitched to the central story with conviction.

But replete with hairpin twists in its plot, and often as not covered in the historical blood, cruelty and malice which defined military apartheid values, this book will leave you stunned and covered in goosebumps, if not tears, often.

Five Lives at Noon by Brent Meersman (2013: Missing Ink, Vlaeberg).