Peter Machen | Writing Portfolio
Holding onto Paradise: Community vs developers in rural South Africa
Holding onto Paradise
The proposed development of eMacambini will destroy the rich life of a rural community as well as one of KZN’s most beautiful landscapes, writes Peter Machen
If you drive up the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, you’ll see what was once little than a series of small seaside towns gradually morphing into something that increasingly looks like Johannesburg. Currently the twin epicentres of this urban spread are Umhlanga and Ballito, but the virus is spreading around the province. It has already filled the once semi-rural suburbs of Hillcrest and Waterfall with strip malls and gated communities and threatens to take up wherever there is a beautiful view waiting to be destroyed.
As pre-planned reality displaces the very notion of the organically evolved village and town, these new locations of middle class human habitation – be they Tuscan, Balinese or grossed-out modernism – have become the literal embodiment of the so-called “end of history”. It all fits perfectly. And inside the gated, monitored and regulated communities, that troublesome world out there that is so filled with violence and terror becomes no more than a channel on your television screen.
A little further up the coast, an hour and a half’s drive away from Durban, a local community is challenging this notion of the end of history. They are defending a richly lived rural life against a virus that is even more destructive to the natural cycles of the planet than the Jo’burg virus: the Dubai virus. And they are doing so against a movingly beautiful landscape in which they have lived for generations. A landscape in which there is little extreme poverty, no violence and no crime, and where community is more important than political affiliation.
I first read about the proposed development of the Amazulu World Theme Park in eMacambini in a local paper. The planned development by Dubai-based Ruwaad Holdings would occupy 16 500 hectares. In addition to the theme park, plans include a shopping mall eight times the size of Gateway, a game reserve, six golf courses, residential facilities, sports fields and a R200 million 100m high statue of Shaka Zulu at the Thukela river mouth.
In that article there was no mention of the eMacambini community that was going to be displaced, no mention of the 29 schools that would be demolished, the 300 churches, the three clinics, the brand new RDP houses. No mention of the ancestral graves that would be displaced. No mention of the absurdity of a beyond-vast Zulu theme park that would destroy everything that is Zulu about the area – which is to say everything.
The community of eMacambini also first heard about the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Province and Dubai-based Ruwaad Holding in the media. Many of them were aware of talks between their chief, the province and two companies in Dubai. But they had not been informed that their entire world had been promised away by provincial leadership. Only later did the provincial authorities, led by Director General Kwazi Mbanjwa, arrive in eMacambini. They were unaccompanied by provincial Premier S’bu Ndebele, who together with Mbanjwa, spearheaded negotiations on the project and threatened the community with land-expropriation.
Anti-Removal Committee member Khanyisani Shandu recalls the meeting. “It was a top-to-bottom kind of approach – ‘we as government are telling you that it is going to be like this’.” But he also says that the province has no legal power to take away the community’s land. “The community owns the land. That is indisputable”. And having examined the proposal, the people of eMacambini gave a clear rejection of the project. But that was the last time that the province – or anyone else from government – engaged with the community.
On 26 November, more than 5 000 residents of eMacambini marched to the Mandeni Municipal Offices to deliver a petition to Ndebele and threatened to blockade the N2 and R102 freeways if they did not receive a response from him. Ten days later, after having received no response, the community occupied the roads in protest and blockaded them with burning tires. And so, the story made the headlines for the first time. But predictably, there was little analysis of the events that had lead to the blockade.
The main response that the community received was the full fury of the local police force, who attacked the protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets, and, later, allegedly forced their way into people’s house, arresting some people who had not even been at the blockade. During the course of the violence, at least 50 people were shot at, and 10 people hospitalised. The response from the ANC was to condemn the protests, adding that they were “unfortunate and unnecessary”. The Youth League meanwhile cast the IFP as political instigators in the events. For the eMacambini community, such responses are just further fodder for their disillusionment with the former liberation movement. The community seems to have been abandoned by the same forces that two decades ago would surely have fought side by side with them. Now the state sends it police force. But it sends no leadership, no-one to help sort out this dirty mess.
As they eMacambini Anti Removal Committee says, “There will be no compensation for what we will lose. There will just be a swop of land – a 500 hectare township for 16 500 hectares of beautiful and free land with rivers, valleys, pastures and beaches. In the townships there will be nothing for free. We will have to pay rates there. Here we are growing sugar cane, vegetables and fruit. Here we are raising cattle, sheep and goats. Here some of us survive on fishing.”
The community of eMacambini had defended their land for centuries, surviving the threats of colonialism and apartheid intact. “And now” says Shandu, “this so-called people’s government is happy to remove us. It’s really terrible to say the least.”
He also stresses that the community’s response to the development has got nothing to do with party politics. “We have all now came together in solidarity to say this is a pure theft of the land. The Premier has been saying that the people of eMacambini are rejecting development. But this is not development. It’s theft. It’s absolute theft.”
Meanwhile, Inkosi Khayelilhle Mathaba , the local traditional leader who was sidelined in negotiations with Ruwaad, points out that Ndebele will shortly be leaving his position as Premier to go into business. And he says that he has documents which state that Ndebele will personally get 10% of the shares in the development. Ndebele has also refused to give Mathaba and the community a copy of the MOU signed with Ruwaad Holdings.
Apart from the sheer ludicrousness of events, something else struck me about my visit to eMacambini. I have driven all over KZN and often speak to people in rural communities about their experiences. And the most consistent and resounding cry, from Umbumbulu to Bothas Hill, is “we are poor”. By contrast, the residents of eMacambini say “we are rich. We are not poor. We are rich.” Those were almost the exact words used by nearly all the people I spoke to. And, vitally, they acknowledge that their access to land makes them rich. And they all realise that their removal from their land would send them straight into poverty.
They also say that they do not hold all development in contempt. They are in favour of development that would help them become richer – in the broadest meaning of the word – rather than poorer. But they do not want their landscape to change. There is a great African cliché in which the beauty of the African landscape exists in stark contrast to the poverty of its people. It is refreshing that this is not the case in eMacambini. Here people live functionally between modernity and tradition.
Those who talk of African solutions to African problems should come to eMacambini where land, grass-roots democracy and mutual respect have come together maintain a reality that is the very essence of sustainability. Of course, the African Solution seekers might not like what they see. They might object to the lack of development, to its distance from modernity. And they probably wouldn’t see the similarities between the community of eMacambini and the Tuscan farmers who are trying to maintain their traditional way of life, just as small rural communities all over the planet are doing the same, from Alaska to India.
Mathaba and the community of eMacambini will soon be taking the matter to the country’s courts. It seems likely that they will be successful in maintaining their land and their autonomy. And if they are, it will not simply be a victory for themselves and their land, but for all those South Africans who are in favour of self determination and sustainability over rampant development.
This story was first published in The Weekender
All She Surveys: Meeting Brenda Fassie, the queen of afropop
All She Surveys
Peter Machen spoke to the Queen of African pop about the demanding job of being Brenda Fassie
I am staying in room 260 of the Katherine Street City Lodge in Sandton. I mention to the cleaning staff that I am going to interview Brenda Fassie. “Oh Brenda,” they respond, with what I can only describe as serendipitous giggles. “She stayed in your room for six months. She was very naughty.” I laugh with them at this famed naughtiness and decide that fate has smiled kindly on this interview with one of South Africa’s most notorious musical celebrities.
As I start my pilgrimage to Brenda Fassie’s rehearsal room, the image of the scared and unfriendly Jo'burg driver is quickly dispelled – or possibly updated. Brenda’s manager, Peter Snyman, doesn’t really have a clue how to get from Sandton to the backroom in Denver in which she is rehearsing, and he gives me only two street names when we talk on the phone. I find it, but not without help from a score of drivers who, without exception, roll down their windows and head me in the direction of Jewel Street.
Jewel Street runs through the heart of Denver. This is one of the oldest, most beautiful and most dilapidated parts of Jo’burg, but still something shines through the decay. It is full of life. An apt place to find Brenda, some might say.
And in a way, they would be right. Denver wears its broken beauty proudly and matter-of-factly, looking like some cast-off street from war-torn Maputo, not quite stylish enough to inhabit the Mozambican capital but beautiful nonetheless. It is a place for urban survivors, a place for those who have not been subsumed by the power of Jozi but remain on its periphery.
And here I find Ma Brrr, Ms Fassie, riot grrrl supreme. Self-confessed drug user. Prima donna. Diva to a T. And the owner of one of the most powerful voices on the planet. Tinged with the pop immediacy of Madonna at her 80s finest and with a vocal and emotional range to rival Nina Simone, those who have not experienced her glory, because she is black and sings only occasionally in English, don’t know what they’re missing. When Brenda sings, time stands still.
Over the last two decades she has used that voice to awesome effect, establishing herself as one of Africa’s biggest recording stars and creating an astounding catalogue of afro-pop albums. And also, it must be said, attracting ever so slightly more than her fair share of trouble – through her fondness for substances legal and illegal, her unconventional sexuality and her utter determination to do things her way and on her terms.
To put it bluntly, Brenda Fassie really doesn’t give a fuck. To put it more proverbially, she couldn’t care two hoots what people think about her. But I’ll stick with the former phrase because there is no other expression in the English language for the attitude that she constantly exudes and exacts on both herself and everyone around her. And this is no act. This is Brenda pure and simple. She refuses to act.
And that is, in a way, the entire point of being Brenda. It also makes her completely glorious. Because she is so sweet, so vicious, so venomously loving, so unapologetically human. In the most sensational way possible she plays the media game by simply not playing the media game. By being her naughty, beautiful self and exaggerating that self as much as she wants, when she wants.
Brenda always knew she would be famous. There was no other possible path. In 1979 record producer Koloi Lobona journeyed to Langa, the Cape township where Brenda lived, to hear this amazing voice he’d been told about. Brenda sang for him, and when she’d finished singing, the 16-year-old siren turned to him and said “So when are we going to Jo’burg?”
Twenty four years later I walk into the rehearsal room with Peter Snyman. He wears a look on his face that suggests he’s seen it all, and my guess is that he has. Certainly, hanging out with Brenda would increase the odds.
In the rehearsal room it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. The band is going off to the rousing pop anthem Thola aMadlozi. Brenda Fassie is swirling around the room like a dervish, her impish face listening carefully to each note, each sound emerging from the musicians. Her body flails in an involuntary dance as she moves from musician to musician, a micro-conductor intent on perfection. She looks as if she is having the time of her life.
The band breaks and Peter introduces me to Brenda. I give her a T-shirt with a picture of Nefertiti on it that I got from South African Fashion Week and she gives me a big hug. Later at her house, she looks down at the shirt and says “Egypt! Where is that?”, more a statement of contempt than a geographical confusion.
I meet Nathi, one of the backing singers, in the back room. Brenda introduces her as her daughter. She has a beautiful voice of course, entirely different to her mother’s – sweeter, less primal. She is a strong, gently mature match for Brenda’s eternally 16-year-old diva. I tell Brenda that Nathi is the mother and she is the daughter. “Everyone says that,” she responds. Later, I discover that Nathi is actually Brenda’s girlfriend.
Then we all end up at her house in Buccleugh – not without a short trip to the bottle store where Brenda stocks up on an entire shopping trolley of alcohol, me laughing hysterically in my car from the other side of the parking lot. I meet the beautiful James, over whom Brenda drapes herself with ease and affection. “Don’t tell anyone about James,” she says, “I want everyone to think I’m a lesbian.” I tell Brenda that I’m used to bendy-bendy people and also that people with power as godlike as hers are often bisexual in nature. She says nothing, giving a funny sideways smile as I follow her around her sprawling suburban home. She shows me a bullet hole in her bedroom window, a result of a recent, much-publicised burglary. My mind flashes to the newspaper article, Brenda saying, “Why would anyone want to kill me? Don’t they know the whole country loves me?”
Then it’s back to the music room where Bongani, Brenda’s son, sits down at the keyboard. He is a classically trained pianist and the room melts into beauty as he plays the keys with his hands, body and sweet, sweet face. Paitjie, Bongani’s friend, is sitting next to me, dressed head-to-toe in yellow hip hop gear. It’s his birthday and Brenda sings her own almost deep-deep house interpretation of Happy Birthday. Paitjie’s smile exceeds the breadth of his yellow. Later, I tell Brenda how lovely I think Bongani is. She smiles pensively. “I think he smokes zol,” she says with a slight look of worry on her face. I say that it would be surprising if a South African boy his age didn’t smoke dagga.
Brenda asks me for a light. She is burning imphepho in a small ceremonial area near her front door. This is where we conduct the actual taped interview. Though, by now, I have realised that you don’t interview Brenda Fassie – you write a story about her or, ideally, a novel. She instructs her bodyguard to bring some drinks. A Bacardi Breezer and a Smirnoff Spin arrive and then she requests a metal spatula. The spatula arrives and she slices it upwards through the air, expertly removing the top from a bottle. One more slice through the air for the other bottle and then her gun is requested.
A handgun is delivered and she looks at it and then throws it down among her ceremonial clutter. I half expect her to point it at me, as some kind of test, as a demonstration of her skittishness. But no – she just wants me to know that she has a gun. I switch on the dictaphone and she says “Have you seen my dogs? Chico and Lesley. I named those dogs after two people I think are dogs. Chico was my manager and Lesley was my lawyer. They got together and fucked me.”
Before I have a chance to ask her a question she breaks into song, echoing the tune emerging from speakers in the other room where her new song Ngiki Kotola Malini is playing. “You got the wrong door,” she sings, “You got the wrong door. You pressed the wrong button. You got the wrong door.” It is spine-chilling and movingly beautiful. Her voice starts as a wail and transforms into almost existential pop. As Brenda sings, she disappears into the song, into that place where the finest performers go when they sing. When she finishes the song, she tells me the interview is over. I tell her that’s fine, that in fact I have no questions for her. She responds that I have the answers. This is more like an exercise in Zen Buddhism than an interview per se.
But it doesn’t matter. Her presence is almost too overpowering for such simple concepts as questions and answers. Besides, during the few hours I spend with her, every time I ask her a question she responds by talking about something else entirely. And so, on my tape I have little else but her singing and talking about her dogs and lawyers. And I will treasure it forever.
We are sitting on Brenda’s bed. She asks me to try to fix her video camera. Nathi gets it down from the cupboard. The cord to the battery charger is missing. I take the whole thing away with me and promise to try to fix it. Like everyone else who glances against her world, I am duty-bound to follow her orders. She is a queen. Despite being the size of a battle-scarred urchin, she is a huge mad goddess filled with warmly psychotic power.
As I’m sitting there, I think of one of the first questions she asked me when I met her this afternoon. Looking at me in my own punked up hairstyle and Craig Native T-shirt, she says to me, completely straight-faced: “So do you smoke cocaine?” “It’s much better than snorting it,” is my hedge-betting reply. Now sitting on her bed in a state of relative calmness, I ask Brenda if she’s ever had any problems with the police, being such a public drug-user.
“They wouldn’t dare,” she says, and we talk about the secret history of cocaine in this country. Of course, she mentions no names but the implication is that, were the law to clamp down on her, she could bring a lot of important people down with her.
And then it’s time for Brenda to take a bath and for me to leave, but not without a metal bracelet that she places firmly on my arm. That, and the video camera. The beautiful James leads me out of the suburb and onto the freeway back to Sandton. I am leaving Brenda World and heading out into the big wide sky of a Jozi evening.
And I wonder if she’s going to have a bath and go to sleep, or whether the whole family is going to be up at two o’clock in the morning having a party with that booze-trolley. Either way, in her dreams, or in her mad lullabies of reality, she’ll be wearing with ease and pride that scarred, beautiful face that has to put up with the extremely full-time job of Being Brenda.
This story was first published in The Independent on Saturday
Durban Days: Shining a light onto the edge of the world
"If you engage only with the obvious touristy spaces in Durban, I don’t think it’s a particularly exciting city. But if you find the more edgy and liminal spaces, it is a place like nowhere else in the world." So says Peter Machen, arts writer and newly appointed manager of the Durban International Film Festival. With a slew of big events hitting the city this month, we ask him to explain himself…
My Durban is not the Durban of the Vodacom July horse race. It is not the Durban of Top Gear eventing. It is not the Durban of 'world class' shopping centres or rugby matches attended by tens of thousands of people. In a way my Durban belongs entirely to me. It is my reality, and of course it is like nobody else's. But I wish I could transmit it to you. The water is warm. All year round. And some days that alone is enough, as you sink into the generous arms of the Indian Ocean and try to stay beyond the reach of it's errant currents. Sometimes, floating in that salty water, staring at the indigo sky with vision made blurry and body tired from an afternoon of swimming, is all that I need. But there is so much more.
Located at the edge of the world and – in our infinitely connected and newly networked planet – also near the centre, Durban is sold primarily as sun, sand, sea and commerce, with a backdrop of cultural intrigue. But the reality is that for most visitors, the city's cultural reality maintains that intrigue, providing an ambient mirage of images that exists solely to suggest that the global traveler is in a different place. It is a veneer with which they do not need to engage.
Yet for those who move beyond the sunny holidayed surface of Durban and into the real city, shimmering riches emerge. For Durban is a city like no other, a place where multiple cultures collide in a Rorschach painting of histories and colonialisms and faiths. The result is beautifully kaleidoscopic, rendered against a backdrop that looks much like paradise, infinitely blue and verdant with vegetation that seems to be in constant bloom.
The truth is that if Durban were another kind of city, tourists would be regularly found in large numbers at the magnificent if slightly tawdry Temple of Understanding in Chatsworth, grabbing an authentic curry at Patels in Grey Street, or exploring the the Inanda area just North of Durban which gave birth to South Africa's liberation movement. But for some reason, even those connections aren't made for most visitors, and many of the most obviously interesting offerings remain marginal activities (although local tour company Streetscene, who regularly deliver tourists to some of the attractions that the city's iconography promises, are are starting to change that).
Yet these under-explored archetypes which dominate the imaging of Durban have real value. They are genuinely enriching experiences in the best touristy way, the kind of experience that locals still enjoy. The bunnychow (a fiery curry in a hollowed-out loaf of bread) and Hindu temple visits, for example, are both interesting local experiences that are not generally experienced by many visitors. I've been to Hindu Temple sites countless times, for example, and it is rare to encounter visitors from beyond the city. Similarly, when I am walking through the city's numerous arcades and back alleys, or standing on the edge of a Shembe temple made only from a border of white-washed stones, I am often the only middle-class person around, the only person who is there to explore a reality other than their own.
Then there are the less obvious options for the more wayward travelers. Even with some degree of encouragement, visitors might not be drawn to the hinterlands of the bayhead, where the stark industrial beauty of the harbour slices itself into the natural grandeur of the bluff. They might not find their way to the Britannia Hotel, which was built overlooking the banks of the Umgeni River from which it is now separated by a giant hulk of freeway interchange but which still serves some of Durban's finest curries. They might not get to savour the drive along Riverside Road where indigenous foliage gives way to the banks of the river that leads out into the sea. They might not find their way to the Winston Hotel where local expressions of punk-rock are as vibrant as anything the Sex Pistols ever produced. They might not find themselves on the edges of a Shembe church service next to an abandoned car lot on Sunday morning or in a YMCA hall at midnight listening to the beautiful a cappella sound of isicathimiya that Ladysmith Black Mambazo made famous. They might not find themselves breaking into deserted quarries at the break of day, or wandering through Umhlanga's palm forest.
But if they do, they'll begin to find their own Durban in just the same way that I have found my Durban, and in doing so, found a place that will be forever at the core of my being. If you spend a little time drinking from it's lifeblood, the city will become a part of you.
So, if you're a visitor to Durban, don't abandon the city's golden sands and Indian Ocean. These things have immense value too. But if you get out of your car, and move beyond the shopping centres and the hotels and their generic global glamour, you'll find things you've never seen before, and, in all likelihood, won't see anywhere else in the world.
Side Bar 1: 10 Essential Durban Experiences
1. Swimming in Battery Beach on the Golden Mile. Best done at sunrise, sunset or all afternoon long.
2. Watching a Shembe baptism at sunrise, respectfully, from the distance. On Sundays, all along eThekwini's coastline, although Battery Beach is a guaranteed spot.
3. A cocktail on top of the Roma Revolving Restaurant on the Esplanade (Margeret Mncadi Avenue).
4. iSicathimiya at the YMCA in Charlotte Maxeke Street (formerly Beatrice Street) on Saturday nights from midnight till dawn. Be warned, if you volunteer to be a judge, you have to stay till morning.
5. Punk, hard rock and a generous dose of counter culture at the Winston, Durban's bastion of all things alternative. In Clark Road, Glenwood, every night.
6. Driving Around the back of the harbour on a Sunday morning. While many areas have become restricted over the last few years, there is still plenty of industrial beauty to peruse without a permit.
7. Curry in the Grey Street area. Try Patels in Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street (formerly Grey Street) or one of the two branches of Little Gujerat in Dr AB Goonam Street (formerly Prince Edward Street).
8. Shopping for fresh produce in Warwick Junction.
9. Exploring the Cato Manor area, just north of the CBD, Durban's equivalent of District 6 or Sophiatown.
10. The Durban International Film Festival. Now in it's 35th Year, DIFF is Africa's largest and most significant film festival. See you there. I'll save you a seat!
Sidebar 2: The Best Places to go after a movie at DIFF
Spiga D'Oro: Durban's most popular Italian restaurant is just up the road from the festival hub on the beachfront. With a Tuscan-style courtyard, Spiga is open till midnight on weekdays and till the early hours of the morning on weekends and holidays.
Cafe Jiran: Just down the drag from the festival hub at the Blue Waters Hotel, Jiran is the perfect place to take a little time out from the festival and watch people instead of movies. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Closes at about 10pm.
The Elangeni Hotel: The newly refurbished Elangeni has committed to keeping their bar open 24 hours a day during the ten days of the festival. Its refined elegance and extended opening hours should make it the de facto watering hole during the festival.
Zataras: This tiny kiosk overlooking Battery Beach sells a range of freshly squeezed juices as well as coffee and light meals.
The I heart DIFF Marquee: For the first time in many years, DIFF has provided a space for festival-goers to relax and a grab a drink or something to eat. Located in front of the Blue Waters Hotel.
This story was first published in Sawubona
An Afrikaans Heart: The paradoxes of the Klein Karoo Kunstefees
An Afrikaans Heart
by Peter Machen
Oudtshoorn, the site of the Klien Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (Small Karoo National Arts Festival) is, at least for a few days a year, the kitschest place on earth. The Afrikaans aesthetic centralises and the epicentre of this kitschness is the fleamarket. Ostrich legs ashtrays jostle with handpainted crockery. Decoupage is in! So are fake faberge eggs and a thousand overly enthusiastic variations of the CD rack. Looking down from chocolate-box posters, pipe player Roberto competes with popular singer Patricia Lewis for audience and multicoloured feather dusters are everywhere. This is the not the kitsch of outlandish, self aware expression but the kitsch of anachronous sentiment and it all got a bit nauseous after a while. And never have I seen so much calamari for sale. Everywhere you looked, calamari safari, calamari safari. Needless to say, vegetarian fare was very thin on the ground and safari suits and veldskoene were in abundance. And I had a fucking party.
The Klein Karoo Kunstefees in Oudtshoorn has the unfortunate acronym of KKNK. Doubly unfortunate due to the racial slurs which have haunted the festival’s organisation since its inception five years ago. In 1997 African diva Miriam Makeba was pelted with missiles with cries of “kry die kaffir meid van die verhoog af” ("get the kaffir girl off the stage"). Officially the N in KKNK stands for nationale but many people I spoke to, took it to mean nationaliste. Amid the festivities and fully multiracial carnival atmosphere there was the sense of ideological battles being waged everywhere. A National Party election poster sits on the same pole as posters advertising festival attractions. A beautifully religious poster advertises a show by the predominantly coloured Nu Vision Mass Choir entitled 'Revolution'. A few shops down from the poster, a group of legally striking shop workers are holding placards protesting against miserable wages. And, most potently of all, twice a day, there is a silent parade of three placard-carrying protesters down the main street.
In a riot of postmodernism and with absolute poise, the demonstrators alternated between traditional tribal outfits and voortrekker costumes while proclaiming the need for a homeland and, subtextually, for more extensive representation of all shades of Afrikaans speakers at the festival. For much as the festival tries to hide behind the facade of language, there was little evidence to suggest that the organisers might be concerned with the dialects of Afrikaans spoken on the Cape Flats or elsewhere in South Africa outside the strongholds of Afrikanerdom. Unless it’s in the uneasy stereotyping of the coon carnival that was flown down for the festival or the pubescent ‘tribal’ dancers that at times extended their repertoire to particularly engaging and well rehearsed street theatre. (It's rumoured that uncontracted buskers were not allowed to perform in the streets).
Which takes us to another corner of the ideological battlefield. There was a vague sense of enforced restraint on the more contemporary side of the visual arts and a strong aesthetic divide between the installation-based art and the stodgier, more traditional painting which occupied the mainstream at the festival.
The two main alternative exhibitions were Bloedlyn (Bloodline) and Oos Wes Tuis Bes (East West, Home is Best) and they both stood out like sore thumbs in relations to all the fleamarket art. Bloedlyn, curated by Lien Botha, brought together ten artists and ten writers in an attempt to explode the metaphor of the title. Veronica Malherbe felt compelled to camouflage a photo of an erect penis in a test tube with her own breast milk. Mark Coetzee gets away with his bloody genitals but they are almost unrecognizable in their explicitness. and Andrew Putter’s semen-stained tissues in Oos Wes? well, not everyone would presume it to be semen. But the artists did face the possibility of censorship should an artwork be deemed too offensive/unacceptable. When I asked Coetzee, co-curator of Oos Wes who exactly it is who is doing the prescribing/proscribing, although he hinted towards the organisers, he acknowledged that these parameters are based in the broader culture in which the festival and the artists operate.
“You can’t even come in here without reading that whole thing! It’s steeped in discourse.” said the boy to his girlfriend as she was about to step inside the small prefabricated house filled with mothballs and letters to artist Bridget Baker. The small housing unit is a component of Oos Wes Tuis Bes which consisted of fourteen such structures that had been converted by the invited artists into their interpretation of the title. So Baker’s letters in mothballs, separated from the viewer by a crocheted screen, comments on the degree of privacy an artist allows herself to maintain. She lets us into the threshold of her personal space but no further. Andrew Putter fills a room with two months worth of personal rubbish that he would otherwise have thrown away. Club flyers. A Cosmopolitan desk calendar. Naked photographs with penises cut out. (He was cutting out the penises for another project). Old fruit juice bottles. The aforementioned semen-stained tissues. And so on. In his introductory piece Putter refers to an old woman who didn’t have a rubbish bin. For her there was no place called ‘away’ where things could be thrown.
The most obviously beautiful piece on display and, after some consideration, possibly the most powerful, was Matthew Haresnape’s piece. Entitled House of God, it had been reduced to it’s basic steel framework, given the steeple and cock of a church and tarred and feathered. Inside hung an old flag and a new flag at right angles to each other, both constructed from textured glass of varying opacity. The blunt but beautiful symbolism wasn’t nearly so blunt as I supposed. Several festival goers thought that this meant that the church was going to be the mechanism which would heal the divide between the old and the new South Africa.
Haresnape’s piece was also the sight of my most spectacular visual moment of the festival. I was playing a game of tag inside the wall-less church with a little coloured boy and at one point I stepped backwards out of the structure. He stood behind the transparent new South African flag with his head and a plastic watergun poking around the front, with the sodium tinged night sky of Oudtshoorn as his backdrop.
Despite the carnivalesque and thoroughly easy going atmosphere of the festival, it felt at times like a defense of Afrikaans rather than a celebration of it. Also evident was the insecurity of a language that is only a hundred years old and will almost certainly not survive in its current form for another century. But at the same time the use of text and language throughout the festival illustrates how much of a lingua franca we have in Afrikaans. And although Afrikaans is unlikely to remain anything resembling a 'pure' language, it has injected/inseminated so much of itself into other South African cultures and languages that most non-Afrikaans speakers understand good chunks of it. If ever a real common language emerges from our linguistic chaos of 11 official languages, it will be heavily influenced by Afrikaans.
This kind of linguistic fluidity is resonantly expressed in the texts from one of the Bloedlyn collaborations ‘enshrouded’ by artist Mark Coetzee and writer Karin Cronje: “I am the earth. I am loved by those I house. Bloed, so baie, ah, a celebration, a visible membrane of life. Die ligaam hier, skitterrooi, die vrug van ‘n lewe.” ("Blood, so plentiful....The body here, brilliant red, the fruit of a life").
Indeed, underneath all the great art and the protests and the boerewors rolls and the half-baked art and the half-arsed trapeze artists and the layers and layers of complexity and irony, underneath all this stuff was the heat and the dust, the arid desolation of the Karoo. And underneath the baking heat was an undeniable link to this land and the impact its sheer physicality has had on Afrikaans and South African consciousness.
To finish, I should discuss a little town about 10 kilometres outside Oudtshoorn. Volmoed means ‘full of courage’ and it is the name of the site where Oudtshoorn was supposed to be built. The settlers of the time had other plans however and as a result, Volmoed has a church, a river, a few buildings and not much else. It is one of those extremely poor rural areas where the dirt roads constitute the only social space. It is also intensely beautiful in the harsh, vast and unforgiving way to which only the Karoo can lay claim. In the sand and gravel church garden the word ‘volmoed’ is constructed out of aloes, cacti and gravel. A metre high maybe and ten metres long. And somehow that stupid, martyred sentiment, out there in the loneliness, said more about Afrikaans than any work of art I've seen.
This story was first published in Epic magazine
How Can Art Stop Aids? Talking to David Gere from Make Art/Stop Aids
The Magic of Maputo: City of grace and freedom
City of Grace and Freedom
Peter Machen found himself bewitched by Maputo's beautifully broken elegance
Socialism stills walks the streets of Maputo. Any communist or socialist with any degree of fame (or notoriety, depending on the fickleness of history) has a street named after them. You can walk downtown along Avenida Karl Marx or Avenida Vladimir Lenine. Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Minh and Albert Luthuli all have avenues named in their honour. And while the potholes and peeling paint that decorate the city might stand as a metaphor for the current state of socialism, the beauty of being in Maputo – the people, the buildings, the colour of the light – continues to offer hope for an alternative model of social and economic reality in Africa.
Maputo is an extremely poor city in an extremely poor country. Like South Africa, there is massive unemployment. Prices are higher and salaries are lower. Nearly everything is imported, refuse removal is minimal and the police are a law unto themselves.
Yet somehow everything kind of works. There are far fewer beggars on the streets than in any South African city. You can sit at a pavement cafe drinking an excellent espresso and a delicately delicious pastry and not feel compelled to think you're in Europe. This is Africa, pure, simple, beautiful, and without pretensions.
The Coca-Cola signs are coming, sure, and there are cheesy billboards advertising the promise of connectivity in the form of cellphones – and, in a streak of historic irony, some of the new construction is surrounded by hoardings painted with the ANC colours.
But the rabid consumerism that has come to characterise post-apartheid South Africa is largely absent from Maputo. Walking through the sprawling Xipamanini market in the poorer end of the city, or the more upmarket Mercardo Municipal downtown, it seems that the sellers outnumber the buyers a hundred to one. Only in the very specifically upper middle-class Supermercado does commerce begin to resemble anything like South Africa.
And, apart from the curio-sellers who line the roads where the hotels are located, bargaining will get you nowhere. Even in the shops, prices are standardised in the same way as they are on the streets of South Africa, with hundreds of hawkers selling a range of identical goods at the same price.
And the people are almost painfully honest. Often I would leave vendors with 500 meticas change (about 20 cents) and without fail, they would run after me clutching the coin to return it.
Service in Maputo is impeccable (tips are appreciated but not expected) and food arrives at ones table remarkably quickly since even the grilled sandwich machines run on gas. You are discouraged from drinking the tap water but the locals do and with my southern African stomach I didn't have a problem. We ate a meal at a fantastic Ethiopian restaurant at the Faire Populer, and although there were no functional taps in the bathroom, our waitress brought a basin and a jug of water that she poured over our hands before we ate.
One of the defining characteristics of Maputo is its vibrant pavement culture. From the cigarette vendors that dot the streets until late into the night to the pastelerias (bakeries) and coffee shops, the streets are alive with an ease and elegance that we are far from acquiring.
Likewise, some liquor stores are open until midnight and it's acceptable to drink in public. And while there is a strong drinking culture, it's not a culture of getting wasted in the great South African tradition. Every morning there were people in the coffee shops still going from the night before but looking inexplicably fresh.
The people are beautiful and friendly. If the buildings are haunted by war, the people, it seems, are not. While poverty is everywhere, there is little sense of the brutalisation that continues to remain so visible in South Africa. There is a sense of life simply being lived. And this is not the condescending view of a white middle-class tourist. I spoke to many Mozambicans who lived in South Africa for one reason or another (usually jobs and rands, sometimes family) and without exception they were all glad to be back in Maputo for Christmas because life was more real here. The paradox, of course, is that they need to return to South Africa to work. The big social and economic question is whether it is possible to conjoin the freedom of Maputo with any kind of real capitalism.
The architecture is truly lovely, despite (and because of) the poverty and dilapidation of war - a melting pot of Brazilian modernism, old-school colonialism and African style. The most striking thing is the individuality of every building, every street, every detail. A single medium-rise block of flats might have 20 different styles of burglar guards for example. Looking out from a rooftop across the cityscape, a criss-cross of shapes and patterns emerges that is inspiring in its acknowledgment of difference and commonality. And if the banality of South African postmodernism is starting to spread in the form of the office parks that are popping up in the business district downtown, such grossnesses will hopefully be restrained by the ghosts of socialism that continue to linger amid the encroaching billboards.
Despite the dilapidation, the cracks in the buildings, the potholes and the questions around its economic future, Maputo has a lot to teach South Africa. There is a freedom and fluidity here that barely exists in South Africa. And racial identity seems far less relevant despite a strong history of colonialism.
Maputo is a city out of time, almost forgotten by the ravages and progress of history. But life is lived here with a broadly human grace that one day we might all acquire. You might just have to slow down a little to see it.
This story was first published in The Independent on Saturday
The Croods (2012) USA
Film: The Croods
Year of Release: 2013
Directors: Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders
Screenwriters: John Cleese, Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco
Starring the voices of: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman
Review: Peter Machen
Sometimes a film doesn’t have to do very much in order to entertain. The new Dreamworks movie The Croods, which tells the story of a Neanderthal family emerging from the shadows of cave life into the bright possibilities of a world called tomorrow, has a plot that is so thin and flimsy that it verges on non-existent. Yet, for once that’s okay. The film is so beautifully animated and the continually shifting landscape which the Croods occupy in their journey from constrained survival to a world filled with nominal meaning so gorgeously rendered, that the surface of the film is sufficiently engaging without having to provide any depth at all.
The Croods centres on Eep, an adolescent cave girl who is frustrated by her family’s dogged refusal to engage with life outside of their cave and by their deeply ingrained fear of anything that is new or interesting. While her father and mother, Grug and Ugga (gamely voiced by Nicolas Cage and an underused Catherine Keener), along with her irritating brother (Clark Duke), feral baby sister and invincible grandmother (Cloris Leachman) all huddle together in the cave, Eep climbs the cliffs outside, glancing with longing at the world beyond.
But when Eep meets a lonesome, wandering boy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), her world begins to change. And when Guy’s prophecy of an extinction-level disaster starts to come true, the Crood family’s world shifts dramatically as they are forced to leave the cave and head for higher ground.
In this age of hyper-saturated narratives which twist and turn this way and that, The Croods is profoundly linear, a simple road movie in which its characters move from point a to point b, surmounting physical obstacles along the way. There’s a dash of ongoing family drama – Grug feels threatened by all the newness of their adventure and particularly by the presence of man-boy Guy – and the characterisation is strong enough to make us care about Eep and her dysfunctional family. But The Croods‘ real strength is simply an overwhelming sweetness that is tinged with just enough darkness to take the edge off its saccharine nature. Essentially eye candy with a heart of gold and a slightly wicked sense of humour, it’s so perfectly realised that this simple formula works a treat.
The Croods is also that rarest of animated films in that it doesn’t have a villain. Sure, there are a few wild creatures who might want to eat the Croods, but at no point is that survival-based desire turned into anything resembling evil. And although the film does have a message at its core (get out of your cave and don’t be afraid of anything that’s new), at the same time it feels gloriously message-free, and also, it should be said, deliciously free of the ironic references to pop culture that are so prevalent in the Dreamworks canon.
Of course, there is one very obvious reference – one which The Croods wears with grace. The film feels a lot like an updated Flintstones that is slightly less dependent on gender stereotypes. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table – in fact it’s startlingly unoriginal – but it’s rendered with such joy and precision, and the cartoonish world it creates is so utterly believable, that I found myself surrendering to its cuteness and visual beauty with very little reluctance.
A small, stupid and utterly engaging triumph that tugged at my heartstrings with pure visual magic rather than manipulative writing. I loved it, and it wasn’t even that good. That’s how good it was.
This review was first published in The Sunday Tribune
Django Unchained (2012) USA
Film: Django Unchained
Year of Release: 2012
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L Jacson, Kerry Washington
Review: Peter Machen
There’s a moment in Django Unchained, the latest movie from Quentin Tarantino, when Dr King Schultz, one of the film’s two central protagonists, utters the words “I just can’t resist it”, before launching himself headfirst into the kind of graphically explicit over-the-top bloodbath that we’ve come to expect from Tarantino over the course of the last two decades. But those words, while fitting comfortably into the film’s narrative, may as well be coming straight from the director's mouth. Tarantino simply can’t resist the opportunity of taking a film that would in many ways benefit from being played fairly straight, and twisting and accelerating it into a production that is defiantly the work of a schlock master.
Django Unchained is, in essence, a movie about racism, and more specifically about the context of racism as located in the twin projects of imperialism and colonialism in 19th century America. Set in the American South during the period immediately preceding the Civil War, Django (played gamely and with remarkable range by Jamie Foxx) is a slave who is granted a freedom of sorts when he is, in a manner of speaking, bought from a couple of slave traders by the aforementioned Schultz (Christoph Waltz).
Schultz is a bounty hunter who has been seeking out Django, whose brutal experiences at the hands of the murderous Brittle brothers, will, he hopes, help him track down the men, for whom a large bounty has been offered (they are wanted, not because of their abysmal treatment of their slaves, but rather because of the lives and wealth they have taken as stage-coach robbers). And so Schultz sets up Django as his personal valet and, his technical ownership of him notwithstanding, as something resembling a free man, although Django will only officially receive that freedom when the two of them have tracked down – and killed – the Brittle Brothers.
While Django is happy to help bring about the demise of his brutal former masters, his chief concern is finding and freeing Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the German-speaking wife he long ago lost to the slave trade. His and Schultz’s dual quests takes them to an infamous plantation named Candyland, where the brothers are hiding out and Broomhilda lives a humiliating existence. The plantation is owned by the psychopathically racist Calvin Candie (played with a dash too much relish by Leonardo DiCaprio) and inhabited by a number of slaves who have incorporated the master-slave relationship into their interior psychologies. Chief among them is Stephen (a virtually unrecognisable Samuel L Jackson), who, like nearly everybody in the movie, is appalled at seeing Django – a black man – riding his own horse. He is also unconvinced about the relationship between Django and Schultz.
While Dr Schultz is a man who trades corpses for riches, he is also, all things being relative, a remarkably moral man who finds the contempt of white men for their black brothers more reprehensible than the violence which results from that contempt. It is Schultz, not Django, who is the film’s moral centre. Django is just too plain cool for such a role, and besides, Tarantino’s film, like the political landscape of the film’s American South, remains a world in which white men are both oppressors and saviours.
Yet it’s difficult to tell to what extent the film is actually about race in contemporary American and global society. Tarantino has bloodied the waters to much to really discern anything apart from the most obvious moral and political dimensions. And I can’t help feeling that by doing so, by intentionally weakening his own film and taking it with such emphasis into the realm of the unreal, he is committing an act of cinematic and political cowardice.
Tarantino is certainly capable of political and narrative coherence, and of making films which don’t rely upon litre after litre of fake blood. His earlier works, including his relatively low key masterpiece Jackie Brown, are proof enough of this. And in fact much of Django Unchained is also proof of Tarantino’s ability to control his films. But like the trigger-happy Schultz, Tarantino doesn’t want to play by the rules – he just can’t resist himself – and in the process of giving in to his baser instincts and bowing with great inconsistency to the freewheeling tomato sauce of the spaghetti western, he severely limits the power of what could have been a major work of cinema.
This review was first published in The Sunday Tribune
Carol (2015) USA
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriter: Phyllis Nagy
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Mara Rooney, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler
Review: Peter Machen
Todd Haynes is one of American cinema’s most gifted directors. Over the course of 25 years, he has explored gender, sexuality and identity to remarkable effect, creating a body of work that feels particularly expansive considering that he has directed a mere six feature films. From his first feature Poison, which was based on the writings of transgressive author Jean Genet, to the transcendent I’m Not There, which chronicled the artistic life of Bob Dylan, his work is defined by a technical and emotional precision that tends to the transcendent while paradoxically always remaining grounded in the banality of his own lushly rendered realism.
Haynes is also a master of period, never allowing the physical trappings of an era to become oppressive as they so often do in period films. In Carol, his latest outing, he successfully recreates the world of white 1950s America, soaking his film in the styles and colour-sets of the time and allowing this execution to somehow perfectly mirror the emotional restrictions that such a calibrated and expectation-based society imposed on people’s identities. Cate Blanchett plays the eponymous Carol, a wealthy society woman who falls in love with Therese, a young woman who works in a department store and who she meets a few days before Christmas when she is buying a gift for her daughter Rindy. There is immediately a palpable tension between the two women, although, for Therese at least, the attraction is a new feeling and one very different to those she has for her boyfriend, who intends marrying her. After several slightly uncomfortable meetings, including one in which Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who she is in the process of divorcing, pitches up, Therese joins Carol on a road trip across America, eventually consummating their relationship in a motel in Waterloo, Iowa. But even as their love blossoms, it is threatened by the jealousy of Carol’s husband and a battle for the custody of Rindy.
One of Haynes’ key gifts is his ability to infuse melodrama with deep truth, and in Carol he applies this formula to devastating effect. Seldom has sadness felt so achingly beautiful, so tenderly real, something Haynes achieves with a stark coldness that underlies his warm love for his characters. Sentimentality has little place here, even as you can feel Carol and Therese longing for a world that is just out of sight and possibility. Unlike so many films that deal with same-sex relationships, Haynes never reduces his protagonists to their sexuality. Despite the restrictions placed on them by a still-Victorian morality, they are simply two people in love.
Blanchett and Rooney are both extraordinary, supplying wonderful individual screen presences which gently ignite with slow-burning passion when they’re together. Blanchett provides an exceptionally nuanced performance, illustrating a huge density of emotions while operating within a relatively small range. Rooney shines as a young woman who gradually sheds the innocence of youth as she discovers herself, the world outside herself and previously unimagined possibilities.
Carol is an exquisite companion piece to Haynes’ Far From Heaven which told the story of a gay man and his fragile wife in roughly the same time period. Yet, it’s hard not to think also of Ang Lee’s emotionally resonant Brokeback Mountain in the film’s depiction of difficult love set against seemingly impossible odds. While all three films tell stories of same-sex relationships that are shaped by the moral prohibitions of the time, they all feel like universal love stories, defined more than anything by a profound and lingering longing for a more perfect world in which we can be more perfect selves. From this timeless perspective, same-sex love is just the same as any other, only more so.
This review was first published in The Witness
Ayanda (2015) South Africa
Country: South Africa
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Sara Blecher
Screenwriter: Trish Malone
Starring: Fulu Moguvhani, Kenneth Nkosi, OC Ukeje, Nthati Moshesh, Jafta Mamabolo
Review: Peter Machen
Ayanda, which opened the Durban International Film Festival earlier this year, is the latest film from South African director Sara Blecher (Surfing Soweto, Otelo Burning). At heart a coming-of-age story, the film is a beautifully rendered tale told in a strong local idiom with universal appeal. Set in the multiracial community of Yeoville, where African migrants from across the continent live among indigenous South Africans, the film challenges gender and racial stereotypes while providing a frank but inspiring vision of the possibilities and challenges of life in the new South Africa.
At the start of the film, the charismatic and vivacious Ayanda (Fulu Moguvhani) is running a successful upcycling enterprise from the family auto repair business, converting the urban detritus of Johannesburg into stylish and novel furniture items. When it seems that the auto repair business – which belonged to her late father – will be forced to close, Ayanda takes it upon herself to start a retro car restoration business on the same premises. Along with David (OC Ukeje), a Nigerian mechanic with a dark past, and Zoum (Thomas Gumede), an enthusiastic but unskilled mechanic, she sets about rebuilding her father’s legacy. But as her vision is slowly realised, a number of obstacles get in the way, dark family secrets emerge and Ayanda is forced to examine her own motivations and the extent to which her dream of the future is mired in the past and her idealised vision of her father.
Ayanda has two key stories to tell – Ayanda’s own personal narrative, which provides the engine of the film – and the story of contemporary Johannesburg, alive with its vibrant multicultural possibilities, which provides its fuel. The film is in many ways a love song to the city of gold and its multiple layers of reality but Blecher doesn’t exclude the grit, darkness and complexity of South African life in the 21st century. The film also makes much use of contemporary visual imaging, including the work of contemporary photographer Anthony Bila, which frames the film, and also through novel use of stop-frame animation (of which I could have watched a great deal more). While Ayanda more-or-less sticks to its quest-based structure, the manner in which it tells its story provides a breath of fresh air. Despite the positive and affirming nature of its central character, Ayanda never becomes didactic and it never allows itself to give in to political correctness.
The film is not perfect. At times it could be tighter and reined in a little and I did think that there were one too many twists towards the end. But it overflows with such a strong sense of authentic life and energy that it feels churlish to nitpick. If you’re prepared to surrender to a film that doesn’t engage with standard Hollywood pacing and formula but is still easily accessible to contemporary local audiences, you’ll find Ayanda’s engaging sense of joy and optimism contagious. Filled with great performances that are backed by a strong script and sharp editing and cinematography, Ayanda is a lovingly crafted South African story that adds a strong female protagonist to the local film canon. And it’s sad to say, but given the almost complete lack of female leads in South African films, that in itself is a striking achievement. I also strongly suspect that Ayanda is one of those films that will outlive its original cinematic release and find its place in the canon of local cult cinema. It’s that kind of film – both timeless and entirely of its time.
This review was first published in The Witness
The Little Prince (2015) France
The Fresh Prince
Film: The Little Prince
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Mark Osborne
Screenwriters: Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti
Starring the voices of: Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Jeff Bridges, Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Mackenzie Foy, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais
Review: Peter Machen
Anyone attempting to adapt Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s much loved children’s story has a central challenge to deal with. The Little Prince, delightful as it is, is a novella, a slim and bitter-sweet volume whose existentialist content simply can’t be stretched to a comfortable feature length film. And while novellas remain a saleable medium (the book continues to sell a million copies a year worldwide), the mid-length film is something that the international film market has no idea what to do with, despite the fact that some film festivals have started to include it as a format.
Director Mark Osborne’s elegant and wistful solution is to place Saint-Exupery’s story within another story, which, in a way, substitutes for the experience of contemporary children’s encounter with the book. A young girl, dominated by a micromanaging mother, moves next door to an eccentric old man who stands in for aviator-come-writer Saint-Exupery and who introduces her to a world of imagination and emotion that is dominated not by the aspirations of adulthood but by the inner child within all of us.
The old man, who has a dilapidated old plane in his backyard that he is constantly working on, recounts the story of his meeting with the little prince, who in turn tells him about the small planet on which he lives among the stars, one which is threatened by the growth of relentless baobab trees which threaten to strangle his small world but where also grows a single red rose with whom the prince falls in love. The rose is a demanding lover, however, and in his frustration with her and their love for each, he leaves his planet and journeys through the ether, eventually arriving in a desert on earth where he meets the old man, who helps him return to the difficult love he has abandoned.
Making remarkable use of CGI to render the world occupied by the little girl, and even more remarkable use of stop-motion to build the fictional world-within-a-world, Osborne and his extensive team of animators have provided a spot-on visualisation of the world of the little prince and the little girl’s experience of it. The book’s original illustrations are brought powerfully to life, both through visual magic and the delicate direction of Osborne, whose nuanced yet powerful approach to narrative and representation moves the film into the realm of metanarrative without ever becoming overly complex, pretentious or having its plausibility questioned. Ultimately the film is a story about the power of stories, about the ways in which our narratives define us, but also about the fact that we can change them and, in so doing, change ourselves.
While Osborne’s imposed structure necessarily robs the original story of some of its dramatic power by continuing the film’s narrative after the tale of the little prince has come to its heart-breaking end, the director stays remarkably faithful to Saint-Exupery’s vision, keeping the regenerative power of maintaining our inner children at the film’s centre. It is diluted ever so slightly by looking a little too much like an exquisite delicacy located within a slightly less exquisite casing, largely because the outer narratives looks a great deal like a Pixar film. And although I am a great fan of Pixar there is something fundamentally American, and thus slightly less than universal, about their output. But while much of The Little Prince looks a Pixar film, it feels far more like a work from the irrepressible Ghibli stable, responsible for such masterpieces as Spirited Away. And considering that The Little Prince is a wide-release product set to occupy mainstream cinemas, it feels remarkably fresh and original.
This review was first published in The Witness
Coming Home (2014) China
Film: Coming Home
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriter: Jingzhi Zou
Starring: Li Gong, Daoming Chen, Huiwen Zhang
Review: Peter Machen
Coming Home, the latest film from Chinese master Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero), begins during the tail-end of China’s cultural revolution, a time when political idealism had long since faded into essential fascism and its citizens went about their days at the behest of the Chinese state. In the film’s opening scenes, we see political prisoner Lu (Daoming Chen) escape and then try to make contact with his beloved wife Feng (Li Gong). But as Lu is about to see Feng for the first time in more than a decade, the authorities intervene and re-arrest him– thanks to the betrayal of Lu of by his daughter Dan (Daoming Chen).
It is an agonising scene – and obviously rendered – but its agony is over quickly compared to the slow sadness that envelopes the events that follow three years later, when Lu arrives home at the end of the great Chinese social experiment and Feng is unable to recognise him.
It’s a kind of psychogenic amnesia, a local doctor informs him, and there is little that can be done, other than find a way to break through the cognitive wall that Feng’s traumatised mind has created. And so Lu begins a series of exercises, each of which he hopes will return him to the true place in his wife’s heart. As he embarks on his mission to prick Lu’s consciousness, the triangular relationship between the still-separated couple and their daughter slowly evolves into a rough and gradual patchwork constituted of uncertain histories and memories.
Coming Home is in essence a quest film, although unlike most films in the genre, there is no physical journey and the film locates itself within a triangle defined by Lu and Feng’s family home, the storeroom that Lu is given by the authorities to live in and the train station where Lu was captured and from where his wife expects him to return on the 5th of each month. As such, I kept on expecting the film to resort to formula and, to Yimou’s great credit, I was consistently surprised. Not once did the film follow the obvious path. Despite it unashamed embrace of melodrama, Yimou has rendered his film with the subtlest of brushstrokes and the result is a fable of sorts that resonates tenderly with an emotional truth that is increasingly rare on contemporary screens. It’s a small story told in gently loving detail and yet somehow expands into something universal and timeless.
While I’m certain that the film will have allegorical significance for Chinese audiences, both historically and in terms of what is happening in China today, it’s a political work that largely ignores its own politics and an allegorical film that pays little attention to its own metaphoric weight. Instead, Coming Home hones in on the deeply personal, making it hard not to imagine what the experience of having a loved one fail to recognise you might feel like. It also provides a contemplation on how our expectations of the world we live in so often fail to correlate with the brutality of reality itself.
Given the emotional flatness of so much that finds it home on our cinema screens, Coming Home is a triumph of 21st century cinema. While it might induce a resistance in certain audiences due to its demand that we actually engage in feeling, as opposed to the simplistic act of cued emotional response, this is a significant element of what the film is trying to achieve. Yimou usually works on a far larger canvas, making films that conform on some level to the spectacle of American blockbusters, even if they carry with them a greater complexity. With Coming Home, Yimou takes the grand spectacle of history and explores with unrelenting focus the experience of being human within it, something that we might reasonably expect from the movies a little more often than happens nowadays.
Despite its essential mutedness, Coming Home is a breath of fresh air. Don’t miss it.
This review was first published in The Witness
MORE FILM REVIEWS
Fine Art Reviews
Imprint: New Ceramics: Carla da Cruz at the KZNSA Gallery
Delicacy and Grace
Imprint: New Ceramics
Carla Da Cruz at the KZNSA Gallery
Review: Peter Machen
Carla Da Cruz's exhibition Imprint, which has just come down from the walls of the KZN's mezzanine gallery, is an example of how the sublime and the spiritual are capable of residing in fields that have been plowed many times, but which are still capable of delivering riches.
I have seen many bodies of work based on a variation of the decorated ceramic disc, often presented fairly small and en masse, as Da Cruz does here with her pantheon of delicately-wrought ceramic flowers. And in truth I have seen perhaps more than my share of such works. That said, on viewing Imprint, there is no sense of the tired, the jaded or the second-hand. Everything seems as fresh as morning flowers. The dew might be absent but it is implicit.
The notion of process has been raised aloft a great deal in the past decade, particularly amid the celebrations of handwork in both craft and fine art that have taken place. These have often raised the intricacy of such work to metaphysical levels . And there's something to this – looking at the work of artists such as Paul Edmunds, and also at the intricacy and structure of Da Cruz's petals and stamens, a certain serenity is required, surely?
It's a little obvious to compare Cruz's flowers to snowflakes, but at the same time it's a comparison that's hard not to make. Both involve limited design parameters in which transcendence and beauty arrive courtesy of geometry and repetition, delicacy and grace. And I'm sure that if Da Cruz had the time and the ceramic resources, she could – like God or whoever it is that makes snowflakes – go on forever, creating works all of which bear a similarity, but each of which is unique.
Hanging perpendicular to the delicate flowers is a series of ceramic rectangles, their corners rounded like used bars of soap. Each becomes a canvas for Da Cruz's organic textures, which have been granted the decadence of coloured glaze. I know you're not supposed to touch the art (I was very well behaved around the fragile flowers), but these lusciously-conceived slaps of texture simply call your fingers and palm to them, like a siren across the sea. I couldn't resist, of course, and the works felt – well, beautiful – calling to mind the role of touch in art, a generally unexplored terrain in a field that is so dependent on the untouchability of the archive. And while it's tempting to impose individual meanings or narratives onto the work, the simultaneously grand and lowly cycle of cellular growth (and by implication decay – which some of the works touch on) is all that's really needed.
It's tempting to describe this kind of work as 'decorative' – and in many ways it is. But to consequently deny its potential as an expressive form is to miss the point both of Da Cruz's work and of much other work which engages with the divine and the banal in order to generate transcendence.
This review was first published on artthrob.co.za
Taylor Rain is Dirty Girl in Velvet: Aryan Kaganof at the KZNSA Gallery
Going For It
Taylor Rain is Dirty Girl in Velvet
Aryan Kaganof at the KZNSA Gallery
Review: Peter Machen
Aryan Kaganof occupies a unique position on the South African art landscape. A prolific producer of poetry, novels, films and fine art, he has a small band of committed devotees and a similar number of critics who see him as something of a con man. The truth, as is usually the case, lies somewhere in between. Kanagof is certainly capable of producing moments of profound intensity and even, on occasion, transcendent beauty. But he is also the man who throws shit at the wall and sees what sticks. In a sense, all artists, writers and other 'creatives' do this all the time. But it is usually a private process. Kaganof makes that private space public, which is an interesting proposition. But he does have a lot of shit flying through the air, and I'm not entirely sure that the artist himself is capable of initiating quality control.
For all his ponderousness and poetry, the bulk of Kananof's output is conceptually lightweight, dressed up in edge and accessorised with a specific brand of gothic that came only from 1980s South Africa. The feeling of substance comes from controversy and the fact that virtually anything – well anything representational at least – is allowed into an art gallery these days.
Now I'm perfectly fine with this fact. My own conception of art certainly doesn't exclude even the violently pornographic; it doesn't necessarily exclude anything, really. And as an artist, Kaganof is certainly allowed to play with this notion that anything goes, and also with the idea that criticism of hard-core work can be so easily deflected with words such as 'Calvinism' and 'conservatism'. But as someone who is charged with reviewing his work, I am certainly allowed to call his bluff.
And so, if I'm to be honest – and it would be easier not to be – I've always felt that Kaganof's real artistic product is not his work but his self: the notion of Kaganof as the artist, the writer, the performer, the grand entertainer, always bending into the arc of fiction. I see him as raconteur-as-artist, and on occasion, also as ringmaster, for he certainly does like a circus; he has exactly that kind of slightly dark charisma. And unlike many people in the art community, I find him to be very likeable. That, said, my feelings about his previous work remain consistent with Taylor Rain is Dirty Girl in Velvet, his latest short film, which premiered at Grahamstown, and recently showed in the KZNSA Gallery.
With an electronic soundtrack from edgy US minimalists Matmos, this film, which lasts just over 11 minutes, begins with squelchy porn sounds blending with Matmos's music. After two minutes some text starts to appear, cut-up poetry that moves mostly at a speed that is just readable. There's a fragmented narrative inside the text that maintains a tenuous relationship with the layered soundtrack. Then, after six minutes, we are introduced to the adorable – okay, pretty hot – Taylor Rayne and her somewhat elasticated anus and vulva. We get to know Miss Rain fairly intimately as she fingers her asshole with controlled enthusiasm. The poetry then returns, stampeding through a frame in the screen in close proximity to said anus. Rain then, in classic porn style, changes positions, partially perhaps so we can get another view, but mostly I think in aid of her auto-penetration. The tension, such as there is, arises from the possibility that Rain might or might not manage to get her entire fist up there. One finger, two fingers, three fingers, four…and…that's it. Sorry to spoil the plot.
In summary, the work feels like a fridge magnet session interspliced with some hardcore masturbation porn; which is basically what it is. The resulting cut-up stream of consciousness is too littered with the iconic and the poetic, the words that are used and the ways in which they are used empty themselves with overuse. I am unfortunately not familiar with the work of the respected poet Gary Cummisky on whose poem April in the Moon-Sun the work is based, so I don't know to what extent Kaganof has re-cut it. Regardless, although much of it was engaging, it wasn't exactly spellbinding.
Kaganof's utter refusal to rein things in – to exercise intellectual control – might be the key to his art but it is also his major weakness. There is a far more intelligent and interesting work lurking in 'Velvet' and I think that Aryan Kaganof would be the perfect man to make it. But he'd have to work harder, and, more than anything, carefully digest the notion that this is a world in which William Burroughs and Andy Warhol have already lived and died and changed our lives in innumerable ways. We should be doing them proud without feeling any compulsion to stand on their shoulders. With Kaganof's work, there is that Fanonian feeling that everything has indeed already been said. But while that might be true of history and politics, in art – and in life – there is new everywhere, always. I think Kaganof might agree with me in conversation, but his work suggests something else, a combination of art school innocence and jaded arrogance.
For those Kaganof fans – and fans he does have – who read this review and think that I just don't understand his avant-garde, I'd like to be pre-emptive and say that perhaps that's not the case. If anything, with Velvet Kaganof doesn't go close enough to the real edge, the visceral one that is composed not of a global archive of words and images that is capable of disturbing any Mother Grundy, but one that engages with a real world that is far more offensive than anything Kaganof has produced.
And while I do think that much of his work does exist as a critique of the offensiveness of the real world and all its vile imbalances, he needs to work harder and beat his own drum with a little more substance and a little less bravado if he is to convince others that he is not the huckster many proclaim him to be.
This review was first published on artthrob.co.za
Women: Makiwa Mutomba at artSPACE durban
Women We Know
Makiwa Mutomba at artSPACE durban
Review: Peter Machen
I first came across the work of Zimbabwean painter Makiwa Mutomba a few years ago at the KZNSA, where he presented a series of portraits produced in brightly contrasting hues and rendered in an apparently rough impressionism. At the time I was struck by Mutomba's distinctive style and its pop sensibility, and those portraits continue to lurk in my visual memory despite the fact that I never gave the exhibition the examination it deserved.
In Mutomba's latest show, at artSPACE Durban, the body of work on display is more expansive, moving beyond the front-on portrait to embrace movement and an exquisite grasp of body language. In 'Women' Mutomba presents various scenes in which a diversity of African women fill the frames. They are mostly presented in groups of three or four, their physical composition utterly familiar to anyone who's looked around at the human landscape of South Africa, even as the images stand firm against any suggestion of the generic. Mutomba's women are recognisable precisely because he gives them a specificity, rather than making them stock characters.
Like his other work, Mutomba's brush strokes here verge on the brutal, and his use of colour is similarly intense. And yet the result is paradoxically precise, overflowing with tenderness for its subjects. Standing not too far from the canvas, one can't help but notice how real the women are; there is an energy in their eyes and their bodies that is also reflected in their relationships to each other.
I was also truck by how photographic the work is in its construction, including the presence of depth of field and the photographic crop rather than a more traditionally painterly approach. This is something that doesn't really register at first, but it's a telling mark of the artist's accuracy and his contemporaneity. That he uses such broad strokes and such apparently unrealistic colours to build such a resonant realism make the work all the more remarkable.
At the same time, however, I sense that the eyes of many viewers might glide over Mutomba's paintings of African women, seeing them as an extension of African curio painting rather than in the context of modern art. The South African artistic landscape is littered with portraits of African women but Mutomba, with his idiosyncratic style, paints in contradistinction to the curio image. I have said elsewhere that these women are unique, and it's a point I can't help repeating.
In the ongoing discussion of alternative modernities, Mutomba's works have much value, expressing a complex dialogue across time and continents. His work is essentially impressionist but also highly expressionist. At the same time it feels distinctly African – although I'm aware of the difficulties inherent in that statement – and it's hard to decontextualise both the artist and myself to examine its truth.
Mutomba's depiction of African femininity echoes in the wake of the Caster Semenya narrative and illustrates the broad range of femininities that constitutes our local reality. While the official line (and also the traditional line) states that in Africa boys are boys and girls are girls, in reality there is a far greater acceptance of a broader gender spectrum in Southern African than is the case in the West (at the same time, the restraints on female sexuality in much of Southern Africa needs to be acknowledged). Mutomba depicts African woman of all shapes and sizes, painting each of his subjects with equal joy, precision and devotion. That he actually calls one of his paintings 'Big Women' might seem to negate my reading of his work but I don't think that's the case.
I do think, though, that the intelligence and sophistication that the artist brings to his paintings should be extended to the naming of those paintings. Titles are important. In fact, they are increasingly part of the artwork. And while I'm not suggesting that Mutomba should play that game, the titles of his individual works (Young Women, Sisters, Muslim Women) and indeed the name of the exhibition itself suggest a blandness that is simply not in evidence in his work.
This review was first published on artthrob.co.za
Unit of Measure: Vaughn Sadie and Bronwyn Lace at Durban Art Gallery
The Measure of Things
Unit of Measure
Vaughn Sadie and Bronwyn Lace at Durban Art Gallery
Review: Peter Machen
Bronwyn Lace and Vaughn Sadie's joint exhibition, Unit of Measure, currently on show at the Durban Art Gallery, is an astounding and somewhat overwhelming meditation on structure, fragility and control. A strange tenderness lurks in its midst, yet this remains elusive, constantly slipping through one’s fingers. While the show functions beautifully on the level of visual artifice, that same artifice very quickly and fluidly moves the mind into the realm of the social and the political, exploring the ways in which we are all capable of being lured and pinned down, like the Monarch butterfly to which Lace devotes thousands of metres of fishing wire with that express purpose.
In the large colonial space of the gallery's central chamber, Lace presents three vertical grids of fishing wire held together on either end by squares of perforated Perspex. In one of the grids, two thousand fishing lures are attached to the fishing wire, creating a delicate filigree of light. The remaining two grids devote all their wire to the pinning down of a single monarch butterfly. The three pieces intersect with – are kind of immersed in, in fact – Sadie's work, which fills virtually the entire space of the gallery, allowing only a walking space below; one in which you need to mind your head.
Sadie has threaded 1.8 kilometres of galvanised wire rope around the genteel baroque rectangular space, creating a zig-zagged, acidified spiderweb whose tension can ostensibly be tightened by turning the handle of a pulley attached to a winch (in reality, only the first four or so sections of wire will visibly tighten – friction gets the better of it after that). Although it is easy to see that Sadie's and Lace's works are structurally separate within the shared space, it's hard to feel that separation viscerally, hard not to experience them as a single work. It's like the inverse those optical illusions which contain two images. Here you can't not see both of them at the same time.
The result is extremely affecting, both visually and emotionally. Aesthetically, the work is beautiful, but it's also cold and chilling, probably made all the more so by the overcast day on which I viewed it. The contrast between the colonial grandeur of the building and the work's insistent modernity seems more like emotional fact than cerebral discussion. That may seem a strange turn of phrase, but it speaks to something that is central to so much of the work in whose lineage ‘Unit of Measure’ follows. Contemporary art is viewed by most people as something profoundly cerebral, but in fact it's often about gut reaction which is then related, post-experience, into an avalanche of words, phrases and theory. And, some might say, justification – for falling for its magic.
The work also overwhelms for a more obvious reason: the viewer is granted so little distance from it that in fact the viewer is in the work, not separate from it. It's easy to say that though, because Lace and Sadie primed me with a quote from Priya Hemenway on the way into the gallery which states: ‘In a world that for twenty-five hundred years has developed an extraordinary compendium of knowledge based on principles of logic and rational thought, we find ourselves faced by the realization of physicists that experience, not knowledge, is the real key to discovering universal principles.’ And so it's also easy to say that the work echoes a post-millennial scientific spiritualism – which insists there is no real separation – without feeling embarrassed.
The lure is an easy allegory, although outside of fly fishing, it's one that I don't see much reference to. Here Lace uses it to dizzying effect, and it's not much of a conceit to compare the dazzling effects of the lures and lines interacting with light itself to the infinite lures of post-modern capitalism. Like both consumerism and religion, Lace makes use of the shiny and shimmering to suggest the possibilities of transcendence. Whether they are empty illusions or not is always a personal tale.
Sadie provides perhaps his answer to that question in proposing in the first place that such a complex web could be tightened or loosened with the handle of a pulley. We can control only those things we can control, which here is little more than our immediate connections. Further down the line, we lose control and the system takes over.
And so the metaphor, the story, I extract for myself, as a member of a global society of nearly seven billion people ruled not by people but by structure, is just how difficult it is to exact fundamental change in any kind of system without that change being not only disruptive but ultimately destructive – which perhaps sometimes it needs to be. That's my story. And I am so distracted by shiny things.
This review was first published on artthrob.co.za
Cityscapes: Siwela Sonke at Durban Art Gallery
Dancing About Architecture
Siwela Sonke' at Durban Art Gallery
Review: Peter Machen
Take more than 40 dancers, five video artists, one world-class choreographer/director and a small behind-the-scenes support network. Give them a city located somewhere on the southern coast of Africa to play in. Give them a beautiful, lively, bustling city filled with different cultures, all dominant, all cross-pollinating on a daily basis. Give them a city called Durban to play in. To dance in, to sing in. To make art and to come alive in.
The brainchild of choreographer and director Jay Pather, Cityscapes is an ingeniously simple project with grand yet intimate ambition. Consisting of five site-specific dance pieces in five different locations in and around the city, the performances were filmed by five video artists, namely Greg Streak, Storm Janse Van Rensburg, Virginia MacKenny, Thando Mama and Junaid Ahmed. The dance pieces were then re-performed in the Durban Art Gallery, in conjunction with the video pieces.
North Beach, the Workshop, 320 West Street, the Albany Hotel and Musgrave Centre might not be particularly historic sites in the usual sense of the word, but they are spaces that have been shifted in their meaning and their function by the forces of history itself. Ballardian spaces filled with the residual force of left bodies, spaces humming with the almost forgotten exchange of human energy. They call to mind that great line - "We shape the things we build, thereafter they shape us".
Seeing a troupe of pantsula dancers, dressed as devils and angels, impose their delicate, delicious mock-reality onto the architectural landscape of 320 West Street illustrated how much of physical reality is occupied by our own projections, by our own stories. On the North Beach promenade Celtic, Shembe and Indian dancers moved in a polylogue of patterns with the tongue of the Indian Ocean, that sea that has delivered so many human beings onto this land, licking the shore in the background. In the sunken coffee shop in the Workshop, a suburban soap opera unfolded before the eyes of hundreds of onlookers. The Albany Hotel, more discreetly, was witness to the inner workings of a couple's tortured relationship, and from the Musgrave Centre office tower an african kugel abseiled from the top of the building to the sweet, sweet strains of isicathamiya singers and local rising performing star Joel Zuma proclaiming "humanity is not for sale".
The dancers themselves were fantastic and Pather must have felt privileged to work with such a sturdy collective of talent. Together, in one giant exhibition, with several pieces playing at any one time, dance and video in coitus, Cityscapes was a powerful exploration of the notions and histories attached to place and our sense of place. And more than that, it was a thing of pure and intense beauty. The layers of meaning you could write a book about, but in the words of the kugel, "that's just beautiful".
Pather is to be commended for both the immaculate conception of Cityscapes and its brilliant execution. It is yet another example of the spirit of creative collaboration that makes Durban such an exciting place in which to live. As well as the engagement between Pather, the dancers and the artists, there were scores of other people involved. Every outfit had to be made, every sound rig carried. The Durban Art Gallery had to be pretty much completely rearranged for the event and security guards had to have their ontology shifted for a short while. Some poor complaining soul in Musgrave Road even had to call the police about the noise.
It is important to note that the project was largely funded by the National Arts Council. Important, if for no other reason than the more the project gets mentioned, the more likely it is to receive similar funding in the future. I haven't seen a single work in any medium that tells me more about myself than Cityscapes. I haven't experienced another art piece that has a greater resonance with my experience of being human in this country. Of course, South Africa produces world-class art on many fronts but the very scope of Cityscapes is phenomenal. Just one of these video-dance-art pieces would have been a gift. Five of them are almost too sublime, too much to expect.
While what Pather and all his beautiful cohorts have achieved is remarkable in artistic terms, there is an equal achievement here, one that is in many ways a far, far greater feat. The Cityscapes team managed to get audiences to come and watch it. And they did so without a single note of compromise. In a community that is largely markedly reticent about engaging with art, this was something of a miracle. For four consecutive nights the Durban Art Gallery was filled with faces, mostly marveling at these new and beautiful forms, bathing in this new sea of language.
There were flaws in Cityscapes, weaknesses, places where the pace dropped, moments where maybe the video didn't work. But in relation to the scope and breadth of the project, these aberrations barely warrant a mention. Everybody involved deserves a medal. And as for Pather, well, he has earned a place in dance history now, and a place in all our hearts, a bunch of red helium balloons from the 320 West Street piece lifting him aloft into the blue, blue skies of the future.
This review was first published on artthrob.co.za
Judith Oscillations: Adrian Hermanides at the KZNSA Gallery
Adrian Hermanides at KZNSA Gallery
Review: Peter Machen
Adrian Hermanide's exhibition Judith Oscillations, currently on show at the KZNSA, flirts with the sublime and the banal. The sublime wins hands down, funnily enough, which may or may not irk this young South African artist, currently resident in Berlin.
Hermanides' mother suffers from an aberration in her brain waves, and the resulting condition is referred to as an essential tremor. Rooted in the electromagnetic systems of the brain, the disorder manifests as an uncontrollable shaking of the head, hands, arms, and tongue. The body of work entitled Judith Oscillations, of which this show represents a fragment, explores the altered consciousness of the artist's mother. But this is not a conventional documentation of her condition. Instead, Hermanides explores her altered states conceptually. The bulk of the show takes place in the KZNSA's Park Gallery with several other pieces dotted around the larger gallery space.
The Park Gallery work includes two grainy black and white photographs of the artist taken by his mother. The photographs, which are nudes, present Hermanides' body as feminine, his male genitals tucked away. The construction of these images, supplemented by the supplied information that his mother took the photographs, is resonantly strange and much of Hermanides' work on display here exists in the liminal space of slight transgression. The pieces Prosthesis I-V offer a visual example of this. Hermanides has stretched some found vinyl over frames. The vinyl has perforations in its surface, like that of a vinyl plaster (and much '70s furniture), suggesting some essence of medicarna or hospitalia, and is repeated in layers over the frame. The overlapping perforations play tricks with one's vision, disturbing the spatial arrangements within the brain and suggesting the essential fragility of our minds. On one of the canvases, a tear at the edges invites meaning and narrative but I'm sure it's just a tear in the found vinyl. These minimalist arrangements echo avant garde art history but have a delicate beauty to them that is entirely their own
On the remaining wall, a series of paintings have been made with what the artist calls 'a single drop of ink' which he has stretched, pulled and charmed across an A3-sized page. A fairly large single drop, it seems, and I'm not sure how Hermanides manipulated the ink but the resulting forms are beautifully seductive. Then there's the fact that one of the images seems to contain a pair of eyes peering out of reading glasses at the top of the page; it's a form that simply doesn't seem to be the result of the random if controlled movement of ink – it looks photographic – but Hermanides remains tight-lipped about the process. Each painting is titled Self Portrait as a Woman in a Black Sash, with the names of various women, presumably Black Sash members, suffixed in brackets.
The work in the Park Gallery exists within very narrow physical and conceptual scope and yet each of them contains a great deal, a kind of minimalism zooming in on the fractal construction of its lines. The remaining three works don't impress nearly as much, however. The video work Another Brick in the Wall, on display in the Electric Gallery, showed an hilarious act of physical deconstruction which, while thoroughly entertaining, didn't reach the heights of the work in the Park Gallery. The fact that it's actually the work of German video artist Voin de Voin is neither here nor there in Hermanides' world. Likewise, the single fluorescent tube that constitutes the work Intrusion, and which jutted through the main gallery wall into the cafe, didn't garner much of a response from me, lacking elegance and depth of concept.
Outside the gallery, an A0 photostat entitled Cuntish Questions featured a text-based barrage of stream of consciousness in the revolutionary mode. But while I fully empathise with Hermanides' desire not to respond to such questions (the world – and the art world – is full of them and I'm sure I've asked my share), the ramshackle text is profoundly unoriginal. If the use of the word 'cuntish' was designed to be provocative, it worked; several people complained. And while I thought the work was lukewarm, Hermanides will no doubt share my sentiment that those who are so easily offended should perhaps be more offended by both the inequities of the world, and also, and more significantly, the thoroughly pedestrian nature of most of the art on display in the Members' Exhibition with which he shared the gallery.
As for the work entitled Visitor which lurked in the Park Gallery, I just thought that it was a potted tree fern that was on its way to somewhere else in the gallery. That's the price you pay for not walking around with the list of the works in your hands.
This review was first published on artthrob.co.za
Patti Smith: musician
Dream of Life
Peter Machen: I’m not going to ask you what it feels like to be a rock and roll star but I am going to ask you this: How do you feel being the friend and companion to generations that follow you in the same way that Rimbaud and Whitman and Burroughs and Blake were friends and companions to you?
Patti Smith: Oh… (laughs)… I couldn’t say that. I mean if you’re saying that…
PM: I am saying that!
PS: Well, I mean, it’s quite an honour. I mean, what could one say? You know, if you can, if you can um…you know all of these people have certainly given to me, and if I can give to others that’s a great thing. But it’s not something that an artist should think about himself, do you know what I mean?
PM: Yeah, I do…
PS: It’s one of the (laughs) it’s a…it’s a very nice thing to think about, but you know, I mean...I...All I can say is it’s a beautiful thought.
PM: And you made really incredibly beautiful music to break through, to get to me, you know, as a nineteen-year old, twenty years later, on a different side of the world. So, I mean, that just amazes me. And I…you know...I…thank you is all I can say.
PS: Well, thanks. I mean the thing is that as you grow through life, you know, the pursuit of art and the pursuit of new ideas, all these things keeps your mind elastic, and so it’s …you know I am the age that I am but I still look at things always with new eyes. And hopefully if people can look at my work in the same way, that’s a really wonderful thing.
PM: And do you ever struggle to keep those eyes new? Are there ever moments when you feel disillusioned, when you like get irritated with the world, have just had enough? You know what I mean?
PS: Well, I get irritated with the world. I get irritated with politicians, I get very irritated with governments and with corporations but, I mean in terms of…you know...I ..Imagination, you know, we’re given an imagination. And my imagination is always fertile. I’m either thinking of my own things, or constantly engaged by the things that other people do.
And it’s so great, because we have such a great depth of human history in all of the arts, whether it’s opera or mathematics or painting or classical music or jazz. There’s so many things to study, new books to read, and certainly always ways to transform old ideas and to come up with new ones. So, I have to say that I’m never bored. I mean I might sometimes feel discouraged or frustrated, but never bored.
PM: One of the things that resonates with me is the fact that you’ve said on several occasions that you have felt alien to the human race, that you came from somewhere else.
PS: I hope (laughs).
PM: I don’t want to overstress my connection to you. I’m just another person on the other side of the world. But you know, when I was a kid growing up, I really felt that quite profoundly. And I just wonder why we think this, you know, is it part of a social response or…?
PS: Alright. I think that some of us…I think some of us just do. You know the feeling that you’re speaking about that you feel is a real feeling. And I think it’s because some people are more connected with our most ancient past than others. I’m not saying that some are better than others. I’m just saying that some of us channel the most ancient times. And you know, when I was a child, I was certain that I could remember what it was like to live on Venus, I could remember what it was like to live in the American Plains. I could remember…And it’s ancient memory. We all have it. It’s just that some of us access it more than others.
And I think that thing is a special thing but it also makes us feel somewhat alien, somewhat removed from our present. You know, I’ve spent so much of my life just feeling comfortable in the world that I’m in. And one of the ways that I’ve been able to feel that way is just by doing my work, just by – you know, some of the things that make me feel strange – I’ve transformed them into work. Maybe it might be a poem. Maybe it’s a song like Rock and Roll Nigger. That kind of feeling drew me to write a song like Rock and Roll Nigger. Rock and Roll Nigger is all about that exact feeling, outside society, it’s where I wanna be. But it’s also not always where you want to be, it’s just where you are.
PM: But I reckon it’s a good place to be. Clearly for you, it’s a very good place to be. This idea of channeling is one of my questions. Clearly when you write, when you perform, things are coming from an unconscious well. I just want to ask you, as a song writer, as a craftsperson: to what extent do you polish your words after they have sprung from the source? Do you re-arrange them, change them around? How much stays unchanged?
PS: Well, when I improvise, I don’t polish them at all. I mean, like on my albums, there’s a lot of improvisation - on Horses, Birdland – it’s an improvisation. Radio Ethiopia was an improvisation. Radio Baghad. Ghandi. Memento Mori. Almost on every album – Wave is an improvisation. I don’t clean up or edit or polish improvisations. I leave them as they stand - because they represent a moment where we’re struggling to channel something. And it’s not about perfection. It’s about communication.
When I’m writing a poem, when I’m hoping to achieve some kind of perfection, then I’ll spend a lot of time perhaps working and reworking it, which isn’t always the best thing, but it seems to be part of the process. But improvisation is really about achieving communication in some higher realm in the moment. And it’s a very honest way to share your direct creative impulse with the people. If you give people a poem that you’ve rewritten and rewritten and worked on, the original creative impulse is in there, but you’ve also added layers of your own…um…well labours into it. But when you improvise live, the people are seeing the naked creative impulse. So that’s a whole other experience.
PM: Okay. And it is an amazing thing to see…
PS: What do you do? What are you interested in?
PM: Music more than anything, although I have no talent that I have ever accessed. But I write poems, I take photographs, I write for newspapers, I layout art catalogues. I do all kinds of things.
PS: How old are you?
PM: I’m forty-four.
PS: You seem like you have a very interesting mind, like you’re very uh…um…because those are interesting questions that you asked me. I’m sorry to ask you such personal questions, but I was just curious.
PM: No no. I mean I’m asking you very personal questions…
PS: Yes, but they’re very, very interesting questions. People ask me questions all the times and the questions that you asked me are unique, that’s why I asked you that.
PM: I can’t tell you how much that means to me Patti. I was sitting here and I was scared my questions weren’t good enough. So, yes, I’m incredibly happy that you think that Patti…
PS: [laughs] So ask another one.
PM: I saw you in 1999. I think it was the first date of a European tour – at the Forum [in London]. And it was amazing. I really…I mean I will keep that memory for ever. And I even gave you a hug afterwards actually!
PS: Well, thank you, I probably needed it. Because I was just beginning again. I was probably a bit nervous. But thank you.
PM: You took it with such grace. And what struck me, both on stage, and just standing next to you for like thirty seconds, was that there was no barrier. And, you know, rock musicians often do construct that barrier. And I just want to know if, when you started out, you ever thought that you were above the audience, if you ever had that kind of patina of arrogance.
PS: No. I had a lot of arrogance but not that kind of arrogance, because I was really very conscious of being one of the people. I mean I was also conscious of the fact that I was…I believed I had special gifts. I mean, I feel like an artist. I’ve always felt like, you know, God has given me special gifts. So I understand my own worth. But in terms of being a performer, especially in the context of rock and roll, I…you know I had no special talent. I was not a musician. I could sing a little…It was all bravado, and I really felt that I was exactly that, one of the people.
And one of my goals, and one of my missions - within rock and roll - was to break that barrier, that idea of, you know, of the big rock stars that had a lot of money and attitude and felt like they were, you know, above everybody. Because I believed that rock and roll was the true grass roots art.
You know, everybody can’t paint or write a poem or achieve, you know, certain intellectual success. But rock and roll is a very simple art form. It’s based on a few chords, on a sense of revolution, on a sense of sexuality. It opens its doors to anyone, and I have always felt that, onstage or off-stage, I’m just the same person. I don’t have a persona.
Of course, when you’re younger, you want to be cool, and you know, I could have been a real asshole. But I wasn’t. It’s just that I had a lot of energy and bravado. It wasn’t because I thought that I was better than anyone else. It was just because I had a lot of …you know…arrogant energy.
But in terms of, you know, what you said…I mean…my son, for instance. My son is a great guitarist and he plays with me. And sometimes we’re on stage, and we just start…you know…in the middle of a solo, he might come up and we might start talking to each other. My son has no stage persona. He doesn’t come onstage and turn into Gene Simmons. He’s himself.
Just a minute. Hello. Yeah. Yeah. Just a moment. Yeah, oh, I’m…
Everybody’s looking for me.
PM: And I’ve got you. I’m so lucky.
PS: [laughs] But yeah, you know…one has to be self-protective because people have to have their privacy. I completely believe in the right of privacy of artists. I don’t believe that artists are kings. I just believe that they have special skills, or special gifts, but it doesn’t make them better than anybody else.
PM: Yeah. I mean I do heartily believe that nobody is more important than anybody else on this planet.
PS: Well, also, it’s the way that we conduct our operation. You know our crew is respected, and there’s a strong equality within our operation. And I look to my crew with the same regard as guitarists or anyone. Because they’re the one’s who do the hard labour. Rock and roll is a collaborative process and you have to have respect for everybody involved.
PM: Something that I think is quite remarkable is that you’ve been successfully able to acknowledge the cultural and artistic importance of Horses but you’ve also managed to continue to make new work that exists on its own terms. Did Horses ever feel like it was an albatross around your neck. Was it ever difficult to maintain that balance?
PS: No not at all [laughs]. No, I don’t feel like that at all. I mean, I’m proud of the record. I still sing the songs on it. You know, I’m always working on new things, and always working on new photographs or new poems or new songs. But the work that I do for the people, which is on my records, to me those records belong to the people. And if they want to hear Because the Night for the one thousandth time, I’m happy to sing it. And to sing Gloria, to sing People Have the Power, to try and keep a relationship with these songs, and, you know, remember what compelled me to write them.
And uh, you know, Horses is not great technically. I didn’t know anything about singing when I did Horses and, um, it has its flaws. But I also know that I did it with everything that I knew how. Everything that I knew about poetry, all the things that I believed in, I tried to put into that record. And so, you know, that was a long time ago, and I’ve certainly evolved since then. But I can look at it and say ‘I did my best that I could’. I don’t look at it and think ‘oh, I compromised’ or that I wasn’t really paying attention or that I was too fucked up to do this record. I put everything I knew into it.
And you know Horses was really…I really put out Horses for people who did feel alienated. Because I felt that I really understood people that felt alienated for whatever reason – because of their sexuality, because they were just wierdos, because they weren’t accepted by their peers or their parents or, you know, for whatever reason. And I think that it stands for that, and it’s amazing how many people through the years, and still now, tell me that the record has meant something to them. And that’s something, you know, that makes me feel very proud.
PM: And it is incredible. I’ve been listening to the album solidly, and also to your other records and your newer stuff. It’s elemental. I’m burbling now but um…
PS: That’s okay. That’s okay.
PM: You have experienced much loss in your life. Anyone who knows a little bit about your life knows that. And some amazing people have left you - and they have also clearly not left you. But already on Horses, on that first record, there is this profound and also almost transcendent sense of loss in your protagonists. And…and…
PS: Well, I think it’s because…yeah, go ahead.
PM: Well, I was going to ask you why, at that point in your life, you were ready to express such vulnerability and such strength?
PS: I think it’s because when I did Horses, my generation – I mean I was about 26 years old – and since I was a young girl...you know, I was a teenager when President Kennedy was shot. I was working for Robert Kennedy when he was assassinated. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and then other people that, you know, we put such faith in. In those days, we put a lot of faith in our rock and roll stars. There wasn’t so much diversion as there is now. And people really looked to the musicians. They kept us informed musically and politically, and they kept us in touch with the cultural revolutions.
And you know Jimi Hendrix died, and Janice Joplin and Jim Morrison. And this was a terrible blow to my generation – to lose Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison in the space of two years. A couple of years, all of them. And Brian Jones. It was just…you know...so many hopes and dreams – that a certain type of unification through, you know, love and no matter how naïve it sounds, so many people believed in that. And then losing a lot of friends in the Vietnam War – I lost a lot of classmates. So by the time I was 25, it seemed like the whole idea was dying.
And that’s one of the reason I did a record. I mean, like I said, I wasn’t a musician. Still, some times it amazes me that I actually even did a record. Because it never was one of my goals. I wanted to be a painter or a poet, but it just organically evolved that way.
And it was my way to summon certain people. Because Elegie was written for Jimi Hendrix. The whole Land-Elegie piece at the end was written for him. Break it up was written for Jim Morrisson. Birdland was written for Wilhelm Reich. It was a mirror into the culture of our time, or my particular time.
PM: That particular time – the late sixties and early seventies – is often described in stories about you and, in general, as a freer state. Is that true? Were the ’70s really freer, more enabling times than the 21st century? Do we have so much less freedom now? I mean, it feels like it from my perspective, but I don’t know how much of that is mythology.
PS: I don’t think it was so much that there was freedom. It was that people were fighting for it and gaining it. It not that it just was sitting there. You know, homosexuals were fighting for freedom to be themselves, and freedom not to hide and be looked down upon. The women’s movement was very strong. The civil rights movement was strong. We were trying to end the Vietnam War.
You know, I wasn’t really part of the drug culture of the late sixties, so I couldn’t really tell you so much about that, because, you know, I was living a different kind of life. I was going to school, and I was working in factories, working my way through school. I worked all the time, and I didn’t have the lifestyle. I wasn’t a hippy, you know. I was a person who, you know, studied art, studied poetry. I was culturally intelligent but I wasn’t really part of my culture. I was more of a seventies person, even though I’m old enough to have been a sixties person. Because of the responsibilities I had in the ’60s, I wasn’t really part of the drug culture.
Also, I wasn’t attracted to the drug culture. So I think it wasn’t so much about the early seventies, not so much about freedom. It was about acquiring freedom. And that struggle produced a lot of great art. Once you have freedom, sometimes people forget how hard it is to get it, and they don’t use it wisely.
PM: Yeah. I feel that strongly that we’re not always using our freedoms in the correct way, and also recognising their value.
PS: We’re in a very material time in our society where people imagine that freedom means they have a lot of things. You know, they might have the best iPhone, or they have the best computer, but you know, it’s not really freedom. It’s just a different kind of slavery. You’re a slave to your credit cards or to the interest or whatever else, or to your stuff.
And I think that we’re going to have to go through a re-examining process and try to get back to the place where – not where people were in the 60s, because I don’t believe in going back in time – but to at least examine ourselves and think ‘well, what makes me an interesting person’, ‘what makes me a good person?’
You know, right now, we’re in this weird place where people are very materialistic. We’re in a place where people are so concerned with their appearance that young people are getting plastic surgery. And it’s just rampant…almost a disease. And really, the thing that will keep people young and beautiful is really working on their inner self. And no matter how corny it sounds, it’s true.
PS: You know, if you eat well, if you exercise, if you’re positive, it doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, it doesn’t mean you have to be square. But if you have a clean house inside, you’re going to be a beautiful person anyway.
PM: Aah, that’s great Patti. And it leads very beautifully to my last question which is really just about that. Do you think that, collectively, we’re going to pull through as a planet? That we’re going to manage to pull out of this and change our direction? And I must stress that I’m not asking you this as a prophet-poet but simply as a conscious human being.
PS: Well, I mean, as a person that’s…I mean of course I do. Of course I do. Because we’re not just one…there’s generation after generation after generation, and right now, we’re in a very…I would say it’s a very bad period. But there are good people within this bad period. We’re not in a bad period where everybody is evil, or where everybody is buying into all this stuff. A lot of people are just confused.
I mean… the way things are, they’re a lot worse than they were in the early seventies. It’s an atmosphere that I recognise. It’s the atmosphere that made me do Horses. Because I looked around and thought “What the hell’s going on?”, you know, “what’s wrong with people?”. They’re forgetting who they are. And um, in some ways, we’re forgetting who we are. And so we have to you know…New generations will make records or write poems or get involved in politics. There are always good people that are ready to make change. And you know, I feel discouraged sometimes, especially in my country – my country is very discouraging. But on the other hand, I just, I don’t know what it is…but…I mean life is beautiful.
PM: It is.
PS: We have a relatively short life span. But of all the things that we can get, you know, all the material things, life is the best thing that we have. And if you’re living and you’re breathing, you have a chance. And I just think at any moment people can start turning things around. You know just the fact for me, just the fact that you asked a question like that, I think is optimistic.
PS: You know, and also quite...I mean, I think it’s quite beautiful that you would ask me that question. It’s like, you’re what 44? I’m 68 years old. So I forget…I still feel young. I don’t feel like I’m an old…you know…like your grandma I’m talking to you. You know – we’re like two humans…not that there’s anything wrong with a grandma. I’m just saying that I don’t feel severed by that. Because what we’re doing is we’re communicating. And that’s what…that’s how change will be made. And uh…I don’t know, it’s a rough time. All I can say is you know, try to be happy and take care of your teeth.
PS: Drink a lot of water. And take care of your teeth, because if you don’t, it’s really a drag when you get older. So keep your teeth clean.
PM: That’s so funny! My teeth are buggered. They all need to be replaced. I have not looked after my teeth. They are all messed up.
PS: Well, you know, just, this is what you do. My teeth were really messed up too. And what you do is just take the deep breathe. Go get them cleaned. See what you can do, and just try to do the best you can with them, because they’re really going to bug you when you get older…I know I’m like…I really spend a lot of time talking to people about their teeth because my generation had the worst teeth and the worst dental care. And when you get older, it’s a pain in the ass.
Because people think ‘it’s just your teeth’ and so they’re worried about their kidneys or their liver. But your teeth are really important. So, take care of your teeth as best you can. Drink a lot of water. And um, you know, cultivate your mind. You obviously have a good mind. And just, you know...but try to be happy. Because the world is fucked up.
PS: There’s no…I can’t pretend, or say “oh, it’s not as bad as you think”. Yes dear, the world is fucked up.
PS: And a lot of reasons it’s fucked up is my country. But with all that, as an individual…I tell my kids too…you know…you like think of yourself like a captain, and you’ve got this little boat. And sometimes the weather’s good, and you’re just sailing, and sometimes big storms hit, and you know, you’re in a stormy sea, but just ride it out, ride it out. Because it’s good to be alive.
PM: It is. And it’s even better, having spent half an hour talking to you. I’m beaming with happiness Patti. Thank you so much.
PS: Well, thank you. It was really nice to talking to you. And take care of yourself, okay.
PM: Thank you Patti. I hope you have an excellent sleep, and wake rejuvenated. I send all my love to you.
PS: Thank you. Bye.
This interview was first published on Salon.com
Arundhati Roy: writer
The Riches We Hold
Peter Machen spoke to author Arundhati Roy when she was in Durban for Time of the Writer
Made famous by one of he last great novels of the 20th century, Arundhati Roy didn’t quite expect the celebrity that came with the commercial and critical success of The God of Small Things. But she has singularly used that success as a distinctly political tool to shine a light on the machinations of the powerful against the powerless.
She has done so in numerous essays, in public appearances, in travels across the globe and, importantly, by sharing the rewards of her financial success; not in destructive blanket donations, but in small, carefully considered injections into resistance movements around the world.
Now she is sitting in the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre in Durban, on one of the first days of the city’s summer. She is an angelic imp with calm, wild eyes, her head shorn — so different from the publicity photograph that accompanied The God of Small Things. A haircut carrying whispers of catharsis and comfort and shades of effortless Coco Chanel
But we’re not supposed to notice when writers cut their hair, least of all when they are radically intelligent social commentators. Such observations should be reserved for rock stars and supermodels and David Beckham.
The cult of celebrity is pervasive and Roy knows that, much as she rejects the position of celebrity activist. She is a writer and it is her words, not her beautiful face, that have brought attention to the plights of millions. Before entering the political battlegrounds she now occupies, she wrote an extremely sad, exceedingly beautiful book that virtually everybody loved.
Through that success, she acquired a platform to tell the world other stories. They were stories about nuclear warheads; massive, people-displacing, environmentally disastrous dams; monolithic nationalisms; and the multinationals that form a central thread in her almost real-time narrative.
When you are a successful, popular novelist writing about such things, all kinds of people demand that you talk about the things you write about. So talk she does, tirelessly, and with seemingly infinite charm and patience. To video cameras, to radio microphones, to audiences around the world. To me.
After our interview I wonder if Roy (who is 40 and looks 10 years younger) has always been this gracious, this contained, this at peace with herself, even as she wages with focused rage a war on the very fabric of the “aching, broken world” to which she wakes up each morning. Because this rage has somehow not made her bitter, has not skewed her arguments into the realm of moral propaganda.
These are simple facts, simple thoughts, simple things. No complex arguments need to be invoked. She also talks about how much of life contains joy and beauty. And underneath all her energy and focus and determination, I sense that it is this hugely positive take on life that drives her. Her dream of a better world that exists on different principles, away from the monolithic religion of capitalism and its super-rich apostles of the boardroom.
I ask Roy to what extent her personal spirituality informs her political activism. “In any situation of conflict,” she says, “you do have to think very deeply about your own body — and when I say body, I mean everything. I think that it’s very important to realise that the greater the conflicts which are public, which are political, the more you need to have almost the opposite in your own life."
“It’s like you need to prove that what you’re fighting for is something beautiful. You need to have proof of that beauty: in your relationships, in the lack of smallness and pettiness and meanness and all that. And in freedom. And in refusing to play by the pre-set rules of the games.” At the same time, she says, when you’re as deeply critical of a place as she is of both India and the planet, it also must come from love. “What’s the use of fighting,” she asks, “if there’s nothing to preserve? What’s the use if there’s no beauty, there’s no grace, there’s no tenderness, there’s no gentleness?”
But, she says, her personal quest isn’t a search for the pristine. Rather, it’s a “search for a sort of integrity which only you can recognise. There are conflicts and contradictions in all of that, and given that, what is the honest place to be?”
Roy talks about being rewarded for the success of her novel in material terms that are, in her words, “completely out of line”. “I don’t think that there’s anything that one can do for which you need to be rewarded like this. It’s a symptom that there’s something terribly wrong in the world. But what do you do with that? How do you manage it? After all, it’s so very destructive to go splashing money around, and giving it away as charity. It destroys. So you hold it like you hold a nuclear weapon. And you can’t put it down."
“And you don’t necessarily always have the right answers. But you just have to try. You can’t just say
'I don’t know’ and 'I’m just giving up on this’.”
But sometimes, surely, we all feel like doing so. Does she ever feel the temptation to just walk away from the world, from all the pain and all the suffering and all the pressure? “I think everyone feels those feelings,” she says. “And it’s not that I don’t. I do.” And here, she places an almost painful emphasis on the words “I do”.
“I do walk away in my head — very often, you know. You have to. And I think one of the things about spirituality of any kind is to understand that it’s a very delicate balance between your consequentiality and your inconsequentiality (laughs). So you also have to know that you can’t do everything. You can’t be everything. You can only think 'what am I effective at? What am I best at?’"
“And I’m not best at living in a village and wearing traditional clothes and being an activist. I’m not good at that. Because I’m in conflict even culturally with a lot of people whose struggle I support. As a woman, I’m not going to play into the hands of a traditional Indian farmer because he’s been displaced by a dam. But I know I am effective as a writer. I am effective as somebody who is one of the few people in the world, I suppose, who has the privilege of spanning the range from a village in central India where open-cast miners are organised, to speaking in Riverside Church in New York. And that is a great range. And I’m one of those lucky people who do span it."
This interview was first published in The Independent On Saturday
Baaba Maal: musician
A World in a Voice
Peter Machen speaks to Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal about taking his voice to the people
“Baaba Maal! Baaba Maal!”
The occasion is the Awesome Africa music festival. One of the continent's most celebrated musical talents is being called to the stage of the Playhouse Opera by the members of his ten-piece band. There is something about the way the various musicians are placed around the stage that is reminiscent of a Shakespearean court. But when Baaba Maal arrives on stage, he isn’t like a prince. He is a prince, resplendent in a purple robe and resonating imperial presence. He instantly takes command of the stage. Everything yields before him and when he opens his mouth to sing, entire worlds emerge. A new Eden, a portal to paradise, a dark star immersed in light. Although he is approaching fifty, onstage he looks half that age. And, like so many musical superstars, he is both diminutive and androgynous, broadcasting a mesmerising pan-sexual energy. By the time he exits the stage nearly two hours later, the room is on fire.
When I meet him in his dressing room after the concert, in the labyrinthine depths of the Playhouse backstage area, Maal is just finishing his post-gig dinner. His hands are smeared with the various greases of the mini smorgasbord prepared for him. He washes his hands and we start to talk.
And the superstar, still undoubtedly a prince, leans back into a matter-of-fact discussion, a Marlboro held intermittently in his hand. It’s rare that someone this famous and this accomplished is so relaxed and humble, particularly after such an electric performance. No axes to grind, no ego to polish, no agendas to further, Maal talks honestly and easily about the road that brought him here.
He always knew, he says, that this was to be his fate. “I tried to hide from it, but I knew.” And while in print this might bear a glimmer of arrogance, for Maal it is a simple fact. He was born to do exactly what he does. And watching him on stage, you can see precisely what he means. He might be the very picture of performer-as-deity, but, as is often the case, that divinity exists because he is a conduit for something else, something that is more than human and larger than himself. So if he seems godlike on stage, it is because his very voice is suffused with the transcendent. And he can only say thank you when I tell him what he must have been told ten thousand times before.
Maal is a youth emissary for the United Nations. In this capacity, his chief role is to inform and educate the youth of Senegal and beyond about HIV and Aids. He had been road-tripping around the region with his band and other local musicians for some time doing precisely that, when the UN decided to piggyback on his activities in the fight against the virus. Senegal has the virus under control and only a relatively small proportion of the population are infected. But rather than seeing that as a reason for complacency, Maal recognises the importance of maintaining vigilance.
I ask him if this position as an Aids educator ever brings him into conflict with his Muslim faith. He nods and raises his eyebrows in the affirmative. As well as educating the youth, he has also been helping to bring Senegal’s older population into the frontline of the sexual revolution made necessary by Aids. He says that because of the respect for traditional music that has defined his career, he has the ear of many older people in his community, and so they too listen to him when he tells them about the virus.
He tells me about a meeting he was having with a group of Muslim men during his first educational tour. “I know it’s not easy to talk about sex and all these things”, he says. “But the first time we were doing this educational tour, I organised a meeting in the afternoon. And on the hour of going to prayer, one of them said something really interesting. They were all saying it was time to go to the Mosque to pray. And one of them said ‘Listen! You have to sit down. Because what he’s talking about is about trying to find a way to save lives. And what we do in the mosque is teach people to make better lives. So I think this is the same thing, and I think we should stay and listen’. And I really liked this response from them.”
Maal and company still have a long way to go. There is a continent to educate, and the UN youth programme in which he is participating only comes to an end in 2015, by which time it is hoped that poverty and disease in Africa will have been substantially reduced, part-and-parcel of the broader Aids programme.
To this end, Maal talks about the importance of reaching all those who fall outside of the global media network – people who do not understand English and who have no access to television or even radio. These are the people to whom he feels most compelled to take his musical education.
And it is an education that moves beyond Aids, to discussions of the caste system, of ethnic grouping and of how young people want to be free of all these things. When Maal sings, his audience know that, as well as being submerged in beauty, they will find advice about their own lives. He says that he can’t run away from the political approach he has taken.
Besides, he says, with a determined grin, “I like it. And it’s very important”. When you get the chance to shift the world, even if only slightly, you may as well run with it. “Music can’t change the world”, he says, “But at least you can make people stop and listen.”
On a less vital note, many of Maal’s songs have been given substantial remix treatment. I ask him how he feels about this. “I love it”, he tells me. “I’m a very curious man, especially when it comes to music. I always want to know what’s the next step – if someone remixes my music, I want see what’s going to happen. It’s like a science experiment…I like it. And for me, music is not something that stays in one place and belongs to just one community – it’s for all the communities. So to see a DJ take one of my songs, I want to know exactly what he can do with it. Some people do great things, others do things that I can’t stand.” And he admits that he been on the dance floor and danced to remixes of his own songs. Which must be a pretty cool experience, even for the great Baaba Maal.
For Maal, these remixes don’t represent a different musical world but are instead a continuum of the same thing. It’s all music to move your body to, and it all started in Africa, as Leftfield so insistently tells us. So remixing Maal for the dance floor represents a complete cycle of history. He is currently working with hip-hop and rock band The Roots in Philadelphia on an album about which he is very enthusiastic, mixing his take on tradition with their cutting-edge freshness. This is just the latest in a series of collaborations with many of the world’s finest musical talents, ranging from Brian Eno to Taj Mahal. And by the time you read this, Maal will have worked with Jabu Khanyile in Johannesburg.
He says that he’d like to work with “everyone in South Africa” and laments the fact that he’s too late to work with Miriam Makeba. I suggest that Durban’s own Busi Mhlongo would be an amazing counterpoint to his voice and he agrees.
We all get up and exit the dressing room. I leave Maal to make his way to back to his hotel just across the street. Tomorrow he’s going to explore Durban, something he’s quite excited about. And I think of this sincere and laconic prince, with or without his entourage, with or without his purple robes, walking around this other African city for a single day, like a strangely distorted reflection of a dream.
This interview was first published in The Weekend Witness
Roger Ballen: artist
The Edge of Darkness
Peter Machen speaks to internationally acclaimed photographer Roger Ballen, whose exhibition Boarding House is currently on show at the Durban Art Gallery
One of the world's most acclaimed photographers, Roger Ballen has been working in South Africa since the late 1970s, documenting specific margins of the country, from the idiosyncratic landscapes of its small towns and their inhabitants to the dilapidated surreality of his latest exhibition entitled Boarding House.
Over the course of four decades and numerous books and shows, Ballen, who was born and grew up in America, and who still talks in a clipped American accent, has evolved a style that is entirely his own, and whose references such as they exist, are more reminiscent of primeval consciousness than they are reflective of the ebbs and flows of the 21st century art world.
And while the lineage of his concerns descends both conceptually and aesthetically from the dadaists and surrealists of the '20s and '30s, it is in the evolution of his own body of work that is the most profound influence on his photography, as his work has shifted ever closer to abstraction while never abandoning technical precision. The blur, such as it exists in his work, is only ever conceptual.
The relentless collage of primitivism and surrealism that constitutes Boarding House, currently on show at the Durban Art Gallery, is both a microscopic zoom into the details that already existed in Ballen's early work, and a telescopic pan across the vastness and darkness of human consciousness. Where once he chronicled the exterior strangeness of South Africa's dorps, he now increasingly moves into an into an irrational, primeval interior space where figurativeness itself dissolves, along with words and what we conventionally refer to as meaning.
These chronicles of the unconscious have, for the last five years, taken place in a space that Ballen refers to as 'the boarding house'. While the boarding house is a physical space just outside of Johannesburg that is in many ways just as extreme as it is depicted, it is far more dominantly a psychological space. Says Ballen, quoted in curator David Travis' introduction to the catalogue for the show, “During the process of creating Boarding House I broke through or into parts of my mind that I never knew existed. It was quite enthralling to find and be in this place. It is difficult to explain this place, except that I think it exists in some way or another in most people's minds.”
There seems to be some truth to this suggestion that he is delving into a collective unconscious. For while the markings in Ballen's images may faintly echo cave paintings, they are also part of a universal language that is both contemporary and probably as old as human marking. Even in Durban, if you look beyond the façades of our mall culture, you might recognise the markings in Ballen's images. For they are similar to markings on freeway balustrades, pavements, pedestrian bridges and ghettoised walls, spaces occupied by street children, the destitute and the untethered. It bears pointing out that these marking are generally very different to street art (although not dissimilar to outsider art). They exist without the stylisation that tends to defines artistic production. They are products of the id rather than the ego.
Over the years, Ballen has faced a fairly substantial barrage of criticism, criticisms whose concerns have ranged from exploitation of South African subjects by an American photographer to the extent to which his images have been constructed, as if construction somehow robs them of authenticity. But all those who discuss the various ways in which Ballen's photographs are or are not constructed, or the relationship he has with the unseen collaborators and increasingly occasional human subjects, are missing at least one essential point. And that is that the work produced for Boarding House and his numerous other exhibitions are the work of Roger Ballen. It's a strange thing to say but we seem to automatically forget – perpetually – that photographers make photographs as surely as painters make painting. That every photograph ever taken is actually constructed, whether over days or weeks – as with an advertising image – or in one 500th of a second, as might be the case with the work of a war correspondent.
But more than that, there is often the sense that, in constructing his images – and also in not acknowledging a discreet separation between that which is found and that which is added – Ballen is somehow guilty of a cardinal sin. “This is one of the biggest problems we face in photography, this issue,” says Ballen, when I bring it up with him. “The most immediate question and frequent question is 'is this a real place?'. They can't accept that what's on the wall is what they have to deal with.”
For Ballen these predisposed ways of looking at a photograph are a huge hurdle, both in his own work and in photography in general. “And this comes up over and over and over again”. His response to the questions of 'is this real?' goes for the metaphysical jugular. “Well, if one closes one's eyes and thinks about how one's mind works, it goes between memory, between imagination, between feeling the body. We actually have multiple levels of consciousness all the time. So there isn't anything real out there. It's always a mixture of this and that.”
“And I think”, he continues, “if one goes back to these pictures, it actually brings up that issue in all sorts of ways. So you're right, there's a predisposed prejudice in photography. But, I think, you know, that people just have to look at the pictures for what they are, accept them for what they are. It's a reflection of ignorance rather than anything else, that predisposition that's out there. As a photographer, you have to deal with it. You can't pretend it doesn't exist.”
He points to a picture in another room in the gallery taken by a leading South African artist. “For example, that photograph doesn't mean anything to anyone. So you've got to read about it [in the notes underneath it]. The differences between that and something here [in the Boarding House exhibition] is that these things strike you right in the stomach, and you can't get them out of you. You don't have to read about it.”
“And the difference between someone who really understands photography and that kind of work – which you see a lot of in today's world, you see a lot of artists using their cameras but they don't actually understand photography – is that everything you see here has been transformed, ultimately, photographically. If you have to write about it in order to have impact on people's mind - if you go that far - then you lose it.”
He continues, “Look at the cloud. Look at the tree. Those are the things that are all around you, the things that you need to inspire you and to give you the right direction. And that's what you should be doing through your life experience, finding those things that will give you a way forward.”
This interview was first published in The Weekend Witness
Todd Solondz: filmmaker
From Happiness to Wartime
Todd Solondz is one of contemporary America's most important film directors. Peter Machen spoke to him about Life During Wartime, his sequel of sorts to the groundbreaking 1998 film Happiness
Director Todd Solondz has the reputation of being the enfant terrible of American cinema. But this must surely be linked to his provocative style of film-making rather than his personality, because in conversation he is unfailingly nice, polite to a fault, and entirely without arrogance.
His films, on the other hand, are not polite, although the many viewers who think that they're sick and perverted, are really, really not getting the point. Much of which is precisely that the films ride ramshod over the veneer of politeness and manners that coats middle-class life in order to get to the raw emotional reality of his characters who, like so many human beings, don't always behave terribly well.
Solondz, who had nearly given up on film-making after a well received student film and an unhappy studio experience which left him very unsatisfied with the process, found massive critical success with two breakout films, Welcome to the Dollhouse in 1996 and Happiness in 1998. Dollhouse tells the story of an unattractive 7th grader as she struggles to cope with her adolescent world, while Happiness was an interlocking multiple narrative, which together with Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, provided the blueprint for an entire genre of contemporary film, both commercial and independent. But most people seem to remember Happiness for its portrayal of a child molester who Solondz allowed to remain human, and which many indignant commentators have described as 'sympathetic'.
Solondz makes films that are extremely gentle in their execution but brutally unflinching in the exploration of their characters' private lives and interior realities. And so we see a lot of bad behaviour, often masquerading, as it does, as politeness. Another thing that defines his films is that in his bluntly honest exploration of human interaction, he grants a full complexity to his young characters. This simple approach has revolutionised American cinema, paving the way for a cavalcade of independent films, many of which have been far more commercial than Solondz' films.
I spoke to the director about his latest film Life During Wartime, which returns to the characters that populated Happiness, except that this time round, they're not only a decade older but played by an entirely different set of actors.
Peter Machen: Todd, your films are often descibed – or written off – as perverted and sick, but for me they are very moral films – a call for a kinder, gentler world. Is there any truth to my reading?
Todd Solondz: The movies are all fraught with ambiguity. They're very sorrowful – heartbreaking really – comedies. But because things aren't delineated in sharp blacks and whites, people may perhaps fail to see that there is a moral anchoring, a moral centre, to this world. I understand how, clinically, people may describe the characters as perverted or sick, but I don't look at them through that lens. I see them as all struggling with conflicts, with afflictions, with the struggle to connect. And this is I think what binds them.
PM: Do you love your characters?
TS: You know, some characters more, and some characters less. It really depends on which character, and also on the way in which I love them. But of course I could never invest what I do in my movies if I didn't have such strong feelings, emotionally speaking. If I didn't take them seriously, if they weren't close to my heart, I wouldn't be able to put myself through this process. That said, that doesn't mean I agree all the time with my characters. They don't always say what I would like them to say, or do what I would like them to do. But I try to be truthful to the reality that I've set up, and I accept them with all their flaws, and so forth.
PM: Do you feel that they have a life that is, in a way, independent of you?
TS: Well, I think that's got to be the aim. You know, my personal life is of little consequence. What matters is the way in which this world and these characters can penetrate other people's consciousness, the way in which they connect with others, the interplay that takes place in theatres. With film, you are always trying to articulate the inner lives of your characters, to articulate things that are very difficult for us to talk about in real life. And I think that's one of the beautiful things that movies can do.
PM: In the States, as far as I could work out, the film will be released released in theatres and on VOD (video on demand) at the same time. Is that true?
TS: Yes, it opens in New York on July 23rd and will open simultaneously in theatres and VOD.
PM: And how do you feel about that?
TS: Well, maybe I'm a little bit of an anachronism, I don't know. I like to go the movie theatre. I like the big dark room and the screen with a projected film, even if I'm the only one who shows up to the 3 o clock matinee. It's a very special place for me – it's what movies are about for me. The only time I watch movies on DVD is for work – if I have to check on an actor, or check on a cinematographer. It's really only for homework that I would actually watch a DVD on TV like that. For pleasure, I have to go to the movie theatre. But I think a lot of other people are not quite so fastidious as I am.
PM: Back to your film. Was your decision to use an entirely different cast in any way influenced by your film Palindromes (in which the same character is played by actors of radically different physicality and even gender)?
TS: Um, I don't know consciously. But I do know that maybe it gave me a little bit more courage having done that. If I had cast the same actors in these parts it would have been a very different movie. One of the things that happens when you do that is that there's always this very powerful subliminal message about mortality. Now that's something that's very special, but it's not really what I wanted to pursue here. I was much more interested in freeing myself from the constraints of the literalness of what I had established in my earlier work, so that I could feel free to reinvent and reshape the characters, something that I could never do using the same actors.
PM: Palindromes got quite a lukewarm reception. I watched it again last night and I thought it was magnificent. And I get the impression that you were very fond of the film when making it. Were you upset by the critical response?
TS: Well, you know, I have a weak character. If people like the movie I feel better and happy. And if they don't, I feel a little bit sad. But I loved the film, and that makes me more protective of it. There were champions of the film. It had many people who spoke very vociferously on its behalf, very passionately. But I think a lot of people, at the same time, were very put off – by the content, the way it was handled. And you know, I can never anticipate how others will respond. I can only put out there what I can stand by and take pride in, and hope for the best.
This interview first was first published in The Sunday Tribune
Mira Nair: filmmaker
Director Mira Nair’s film Monsoon Wedding recently won the main prize at the Venice Film Festival. Currently shooting in New York, she spoke to Peter Machen during a brief break in her busy schedule
Mira Nair, is one of contemporary global cinema’s most dearly regarded talents. Her debut feature film, Salaam Bombay, was a sprawling view of Bombay seen through the eyes of a street child, the greyness of poverty, infused with the sparkle of childhood reality. It reaped prizes at festivals everywhere, even garnering an acknowledgment from Hollywood with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Picture .
Nair didn’t get the Oscar, but cracked Hollywood anyway with The Perez Family, Mississippi Masala and the controversial Karma Sutra, all minor hits that made enough of a splash at the box office to keep the studios happy. And this year she won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for her colourful and tender portrayal of an Indian middle-class wedding during monsoon season.
I spoke to her about Bollywood and Hollywood, and also about Durban, where she lived for a year, and probably the place on the planet where those two movie-making Meccas collide most intimately.
Peter Machen: What led you to live in Durban?
Mira Nair: My husband is an academic and he was teaching at the University of Durban-Westville in 1993 for six months. He was a visiting professor, and I was being a good wife. And I had been fairly obsessed with South Africa way before - the whole struggle period and the literature and politics that accompanied it. So it was a great opportunity for me to be actually living there.
PM: And how did you find it?
MN: It was a very interesting and dramatic time. It was the year that Chris Hani was assassinated. I actually made a 10-minute fiction film about that experience, which has hardly been shown – I showed it privately a couple of times in South Africa – called The Day the Mercedes became a Hat. It’s a fictional documentary about what happened in Durban and South Africa on the day of the Hani funeral.
PM: Were you working on any feature films while you were living in South Africa?
MN: No, I wasn’t making any features. I was writing one which was based in India, but which did not become Monsoon Wedding. I did make a feature – but not in South Africa, in America – called My Own Country, which I edited in the office in my house in Cape Town (where Nair lived for two years, again following in the wake of her husband’s academic career).
PM: How do you place yourself in relation to Bollywood?
PM: Now, and while you were making Monsoon Wedding.
MN: You know, Bollywood is an inextricable part of our culture. It’s like eating and breathing. When I was growing up, I loved Bollywood classic films, like the films of Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor. Those are the films that I have been inspired by in some way – not so much the Raj Kapoor films as the Guru Dutt films. You know who he is?
MN: Guru Dutt is an unusual director, sort of like Orson Welles in a way. He worked in the Bollywood mainstream yet made highly artistic pictures. They never were successful in his lifetime – he committed suicide at the age of 39 – but are deemed as classics now. Anyway, those were the films I used to love to see. But, I otherwise had a bit of snobbery about the high kitsch of Bollywood, as I looked at it, when I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s.
But now Bollywood has changed enormously, and has become really slick and hip and very much part of the cultural fabric of any class of Indian life. In Monsoon Wedding, which is about a middle-class family much like my own, Bollywood has entered the fabric of a wedding.
So a young babe in my family would definitely imitate a Bollywood movie star on one of the nights to entertain us. That would be normal. That would not be absurd. In my young days that would never have been thought of. So definitely it has entered part of our life. Besides just going as entertainment, it’s accepted in family ceremonies.
I revel in that now. It’s a load of fun. Monsoon Wedding is a bit of a Bollywood movie – on my terms – in a way. Because I can’t be a Bollywood director in that style. I mean, I can, I guess, if I put my mind to it, but..Everybody’s begging me to do it. And I might just do it. But only as long as they’re willing to do it on my terms.
PM: What does Bollywood think of you? Are they fond of you?
MN: Well, now I’m a lioness of India they say (a reference to Nair winning a Golden Lion), the president of India calls me up, now I’m in the good books. Two years ago I wasn’t. It comes and it goes.
PM: And when you made Salaam Bombay?
MN: Then I was first in the good books. Now I’m back.
PM: Was it the making of Karma Sutra that caused your fall from favour?
MN: Yes, it was basically Karma Sutra. You know, the sex and controversy and censorship – and the battle that I sort of won and sort of lost and sort of won.
PM: In the few years since Karma Sutra, do you think that India has kind of loosened up?
MN: Oh, yes. I think so. I think so.
PM: Because Monsoon Wedding is quite salacious. It’s quite sexual in parts.
MN: It’s unbelievably sort of...almost amoral. I shouldn’t say that to the press, I don’t mean it that way. But it’s, like, free. On a certain level, what’s going down in Delhi society or Bombay urban life, it almost startles me, it shocks me. But, you know Sabrina, my writer, she is much more in touch with the young. And she brought that aspect, she opened my eyes to what’s really going on – she and my niece and nephew (who are also in the film). They’re the ones who are telling me, "This is exactly what it’s like". There is a lot of sexuality in the young.
Like the daughter having a lover and then rebounding on a marriage and all that. That we knew – but there is a level to which young men and women are, in strict terms, getting out of hand! And it is really amazing because it goes hand in hand with an absolute love of ritual and tradition and what the family want from you and all that.
PM: Okay. From Bollywood to Hollywood: One of the things that really impresses me about you is that you manage to go there without being appropriated.
PM: Well, how did you do that? I mean I think of Lee Tamahori (who made the New Zealand box-office smash hit Once Were Warriors and then disappeared into diametrically opposed Hollywood action flicks).
MN: Well, I guess that I’m a fiercely independent spirit, or something. I have a healthy disrespect for authority (she laughs zealously). I can’t bear it actually. I’m very open and very collaborative, so long as I’m the boss. That’s very bad. But as long as I have control, really, I mean that. Because I do take the best ideas – I’m totally humble about that and I’m totally ruthless also, not sentimental at all, not territorial.
But the point is that I have to retain independence because there is a type of instinct that informs my work. Yet everybody can offer me ideas and take me much further than what I know. And that is the intention of working with such brilliant people, like Declan Quinn, the cinematographer, or Sabrina Dhawan, the writer, or Mychael Danna with the music. You know I work very well with people. They’re great people and they really contribute and make the film richer and richer. And that’s the idea.
But I have to kind of take them on a journey, take them with me and, if I don’t always know where I’m going, I have to find out where I’m going. But what I have to rely on, that distinguishes me from anybody else, is my instinct. And I think the idea in life is to keep one’s mind and heart empty and open, and to respond to that instinct.
So if I have to work with a lot of people who tell me how things have to be, it interferes with that – although sometimes it helps. Anyway, I’m not anti-Hollywood at all. It’s just that I’ve had a couple of iffy experiences there and I’m just happier, even with the struggle of it, to do my own work.
In Hollywood, a lot depends on who you get to work with - and there are fantastic people there too. I just haven’t had the good fortune of working with them yet (laughs). I’ve just finished something that has been a pleasure to do – an American film with Uma Thurman, Juliette Lewis and Gena Rowlands called Hysterical Blindness, which I’m just mixing this month. It has been a hectic year between Monsoon Wedding and this movie.
So I’m definitely open to things right now. But I’m also happy to be able to constantly have the elasticity within me to do my work. Because – you know what it is like from living in Durban – if we don’t tell our stories, then nobody else is going to.
And you have to do it in a way that is inimitable, your own way. And yet do it with a style and standard that satisfies a global audience – so that they can see that the craft of film-making is alive and well in India.
This interview was first published in The Independent on Saturday
Listening to the Silence: art commentary
Listening to the Silence
For those who live in, or even near the edges, of the the art world, it is easy to forget that the narratives of art history are absent from most people's reality. In the same way that only a small group of people are particularly interested in scientific paradigm shifts or non-contemporary cinema, most people are entirely unaware of the great confrontations that took place in art in the twentieth century. And more specifically, they really don't care.
At the same time, however, art is seen by many as something which needs to be properly understood in order to be appreciated. So when it comes to broadening the audience for art in South Africa, this conflict between not wanting to understand and needing to understand becomes a real problem. As a result, there are a great many people who might enjoy all that art has to offer, but instead keep well away from it.
Of course, understanding has its own rich pleasures. But its absence shouldn't stop you from experiencing art – or anything else for that matter. Personally, understanding trails experience by relative eons – with which I'm perfectly content. I'll swim down a river first, and work out where I've been later. And if I'm heading for a waterfall, well, I'm not scared, it's only art.
All of this comes to mind because I've just finished writing a review of the show Silent | Listen by avant-garde sound-based activists Ultra-Red. It was a show that I liked, but which others found problematic, both because of its relatively obscure art historical references and the fact that it represents a specifically American reality.
As well as a haunting cacophony of American voices talking about the Aids crisis, the show incorporated specific references to Robert Rauschenberg's White Painting and 4”33', the four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence which avant garde composer John Cage produced in response. Space prohibits an investigation of that relationship here but if you explored Silent | Listen without that knowledge, much of it would have passed you by. Which is both okay, or not okay, depending on who you talk to.
The existence of the American voices in Ultra-Red's work also pointed to another problematic dichotomy. We want to see international work, but we also want to see that same work as relevant to our own context. And, certainly if I saw Silent | Listen in a gallery in London or New York, where the avant-garde finds audiences more naturally due to those city's large populations, I doubt that I would give much thought to its relevance. But that might also be some kind of reverse prejudice on my part because, at the same time, I'm seen many cutting edge events in local galleries that would struggle to find space in the United States arts world, where conservatism and radicalism experience far greater – and often politically fuelled – conflict than they do in South Africa.
Galleries have many functions, and given the increasing lack of public space in this globalised world, they represent, or are capable of representing, a replacement or substitute for the town hall. Admittedly, it is inevitably a somewhat rarified town hall but they nonetheless make excellent venues for public forums. This is partially because of their highly formalised structures and infrastructures, and partially because the parameters of conversation tend to be broader than anywhere else in the culture. If you are talking about crime, as a group of us were, also at the KZNSA a few Mondays ago, in a space where someone has publicly made chocolate moulds of their vulva, you'd imagine there'd be much scope for discussion.
But while the speakers and topics were mostly fascinating, the audience was strangely muted. Perhaps we've discussed crime for so many years that it has moved on from the collective dinner table, replaced by the economy and just how poor everyone suddenly is. Or perhaps many people have already made up their minds about crime and criminals. I spoke to one woman who had been physically attacked but who didn't raise her voice during the forums; she was vehemently in sympathy with Susan Shabangu's “kill the bastards” comment.
Another successful function took place at Bank Gallery a few weeks ago, where Paul Willemsen from the Brussels-based Argos Centre for Art and Media showed a quintet of fascinating films. Billed simply as non-narrative-based films, rather than video art, the works were – and here I am being allegorical more than literal – the work of art film-makers, rather than artists making films. It might seem like a silly distinction but the level of technical skill on display – even though it is mostly invisible – is absent from most of that discipline we call video art. And I am reminded of that old chestnut about Picasso being able to paint perfect realism. The truth is that film-makers – whether they are artists, directors or the countless teenagers around the planet who are embracing digital video in their bedrooms– need to learn to make films before they can make films. Pointing a camera at a clever idea is only occasionally enough, and the vast gulf between this small fragment of the Argos archive and so much contemporary audiovisual expression, is testament to that truth.
Finally, I can't help but mention two very-Durban flavoured events, which might not have taken in place in galleries but which brought as much joy and pleasure as anything I've seen in the past few weeks. Admittedly, they have no grounding in art history, but the view of Diwali from the northern end of Durban's ridge was breath-takingly beautiful; and the guy who casually cycles backwards – and occasionally on his head – down Windermere (now Lilian Ngoyi) Road – surely deserves a mention in the surrealistic annals of eThekwini.
This column was first published in the South African Art Times
It's Just Not Cricket: humour
It's Just Not Cricket
So I'm sitting on the couch waiting for my favourite Tuesday night sitcom, or more specifically, the only Tuesday night sitcom for those of us on the losing side of the DSTV divide, or more specifically still, one of the only vaguely entertaining shows on SABC.
The sitcom in question used to be on Monday nights until recently, occupying a slot which, several years ago, was part of two straight hours of watchable television – two sitcoms followed by a decent drama. At some point though, some clever dick at the SABC realised that there was a whole bunch of people watching television on Monday night because it used to be good, and was now, although thoroughly mediocre, still the only two consecutive hours of SABC3 that was entertaining. Why not get those viewers to watch TV on Tuesday and Wednesday as well?
And so, the two hours of watchable non-Oprah non-film programming on SABC3 became spread across the first three days of the week. Only thing is that they forgot to tell viewers where their sitcoms had gone, leaving The New Adventures of Old Christine (which vascilates between bad and brilliant but always tries really hard to be funny) languishing lost on a Wednesday night. People managed to find Two and a Half Men though, because it's now at the same time that they used to watch Survivor, which, in the spirit of things, has moved to Monday night.
While I object to having my weekly two hours of television split over three days, a tiny, tiny part of me doesn't mind the shift in schedule, since it's proof of the fact that someone, somewhere in the depths of the Auckland Park monolith where the SABC resides, actually had a thought. An actual thought. No matter, how dimwitted or ill-considered, it was nonetheless a thought. (The person responsible, hence known at SABC as “the thinker”, has no doubt been moved deeper into the bowels of the building).
Now, I know that watching Two and a Half Men isn't clever and it isn't smart, and doing so sits on the very border of acceptable behaviour. And I know also that, with every watching, my brain moves one step closer to the undiscriminating soup of homogeneity that constitutes the consciousness of the ideal SABC viewer. Mired in stereotypes so profoundly shallow that shallowness itself starts to acquire depth, and populated with unlikeable characters, Two and a Half Men nonetheless makes me laugh. It has funny lines. It has fart jokes. It has a large and jovially sarcastic bisexual women who does the ironing. And it at least knows how to be a sitcom, unlike virtually all the home-grown clunkers I've bumped into on occasion.
Tuesday's are hectic – they're the day you realise that the week isn't going to relent and just turn around and go away. And so, when I sit down at 7.29pm on a Tuesday night after a hard-earned day, having fetched my two feather-down pillows from my bedroom, and filled up my wine-bottle of water, and made sure that my cigarettes and an ashtray are close at hand, and thrown off my shoes, and switched on the television, and selected channel 2, where SABC3 resides, and there are men playing cricket, I want to fucking kill someone. I really fucking do. Really.
This unfortunate impulse is in no way muted by the fact that there's nothing in the form of an apology on the screen, or even an acknowledgement of the presence of these oddly dressed men doing strange things with a ball, accompanied by the voices of commentators who sound as if they're in church. Nothing in the media schedules. Nothing on the net. It's almost as if we are supposed – in our lobotomised stupor – to think that we're still watching Two and a Half Men and only faintly wondering where the hell Charlie Sheen has gone.
The cricket commentators may as well be in church if the devotion of my cricket-loving friends is anything to go by (we forgive our friends many things we cannot forgive in a national broadcaster) and I realise that cricket is, for some, a religion. But it sure ain't my religion and it ain't even the religion of South Africa's admittedly sport-obsessed population. And although I abstain entirely when it comes to sport, I'm not saying that cricket games shouldn't be broadcast in their full and entire banality on a dedicated sports channel (I'm losing friends as I type) but there's no justification for it interrupting normal programming, for taking away my precious half hour of joy (21 minutes if you take away the ads). To resort to the most obvious – and irresistible – of phrases, it's just not cricket.
This column was first published in The Independent on Saturday
A Call to Hell: humour
A Call to Hell
So when you die, if you have been really bad, you will, according to some of the world's religions, be going to hell. And when you get there (having been really bad – or even just slightly bad according to many interpretations) you will no doubt be handed a cell phone. You will put the cell phone to your ear and be told in an automated voice to please await your fate. “You are number twenty-four million, three hundred thousand, two hundred and eight-two in the queue. Please hold. We value your support and do appreciate your patience.”
Cuts to an endlessly interrupted loop of Britney Spears' first single. You try to put the cell phone down and cut off the call but your arm won't move. When you finally reach the front of the queuing system, several millennia later, hell's single call centre employee comes on the line. “Welcome to hell,” she intones in a voice midway between disdain and Prozac happiness. “Please hold.” Britney returns.
I don't mean to upset anyone's religious sensibilities, but can anything possibly be closer to the fire-and-brimstone which some of those religions posit as a place of perpetual punishment than the modern call centre. (Waterboarding? I'm not sure. Crucifixion? Perhaps). And is anything capable of drawing more anger and venom from a human being than being number 238 in a call reference system that refers only to itself and manages to exclude you entirely from your reason for phoning in the first place
Because it is only when you finally get through that your troubles really begin. The one thing that the call queuing system has going for it is linearity – there is at least an end in sight, even if you don't possess the patience to reach that end. But when you enter the call routing system you are entering an infinite maze that frequently doubles up on itself. You are required to remember the name of every person you spoke to along the way and remember the details of how it was that they didn't help you. You are even expected to remember why you phoned these nasty people in the first place. It needs to be pointed out that this mind-numbing procedure isn't just par for the course when you call a helpline (now there's an Orwellian term). It's increasingly the case with a phone call to any big business. Want to call the local branch of your bank? You can't – you can only call a central number which will never tell you your branch's phone number. The same applies to phoning your nearest cinema or insurance company.
Occasionally niceness works in trying to make your way through this human-cyber maze, but usually a well controlled tantrum is the most effective line of defense. Asking for the call centre manager doesn't work since you can't talk to the computer's motherboard (although they are no doubt working on that). Requesting the fraud department helps garner interest, as does telling the person on the other end of the line that you are recording this call for your own safety. I've also found that requesting the operator's address and ID number always gets their attention. In fact I use this last strategy as a standard approach whenever things seem as if they are going to get hairy down the wire. But none of these approaches, bar the first one, makes me feel like a very well-adjusted human being.
My only salvation in all of this is the simple realisation that, for the most part, the people on the other end of the line are also human beings, and that invariably they are only slightly less enchanted than me with the conversation. This realisation is of limited use when you're trying to get a phone installed, but a much more useful one when applied to the people who phone you to discuss your credit card account. They don't care. You don't care. Isn't business by phone wonderful?
This column was first published in The Independent on Saturday
Living in Lululand: social commentary
Living in Lululand
So Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana has taken offence at Zanele Muholi's photographs of lesbian couples lying naked in bed together. Which is funny, because she helped, through funding from her department, to pay for the exhibition in which the works are showcased and from which she walked out in protest instead of delivering a speech. But beyond the vaguely Stalinist overtones – the Minister reportedly wanted to know why the work wasn't censored – her response illustrates a basic lack of experience with fine art and its very long history of the naked body. And while it's easy to blame the Minister for this, at the same time she didn't appoint herself to the post. All over the world, government ministers are moved from department to department with scant regard for their skills or capabilities. Xingwana was previously South Africa's Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister and there's nothing on her official bio (http://www.info.gov.za/leaders/ministers/artscul.html) to suggest that she any real experience with high-end fine art. Although, in what seems like a fairly devoted career to the women of South Africa, she has perhaps visited some of South Africa's many community art centres.
At the same time, one does wonder what planet she's living on. Certainly not the same one in which James Cameron Mitchell's celebrated film Shortbus – which opens with a young man trying to perform autofelatio on himself – exists. Or the one in which a print ad for Gucci features a models's exposed genital area, the pubic hair shaved into the shape of the fashion company's logo. And Xingwana certainly wasn't at the KZNSA Gallery in Durban a few years back when artist Nicola Deane publicly produced chocolates made from a mould of her vulva. Or when one of South Africa's most important artists, Steven Cohen, suspended himself from the ceiling of the same gallery and shat out an enema of paint onto his lover Elu below. (The stain on the floor took months to leave).
The images to which the Minister objected were, by the standards of contemporary visual calculus, not even the softest of porn. I doubt that Heat magazine, for instance, would ever print such thoroughly unscandalous pictures.
In a statement read out by the Department's chief director of communications, Lisa Combrinck, Xingwana emphasises the fact that the Department of Arts and Culture supports work that contributes to social cohesion. Muholi's work, she said, was “immoral, offensive and going against nation-building." What she fails to realise is that Muholi's photographs do precisely that. Gay liberation may have been rolled out for the world's western middle classes, but for those living in rural areas and townships in South Africa, being open about lesbian sexuality is still not a safe option. Zanele Muholi is crying out for freedom in the same way that South Africa's rich tradition of protest art did for so many decades. By presenting photographs of lesbian couples lying “normally” in bed together, she helps to shift the boundaries of people's personal morality and create a more accepting world. Or is it possible that the social cohesion of which Xingwana is thinking is one that does not include lesbian women?
But even if that is the case, and recognising that Xingwana's role is not that of a moral authority, it is still important to note that transgression has always played a central role in the history of art. And in that transgression, in the breaking and blurring of lines, new moralities are born, moralities which are often initially viewed as permissive but which are ultimately more inclusive. Art, which tends to foreshadow the rest of society, has helped to lead many social revolution around the world, including South Africa. It has helped to make us all more accepting.
Ironically, Xingwana has now ensured that Muholi's images will get the attention that will help them to do exactly that. By walking out on the photographs, she has catalysed a spread of those images, moving them beyond the gallery spaces and around the country, around the globe. And in doing so, she has helped to initiate a broader dialogue on sexuality.
And so, as part of that conversation, I respectfully invite the Minister to return to those images that so offended her, and which are now, thanks to her, so ubiquitous, and to look for the love, joy and simple human companionship in them that is for me so self-evident. And in doing so, I hope that she will find within herself a larger, more expansive humanity.
This column was first published in The Sunday Tribune
Joy, Pain and Beauty: obituary
Joy, Pain and Beauty
Mama Africa is dead. One of the continent's most extraordinary voices will never sing again, even as her voice will be heard for generations to come. But if Miriam Makeba is remembered chiefly for Pata Pata and Qongqothwane, otherwise known as The Click Song (famously, “because the English cannot say Qongqothwane”), it will be a tragedy greater than any of the tragedies that the singer endured during her richly lived life. And if you're only familiar with those two songs and a few of her greatest hits, you owe it to both yourself and to one of the twentieth century's greatest female vocalists to check out her diverse and powerful back catalogue. From the Sophiatown swing of her two albums with the Skylarks to the moving love of The Promise to the gentle but driven protest of Welela, Makeba's recorded career covers a vast landscape of musical style and social and personal concerns, all infused with a timeless resonance that exists beyond labels and categories.
While it is the matriarchal figure of Mama Africa that seems mostly likely to represent Makeba's posthumous star – and it was an appelation whose sturdiness and weight offended her – the Miriam I want most to remember is the one that existed before I was born. The Miriam who sat so coyly and so beautifully next to Can Themba. The Miriam who lead the Skylarks through some of the most beautiful music known to humankind. The Miriam whose sweet young voice could spin the very moonlight into music and then make it roar. The Miriam whose beauty was so tangibly moving that, combined with her astounding presence and vocal gifts, she made the world fall in love with her.
While Makeba sat with equality in the international album charts of the fifties and sixties – before the invention of the World Music ghetto which her genre jumping career helped to invent – her star easily ascended beyond the world of mere entertainment. Like Nina Simone and fellow traveler Hugh Masekela, she rose above the currents of history, her talent keeping her afloat even when it seemed that the world and her personal life was lost. And like Simone, she surfed the music, her voice not a crowning layer on top of the instruments but the very thing that keeps it altogether, a centrifugal force of elemental human passion.
Makeba in her youth seemed to represent irrepressible innocence in the face of irrefutable brutality. And that shimmering innocence was one of South Africa's most powerful expressions of protest, precisely because it didn't preclude the expression of pain. More specifically, her voice carried the resonance of the pain of the innocent, and it carried it around the world long before the anti-apartheid movement established itself.
All of this is not to be dismissive of the older Makeba and her always illustrious output. She may have lost her innocence but she never lost her shine; her talent never faltered. But I think, at some point, her heart broke. It may have been the relentlessness of her desire for Africa to be free, or it may have been the string of unworkable relationships that haunted her. Or it may have simply been the gradual evaporation of youth that happens to nearly all of us. But at some point that innocence died, even as the stridency and the passion stayed strong.
My favourite Miriam moment involves someone else's memory, and takes place at the car boot market in Durban's Greyville. I was armed with a bunch of records that I'd picked up, including a couple of Miriam records. A woman named Cindi, who sells coats and hot dogs, asked me if I could find a particular song on vinyl that had previously been banned. I didn't recognise the Xhosa title but Cindi sang a few bars of the song. One of the two men present, who like Cindi, were probably a decade or two older than me, said quietly, “Hey...they were hard times”. And the other man's eyes watered, just this side of tears.
And in the glisten of those eyes, I saw all the pain and all the joy and all the beauty of Miriam Makeba, how she carried the burden of an entire country in her soul, in her music. And how millions of people carried her with them.
This column was first published in The Weekend Witness
Watching the Watchers: social commentary
Watching the Watchers
For the past few months they have been rising from the earth. Tall, thin, metallic structures that climb 20 metres into the air. At the bottom are ladder rungs placed just beyond human height, and perched on the top are surveillance cameras. They are all over the city, up the Berea, along the main arteries leading into town. And more are being erected every day.
And the strangest thing is that nobody sees them. I've spoken to at least 50 people and, with the exception of one person, no-one had noticed the brand -new presence of these eyes in the sky.
But while you're not watching Big Brother, Big Brother is watching you.
Public surveillance cameras are becoming part and parcel of modern capitalist democracies. For more than a decade the whole of central London has been watched by a bank of largely invisible cameras. In recent times, the cameras have become more visible in an attempt to act as a deterrent. In 1998, Cape Town got its own surveillance system and by now most of Jo'burg is wired up.
What is alarming, though, in Durban specifically, is that the level of public debate around the cameras approaches nil. It seems that we have become so used to having society built around us, largely with our money, that we take no part in the debates that should be an integral part of civil society.
Does anyone ask the citizenry if they want a marine theme park down the end of the Point? We'd probably say yes, but we'll never know, because we're never asked, and we're seldom sufficiently stimulated on any matter to actually voice our objections. Likewise, has anyone asked whether we actually want a casino? I'd hope that the answer would be a resounding "no", but again, we'll never know.
There are other more complex issues surrounding the surveillance cameras. For starters, do they actually work in getting rid of crime? Or do they push crime to the perimeters, to the places where the cameras are not? What about an equality of surveillance, where Cato Manor, Musgrave Road and the centre of town all enjoy the same optic presence?
And its all very well having the cameras, but do you have enough money and people to watch what the cameras are watching? Considering the enduring financial difficulties involved in keeping our generally efficient traffic light system properly maintained, these things can by no means be presumed.
Nicolas Negroponte, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, and the kindly uncle of the digital generation, points out the difficulties and ethical conflicts involved in public surveillance networks.
In acknowledging the problematic nature of both the multiplicity of cameras and the invasion of individual privacy, he proposes a beautiful model, elegant in its simplicity. It goes like this – why not give everybody access to the cameras? Have the entire monitoring bank available on the Internet. Which will not only allow everybody the onerous responsibility of monitoring crime, but also go some way to leveling the playing fields, in that it allows us to watch the watchers.
If we could all look down on the urban playground that is our city and its suburbs, and see exactly what's going on, we might find that our stretched and notorious police force starts to behave a little more appropriately. Plus, we could work out the least congested route to work and maybe see what the waves on Battery Beach are like.
Then there is another set of issues entirely. One that is also a cogent response to calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty. If we don't have a legal system that works efficiently, if we don't have a humane, uncorrupt prison system, so long as we have a massed working class enmeshed in poverty and genuine need, the cameras will have no lasting impact or value. There are no quick cures for crime when crime itself is a symptom of a larger disease.
Finally, it is interesting as a comment on the state of postmodern consciousness that there are towns in Europe and America that have gone security mad, installing cameras, entrance gates and security booms. The fascinating thing is that many of these towns are crime-free. They are waiting for the crime to happen.
To misquote the great JG Ballard, we are all dreams of the near future. Or nightmares.
This column was first published in The Independent on Saturday
South Africa Week Exhibition in Prague
South Africa Week Exhibition in Prague
GENERAL PRESS RELEASE
In just three weeks' time, a cross section of eThekwini’s creative and commercial talent will be making their way to Prague in the Czech Republic. Coinciding with the Celebrate Durban events at home, 25 Durbanites will be in Prague showcasing the skills that they are using to help make Durban one of Africa’s most exciting cities.
Featuring a full range of local talent, from dancers to agri-scientists to newly formed weaving co-operatives, the delegation presents alternative models of employment and economic development that are being used in eThekwini /Durban to alleviate poverty and stimulate employment.
This trade mission to Europe’s most beautiful city was earmarked by the Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Miss Nomusa Dube (formerly speaker-of-the-house in the Durban City Council). The long-term purpose of the exhibition is to transform existing informal markets into more financially viable entities, establishing retail outlets and relevant sustainable employment opportunities.
The corporate social investment component of this project has been subtitled Silencing the Voice of Failure and is partnered by government and local business. The project will showcase a wide range of creative and potentially economically important industries including fashion, jewelery design, weaving, leather work, beadwork, dancing, modelling, music and ceramics. The delegation will be accompanied by Fisani Mzimela from the eThekwini Business Support Unit as well as Eben Otto from the provincial department of Art and Culture and Zuki Vutela of ZSG Vutela. The event is the brainchild of Zuki, who also owns the event.
Local fashion designer Amanda Laird Cherry will have her designs on display. Jewellery will be represented by the Buhle Khula co-operative in KwaMashu. Fabric producers Da Gama Textiles will be presenting their distinctive ishweshwe cloth, now an essentially African product that has its origins in Europe. Writer, actress and poet Gcina Mhlope will be showcasing her prowess as a performer and wordsmith Fura Simbeki, who rose to fame for his praise poems to Chris Hani, will be holding the flame for eThekwini in Prague, while Pinky Mtshali and her Durban Divas will be presenting their cross-cultural cabaret.
Prague is a city that is defined by its love of culture. Durban/eThekwini has an equally rich but very different cultural heritage, and so it is appropriate that the two cities and their respective cultures meet in this way. And no doubt after the four-day Durban mini-expo, Prague will be further enriched by the presence of Durban’s creative spirit.
Please contact Peter Machen or Zuki Vutela
+27 (0) 82 447 6882
+27 (0) 76 038 5569
Meeran Brothers attend New Cinema Network in Rome
Durban International Film Festival 2015
36th Durban International Film Festival
16-26 July 2015
GENERAL PRESS RELEASE
This July sees the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) return for its 36th year of cinematic celebration. From 16 to 26 July, the city will be illuminated by the wonder and diversity of global cinema, with over 200 screenings in 9 venues across the city. Alongside this selection of the best of contemporary cinema, including 74 feature films, 50 documentaries, 74 short films and 23 surf films, the festival offers an extensive workshop and seminar programme in which industry experts from around the world share their knowledge and skills.
This year's diverse line-up includes an expanded focus on African cinema with a selection of African Classics and a showcase of this year’s Fespaco winners. Other focus areas include a cross-section of contemporary cinema from Brazil and an investigation into the filmmaking landscape of a changing Tunisia, as well DIFF Beats, which celebrates a number of music-based films, and Just One Earth, which presents a selection of environmentally themed titles. In addition to the generous selection of feature films and cutting edge documentaries, DIFF 2015 will screen 9 packages of short films and a selection of thrilling surf films in the Wavescape Film Festival.
South African Focus
While DIFF is a vital showcase for the ever-expanding African film industry, South African film remains the festival’s key focus, with 33 feature-length films and 74 short films – most of them receiving their world premieres on Durban screens.
This year’s opening night film see the African premiere of Ayanda, the second fiction feature film from South African filmmaker Sara Blecher who opened the festival in 2011 with Otelo Burning. Ayanda tells the story of single-minded 21-year-old Afro-hipster Ayanda (Fulu Mugovhani) who has a talent for taking neglected pieces of furniture and bringing them back to life. Eight years after her father’s death, his prized auto repair garage is in financial trouble and in danger of being sold, but Ayanda does everything in her power to hold onto his legacy.
Then there’s Breathe – Umphefumlo, the Isango Ensemble’s contemporary adaptation of Puccini’s La Boheme, the low-budget horror film The Actor from Aiden Whytock, the politically inclined Bonnie-and-Clyde tale Impunity from Jyoti Mistry and the long awaited Necktie Youth from Sibs Shongwe-Le Mer. Other South African fiction feature films include Dis Ek, Anna, based on the famous Afrikaans novel and directed by Sara Blecher, and the dramatic thriller Lady Grey from Alain Chouquart.
South African documentaries include Blood Lions, which follows a South African conservationist and an American hunter on their journey through the lion hunting industry, Coming of Age, which follows the lives of two teenagers in Lesotho, Glory Game – The Joost van der Westhuizen Story, which chronicles the famous rugby player’s battle with Motor Neuron Disease, and The Shore Break which documents the attempts by a foreign mining company to mine titanium in the Eastern Cape.
The rich programme of films from elsewhere on the continent includes a number of strong directorial talents. From Zimbabwe’s Mpumelelo Mcata comes the challenging documentary-hybrid Black President while Ethiopia’s Miguel Llansó delivers a surreal cult classic with Crumbs. Philippe Lacôte’s Run is a left-field masterpiece from Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya delivers the goods with The Boda Boda Thieves, the latest title from vivacious creative co-operative Yes! That’s Us.
African documentaries include the powerful Beats of the Antonov which portrays the musical lives of a war-torn community in Sudan, the remarkable Sembene! which documents the life and career of African master Ousmane Sembene and Path to Freedom, which explores the genesis of Namibia's armed struggle against South Africa.
Curated by Lizelle Bisschoff, a scholar of African film and founder of the Africa in Motion Film Festival, this selection of African Classics provides a rare opportunity for viewers to catch some of the most powerful and idiosyncratic works of cinema from the continent’s rich film history. The selection comprises the previously lost masterpiece Come Back, Africa, the seminal Mapantsula from Oliver Schmitz and The Blue Eyes of Yonta by pioneering Guinea-Bissau filmmaker Flora Gomes, as well as Badou Boy and Touki Bouki, both from African master Djibril Diop Mambety.
In a special tribute to African cinema, DIFF 2015 features six winners from the 2015 edition of the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, or Fespaco as it is better known. Fevers, which won the Golden Stallion at the festival, tells the story of Benjamin, who moves in with his father and grandparents in a Paris suburb in order to avoid foster-care. Sékou Traoré’s feature debut film The Eye of the Cyclone is a psychological drama about a young lawyer who has been appointed a case that no one else wants, while Rehad Desai’s Miners Shot Down returns to DIFF after being celebrated at Fespaco this year. Belkacem Hadjadj’s portrayal of the eponymous Algerian national hero in Fadhma N’Soumer won him Fespaco’s Silver Stallion, while the partly animated short Twaaga tells of Manu, an eight-year-old boy in Burkina Faso in 1985. Aïssa’s Story follows the story of Aissatou Bah, who after telling a lie in order to be granted asylum in the Unites States, is met with distrust when she reports a sexual assault by a wealthy guest at the hotel where she works. The winner of the 2015 FESPACO award for Best Short Film, Zakaria is a gripping story about a quiet Algerian father of two.
Following its rich tradition of world cinema, DIFF 2015 presents a diverse showcase of films from around the planet. 1000 Rupee Note from India tells the story of a poor old widow named Budhi who receives a gift of several 1000 Rupee notes from a politician. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night bills itself as the first Iranian Vampire Western, while Dealer, from France, documents 24 hours in the increasingly hellish life of a small time drug dealer. Bob And The Trees tells the story of Bob, a 50-year-old logger in rural Massachusetts with a soft spot for golf and gangster rap, Flapping In The Middle Of Nowhere follows a teenage Vietnamese girl who finds herself forced into prostitution in order to save money for an abortion and Forever follows two lonely strangers in the desolate city of Athens. Haruko's Paranormal Laboratory, from Japan, tells the story of a young lady named Haruko who lives alone and talks to no-one but her TV every day, while the Ukranian film The Tribe is an exhilarating drama performed entirely in sign language with no spoken words or subtitles.
This year’s festival will once more play host to a sterling selection of documentaries from around the world. The American film (Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies explores the complex impact dishonesty has on our lives and our societies. Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy, from France, tells the story of 12 cartoonists and their fight for equality, accountability and transparency. Democrats, from Denmark, tells the unique story of the political elite in Zimbabwe fighting the battle over the principles defining the country's possible future. Foodies, from Sweden, follows five of the world's most renowned foodies on their hunt for the most exclusive nourishment in the world, while Taxi, from banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, takes us on a vibrant and colourful journey through the streets of Tehran.
Like South Africa, Brazil is a country defined by glaring inequality and cultural polarity. It also has a rich culture of cinema and a remarkably diverse national canon. Offering a window on to this complex and diverse country, Brazilian Vision presents a wide range of films from different regions in Brazil, providing an incisive overview of its considerable cinematic output. From the north-east state of Pernambuco comes two celebrated feature films: The History of Eternity by Camilo Cavalcanti and the moving Brazilian Dream, an opera movie depicting the Brazilian economic crisis. From the capital Brasília comes White Out, Black In, which portrays a country longing for transformation, while Casa Grande deals with the huge social divide between rich and poor in the country.
From Rio de Janeiro comes the documentary City of God – 10 Years Later which investigates the lives of the cast of Fernando Meirelles’s masterpiece a decade later. Black and White Democracy follows the path of internationally renowned football player Sócrates and his team The Corinthians while Naked Eye introduces us to talented Brazilian musician Ney Mato Grosso.
The explosion of free speech that followed the Tunisian revolution in January 2011 gave birth to new cinematographic voices as young filmmakers armed themselves with cameras to express their points of view on a newly emerging society. This year’s Tunisan focus includes seven programmes of around two hours each, including short films, features and documentaries, and provides an opportunity for DIFF audiences to find out more about this fascinating and contradiction-filled country.
Semain de la Critique in South Africa
DIFF, with the support of the French Institute of South Africa and Urucu Media, proudly presents a traveling programme of La Semaine de la Critique (Critics’ Week) of Cannes Film Festival. La Semaine de la Critique in South Africa will launch in Durban before travelling to Cape Town and Johannesburg in late July. Featured films include Hope, Boris Lojkine’s takes on migration from Africa to Europe, The Kindergarten Teacher by Nadav Lapid, which follows the story of a crèche teacher and aspiring poet, and You and the Night, an erotic-existential-queer comedy from Yann Gonzalez. Then there’s Salvo from Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazz, winner of Critics’ Week in 2014, and writer-director Katell Quillévéré’s second feature Suzanne, which follows the eponymous protagonist as she grows up with her sister and widowed truck-driver father.
As well as these screenings, La Semaine de la Critique in South Africa features a master class with visiting filmmaker Boris Lojkine in Durban and filmmaker round tables in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
With DIFF Beats, the festival pays tribute to musical freethinkers and rule-breakers. Filmmaker Adam Sjöberg and rap superstar Nasir ‘Nas’ Jones explore breakdancing and hip-hop in unlikely places in the film Shake the Dust. Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango intersperses dance and musical performances with interviews with tango-lovers and experts, while Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck blends Cobain’s personal archive with touching interviews with his family. They Will Have to Kill Us First follows a diverse group of exiled Malian musicians who refuse to be silenced, Imagine Waking up Tomorrow and All Music Has Disappeared comes from cult musician/art terrorist Bill Drummond, and When Voices Meet tells the story of therapist Sharon Katz and singer/educator Nonhlanhla Wanda’s 500-voice multiracial choir.
Just One Earth
Just One Earth offers a selection of films that promote sustainable living and raise awareness about the ecological threats we are facing. All the Time in the World tells the story of Canadian filmmaker Suzanne Crocker and her family who decide to take time out from their lives and relocate to the wilds. In Energised filmmaker Hubert Canaval explores how profit-driven efforts ensure that both alternative energy solutions and the threats to our existence posed by today’s main sources of energy remain largely unknown to the public. In Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, filmmaker Grant Baldwin and producer/writer Jen Rustemeyer explore why nearly 50% of the food produced in Canada ends up in the trash. Finally, the extraordinary Virunga tells of a group of park-rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo who have devoted their lives to saving the gorillas in Virunga National Park.
Wavescape Surf Festival
The 10th Wavescape Surf Festival at DIFF celebrates a decade of films and events around ocean sustainability and beach culture. From Sunday 19 to Saturday 25 July, Wavescape will showcase the latest surf films from around the world. In keeping with tradition, the Wavescape premiere will take place under the stars at the Bay of Plenty lawns on Sunday 19 July, followed by screenings at Ster Kinekor Musgrave until 25 July. For more information, visit http://www.wavescapefestival.com.
The 7th Talents Durban will bring together the creativity of 40 selected filmmakers from 10 different countries in Africa, chosen from over 200 submissions, who will take part in a series of masterclasses, workshops and industry networking opportunities during the festival. Supported by the German Embassy, the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission, the Goethe-Institut and the Gauteng Film Commission, Talents Durban is presented in co-operation with Berlinale Talents. Talents Durban is a platform for African filmmakers to enhance their skills, develop collaborations and interface with the film industry in Africa and beyond.
Now in its 6th year, the Durban FilmMart, a partnership project with the Durban Film Office and the Durban International Film Festival, is a film finance and co-production market presented in three strands – Finance Forum, Master Classes and the Africa in Focus seminars. 19 selected African projects (including 10 fiction features and 9 documentaries) will have an opportunity to hold one-on-one meetings with potential financiers, co-producers, and distributors in the Finance Forum. Projects will also have an opportunity to pitch to a panel of international commissioning editors and financiers in African Pitch, a structured pitching forum. The DFM master class and networking programme is open to registered delegates only. See www.durbanfilmmart.com for further details.
DIFF 2015’s principal screening venues are Suncoast CineCentre, Ster Kinekor Musgrave, Cinema Nouveau Gateway, Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, Ekhaya Multi-Arts Centre in KwaMashu and the Tsogo Sun Elangeni Hotel. Other venues include the Bay of Plenty Lawns, the KZNSA Gallery and the Luthuli Museum on the North Coast. The festival hub is once more housed at the Tsogo Sun Elangeni Hotel.
Tickets should be acquired through the respective venues. Prices range from R20 to R40, except at Luthuli Museum, Ekhaya, Elangeni Hotel and Bay of Plenty lawns, which are free of charge.
Programme booklets with the full screening schedule and synopses of all the films are available free at screening venues and other public information outlets. Full festival details can also be found on www.durbanfilmfest.co.za or by calling 031 260 2506 or 031 260 1816.
The 35th Durban International Film Festival is organised by the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (a special project of the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the College of Humanities, Cheryl Potgieter) with support from the National Film and Video Foundation, KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development & Tourism, KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission, City of Durban, German Embassy, Goethe Institut, Industrial Development Corporation, KwaZulu-Natal Department of Arts and Culture and a range of other valued partners.
Versfeld and Associates
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Community Punching Bags at the KZNSA Gallery
Community Punching Bags at the KZNSA Gallery
GENERAL PRESS RELEASE
The Community Punching Bags (CPBs) project is an art-based project by Johann van der Schijff in collaboration with art educators and high school learners from and around Cape Town. Johann is an artist and lecturer at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. The resulting exhibition first showed at the Iziko South African National Gallery Annexe in May/June 2012.
With the support of the KZNSA’s Social Art in Development Programme, funded by the National Lotteries Distribution Fund, the KZNSA Gallery is pleased to present this innovative exhibition from 10 to 29 July 2012.
Consisting of a set of artworks in which the community played a central part in their realisation, this project aims to show that issues often not spoken about openly, such as those that deal with violence, “the other”, stereotyping, discrimination, racism, xenophobia and human rights can be addressed in a collaborative and creative way through art-making.
The overall project consists of five phases, firstly, involving high school art teachers from the greater Cape Town area in workshop sessions to develop cut-out designs/collages under the supervision of art educators. In phase two, local leather artisans crafted the cut-out designs/collages into actual punching bags. Phases three and four involved educators passing their CPBs workshop skills onto the learners. This workshop process will be extended to include art educators and learners from schools in KZN. Phase five is a series of exhibitions that present the drawings, paper cut-outs/collages and punch bag sculptures that emanated from the workshops.
The CPBs project involves a broad range of institutional contributors, including the KZNSA who is supporting the local exhibition and art-making workshops. Van der Schijff says, “The National Research Foundation, via my own research activities at the University of Cape Town, provided seed funding for the project. Significant funding from the Prince Claus Fund in The Netherlands enabled me to roll out the project at the participating schools in Cape Town". The participating schools had responded to an open invitation via The Frank Joubert Art Centre, who also provided the premises for most of the workshops and contributed to workshop facilitation. Iziko Museums of Cape Town’s Education and Public Programmes contributed to the process by leading walkabouts and facilitating a workshop during the initial showing of the project.
The final CPBs exhibition is intended to be viewed as an single artwork. Johann’s iconography draws on art that relies on viewer participation (visitors get to punch the artworks), chance and the absurd. The project – at its core involving participation from both the makers and the viewers – is therefore an unpredictable process open to chance and serendipity that reveals itself as it unfolds. It is neither a scientific nor a pedagogical exercise, but is a conceptual artwork. It does not aim to provide definite answers to the questions it poses, but remains open to interpretation.
Please contact Peter Machen or Kirsty Machen
+27 (0) 82 447 6882
+27 (0) 74 644 1492
Book Launch: Durban – A Paradise and its People
Mint – the Retired Goods Company