Whatever shall we tell our children?

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YOU might not like me when I’m angry. Hulk Habib by Hasan and Husain Essop. Lightjet C-print on archival paper.

COMIC HEROES HAVE, since they were first thought up and drawn in the late 1930s, had a very particular place in a child’s values. The values of a white child, that is. Why? Because these great and noble chaps who don cloaks and masks or turn green with self-righteous rage, in the name of the underdog, are all white, like the hypothetical kid in question. What this means to a child who is not white is so exclusionary, it causes all of this world’s values to crumple. Twin artists Hasan and Husain Essop have the temerity and sense of style and purpose, to take this on, directly.

Once you are gripped in the gaze of a Muslim Batman, Spiderman and Incredible Hulk, all resistance crumbles in this potent exhibition of constructed photographs engaging, in the Essops’ inimitable directness, with the complexity of being Muslim in the contemporary world.

Along the lines of Pieter Hugo’s approach in his Nollywood series of 2009, the Essop twins engage a political reality which has become dangerously clichéd in the wake of 9/11 and the thrust of hysterical Islamophobia. Like Hugo’s work, the Essops’ images are all posed: these are not press images but art, confronting bias from within.

And the result by and large will shift your equilibrium.

A young Muslim man kneels on a beach strewn with thick fleshy bits of kelp and lots of discarded empty plastic bottles. He cradles a child’s doll in his arms. As you look at it, you experience a double take. This is a reference to a 2015 press photograph of the drowned Alan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler, on a beach in Turkey. It went viral, presenting a face of xenophobia that was about a lot more and a lot less than what the hateful rhetoric was espousing. It’s an image which grabs you by the throat and stifles your breath. Before being a refugee, this young man was a daddy.

The portraits of the three Marvel comic superheroes, however, dominate the space of the gallery’s main display area with a quiet violence. It may make you think of how children’s heroes need a cultural makeover, giving children who are not white access to heroes who look like them.

It may frighten you: the unflinching gaze of Spiderman in his keffiyeh, the Hulk with a taqiyah and Batman with Arabic words cast across his mask, depending on who you are, are confrontational. The potency of these characters in a Muslim framework is explosive and profound, while it’s easily digestible and direct. And the litany of reflection on the values of children – the ones who hold the superheroes in thrall – resonates through your head.

Also in the gallery’s main space, there is an installation. A little dinghy. Some baby clothes strewn on the floor. Two poles or oars, with the emblem of the Syrian flag. “Are we there yet?” is emblazoned on one little crumpled t-shirt, a clichéd reflection on children’s classic impatience in road trips, which has been turned tragically upside down, reflecting the terror of refugees travelling to a new world which may or may not accept them.

Other works, such as the single channel HD video Refuge, articulately place you, the beholder, in a pilgrim-like situation. Many people seem to surround you. The atmosphere is peaceful yet threatening by the very quantity of people in the frame. They move gently forward. You feel smothered.

There’s a “No Muslims” and a “Muslims Only” sign punctuating the show, as well as a flag printed in a typeface redolent of Arabic, but English in its proclamation that Islam doesn’t kill, people do. In another image, a beheading is imminent. These much more obvious engagements with the values of the show tend to weaken the show’s thrust with their unambiguous confrontation of dangerously shallow prejudice and cliché.

It is the works which force you beyond the stereotypes and into the heart of a young parent or child who has hate shoved into his or her face because of his or her culture and origins that will leave you shell-shocked and ashamed of this world’s values.

  • Refuge by Hasan and Husain Essop is at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg until August 19. Call 011 788 1113 or visit goodman-gallery.com
  • For a commentary on the iconic nature of contemporary political photographs, read this column by Geoff Sifrin.
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Who’s your daddy?

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IMPOSTOR with appalling teeth: Meet Toni Erdmann (Peter Simonischek).

WHAT DO YOU do when your hot-shot entrepreneurial daughter who is earnestly climbing the corporate ladder in Europe freezes you out of her life? Do you do the social thing and try to wine and dine her and buy her gifts, or do you go all out to worm your way into her confidence, using every trick in the book and inventing some brand new tricks, yourself?

Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a man with an ill-fitting denture. He’s a music teacher and the owner of an extremely elderly dog. And eccentricity is the tune by which he conjures his life. Only it’s such deadpan eccentricity that it takes you a while to get attuned to it. But once you do, the rhythm and resonance of this work will soar with you and haunt you. Further to that, it might well make you wake up in the night laughing and sobbing at some of the work’s nuances, weeks after you’ve seen it.

Winfried’s daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller) fits into the millennial German stereotype graciously. She’s an A-type personality tightly controlling her frenetic Bucharest-based life, complete as it is with the obsessive pressure of wining and dining important people, juggling technology and time. Her dad’s curious as to where and how she lets her hair down. And with whom. But nay, Ines, with her tight business suit and her every-hair-in-place German precision wants nothing of the presence of her awkward, emotional, curious daddy-o.

Bordering on the kind of manipulative cruelty you see in films such as Joseph Mankiewicz’s (1972) Sleuth, with Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier, Toni Erdmann reveals really bizarre antics of Winfried to gain his daughter’s attention and win her affection but also a place in her life.

It takes an infected toenail, a spontaneously naked birthday party, an alarming cheese grater, not to mention an unbelievably enormous Bulgarian cultural costume, sex with a green petit four and an invented character called Toni Erdmann, too ugly and socially awkward to believe possible. Almost clocking in at three hours, this is a long film, but it will keep you riveted as it keeps you surprised. Shortlisted for the best foreign film in 2017’s Oscars and with a slew of nominations and awards in its wake, it’s a wild story punctuated with hairpin bends in its plot, but it is its superb craftsmanship, incredibly fine performances and sophisticated storytelling that will grip you the most.

Ultimately, it’s a beautiful paean about the complicated relationship between a man and his adult daughter, replete with all its irritating and uncomfortable moments that any grown woman with an elderly father will relate to.

  • Toni Erdmann (2016) is directed by Maren Ade and stars Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek and Michael Wittenborn. It is 162 minutes in length and is in German with English subtitles. It is being screened as part of the European Film Festival in Johannesburg on May 7 and 13 at Cinema Nouveau in Rosebank, Pretoria on May 7 and 14 at Cinema Nouveau in Brooklyn, Cape Town on May 7 and 13 at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A and Durban on May 14 at Cinema Nouveau, Gateway. Visit eurofilmfest.co.za and www.cinemanouveau.co.za for more details.

Forever’s flaws in a world fraught by change

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THAT cat: Isabelle Huppert is Nathalie Chazeaux making sense of an inherited cat.

Reviewed By Nomali Minenhle Cele

WHEN YOU ARE introduced to her, Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) is a happy enough woman. She’s driven at her teaching job and secure in her marriage, her grown children are happy and healthy. She’s respected in her profession as a philosopher. The quiet cogs of her life churn on and she is satisfied.

Quite early into the film, however, the foundations of her life begin to shake. The future of the once-lucrative textbook she wrote is uncertain (she has to pay for that beautiful Paris flat somehow, surely). The world is changing. Her marriage is not as secure as she believes.

Nathalie’s relationship with her mother is troubled. Both women are at the stage of life where questions such as “when are you giving me grandchildren?” are replaced by 3am phone calls because mother is having an anxiety attack. Before she is committed to an old age home, the older woman lives in a flat, which she never leaves, surrounded by photographs of herself in her youth. She was a beauty, however, what time has taken is nothing compared to what a divergent brain takes. Or what death takes.

With a level head, Nathalie has to lament a marriage, and a seaside home. She also has to mourn the loss of her mother. And then there’s the question of making sense of the cat her mother leaves.

Huppert is a joy to watch. Her jokes, even in subtitles, are biting. Her observations on life, love and relationships are interesting, her Nathalie is warm. But she’s far from being every woman. Only women who look like that and have her level of education/social standing — but mostly, LOOK like that — get to have their singular story “Gets divorced, bordering-on-toxic mother dies, inherits cat, has a year of awakening and change” told. The fictional French white woman lives differently.

Nathalie’s relationship with her students, particularly Fabien (Roman Kolinka), is used as one of the primary lenses in this film, which also feeds off the developments in her private life. Fabien is proof that ideas can change. Nathalie knows this because one of the things she says to her husband when he says he’s leaving is: “I thought you would love me forever.” Forever, she discovers, is relative and she, even though she had always thought herself very happy and fulfilled in her marriage, confesses during a drive with Fabien that she welcomes the variety in music.

Broadly considered the darling of French film in 2016, this Things To Come is a rewarding and beautifully made film.

  • Things To Come (2016) is directed by Mia Hansen-Love and stars Isabelle Huppert, André Marcon and Roman Kolinka. It is 102 minutes in length and is in French, German and English, with English subtitles. It is being screened as part of the European Film Festival in Johannesburg on May 5 and 14 at Cinema Nouveau in Rosebank, Pretoria on May 5 and 14 at Cinema Nouveau in Brooklyn, Cape Town on May 5 and 14 at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A and Durban on May 5 at Cinema Nouveau, Gateway. Visit eurofilmfest.co.za and www.cinemanouveau.co.za for more details.
  • Nomali Minenhle Cele is a culture critic and writer from Soweto, and founder of the  zine Uju. Invoke her at her blog Nomali From Soweto.

Framed by a blade of fire, a spot of glue and a miscellany of limbs

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THE lady ponders: Rebecca Haysom’s collage The Tiger’s Bride. Photograph courtesy Circa Gallery.

AN UNCOMFORTABLY DIZZYING association between the ideas of feminist magical realist writer Angela Carter and between-the-wars German collagists John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, seems the most appropriate way of describing the wild and terrifying humour, explicit and witch-like sexuality and rough and tumble gamesplaying in this, the first solo exhibition of Rebecca Haysom.

Entitled The Tiger’s Bride, this tender and quivering yet seemingly bruised body of close to 40 works, is collectively about quirky humour, dark laughter and the slithery teasing apart of mythical practices, fairytales and idioms. And art history is tossed into the mix too. Here’s a sprinkling of Dalí, there’s a quotation from Rembrandt and another from Van Dyk. Nothing is sacred beneath the robust yet delicate scalpel of Haysom as she slices off limbs and reattaches them at fantastical angles, blending tigers and women, forcing scale relationships that are off the radar and constructing roses of papier mâché billed Make her Cry.

This latter work is a witty play on what you see. There’s a fabulous scene with a very young Maggie Smith in the Richard Attenborough musical satire Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). From far, the character played by Smith is demure and welcoming to young men and wouldbe conscriptees. But as the camera pans in, there’s something so garish and terrifying about her, that the values change irrevocably. As you gaze on Haysom’s bouquet and realise that these petals are solid and tough, something similar happens and the image becomes cruel and scary rather than sweet or romantic.

Evoking the work of South African book artist Kathleen Sawyer, Haysom’s work splays the values associated with old European fairy tales: tales of mermaids and witches, magic spells and big skirts. The Emperor’s New Clothes is present here, as is Prince Charming.

It’s a wonderland whirligig of an exhibition, albeit a precarious one: be careful what you find yourself admiring, it might just not be exactly what you think it is. That lady is a tiger, and the joke may be on you. While some of the works seem like one-liners, the more you look, the more they suck you into their depths of the kinds of possibilities that you can create with a spot of glue and a quick, sharp knife, ranging from biblical association to pornography.

The one work which seems anomalous in this collection is a large landscape painting at the end of the gallery on a sheet of loose canvas, which hangs like a curtain. More like a stage set than a work like the others, it offers a concatenation of values that chime oddly and will leave you unsure of yourself and of what you’ve understood by the rest of the work.

Is it all a stage set in the context of play acting? You can’t really be sure. Either way, understated and thoughtful, witty and bizarre and above all, reliant on a sense of careful construction of body parts on paper and ideologies in the artist’s head, this is a potent exhibition which is an embodiment of play and earnestness, with blurred boundaries between the two.

  • The Tiger’s Bride by Rebecca Haysom is on show downstairs in Circa Gallery Rosebank until April 29. Visit circaonjellicoe.co.za or call 011 788 4805.

Battlefields: An exhibition of blood and ghosts that cries for balance

BurgerFrancki01South Africa’s landscape is layered with history and filled with residues – even dried reservoirs – of great masses of blood spilled in battle – as is virtually every other place in the world that has been lost and gained, caught in tussles and fought over. Photographer Francki Burger has embarked, in her current exhibition, mooted Battlefields in a thoughtful and subtle project that considers the sites of South African battles and the archival volume of material and memories that inform selected spots.

On paper, it’s a remarkable project. In a broader context of experimental photographers over the last couple of years, given the availability of the technology, it’s not unique. Our battle sites, neglected though they may be administratively or in their sense of upkeep and beautification, remain points of huge fascination for many creative or history-savvy people. Indeed, the layering of images, given digital technology is something that many artists are playing with.

So, what gives this exhibition its edge? Why should you visit it? In a word, one set of images: Burger’s diptych, which faces you as you enter the space: Isandlwana I and Isandlwana II: of her body of 17 works, these are unequivocally the most successful and engaging. Striations lend the ostensibly quiet landscapes, one containing a cairn of stones, texture, but look more carefully and these are strands of tough African grass. Or are they? Perhaps these lines which so bruise and characterise the two images of the site of South Africa’s most brutal wars, are scratches on historical negatives or the skeletal gestures of dead soldiers. Either way, you walk away from both those images with a sense of satisfaction. The concept informing the work and its visual impact lie comfortably hand in hand.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the other works on show here: while sometimes the subtlety is so nuanced, it is invisible and leaves the image unforgivably inscrutable, drab even; in other works, the play and layering of images is too bold, leaving the engagement with historical ghosts too obvious and lacking mystery. And there’s a dreadful bubble in one of the works, a casualty of faulty framing that shouldn’t have a place in a professional gallery, no matter the quality of the rest of the work: the bubble pokes you in the eye and doesn’t allow you to see the work unsullied by its presence.

A project of this nature should knock your socks off and frighten your next footstep into trepidation and concern as to what may lie, historically in the folds and interstices of earth below it. For that to happen, the works should be uniformly balanced in that gracious and oft elusive level of tonal, contextual and historical delicacy. In this show, it isn’t.

  • Francki Burger’s exhibition Battlefields is on show at Speke gallery (downstairs from Circa) in Rosebank until June 6. circaonjellicoe.co.za