A scrumptious bit of Victoriana to make you cry

The Man

ME and my phantoms: Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), alongside Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) and other fantasy characters from A Christmas Carol. Photograph courtesy http://www.wlrfm.com

PICTURE THE VISUAL clichés of Victorian England with all its beautiful costumes, complicated pathways and wooden buildings. While you’re doing this, don’t forget to add in its dire poverty, abject filth and propensity toward child labour. It’s a complicated series of images which this filmic team, headed by Bharat Nalluri present you with: the back story to Charles Dickens’s 1843 runaway classic, A Christmas Carol. In The Man Who Invented Christmas you get so much more than just the story. It’s a delicious piece of film that brings to life all the timeless Dickensian characters in this happy/sad/shameful tale of society of the time, through the medium of a curmudgeon and four ghouls.

It also articulates the messy business of writing fiction under deadline with complicated family manoevres and unrelenting family responsibilities in the background. Featuring some totally fabulous cameo performances to look out for – including the always delightful Simon Callow as the illustrator John Leech and wonderful Miriam Margolyes as the Dickens’ chief cook and bottle-washer, Mrs Fisk – the work is entertaining and developed with a perspicuity that will keep you focused.

It takes you through the agony of Dickens’s previous critical and commercial flops – including Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes – his everpresent financial troubles and his personal history. You get to meet more than just the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future: you get a scary peek into the nature of debtors’ prison and the realities of Victorian work houses — institutions in London of the time — as well as a complex father/son pathology and an adoring grandfather with a sense of magic and a necromancer’s hat (Jonathan Pryce).

Even if you do not know the original tale, you’re taken through the rollercoaster of London in the early 1800s, and exposed to everything from maggots in biscuits to a caged crow named Grip. Christopher Plummer is completely superb in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and the popping up of fictional characters in the mind’s eye of Dickens as he unravels what turns out to be amongst the greatest stories of all times, is handled with filmic wisdom and wit.

The only palpable flaw in this work which considers Dickens as a full blown individual with flaws and passions, moods and an ability to become angry but also an ability to forgive, is the casting of the Dickens couple – Charles (played by Dan Stevens) and Kate (played by Morfydd Clark). And the problem here is that they’re just too physically perfect, which lends a tone of insufferable blandness to the lynchpin in the tale. Indeed, you keep having to remind yourself that this blue-eyed young man is actually meant to be Charles Dickens, and you come away thinking of him as a performer rather than as textured a character as the rest of the cast.

Remember, that the year is 1843. Dickens would have been 31 at the time. He died at the age of 58. By this time in his life, he’d suffered the indignities of poverty and rejection and was immensely prolific. And when you find yourself looking at this pretty young man and thinking about how blue his eyes are rather than the grit and substance of the character, something seems wrong.

Similarly, Kate. She had a total of 10 children with Dickens, and divorced him after 20 years of marriage. We meet her when she’s pregnant with number five. She looks much too young and flawless for a woman living the fairly unhappy and complicated life she had.

But the rambunctiousness of the tale allows you to forget this flaw as you recognise caveats from the original text and get taken through the ups and downs of Christmas in a time of want and need, miserliness and financial disparity. More than anything, the work under scrutiny is a slice of Victorian life and the film offers insights into all of the social and political, economic and historical interstices. It’s delicious.

  • The Man Who Invented Christmas is directed by Bharat Nalluri and is performed by Patrick Ball, Valeria Bandino, Annette Badland, Desmond Bird,  Patrick Joseph Byrnes, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, Jasper Hughes Cotter, Sean Duggan, Justin Edwards, Cosimo Fusco, Degnan Geraghty, Séamus Hanly, Derek Hannay, John Henshaw, Eddie Jackson, Miles Jupp, Miriam Margolyes, Kevin McCormack, Ian McNeice, David McSavage, Anna Murphy, Bill Paterson, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Mark Quigley, Ger Ryan, Mark Schrier, Cameron Simpson, Donna Marie Sludds, Ely Solan, Dan Stevens, Donald Sumpter, Ava May Taylor, Rosin Whelan and Aidan Wylde. It is written by Susan Coyne based on the book by Les Standiford. Produced by Niv Fichman, Vadim Jean, Robert Mickelson, Susan Mullen and Ian Sharples, it features creative input by Mychael Danna (music), Ben Smithard (cinematography), Stephen O’Connell and Jamie Pearson (editing), Amy Hubbard (casting), Paki Smith (production design), Julie Ochipinti (set), and Leonie Prendergast (costumes). Release date: December 15 2017.
  • There are currently three productions dealing with the Dickens classic: this film, A Seussified Christmas Carol, directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here.
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Reclusive Salinger and the challenge of a good yarn

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JUST write: Nicholas Hoult is JD Salinger. Photograph courtesy comingsoon.net

AN UTTERLY COMPELLING reflection on the terrifying reality of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the value of an editor, Danny Strong’s film Rebel in the Rye starts off with sheer charisma, a great sense of authenticity and a tough confrontation with what it takes to be a published writer and what this means for the pocket and the craft.

Telling the life story of American writer JD Salinger, the work flows beautifully up until it tells of the unmitigated success of his first novel, Catcher in the Rye. At that point, the narrative thread becomes lost in too much slavish attention to detail. It is a well made piece which won’t lose you because of its polish, pizzazz and sheer beauty and because of the footholds the first part of the work have established in your sensibilities, but it unwinds disappointingly without the momentum with which it began.

Nicholas Hoult plays an utterly gorgeous Jerry Salinger: he’s focused yet dispassionate, is able to go into melt down as he’s able to shut off communication with the world. He’s a young man of the 1930s with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, with its jazz and booze and the stars of the era, which include Eugene O’Neill, Truman Capote and Charlie Chaplin. Lighting, set, cinematography and costume come together in reflecting the texture and nuance of the 1930s with a sense of brutal truth. And as such, Salinger is a perfect cipher for the creation of the quintessential 20th century novel, as he breathes life into Holden Caulfield, the uncompromising voice of the youth of the era and Catcher’s main character.

As you watch Salinger confront and challenge his dreams, he concatenates against rejection time and time again, and as a very well worn Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), a university teacher and mentor, offers him the emotional wherewithal to become who he must, you get to understand a little of the context of what it takes to become a creative professional. Salinger’s is a world, where no one takes your job as a writer of stories seriously and where the challenges to perform are stiffer than in any other field.

You also get to see the muscle of editorial impetus where Salinger is guided by The New Yorker to tweak his work further and make it even better. You’re explained the difference between a writer and a masturbator, and given a handle on the value of the voice in a story. And above all, you’re exposed to the idea of the Novel, as an almost sacred term and you get to see the inner workings of a writer who knows his own talent but is humbled by the industry’s trajectory of heroes, the makers of masterpieces.

And essentially, the nub of the film is captured in this first half. However, every single woman in the work, without fail, is represented as a tough and hard-edged bitch, overwhelmingly whiny and shallow in her judgey perspectives. It is the men who embrace the story’s guts and stamina, and resoundingly, the film offers deep insight into how war infiltrates Salinger so profoundly it alters how his soul is constituted; you see him fight hard against the kicks and pricks of life and memory to retain his dignity and carry on writing.

While the work is clustered with nuggets from The Catcher in the Rye, and offers insight into the complex character that Salinger developed into, it’s not an unequivocally satisfying or moving watch, but rather one which runs out of emotional steam as it goes. Yes, Salinger made some decisions about the future of his writing career which were not sexy in the Hollywood sense – by electing never to publish again and secluding himself in a house in a wood for the rest of his life, he effectively closed his personal doors to the kind of smarmy happily-ever-after tale or dirt-picking foray that Hollywood loves, and the production team behind this film try their best to honour this as earnestly as they can, but something is lost. Indeed, had the latter part of the film been cropped with a tighter editorial hand, more might have been left unstated, and the work might have retained its ability to sing.

  • Rebel in the Rye is directed by Danny Strong and features Celeste Arias, Nicolaos Argyros, David Berman, Eric Bogosian, Lucy Boynton, Nancy Braun, Roger Brenner, Anna Bullard, Adam Busch, David Cryer, Brian d’Arcy James, Hope Davis, Zoey Deutch, Tim Dougherty, Dana Drori, Chris Ecclestone, Austin Eisenberg, Ron Fassler, Kit Flanagan, Neil Fleischer, Kristine Froseth, Victor Garber, Nalan González Norvind, Alyssa May Gold, Matt Gorsky, Evan Hall, Sydney Hargrove, Devin Harjes, Kelsey Rose Healey, Nicholas Hoult, Keenan Jolliff, John Knyff, Alana Kyriak, Kevin Mambo, Jefferson Mays, Kellan McCann, Doris McCarthy, Bernie McInerney, Caitlin Mehner, Jalina Mercado, Michael Metta, Christopher Moser, Sarah Paulson, Andrew Polk, Brian Wargotz Reese, Kay Rodman, Will Rogers, Francesca Root-Dodson, Matthew Rosvanis, Karen Walsh Rullman, Amy Rutberg, Jimmy Smagula, Kevin Spacey, Janet Stanwood, Braven Strong, Jadyn Tattoli, James Urbaniak, Bernard White, Luke David Young and Frankie Zing. It is written by David Strong based on the JD Salinger biography by Kenneth Slawenski. Produced by Bruce Cohen, it features creative input by Bear McCreary (music), Kramer Morgenthau (cinematography), Joseph Krings (editing), Dina Goldman (production design), Deborah Lynn Scott (costumes) and Alexandra Mazur (set decoration). Release date: November 24 2017.

 

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.

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