Humble giants; flies on the wall

Panther

TAKE TWO INTELLECTUALS with something to say, put them together and record, transcribe and publish their words. Effectively, this is what you get in Footnotes for the Panther, which sees William Kentridge chatting to his friend Denis Hirson about life, the universe, his art, the craft of writing and being in the world.

On the one hand, this curious little book, designed and made with the kind of properness and dignity that lent the hard cover book its longevity as well as its sense of character, a hundred years ago, fits in the 19th century construct of belles lettres: pretty words cast out for posterity. And this makes it feel oddly precious and decidedly prescient and ironic in its sense of nostalgia.

Hirson (b. 1951) is a Paris-based writer. Born in South Africa, he was the son of anti-apartheid activist Baruch Hirson, who was jailed by the South African government for many years. Denis graduated in South Africa in the 1970s and then went to Paris where he made a life around theatre and literature, and where he still lives today.

Kentridge (b. 1955) is a South African-based artist, the son of Sydney Kentridge, who was one of the leading voices in many significant trials that South Africa weathered, including the Treason Trial, the Rivonia Trial and the inquest into the death of Steve Biko. In many respects, William needs no introduction — the meteoric rise of his fame and world respect has rendered his name known everywhere.

The two men knew each other as boys. As they chat, you realise an easy camaraderie which enables difficult questions to be asked and complicated answers to be teased out. The tone differs in the two conversations which were presented for an audience, and the other, more intimate eight, but this doesn’t make them any less readable.

So what you get when you read this book is a give and take, a recitative play between two men who have allowed you to sit, like a proverbial fly on the wall, as they wrestle with panthers conjured by Rainer Maria Rilke and South African nostalgia, with the detritus of Marikana and a brass band from Sebokeng township, among other things. It’s a foray into the work of Kentridge that reaches from his Jeu du Paume exhibition in June of 2010 to Amsterdam and the rehearsals of his interpretation of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu in May of 2015. Lots of work happened in that period.

Without an overriding voice, or internally edited-in contextual material, the work presupposes that you know what they’re talking about. And this, in many respects, is its downfall. It’s also its strength. As you slip deeper and deeper into the words of Kentridge and Hirson, you begin to hear their voices in your head. There’s a profound sense of humility in Kentridge’s mien; there’s humour and sadness; an understanding of the context of the art world, and a reach into philosophy and myth, the magic of chance and the madness of unusual juxtapositions, from violence in Betty Boop cartoons to the ways in which Kentridge represents himself in his drawings, films and other works. It is here where you learn of photographer David Goldblatt’s “fuck-all landscape” and how it makes drawing sense in a South African highveld context, and the thrill of drawing a piece of paper as it blows in the wind.

The work touches on everything from Kentridge’s collaborative talents, to his relentless work ethic and his Norton lectures. These, delivered in 2011-12, as Six Drawing Lessons, were commissioned by Harvard University and put him alongside thinkers of the ilk of Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Octavio Paz, John Cage, Orhan Pamuk, to celebrate “poetry in the broadest sense”. But in discussion, these also represent a rich cross-pollination of Kentridgean energy which considers courage and growing old, confidence in a variety of mediums and that question of so what, in the development of an artwork.

And all at once, you reach the end, and you have this powerful urge to start again. At once. It’s a gem of a publication which doesn’t kowtow to rules. Call it a vanity piece, if you must; but it’s a delightful dialogue to challenge the idea of formal research, as it places everything on the proverbial table. It’s detailed and nuanced, direct and mesmerising. And one reading just doesn’t do it justice.

  • Footnotes for the Panther: Conversations between William Kentridge and Denis Hirson is published by Fourthwall Books, Johannesburg (2017).

Goldblatt and the unassailable dignity of viewpoint

A monument to JG Strijdom, late prime minister. A 1982 photograph by David Goldblatt.

A monument to JG Strijdom, late prime minister. A 1982 photograph by David Goldblatt.

Curating an exhibition of as important an icon in South African visual art as David Goldblatt might sound like a simple task, from the outset: behind the lens and darling of galleries all over the world for close to seven decades, Goldblatt needs no formal introduction to frequent gallery visitors. His work remains astonishing, in its wryness, its sense of wonder and its lack of crude judgment. It’s intellectually and politically sexy, never stooping to the crudeness of taking sides. But, truth be told, we’ve seen it often, in a range of exhibiting contexts, in books, all over the world.

So, curator Neil Dundas needs to be very specifically singled out and celebrated in this extraordinary exhibition which offers a fresh sheen on Goldblatt’s important and magnificent oeuvre, in a way that will challenge you, in the gallery, to relook and be seduced all over again by the work. Brooking everything under the notion of values, and playing with what scale does to the consumption of a photographic work, Dundas skilfully blends historical narrative with humour, beauty with tragedy, leaving you with a richer understanding of Goldblatt’s work and his presence in the South African story.

As you emerge at the top of the gallery’s staircase, you are hit in the solar plexus and the heart, simultaneously, with three large scale photographs that confront value head on. There’s a group of South African leaders at Parliament’s Senate in the centre; a view onto the degradation of Freedom Park, a post-apartheid dream which has been thwarted on the left; and a photograph drawing from within apartheid’s belief system on the right. They’re like three exclamation marks of sound that grab you by the eyes and the memory and don’t let go. None of them enable you to look with bias. Each of them is about very specific ideological perspectives. And each of them leaves you with great empathy of the situation captured.

But the exhibition is very far from being monolithic or predictable. Around the central well of the gallery are numerous photographs from different projects and focuses of Goldblatt’s over the years. They’re important photographs, printed up like the ‘snaps’ that were de rigueur in the sixties and seventies: small square formats, black and white, with a white border around them. Cleanly framed, they are as legible and potent visually as they would be printed up enormous, but the different scale pushes something new into the mix which makes you read them with a nostalgic sensibility that doesn’t undermine their vitality or their potent sense of moment.

Further to that, this rich and beautiful showcasing of Goldblatt’s work gives presence to Goldblatt’s voice in reflecting the thinking behind making these photographs, behind the Transkei in the 1970s or Gammaskloof in the 1960s. We see powerful excerpts from Goldblatt’s series on Boksburg, on the Transported of Kwandebele, of asbestos mining, of people of the plots of Randfontein in the early 1960s … a photograph commemorating some of apartheid South Africa’s most iconic sculptures neighbours one documenting the dethroning of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, at the campus of the University of Cape Town, earlier this year. The juxtapositions make your head spin with their wildness and their dignity.

One of the primary delights of Goldblatt’s work is how his titles are embedded in so much. The images take your eye and your head into the deep interstices of a situation. You notice many things that make your blood pressure soar, or bring tears to your eyes, but then you focus on the mother and child; the girl at a bus stop; the real person who is never inconsequential, but might be compositionally shadowed, that gives the work its name.

Victoria Cobokana is one of the more potent and astute essays on Aids prevalence that you might ever see. Goldblatt’s portrait of this woman with her two small children in the home of her employer in 1999 resonates with the clear values in a Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child: in terms of colour and light and simplicity. Without stooping to gimmickry or self-conscious smartness, it’s a portrait which lends this woman and her little family enormous, overpowering dignity. But don’t go away from the work until you have read its caption.

The Pursuit of Values is more than just another retrospective of one of South Africa’s most important photographers: It’s an exhibition which speaks articulately of the unassailable dignity of viewpoint and the beauty inherent in every single situation. What a way for the Standard Bank Gallery to end 2016.

  • The Pursuit of Values, photographs by David Goldblatt is curated by Neil Dundas and is on show at the Standard Bank Gallery in central Johannesburg until December 5. Visit standardbankarts.co.za or call 011 631 4467.

Paul Weinberg: A Man Who Can Honestly Attest to Living Through History

April 26, 1994 Nelson Mandela casts his vote for the very first time, an iconic photograph by Paul Weinberg.

April 26, 1994 Nelson Mandela casts his vote for the very first time, an iconic photograph by Paul Weinberg.

It’s almost a year since Nelson Mandela passed away. To commemorate this great man, award winning art professional Natalie Liknaitzky has curated an exhibition of South African art, which will be shown at the Stephan Welz Studio in Sandton from December 5 until January 11.

The show, another in the series of shows which Liknaitzky has put together celebrating Mandela, will be called We Love Mandela: In Memoriam; it will include a selection of works from the exhibition recently shown in London, plus new works by Jane Makhubele, Ilan Ossendryver, Alfred Thoba, Zapiro and Cape-based photographer Paul Weinberg (pictured, below) – a co-founder of the 1980s photographic collective Afrapix – who took arguably the only photograph of Mandela’s first vote at Ohlange School in Inanda, Durban, the site of the grave of John Dube.

Last week, speaking of the past, the present and the future through his lens, he told My View how that photograph happened: “I was working for the Independent Electoral Commission as a freelance photojournalist during the 1994 elections. Mandela voted a second time for hundreds of photographers outside.”

But being first in line hadn’t always been Weinberg’s privilege when it came to filming Mandela. When Mandela was released from the Victor Verster prison in 1991, Weinberg was a little late in arriving to cover the event. “I sheepishly tried to find a spot and a relatively good vista. My initial position was behind a Time magazine photographer and his partner. As the wind blew, her long flowing hair kept obscuring my vision.

“‘Do you mind moving slightly to the left?’ I asked her at one point. ‘Yes I mind!’ she said. ‘I’ve been waiting here for eight hours.’ My response was immediate: ‘Well, millions of us have been waiting all our lives!’ I then settled on a place which was more like a worm’s eye view. At least I had a clear path of the gates.

“And after more waiting, Nelson and Winnie walked through the gates towards the media. I focused and pressed the shutter. As I did, a group of comrades who were to my right, surged. My cameras, camera bag and I went flying. My Madiba moment consists of blue sky and telephone lines! To add further ignominy, I lost a lens in the fracas.

“In an attempt to redeem myself, I rushed to the grand parade and it was jammed packed and after hours of waiting Madiba arrived in very low light – his driver had gotten lost, which resulted in a long wait. I have a blurry photo of him waving to the crowd. I was really freaked out that two historic moments had passed with nothing to show for it.

“Caught up in the events that followed I joined the Mandela train to some extent as he connected to the South African public. On one occasion I was commissioned to do ‘a day in the life’ of Nelson Mandela. As we walked along the corridor, Madiba remembering my name, turned to me and asked, ‘Are you related to my good friend Eli Weinberg?’ I replied with the same answer, ‘Not directly but our forebears came from the same city, Riga in Latvia.’ ‘I see,’ he said generously. But I knew my answer was not going to get me much closer to the great man.

“One got then a very clear impression that Madiba knew when he was talking to you or allowing his photograph to be taken, he was connecting with the world. You were as important to him as he was to us. The media were his direct artery to the world which he so brilliantly has managed throughout his life.”

Weinberg, who was born and raised in Pietermaritzburg describes his participation in Liknaitzky’s project as something that grew out of a conversation. “I got into the show through the side door. I went to see the work she did on Mandela at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town, I told her I’d done a bit of work myself,” he adds, referring to the collection on show in this exhibition as a “series of firsts.”

Skirting from describing himself as having a comprehensive focus on Mandela he says, “As a photojournalist, I kept my eyes peeled and was cognisant of the significant moments that were happening. I had been documenting politically significant moments from the 1980s.”

paulweinbergpic2

When Weinberg was 11 he won a Hebrew prize designated for the purchase of books. “But I ran off and used it to buy myself a very nice little Canon Rangefinder, it was better than a Brownie and was my first real camera. On my barmitzvah, I upgraded to a Pentax, with all the lenses, which I bought from a press photographer.

“In high school I dabbled and kind of did what I thought I needed to do, and learned how to take pictures and develop. My interest in photography was percolating. Then I did all the usual things: I went to the army and came out and went to the university and I was half way through a law degree at ‘Maritzburg University when it was suddenly June 1976. And I thought I just can’t do this anymore. I have to take a stand.

“So I handed in my rifle and registered as a conscientious objector, not really knowing what I was doing, but that moment was pivotal because then I realised it was real and pondered: if I do get arrested or charged, do I really have the balls to sit in jail?” He decided to get some kind of qualification that would give him the skills to earn a living elsewhere. “A law degree would get me nowhere.

“I went back to the local technical college where I did a certificate in photography, but I also completed my BA at the same time and then I headed for Jo’burg, to escape from the army commando that I was at.

“And the rest is history. I lived out of a suitcase with a passport next to me and never paid tax and got totally involved in the world around me in trying to play my part in documenting what was going on. And I tripped and fell often, as I went.

“Narratives can be delusional,” he laughs, speaking of the flawed sense of romance in the hard life of a freelancer. “It was incredibly exciting. We were living history. I was caught up in events and the world was happening around us. On reflection, what a phenomenal privilege it was to live through those times.”

Afrapix was founded in 1982, by Weinberg in collaboration with Omar Badsha, Lesley Lawson, Biddy Partridge and Mxolise Mayo. A decade before the photographers associated with the Bang Bang club – Ken Oosterbroek, Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovic and Joao Silva – “Afrapix’s ethos was different to that of the Bang Bang Club. We were like a family. We were uncompetitive with each other: it was quite phenomenal. We had a lot of people who weren’t traditional photographers – there were housewives and people from the townships like darkroom assistants like Santu Mofokeng, who developed into heavyweights in the industry. We were there for strays and waifs, and anyone who was committed to the cause.

“It’s a big jump for documentary photographers like myself to enter the artworld,” he adds. “It’s a whole new vocabulary. I am in the minor league,” he says, but as the creator of several photographic books containing his different series, he’s developed a lot of street cred as a photographer who knows his stuff.

“But when I think of the 1970s, I remember how David Goldblatt’s books, like Some Afrikaners and On the Mine were available at Estoril books for R1.50: they were commercial failures at the time, but have gone on to become enormously iconic, and I believe there’s hope. Someday, maybe someone will be buying Paul Weinberg books in the same vein.”

In his capacity as photographic curator, where he is employed by the archives of the University of Cape Town, Weinberg is currently in the process of putting together a project called The Other Camera. “It’s about vernacular photography, which I have been researching over years and years. The opening of this exhibition at the Wits Art Museum will coincides with a Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser) conference at Wits University in mid February.

“For this project, I have dug and found stuff way off the beaten track. Being aware of this genre has been amazing. Okwui Enwezor and Simon Njami have discovered the west African form of this genre of portrait photography and have exposed it to the world through Malick Sidibé and Sedou Keita but they’ve left out the southern African part.

“Does it make sense? This is really where urbanisation took off first in Africa. The connection with the camera and identity all that stuff to do with modernity was definitely going to happen.

“Photography has a weird place,” he concludes. “Photographers are sometimes inarticulate in various ways but they kind of know that this, in this moment, they have got something special. Often it is for the wrong reasons – fame and glory… but at the end of the day, one looks back at them and sees their value.”

  • We Love Mandela: In Memoriam is at the Welz Studio, Shop L38, Nelson Mandela Square, Sandton, December 5-January 11. Call Christa (011)026-6586 or Nadine 082-891-8252.

Ngezinyawo: Migrancy through a thoughtful loupe at WAM.

One Tito Zungu’s envelopes which he sent home in the 1960s. The epitome of migrant labour, these envelopes told his loved ones a story about the big city he was not able to with words. Photo supplied.

One Tito Zungu’s envelopes which he sent home in the 1960s. The epitome of migrant labour, these envelopes told his loved ones a story about the big city he was not able to with words. Photo supplied.

Occasionally, you come across a curated exhibition so attuned to delivering on its promises, your heart sings. Fiona Rankin-Smith with years of curatorial expertise yields an impeccable reflection on migrancy which informs without being didactic, moves without being maudlin and will touch you very deeply. The magic starts before you even enter the museum.

Last week, composer Philip Miller debuted a sound installation in WAM’s vestibule. Entitled Extracts from the Underground, it’s a beautiful idea, articulated like his TRC Cantata a few years ago. This sublime work, which bleeds into Braamfontein’s streets with its projected sounds and visuals, has as libretto a 1967 Fanagalo dictionary. On opening night, last week, precious operatic moments were sung by choristers. The libretto? A ledger listing injuries incurred by miners, dating from the 1930s.

Miller’s work is astounding. But its impact should not be allowed to overrule the rest of the exhibition. Works grab you by the eyes and knock you sideways by virtue of thoughtful juxtapositions and intelligent reflections on the issues at hand.

From Michael Goldberg’s heart-catching 1970s Hostel Monument for the Migrant Worker, which conjures up harsh hostel realities, to photographs by Gideon Mendel, David Goldblatt, Gisèle Wulfsohn, splaying open different, heartbreaking aspects of SA migrancy; from Claudette Schreuders’ sculpture of a black woman with a white child, to Ilan Godfrey’s photograph of a prostitute in a forest and overpoweringly fine narrative photographs of illegal miners by Mark Lewis; from traditional and contemporary beadwork to Tito Zungu’s exquisite envelopes celebrating the big city and touching his own homesickness, the show is rich with diversity.

Coupled with educational challenges to stir your heart and head, the exhibition includes William Kentridge’s marvellous 1991 hand-made film ‘Mine’, which reverberates with a compilation of mining footage, and in turn thunderously speaks to Miller’s work.

You might leave this exhibition with sore feet: there’s a fair amount of space to cover. But you will certainly leave it with a full heart. Migrancy stretches deep into many of our histories. It’s an exhibition which earns full critical marks and deserves many re-visits.

  • Parking near WAM is awkward; rather pre-book parking.
  • Miller’s work is screened until June 26.
  • A version of this review appeared in the print issue of the SA Jewish Report.

Exhibition: Ngezinyawo – Migrant Journeys is at Wits Art Museum, Braamfontein. It is curated by: Fiona Rankin-Smith, Peter Delius and Laura Phillips and is on show until July 20.