Johannesburg: Portrait with blood

golddiggersBEING ALIVE ON this African continent is a very complicated thing, particularly if the home in which you were raised has become lethally hostile to you. Investment analyst by day, fictional writer by night, Bulawayo born Sue Nyathi, who burst onto readerships’ awareness in 2012 with her debut novel The Polygamist brings The Gold-Diggers, a new novel which takes on the monster of xenophobia and all its tentacles. From the outset, you must hold onto your proverbial hat: this is a quick, easy but violent read which will threaten your sense of moral equilibrium, from beginning to end.

Constructed similarly to Akin Omotoso’s 2016 film Vaya, the work presents you with several characters, in the throes of illegally crossing the border from Zimbabwe into South Africa. Each is coming for their own reasons; each has no idea what the devil awaiting them in the city of gold will look like, nor what it will do to them, their relationships and their sense of hope for the future. And the book is structured along the paths that Chamunorwa and Chenai, Melusi and Givemore, Gugulethu and Lindani and others, follow, crooked and broken though many turn out.

It’s a tale of trade in young girls, of drugs, of xenophobia and one which sees people being tossed away as though they are worthless. There’s a necklacing that takes the life of one of the characters, a dead baby stuffed with illegal drugs on a Malaysian flight that’s the burden for another to carry; the lure of fame fortune and glory in this work is painted oft with a carrot of poison, that reflects a dog-eat-dog world where nobody enjoys the empathy of the common man and homelessness and aloneness are the least of their worries.

While the characters take a while to be developed, developed they are, and they break your heart in different, unexpected ways. Once the story gathers its momentum, it’s one not easily put down. But racy narrative aside, the writing itself often bruises the integrity of the read. It is written in a way that reflects on Nyathi’s youth as a writer – too many adjectives often clutter up the material in a way that makes what it is saying feel wooden. Further to that, context remains mostly undeveloped: the first mention of a date in the book is about 160 pages in. And suddenly, as you think 2008, you remember the xenophobic catastrophe that broke out in so many places in South Africa, and the blood that was spilled so violently then — and that still erupts across the board. Suddenly, Nyathi’s characters take on a gravitas and a texture that enhances their urgency and their credibility.

The Gold-Diggers is a cautionary story about the danger of too little, but also the danger of too much. In reading it, you must steel yourself to look beyond the sometimes too earnest descriptions and into the heart of the stories, and sometimes you may see hellfire and conflagration there, and at other times, you may see a mirror.

Running on Empty: work full of soul

Audrey Anderson's Blinders in Hindsight, a work in ink on wood. Photograph courtesy Gallery2
Audrey Anderson’s Blinders in Hindsight, a work in ink on wood. Photograph courtesy Gallery2

The first thing that strikes you when you enter this gallery space is a sense of plenty: artists Audrey Anderson and Ross Passmoor are very different practitioners with distinct visual signatures and skill. They’re young, but their individual approach is established and keenly honed. And while there are not hundreds of works in this intimate gallery space, the two diverse perspectives meet and concatenate and converse and create a joint portrait of this city that is engaging and beautiful, light on the eye and meaningful on the heart.

This is Running on Empty, an exhibition which embraces a cynical understanding of the rush and thrust of the condition of Johannesburg, with a bold grip and an uncompromising reflection.

Anderson works primarily in ink on wood. The support is as supple as skin, and the medium as incisive as though it were applied not with a paintbrush but with a scalpel. Her line work is calligraphic, yet her embrace of the quirks of naturalism is sound and without pretence.

Flirting with the idea of an architectural drawing and hinting tantalisingly at the drawing traditions which informed a pre-digital graphic design and advertising industry, her work has its own internal razzmatazz, which reflects a frisky inner city, with its grey men in suits – and in water, as it embraces the architecture and the mixing and ringing of foliage with architecture. The works are whimsical yet layered, easy to look at yet deep.

Conversely, Passmoor works with a guttural approach – his is a meaty line, in which he explores the texture and nuance of electric wiring and great blocks of construction that together form huge engineering achievements like bridges or tunnels. Working with monograph and etching, Passmoor demonstrates a strong drawing hand reflecting on the bigness of architecture from the outside.

The works are bold and unapologetic, celebrating how the rough plate under the pressure of the intaglio press bruises and mottles the paper, offering a reflection on this city which is poetic without being sentimental, nuanced, and yet never obvious.

The intimacy evoked in the give and take of these two artists is palpably engaging. There’s a duet, a conversation here that you hear as soon as you enter the space. It’s not a great big conceptual gesture that will change the world with great thrusts of bravado or academic speak. Rather, it’s a celebration of skill and beauty and a confession of great love for this city, with all its hurly-burl, drama and panic.

  • Audrey Anderson and Ross Passmoor’s exhibition Running on Empty is at Gallery 2, 140 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, until Saturday July 4. 0114470155 or visit gallery2.co.za