Quintessential Giselle in Masilo’s hands

Giselle

MET his match: Albrecht (Kyle Rossouw) feels the wrath of the flywhisk of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (Llewellyn Mnguni). Photograph by John Hogg

IF YOU’VE EVER questioned the true value of the arts in this world, you need to see Dada Masilo’s Giselle. Summarily, and without hesitation it will strip you of any doubt. You might emerge crying from the experience and emotionally shattered, but you will be sure that what you just experienced was unadulterated magic and relentlessly transformative.

The ballet of Giselle is one of dance’s anomalies. It was composed by Adolphe Adams, today a relatively unknown composer, in 1841, and it rose to balletic prominence as one of the genre’s unequivocal commercial classics. It boasts the collaborative input of the headline creatives of the day, in Théophile Gautier, Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo. In truth, and in structure, it’s not that different from various other romantic tales of the time: peasant girl meets boy. They fall in love. He’s the wrong boy, according to her mom. He finds another. She goes mad with grief and dies of a broken heart. And then she becomes a virgin demon in hell, where she gets to persecute the boy who jilted her. With various variations on the theme, it’s a well-trod story.

What Dada Masilo does with it is something completely extraordinary. For one thing, she vigorously strips it of blandness, with the emotional content of the work stitched boldly into its choreography, it is akin to what Yael Farber has done with Ibsen’s Miss Julie in her Mies Julie (2012), or what Mark Dornford-May did with Bizet’s Carmen in his U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005). Indeed, there are a couple of moments in the work’s first half in which you expect the dancers to roll out a Carmen sequence or even to roll a cigarette or two: there’s a kind of African folksy level of nuance that filters through the material, seamlessly.

But as it unfolds, this work takes on its own tough and exquisite character, not stinting on emotional input. Masilo takes the lead, and unlike some of the works that she’s performed and choreographed over the last couple of years, it sees her enfolded in its intricacies with integrity and thoughtfulness: her skill as a dancer and as a character are showcased impeccably. Indeed: this is the Dada Masilo that audiences fell in love with nearly 10 years ago. She’s alive with an electricity that makes you want to put brakes on your ability to watch: the dancing is lithe and virile; it’s rapid and fierce and it will leave you completely breathless.

And while Masilo still has that ability to grab your eye and not let it go, even if she is dancing a routine with the company, it’s an exceptionally fine company, featuring dancers such as Liyabuya Gongo and Kyle Rossouw, to name but a few, who will make you sit up and look with great care: you might not have paid a lot of attention to these dancers in the past, thinking them generally a competent part of ensemble work. Dada Masilo’s Giselle is a coming of age work, not only for Masilo, but for the whole company.

The work features simple and devastatingly effective costume design and a clear sense of colour coordination, placing the Wilis – the evil demons from the underworld – in a deep red which is not gender specific as it is infused with traditional African associations. It also is underpinned by a piece of music by Philip Miller that lends even the lightest most ostensibly romantic moments deeply sinister undertones that cannot be ignored. Featuring a wide range of sound and a multitude of styles of vibration and concatenation, it’s a score which coheres with an utter perfection with the work on stage, allowing the dancers themselves to vocalise particular moments which exacerbate the sense of local colour, as they reflect the nuances in the story beautifully.

The only flaw in the work is the choice of William Kentridge’s drawings as a projected backdrop. They’re magnificent drawings, but once the performers appear on stage, you cannot actually see the drawings: and when you do manage, with great difficulty, to steal your eyes away from the dancers to look upon these charcoal landscapes, the image has changed: there’s a lack of coherence here – why these images are used and why they change in a sequence is not clear. Thankfully, in the second act, which takes place in hell, there are no arbitrary landscapes that might threaten your focus on the dancers.

This work is unequivocally the crowning glory of Masilo’s career so far. It will, in the next few months, continue taking her around the world, including to La Biennale de la Dance de Lyon in France, and Sadler’s Wells in London, next year: if you are intending to go to Grahamstown this year for the National Arts Festival, this piece alone is sufficient impetus to justify the cost, the difficulties of being in the Eastern Cape in winter, and the vagaries of the road trip. If you aren’t but are in Johannesburg in late July: this is one of the unequivocal headlines of the 969 Festival.

  • Dada Masilo’s Giselle is choreographed by Dada Masilo and features creative input by William Kentridge (drawings), Philip Miller (music composition), David April (directorial assistance), David Hutt, Songezo Mcilizeli and Nonofo Olekeng (costumes) and Suzette le Sueur (lighting). It is performed by Nadine Buys, Zandile Constable, Liyabuya Gongo, Thami Majela, Dada Masilo, Ipeleng Merafe, Llewellyn Mnguni, Khaya Ndlovu, Thabani Ntuli, Kyle Rossouw, Thami Tshabalala and Tshepo Zasekhaya. It performed for a short season at the UJ Theatre in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, and travels to Grahamstown where it will perform at the Rhodes Theatre on June 29, 30 and July 1 (Visit nationalartsfestival.co.za) Thereafter, it performs at The 969 Festival, hosted by Wits University, in the Main Wits Theatre on July 29 (Visit https://www.inyourpocket.com/johannesburg/969-festival_2173e )
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Honour conferred, honour deserved

French award Georgina Th, Greg M, Ismael M (11)

PINK bubbly: (from left), Dancer/choreographer Greg Maqoma, French Ambassador to South Africa His Excellency Christophe Farnaud and arts administrator and dance curator Georgina Thomson. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

ON TUESDAY, MAY 2, 2017, in acknowledgement of their career-long contributions to the dance fraternity in South Africa, artistic director of Dance Umbrella Georgina Thomson and artistic director and founder of Vuyani Dance Theatre, Gregory Maqoma, were awarded the Officier des Arts et des Lettres and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres respectively by the Ambassador of France to South Africa, His Excellence Mr Christophe Farnaud, at a moving and intimate reception at the French Embassy in Pretoria.

“My relationship with IFAS has been amazing,” Thomson, who was born in the Netherlands and grew up in Lesotho and the Orange Free State, began speaking of how generously the French have opened doors for South African dance over the years. Significantly, she focused on how her former colleagues, including Mandie van der Spuy, Mannie Manim, Philip Stein and Nicola Danby had spurred her on to “fly” and to do what she didn’t think possible, as a dancer, as an arts administrator, as a curator of a festival of contemporary dance which took on an international sheen in her hands. “I worked with people who were generous, open, giving and supportive,” she concluded.

Ambassador Farnaud praised the work she has done over the works with levity and directness, referring to everything from the collaboration with brought Les Nuits, choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj to South Africa in 2014, “Dear Georgina,” he added. “Your distinctive career journey is heightened by your courage, your range of expertise and your travels around the world. You have worked with artists of all identities and backgrounds … you have used your artistic career to break boundaries and become the voice of those who were silenced.” Deeming Thomson an “exceptional example of determination and commitment”, he spoke of the bridges she has created – mostly against all funding odds – between local dancers and international opportunities.

Describing Gregory Maqoma’s contribution to dance as brave and brilliant as he spoke of the Soweto hostels context into which Maqoma was raised, Ambassador Farnaud commented on how Maqoma developed a sense of empathy in the plight of his fellow Soweto residents. Maqoma started dancing in the late 1980s, and under Sylvia Glasser developed into a professional dancer of Moving Into Dance Mophatong in 1991. He rose through the ranks of her company, eventually setting up a company of his own. Ambassador Farnaud commented on how deeply Maqoma’s work is respected and has developed, offering a trajectory of his career.

“You continue to play an important role in the development of dance in South Africa,” he added. “But more than a dancer/choreographer, you are also proven to be a smart entrepreneur. Indeed, Vuyani Dance Company is a strong example of a successful business model in the arts, which is not an easy feat nowadays.” Defining Maqoma as both “outstanding and unstoppable,” he added “You have become an inspiration to young artists not only in South Africa, but across the continent as well. You have changed the lives of young artists by giving them the wherewithal to spread their wings.”

Supported by his mother and aunt, Maqoma paid tribute to his late father. “Art is life,” he said, describing his passion for performing as a child as he gently describing the platitudinous questions posted to him by a CNN journalist. “Growing up in the context where I did, I learned more about the world, the complexities and the challenges,” he added, speaking of the melting pot that is contemporary Soweto. The odds he faced were terrifying and huge, for himself as well as his family. Legacy and the role of each individual in the industry underlined his talk, as well as the conscious decision of what one leaves behind.

Maqoma and Thomson joins the ranks of Johnny Clegg (1991), Robyn Orlin (2009) and William Kentridge (2013) in accepting this great award and immense honour, which was established in 1957 in recognition of significant contributions to the enrichment of the arts and literature in France and abroad.

  • What are the implications of these awards for South Africa, going forward, given the outcome of the French elections? Read this opinion piece.

Books that redefine the universe

By Sinead Fletcher

  • Sinead Fletcher is a third year fine arts student at the University of Johannesburg who recently took part in the Arts Writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen.
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A man for all books: Professor Buzz Spector. Photograph by Sinead Fletcher.

“MAKE YOUR OWN book, Buzzy,” was the instruction that a three-year-old Buzz Spector remembers most clearly as the trigger that started his illustrious career as a book artist.  Arguably one of the superstars of the Booknesses Colloquium and Exhibition – currently on show in Johannesburg – Spector spoke to My View whilst he was in South Africa for the opening and conference hosted at the end of March.

His mother’s instruction came with his first 16-page, brown craft paper book that was sewn with red yarn. This was the paper in which his three-year-old’s sister’s diapers, freshly delivered from the laundry came wrapped in. Spector explains that this moment and this investment of a kind of creative autonomy, planted the seeds of interest which began his exploration and fascination with the book.

These days, armed with qualifications in the field from the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and the University of Chicago, Spector, who is currently a professor of art at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art at Washington University in St Louis, enjoys exploring the making of artists books by way of altering already established archival, record keeping encyclopaedias and almanacs, which boast graphically and typographically identical layouts. Working with great writing – philosophical or fiction – is a difficult process, he says,  as it requires him to explore and read the texts carefully and deeply.

Not every book that makes for great reading served his purposes though. Many do not “suit my method,” he says, explaining that he can go many years before finding books which are suitable for his forms of book alteration. The criteria which Spector follows to find his ideal book include the institutional nature of the text, the quality of paper that the text is printed on, the sturdiness of the binding, the physical properties of the dust jacket and the presence or absence of mould or mildew.

“All of these concerns, from root materiality to critical reading, have to be in play for the work to begin.”

Spector knows South African art making well. He considers Willem Boshoff, who he’s known since 1995 a “kindred spirit”. Articulating great admiration for the work of William Kentridge, Spector also mentioned that recently he has become more aware of books made by artists such as Stephen Hobbs and Stephan Erasmus.

Having worked at a few paper mills, over the years, including Dieu Donné in Brooklyn, New York, Spector says he has been “impoverished” with his selections of paper thus far and is now “looking for the buffet” after being exposed to the work of Mary Hark and other young South African artists.

Describing the Booknesses Colloquium as having had a quality of urgency that showed both in the enormous emotional investment of professionals associated with the University of Johannesburg people – David Paton especially – and in artist book collector Jack Ginsberg’s desire to enable the exhibit to spark a transformative social interest in South Africa, he said this urgency was reflected a sense of caring and desire which, within the international community, he explains, “promotes urgency in reawakening our interest to go out and promote our practise.”

Spector spoke of the multiple panels in the Colloquium, which focused on a rich mêlée of books-related issues, including the notion of the book’s relevance to culture as well as the problem of the book being exhibited as a stillness of form whose “meaning arises in motion.”

  • The Booknesses exhibition, comprising the collection of Jack Ginsberg and curated by David Paton, is on show at the FADA Gallery on the Bunting Road Campus of the University of Johannesburg and the UJ Gallery on the Kingsway Campus, until May 5. Contact David Paton on: dpaton@uj.ac.za or 082 888 4859. Or visit website: http://www.theartistsbook.org.za/

Lest we forget

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OH, Ma, have you forsaken me? Pa Ubu (Dawid Minnaar) faces some awful truths, cast by Ma Ubu (Busi Zokufa) onscreen. Photograph by Val Adamson.

WHEN 20 YEARS have elapsed after your first experience in the presence of true greatness, you might have forgotten the unequivocal brilliance that a work such as Ubu and the Truth Commission has brought to South African theatre. And indeed, more than 20 years on, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brought exposure of the horrendous atrocities that were part of the secret political landscape and a semblance of closure to apartheid, might also have slipped into the nebulousness of memory. The value of the current staging of this work can not be understated.

Ubu Roi was an anarchic character penned in the late 19th century by French playwright Alfred Jarry. When it saw light of day onstage in Paris in 1896, it was nothing short of revolutionary. The character’s opening word was famously “Merde!” (shit) to the horror of Parisian audiences. The inflammatory nature of the work is celebrated as having lit the fuse for the anti-establishment movement Dada.

What William Kentridge, in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company and Jane Taylor, evolved in Ubu and the Truth Commission is a rich mêlée of every bit of sinister absurdity that Jarry’s Ubu represents, conjoined horrifyingly with apartheid’s values. And there opens a splendid miasma of everything from horror to hilarity and back in a production that will haunt you forever.

Busi Zokufa and Dawid Minnaar reprise their original roles of Ma and Pa Ubu respectively. He’s out there perpetrating brutality on black people. She thinks he’s cheating on her with other women. But the truth is revealed through the lies that he’s literally fed to the couple’s pet crocodile, Niles. In an impossibly fine mix of political association, fact, diatribe and fantasy, the truth and lies and terrors in the night which saw people being electrocuted and tortured, burnt to ashes and dismembered, in the name of the ‘Swart Gevaar’ are brought to the fore.

In the 1990s, when this work was emerging, Kentridge was working with hand-made film, and the rough edges we see in this work resonate impeccably with the narrative as it unfolds. Zokufa and Minnaar, supported by puppeteers Gabriel Marchand, Mongi Mthombeni and Mandiseli Maseti, are in impeccable form: the sense of possibility evoked by a shower that becomes the translator’s booth for the TRC, a suitcase that is the body of a three-headed dog, the vulture on stage, a cat that turns into a camera tripod and microphones that wriggle away from lies, not to forget the interplay of shadow, technology and performers is astonishing yet profound, witty and terrifying all at once.

Your head is consumed by the parallel language of apartheid and its transgressors, by the smooth and astonishing relationship between human being and wooden puppet, by the interfacing of translations central to the texture of the TRC and by the way in which this work, by all accounts, a terrible tale about a man whose soul is rotten by power, remains deeply entertaining and a resounding achievement. This is truly one of contemporary South African theatre’s most important classics, and the privilege of seeing it again in Johannesburg cannot be underplayed.

  • Ubu and the Truth Commission is conceived and directed by William Kentridge and Janni Younge, and written by Jane Taylor. It features design by Adrian Kohler (puppets), Wesley France (lighting), Warrick Sony and Brendan Jury (Music) and Robyn Orlin (choreography). It is performed by Gabriel Marchand, Mandiseli Maseti, Mongi Mthombeni, Dawid Minnaar and Busisiwe Busi Zokufa, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until September 11. Call 011 832 1641 or visit co.za

Sof’town blues

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AH, SOPHIATOWN. HOME and suburban melting pot of such a rich concatenation of frenetic, beautiful and terrible culture that forms the backbone of who we are as creative South Africans, striving for that precious riff or that elusive line of poetry to make us remember what matters. Ah, the eponymous play, written in the fiery mid-1980s by the members of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, which included such icons as Malcolm Purkey, Pippa Stein, William Kentridge and others. Thirty years later, has the play stood the test of time? In short, mostly. But in this season, it feels dishonoured.

It was a play that broke the mould of what theatre should be, taking the crust of an idea that was cast into the world by Sophiatown resident, the Drum journalist Nat Nakasa. Written for an English-speaking audience, it filtered a rambunctious slew of everything from tsotsi taal to Hebrew, fahfee codes to dances moves into a multifaceted theatre beast that celebrates and mourns what 1954 meant to so many residents of Johannesburg’s suburb of Sophiatown, which was bought in 1897 as a smallholding by Herman Tobiansky and named for his wife and children.

But more than an essay on forced removals in a suburb that skirted apartheid’s draconian legislation, Sophiatown is a portrait of the people in their time. It’s a fantastic story in which the internal dynamics of a house in Gerty Street comes to diverse and critical life, presenting Ruth Golden, a young Jewish woman, sanctuary from her parents’ Yeoville household, as it offers an understanding of home with all its discontents, desires, disgressions and heart.

But this production of the work is sadly lacking in several key areas. It is scripted with a dialogue that has a very distinctive rhythm and it’s not clear how this young cast has been allowed to overlook this important nuance in the delivery of the work. In any event, the result tramples on the fineness, the humanity and the sparkle of the script, making it difficult to follow and casting a slur of humdrum over the words.

The work’s poignant anti-hero, Charlie (played by Joel Zuma) holds great strength of focus and heartstrings. Hlengiwe Lushaba as Mamariti is clearly the production’s drawcard, exercising her mellow voice and sardonic presence with an authenticity that makes your heart sing, backed as she is by the delightful performances of Barileng Malebye as Princess and Tshepiso Tracey Tshabalala as Lulu.

But the young Jewish woman is played by relative newcomer Christine van Hees. While her singing voice harmonises well with that of the cast, much of this character’s role is acted, not sung. And a more obviously not Jewish Ruth Golden would be difficult to conceive of – it is not clear why the idiosyncrasies of a South African Jew raised in the 1970s with European roots and very specific values has not been given the dignity of proper research.

The highlight of the work remains the music and the choreography: there is acapello work in this production that will give you goosebumps, but there isn’t enough of it. Flaws in the casting and the rhythm of the dialogue knock into rather crude relief the limits of the piece in terms of music, particularly in the second half. If only this work had been more critically tweaked for an audience 30 years older (and ones born in the last 30 years).

  • Sophiatown, written by the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, is directed by Malcolm Purkey and features design by Denis Hutchinson (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costume and set), Arthur Molepo (musical direction) and Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Sonia Radebe (choreography). It is performed by Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, Barileng Malebye, Nicholas Nkuna, Sechaba Ramphele, Tshepiso Tracey Tshabalala, Christine van Hees, Arthur Zitha and Joel Zuma in a season at the State Theatre in Pretoria until May 21. This review is premised on its season at the Market Theatre in April. Call 012 392 4000 or visit http://www.statetheatre.co.za

Blinded by Kentridge

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ORDINARY MAGNIFICENCE: Kentridge’s polyptych of birds in flight make this exhibition something to see. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

AS SOON AS most gallery visitors and those who boast an interest in the creative industries announce that there’s a William Kentridge exhibition in town, a sense of respectful silence embraces the conversation. It’s like a declaration that God has landed in Johannesburg and may be seen on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Kentridge, who started showing his work at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg in 1989 has unquestionably become South Africa’s biggest arts celebrity. He has exhibited all over the world and his achievements boast not only a meteoric rise in the popularity and collectability and prices of his work, but also a work ethic that is genuinely second to none. But when it comes to critically engaging with Kentridge’s work, you’re up against such a powerful brand that has been so successfully marketed that you’re robbed of opinion as you stand in front of the pieces.

You shouldn’t be, however. While Kentridge’s drawing skill in this exhibition remains unequivocally magnificent and surprisingly quiet in a beautiful polyptych of a bird in flight, rendered with a fat brush and loose ink on disused ledger pages, this exhibition’s central piece is a videoed tour de force which closes out a regular visitor who hasn’t done sufficient homework.

Academic art at its most dangerous, this Kentridge installation is violent and an assault on the senses. Lots of things happen in this utterly impeccably made three-channel experience, which is punctuated by words and phrases like bullets from guns, as it is supported by the faux-military and vaguely threatening pomp and circumstance of brass band music, with a sense of quirky and revolutionary malevolence.

You’re not sure if these slogans are Kentridge’s own words, or ones which draw from Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book or a combination of the two. A gun-toting Dada Masilo, in a red beret, a guerilla-evocative skirt and traditional pink satin ballet shoes, features considerably, as do other performers in surreal contexts. But there’s a level of ominous undercurrent that is difficult to read with clarity, refuting the basics of the opera tradition.

Is this an opera? Is it an embryonic gesture toward an opera in the tradition coined by Monteverdi in the 17th century? Or should it be seen to conflate with the rudiments of Chinese opera that stretch to the Zhao Dynasty in early Chinese culture? That it’s Chinese is obvious. This work  premiered in Beijing and is currently on show in Seoul and it speaks with impeccable design and digital articulation of the contradictions in modern China. You’re left not really knowing where it all fits together, but infused with a sense of awe that you have been in the presence of the master, that is actually blinding.

You don’t have to believe this – but you do have to read the supporting material, where you will glean that Kentridge’s Notes toward a model opera is informed by a lecture Kentridge delivered in 2015 in Beijing about Chinese culture and what it is currently undergoing. How you, as a Johannesburg gallery visitor, get seduced by this material, is a different issue. Without focused immersion into the underpinning literature, you’re left with an overwhelming after-image of a cosmogony of beautiful birds, aggressive filmography, dance and collaboration which is exhaustive.

  • Notes towards a model opera, an exhibition by William Kentridge is at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until February 12. The exhibition features contributions by Dada Masilo (choreography), Philip Miller and Johannes Serekeho (composition), the First St John Brass Band and members of African Immanuel Assemblies Brass Band (music performance), Zana Marovic and Janus Fouché (video construction), Yoav Dagan (video installation), Gavan Eckhart (sound mix) and Greta Coiris (costumes). It is performed by vocalists: Joanna Dudley, Tlale Makhene, Ann Masina, Moses Moeta, Thato Motlahaolwa and Bham Ntabeni; instrumentalists: Waldo Alexander (stroh violin) George Fombe (tuba), Adam Howard (trumpet and spoons), Charles Knighten-Pullen (guitar),Tlale Makhene (percussion) and Dan Selsick (trombone); and performers Dada Masilo, Tlale Makhene, Thato Mothlaolwa, Bham Ntabeni and Thabane Edwin Ntuli. Call 011 788-1113 or visit goodman-gallery.com

JAG’s brave curators, absent support

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Most recognisable girl in the room: Daniel Gabriel Rosetti’s 1866 Regina Cordium, on show in the JAG’s centenary exhibition.

As you walk into the majestic space of the Edwin Lutyens-wing of the Johannesburg Art Gallery – through the entrance that faces the railway lines – you are confronted with two utterly superb Dumile Feni drawings. They tower over you as they reach, in their characteristic brutal charcoal linework toward the space’s high ceiling, effectively taking your breath away.

And, by the time you have meandered through the rest of the exhibition spaces constituting the celebration of the building’s centenary, you kind of wish the Dumiles had indeed taken your breath away, and that that was all you’d seen.

Not that the quality of the work on display is bad; rather the all-pervading sense of neglect hangs like a pall over the gallery, which shows its most precious gems in earnest honour of the building’s milestone. But further to that, a lack of guidance or literature and the absence of any gallery staff – it was a Sunday early in the year that I visited – leaves the space feeling ominously mausoleum-like.

The entrance you use finds you slap-bang in the middle of one of the curated exhibitions, but there’s nothing to advise you of this fact; you walk hither and yon until you encounter a different exhibiting context. And still, nary an indication that this is the second of the suite of six exhibitions curated for the building’s milestone. This lack of pamphlets or information or help of any description leaves you focused more on where one exhibition ends and the next begins, than on the work itself.

There is, admittedly, a large text on each of the exhibitions’ introductory walls, but you have to find it to appreciate it. And just over a month after the grand opening, a lot of the letraset-like letters stuck onto the walls are beginning to peel off.

While the exhibitions individually and collectively speak of much focused work and thought by the curators, and are clearly projects at great pains to showcase the JAG’s wonders, there are unforgivable horrors in how the museum’s maintenance is neglected. Yes: the roof has been attended to and hopefully over the last couple of rainy days has proved watertight, but there are so many areas in this beautiful space that suffer the indignity of rot.

Maybe two thirds of this museum should have been shut to the public, for the centenary and the remaining third be given the careful attention to detail on lights, walls, floor and ambience it deserves.

Having said that, the exhibitions’ curators must be lauded for bringing out old treasures and precious secrets from the JAG’s holdings – some you may know well – they may be your favourite favourites that resonate with times past in this gallery’s auspicious history, including the Picasso harlequin drawing, the Whistler etchings, the Siopis Melancholia painting that launched her popularity in the 1980s and the 1866 Daniel Gabriel Rosetti Regina Cordium, arguably the collection’s most recognised paintings.

Others you may not have seen before, such as a remarkable piece by Gerard Marx near the gallery’s entrance that reflects in a three-dimensional mosaic on an aerial view of Johannesburg, and a glorious Adolf Jentsch landscape and some incredibly fine John Koenakeefe Mohls. And yet others may trigger your memory of exhibitions that you’ve loved. There are some stunning works by Gladys Mgudlandlu, Jackson Hlungwanes to make you gasp and fierce and haunting works by Valerie Desmore.

In the space containing the display of African traditional works – from the collection of the Oppenheimer family, the display of objects might be encased in glass cabinets, but this doesn’t blur their unequivocal magnificence. From decorative vessels to headrests, walking sticks to figures, these mainly wooden pieces honours its promise of being among the best in the world.

The exhibition of Pre-Raphaelites curated by Sheree Lissoos is delicious, if you can pull your eyes from the flawed teal walls on which they’re hung and look through the ill-lit glimmer. It’s a crying shame: the works are jewel-like, reflecting a mid-19th century work ethic, touching on values opposed by radical artists such as the Impressionists. In these conjoined rooms, curated with a sense of the works’ emotional and historical value, you understand why the paintings are scorned as mawkish, but also to appreciate how all-consumingly beautiful they are.

Still armed with nothing, by way of literature or explanation, your ramble may lead you to the exhibition of works on paper, where you will see some Daumiers, a Hockney and some Kentridges to knock your socks off, or you may reach the exhibition of video art in the JAG’s most modern wing which was built in the 1980s.

In this latter exhibition, alongside wall signage, there is an open door, through which you see a stash of broken gallery furniture: if this is part of performance art, it is not marked as such. There’s also a very large unlabelled abstract painting on the wall alongside the men’s lavatory: was this too big to have been moved? Why is it unlabelled?  It is somewhere between that point and the Mohau Modisakeng video work that you cannot see because it is labelled as such but not switched on or working, that you experience the desperate need to get out of JAG altogether, before you lose all hope altogether.

The JAG’s centenary is an important series of exhibitions. Not only because of the work showcased, but also because in its upkeep and staffing it reveals the kind of benign neglect that you see in the Pretoria Art Museum, discussed here. At the JAG, however, there’s an urgent focus on the part of the curators to hold onto what we have by way of culture. But it’s a gesture that so obviously lacks support from the civic bodies under whose responsibility it falls, it is quite simply a disgrace.

  • The JAG’s centenary on until March 1 comprises: Curator Sheree Lissoos’s exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work; Encore, an ensemble of the JAG’s popular favourites; Moments in a Metropolis, curated by Tara Weber, is an exhibition of work on paper; Pastoral Pieces: Significant African Objects is curated by Karel Nel and Philippa van Straaten; South African Art 1940-1975, is curated by Antoinette Murdoch; and The Digital Underground, a glance at electronic and digital art, is curated by Musha Neluheni. Call: 011-725-3130