FEEDING FAMILY AND FRIENDS MUCH MORE THAN SPICE AND ALL THINGS NICE

Cookery books, some brand new and others not so much, but all with recipes that will send you racing to the kitchen – an enjoyable escape in a time of Covid. DIANE DE BEER grabs an apron:

Spice Odyssey by Cariema Isaacs (Struik):

Isaacs affinity for spices reflects her Cape Malay heritage and the time spent cooking and baking in her grandmother’s kitchen in the Bo-Kaap, Cape Town’s Cape Malay Quarter.

Cumin and coriander, cloves and star anise as well as cayenne pepper and masala blends are all very familiar to her and part of her cooking vocabulary.

But going even further, her travels to India, Turkey, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Middle East have further enhanced her spice palate and add rich flavours to her recipes.

Just paging through, it is easy to pick many recipes that could become staples with vegetables, meat and fish all playing a starring role. She says that if she had to stop eating meat she could easily survive on cauliflower and what follows is a recipe titled My Beloved Gobi Masala (Cauliflower Spiced Curry). Then there’s also a leg of lamb, a bunny chow and a Bengali fish curry.

Or that wonderful Middle Eastern breakfast/brunch dish that pops up in slightly different versions from Morocco to Turkey, a Shakshuka, which in this instance is a combo of YouTube versions from a friend!

More than anything, you should be guided by the title. If you want to expand and add more spice to your food, this is it.

Anatoli Authentic Turkish Cuisine by Tayfun Aras (Human & Rousseau):

It is quite eerie in these times to write about restaurants because you first have to check whether they have made it.

I had many meals at Anatoli but that was more than 20 years ago for no other reason than I don’t visit the Cape that often and when I do, there are so many new places to try and usually the friends who live there are the ones who decide.

But following a visit to Istanbul a few years back, I fell in love with Turkish food and who better to introduce you to the magic of their cuisine than someone who is also familiar with this country. In fact he has been the owner of this iconic Cape restaurant since 2003 and this book is a way of sharing his recipes and kitchen secrets so that his native food can be celebrated in his adopted land.

He introduces himself, offers some background and also pays homage to the original owners of Anatoli, whom he credits for the longevity of the establishment. He is only the second owner and while he inherited their menu and used it to find his feet in the first few years, he then began to put together a meaner and leaner menu, which according to statistics consists of the items most favoured by customers.

It’s a glorious book with many familiar recipes (kebabs to brinjal in many different forms) as well as their most delicious and famous rice pudding. That will be first on my list to see if I can replicate anything close to the heavenly desserts we tasted in Turkey.

 I lost my heart.

Set A Table by Karen Dudley  (Jacana):

I was so upset when I first heard that Karen Dudley’s amazing deli The Kitchen was closing that I had to recheck and confirm when reviewing this beautiful book.

Yet another reminder of her remarkable cuisine skills, which reach much further than food.

I also remember that when I read that Michelle Obama was having lunch there during a visit to Cape Town, I felty it was such a magnificent choice and would give her a real flavour of our country’s food.

With this particular book, Dudley’s latest, she focusses on entertaining – hosting a dinner party, something that might again become popular once the worst of Covid-19 has abated and we feel safer with at-home dining. In the meantime, the book allows you to dream.

“When we set a table, we reveal ourselves in an intimate way,” writes Karen, and she would know. Like her sense of style from dressing herself to her deli, she immediately speaks volumes about who she is. Every  time I was privileged to interview her on one of her two earlier cookery book tours, she made a dramatic impact – of the best kind.

For her inviting people to dine is all about friendship and sharing stories and conversation and for the sheer joy of eating something delicious!

And while there are many pictures capturing her style as well as much information on entertaining, in the end, it also holds marvellous recipes specifically for entertaining as well as a reminder of the kind of food you could find at her memorable deli.

Thank goodness she left us with recipes to keep us going.

Google Karen Dudley or check on Facebook because I know in the future she will simply reinvent herself – and that will be something to watch.

Ottolenghi FLAVOUR by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage (Ebury Press):

This is the only cookbook not from our shores but Ottolenghi is an old friend and many followers will know that with his focus on vegetables in this one, it’s not a new trend: “I have never been shy about my love for vegetables. I have been singing the praises of cauliflowers, tomatoes, lemons and my old friend the mighty aubergine for over a decade.”

FLAVOUR is the third in a series and as the chef says it best: it’s about understanding what makes vegetables distinct and, accordingly, devising ways in which their flavours can be ramped up and tasted afresh; it’s about creating flavour bombs, especially designed for veg.

Here especially, he was challenged to ramp up flavour in vegetables and take it to new heights. “For me,” he confesses, “ this includes ingredients such as anchovies, fish sauce and Parmesan which are not, of course, often used in recipe books in which vegetables play the starring role.”

He understands this and the growing trend of defining as either vegetarian or vegan, but he decided to appeal to the widest group of vegetable lovers possible. However, when he uses an animal product (“we are not talking prime cuts of meat here, or a bluefin tuna steak!”), he will offer a vegetable alternative for the sticklers so that everyone can join in.

But he also introduces a secret weapon and about her, he has this to say specifically: “If you managed to spot a lime or two in places where lemons would appear in previous Ottolenghi books, or noticed a range of Mexican and other chillies peppered all over these pages, or if you came across quick pickles and infused oils used to give dishes a finishing touch – you have identified the fingerprints of Ixta Belfrage, who’s had those same fingers on the vegetable pulse for the last couple of years and helped shape the recipes in this book in particular ways.” Enough said! If you haven’t yet discovered the Ottolenghi magnificence, perhaps it’s time . His books like his food are sheer genius.

IN A TIME OF ISOLATION, GOOD BOOKS ARE YOUR MOST COMFORTING COMPANIONS

Some brand new, some around for a few months and all worth reading as writers watch and write about their world and develop the ideas that they think are worth turning into stories. DIANE DE BEER reviews:

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin Viking):

If you’re familiar with Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, you will know she has a unique voice. With her latest, Transcendent Kingdom, dealing with Gifty’s family journey, which takes them from Ghana to Alabama, you know it will be a story dealing in extremes. The two places are much more than continents apart.  And that is how Gifty’s family splinters apart, with each one of them trying their best to hold on to some kind of sanity. Halfway through the book, Gifty explains: “I miss thinking in terms of the ordinary, the straight line from birth to death that constitutes most people’s lives.” It’s not that the writer is dealing in the extraordinary – many families bump into this kind of hellish existence – it is Gyasi’s storytelling and the way she scratches around for deeper meaning reaching far wider than just this single immigrant family.

DIE HEELAL OP MY TONG by Anoeschka von Meck (Penguin):

Anyone who has spent any time with this author will know that much of her protestation  about this not being autobiographical will fall on deaf ears. It is as close to her life as is possible. And apart from the fact that she describes this as “bisaro-fiksie” which is directly translatable, she also dedicates the book to her father whose name an older generation might remember. But read the book. Von Meck isn’t only a gifted and imaginative storyteller, her way with the Afrikaans language is astonishing. “Die is ook die storie van Pa. ‘n Lagslimme Afrikaanse Al Capone, wie se innoverende sakeondernemings  hom soms gedwing het om sy kantoor van agter tralies te bedryf.” The author is on a quest to outrun her body, the baggage she carries from her past, and a life she tries to get a grip on – with not much luck. Personally, I felt she could have lost the italic bits at the end of each chapter dealing with another realm completely, but you need not include that in your reading. Her language alone will take you helter skelter on this gloriously madcap journey.

DIE ONGELOOFLIKE ONSKULD VAN DIRKIE VERWEY by Charl-Pierre Naudé (Tafelberg):

A mysterious metal monolith has appeared in northern Romania … reads a story in these past months as a number of these strange structures have been noticed around the world, only to disappear as soon as they are noticed.

Similarly, in Naudé’s novel, or the one written by a certain journalist named Hermanus Verdomp who has distanced himself from the manuscript, a certain building suddenly makes an appearance in a town on a previously desolate plot of ground.

And the ground is constantly shifting for the characters and the reader as you navigate this fascinating tale of a country which seems to exist in another universe.

Much has been written about this country’s horrific past, but when a writer finds a novel way to tell a story that everyone knows or think they know and navigates what many may view as tired territory in such a way that it grabs even reluctant readers, you discover something quite extraordinary.

This is the highly praised poet’s first novel and again, if you only read it for the language, the way sentences are constructed, the way the language creates its own pictures, the choice of a word or an idea and the characters who emerge with strong beating hearts, you will have a fantastic time.

But there’s even more. And while he’s dealing in horror, he deftly keeps you smiling most of the way.

AFTERLAND by Lauren Beukes (Umuzi):

I know this review is after the fact but the thing about Beukes is that she pre-empts life, and then it happens. She has this astonishing gift of tuning into the world and its zeitgeist in a way that’s quite uncanny.

She’s also a fabulous writer. Not only does she write about a world dealing with a pandemic but she also taps into #metoo and all the gender and sibling issues one could dream of. We live in a cruel world and she uses all those issues to tell a story of a mother who wants to protect her child from a world where the men have all gone – except for her young son.

But also trust Beukes to turn things on their head and make men the most sought after commodity – just as they are seemingly not that much in fashion.

It’s a grand romp and one that keeps you entertained throughout – bar the nuns who seemed to take up just too much space.

JOBURG NOIR edited by Niq Mhlongo (Jacana):

As good a writer he is, he is as smart an editor. In the foreword he explains: “Each time I read the stories, it seems that the whole history of Joburg and its diversity is brought to the fore. The best way to read this book then Dear Reader, is to imagine it was water – let your mind and body float with it.”

The diversity of the writers also play a part as their influence and experience is wide-ranging and determines the writing. But also the title, Joburg Noir lends itself to something quite mysterious and the writing plays its part as the stories truly – like the city – run wild.

Writer/editor Niq Mhlongo

The writing is extraordinary, the topics vary magnificently and the city, as the title suggests, plays a bigger role in some than others where it may simply be the backdrop. Not that the city of gold can easily be just a backdrop.

The way a short story book reads is especially handy when on holiday as you can simply read a story at a time without worrying when you open the book again and start with a fresh story. This is one to go back to but also to pass around to family and friends. A great selection.

TRESPASS by Rose Tremain (Vintage):

This was was first published in 2010 and reissued by Vintage this year (2020). While I knew the author’s name, this was my first encounter and what especially appealed was her storytelling ability. She grabs you from the start and her mind goes á wandering in most unusual fashion.

Speak about dysfunctional families, a topic that is never exhausted. Here we have two sets – two extremes. The one is a sister and brother who live in rural France. Aramon Lunel, an alcoholic with a violent past, lives in Mas Lunel with his sister Audrun, alone in her bungalow within sight of the main dwelling. It’s an uncomfortable if slightly mysterious co-existence.

Across the channel, a wealthy but weary antique dealer who is losing some of his celebrity shine, Anthony Verey, decides to visit his sister and her lover, whom he easily dismisses, in the French countryside. Glowing in his sibling’s attention, he decides that this is where he wants to reinvent himself – the French  countryside.

And then he visits Mas Lunel – but the bungalow is an eyesore. It’s an explosive run-up and the conclusion doesn’t disappoint.

CHEF MAHDI SANATKARAN INTRODUCES HIS IRANIAN CULTURE AND CUISINE

It’s become a mission for chef Mahdi Sanatkaran to introduce people to the Iranian culture and cuisine through his glorious meals. DIANE DE BEER experiences one of these gourmet gatherings and chats to the chef:

Pictures: Hennie Fisher and Mahdi’s daughter Maryam.

Iranian chef Mahdi Sanatkaran busy cooking his kebabs

When Iranian born Mahdi Sanatkaran started working with the Iranian Embassy in Bahrain, he didn’t know that 2 and a half decades later he would be cooking Iranian cuisine for South Africans intent on promoting his culture and his cuisine.

The route was a meandering one as he moved with the embassy to Nigeria, where he was appointed as head chef. “I didn’t have any formal training but they gave me some classes at the Foreign Affairs guest house to get me up to speed,” he says.

At one of the embassy events a man asked to meet the chef because the food was so good, and as the general manager of the Hilton in Abuja, he invited Mahdi to join his kitchen to learn more about cooking. “He enjoyed my cooking and wanted to enhance my skills,” explains the amateur chef.

Never someone to miss an opportunity, he worked from 7am to 7pm at the embassy and then he would be off for a stint in the Hilton kitchens. It was his first formal chef’s training which he kept up for quite a few years.

After nine years as an embassy chef with a daughter who was born in Lagos now reaching school-going age, Mahdi and his wife Hamideh Najafi decided to move to Pretoria for suitable schooling. He had met a man who invited him to join him in a restaurant partnership but when they arrived here, he discovered the potential partner didn’t want to invest anymore.

He had a family to support and quickly Mahdi was working in construction, and off to Mauritius on a landscaping job. He was finally appointed as a cameraman, translator and interviewer at the local branch of the Iranian Television Bureau in Pretoria where he worked from 2008 until 2014. He travelled all over Africa interviewing many leaders and heads of state and when they closed the office, he turned to something familiar, food.

Also familiar with the Subway franchise, he was off to the US for training before opening in Menlyn, but he soon realised it was difficult to survive with such exorbitant rentals. Instead he hoped to find a more unique offering by changing to Iranian fast food in the form of kebabs, so popular in his home country.

He changed the name from Subway to Shiraz the Kebab House (a historical city in Iran), but still the venue was problematic. Neither I nor my foodie friends were aware that this Iranian cuisine was on offer in our city and just before Covid-19, which would have closed them anyway, he decided again to try new avenues.

Iranian saffron marinated kebabs

And this is how I finally had the chance to taste Persian food and discover more about its many hidden treasures. Of course with the country not fêted in the rest of the world, little is known about its food and this is what Mahdi finds especially challenging. He wants to change that with every meal he makes.

Together with an import business selling Iranian foodstuffs (tahini, dates, nuts with especially pistachio a favourite, saffron – Iran is the biggest producer, he says – rose water and other rose products and more), he also offers Iranian meals to groups. The idea is to present it at someone’s home. They will invite the (paying) guests, say approximately 20 people at approximately R450 per person, allow Mahdi, his wife and daughter to take over their kitchen for the day, while those attending will be served a very generous Iranian menu.

It’s ideal during this time because you will be in charge of the guest list and it can be hosted – preferably in our summer weather – outside, which will allow for social distancing.

Iranian food, explains Mahdi, covers a huge spectrum. “Every city and region has its own cuisine and culture that comes with it.”

As a starter he served barley soup, a favourite in his country. It’s very traditional and often served with a flat bread but on the day, he didn’t include that because the rest of the menu would prove too overwhelming – and it still was.

This was followed by a meze-type table which Mahdi describes as similar to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines with differences in spices and marinating sauces. Saffron is the star of almost all their dishes with sumac a runner-up, and you’re not easily going to go without aubergine popping up in one or two dishes.

It could be grilled eggplant served in paste form with yogurt and walnuts (called burani and similar to what we would know as baba ganoush) or even a pickled and stuffed version. Accompanying that is something quite close to what we would recognise as tzaziki, perhaps a bit thicker than we’re used to it, with herbs. A typical salad is a shirazi with chopped cucumber, tomato, red onion and mint. Part of the deal which he couldn’t find on the day is what he describes as an unripe grape juice very common in Iran. He knows he can source it here too but also found an alternative solution.

Stuffed and marinated olives with pomegranate paste and walnuts, all Iranian staples, a spinach and bulgur wheat salad and a potato croquettes add to the taste explosion. One has to be careful because there’s mains to come but all of this is so moreish and hard to resist. It’s familiar yet with an unexpected fresh take.

Iranian chicken kebabs on the fire

Many of us could easily have stopped eating at this point, completely replenished, but the mains and dessert were yet to come. Kebab, an Iranian specialty, was on the menu with two favourites, a saffron-marinated chicken kebab (jooje kebab) and a grounded lamb cholo kebab, which means it is served with a loose Basmati-type rice. When you get the family talking about Iranian rice, they are in full agreement that this is the best rice in the world. “The scent of it alone lingers,” says daughter Maryam, who is in her final year to qualify as an industrial engineer.

Another Iranian treasure is something called tahdig (translated as potato crust). Mahdi describes this simply as a knockout! When they cook rice, potatoes are put in the bottom of the pan to prevent the rice from burning and this crispy crust is brought to the table for the guests to pick at. “If we don’t serve it, guests will ask,” he says, comparing it to that special ingredient not to be missed!

Also something unusual and part of the meal is a rice cake (tahchin), which is exactly what it sounds like but it has a crust and is made in a square. Sometimes it has a chicken filling or I suspect a chef can play around.

An Iranian rice pudding

The meal concluded with a rice pudding, which is another version of something we’re quite familiar with but by that time, I didn’t even have the tiniest space.

One doesn’t think about the cuisines you don’t know and hardly hear about because of those available out there. But one of the many benefits post-1994 has been the introduction of so many flavours to the South African food scene.

Contact Mahdi (who comes as a package deal with his wife and daughter) if you’re interested in hosting an Iranian feast. You can discuss the menu and everything about the event according to your needs and wants. He doesn’t supply the drinks, and guests bring their own. But nothing can prepare you for something presented with such warmth and deliciousness.

For more detail or to discuss bookings, contact Mahdi on email: sanatkaran2001@yahoo.com or on Instagram: @persian_food_stop.

YOUNGSTERS FOLLOWING THEIR DREAMS AT THE POPULAR PRETORIA BOEREMARK

You cannot but notice the sparkle and fighting spirit of three youngsters on the job at the Pretoria Boeremark (Farmer’s Market). They do their job with enthusiasm and energy that is about so much more than simply making money. They’re taking their future in their own hands. DIANE DE BEER spoke to the three youngsters about their hopes and aspirations:

Mahlatse and Karabo Aphane at work at the Bread Gypsy.

SIBLINGS KARABO AND MAHLATSE APHANE PLAN THEIR LIVES WITH A PURPOSE

Brother and sister Karabo (16) and Mahlatse Aphane (19) are on the march and it’s all about the future.

They have many strings to their bow, one being their work at the Bread Gypsy at the Pretoria Boeremark where their embracing smiles enthuse customers as much as the high quality artisanal breads. And then they go for the full monty, when the two Ndebele and Sotho speaking kids respond to the customers in Afrikaans.

Their mother, a remarkable woman, wanted them to be in Afrikaans schools. She is also a linguist and the children rattle through the seven languages they speak, two they can understand and another in the process of learning. “It’s not easy,” says Karbabo but both are fully aware of all the benefits.

That has been a strong determinator of much of what they do. He first started at the Boeremark collecting and pushing trolleys to make pocket money. Then another stall owner employed some of the young boys to help with his plants and compost. “It was tough though, because he picked us on a first-come-first employed basis.”

Once he was spotted by the management of the very popular Bread Gypsy it was all systems go and now the two Aphane siblings are fully integrated into the system. “I was very shy in the beginning but Karabo helped me to overcome that,” says Mahlatse.

Karabo Aphane on the job

But what happens the rest of the week is also a big part of their inspirational story. From a young age, these two siblings understood that sport – any sport – would add to their life. They tried everything and finally, Karabo settled on athletics and rugby, while Mahlatse has decided to concentrate on rugby, winning a rugby scholarship to study Sport Management at the University of Pretoria this year.

Karabo, who is through to grade 12 is at the ZAYO Sport Academy on a bursary where he plays rugby (scrumhalf or fullback) and athletics (400 and 800 m).

Their days usually start with a run  and their mom (whose job is a physical one) accompanies them for the exercise. But then they also participate in hectic training programmes for their rugby (and athletic) endeavours – some part of their programmes but others undertaken to improve their performances. They’re also starting to involve a younger sibling in their activities.

They both belong to a gym and while they can’t afford personal trainers (their market pocket money doesn’t quite stretch that far!), google and Youtube has been employed when they need advice.

Even at their young age, their’s is a life with purpose. As single parent children, they want to help their hardworking mom where they can, don’t want to add to her already heavy burden but they also have an eye on the future.

The academic year had just begun when I spoke to them, and Mahlatse was discovering the leap from school to university is challenging. And yet she is determined to find her way – both with the learning and the rugby. She knows both in  the classroom and on the field she has catching up to do but these youngsters know how to keep pushing ahead.

Mahlatse Aphane always ready with a smile.

When either sibling is despondent, the other steps in determinedly. That’s what they love most about rugby. “It’s like a family, it’s a team sport,” they both agree.

Personally I can’t wait to see how these Aphane siblings just keep pushing ahead and achieving. Things haven’t been gifted to them, even though their grit and determination have been spotted and rewarded especially by the Gypsy Bread team, but they know they simply have to work hard and dream even bigger.

So far they have reaped the rewards – joyously for those of us watching.

Mahlatse and Karabo Aphane are prepared to work hard for their dreams.

Catching up with the two sport fanatics once the Boeremark had re-opened post the stricter lockdown times, Mahlatsi was much more comfortable with her studies and had also joined the Blue Bulls for training. Her dreams don’t have any horisons, while Karabo is focussed on next year’s Danie Craven week.

With their determination and staying power, their stories are just beginning, so watch this space, I’ll try to keep up.

The best advertisement for her cookies is Audrey Milligan herself.

AUDREY MLLIGAN IS NO SLOUCH WHEN MARKETING AUDREY’S COOKIES

It’s tough not to notice Audrey Milligan of Audrey’s Cookies at the Pretoria Boeremark. It’s not that she accosts you, but she makes sure you try or at least take notice of her wares. “If you want to sell something, you want to tell people,” she says.

The fact that she started when she was just 11 years old hasn’t done anything to dampen her strong exuberant entrepreneurial spirit. A visiting American currently in Pretoria with her missionary parents, she had already started a lemonade stand back home as a youngster.

She began baking with her grandmother and it was her recipes that inspired the young lass although she has added to her repertoire from different family heirlooms. And as someone who chats to her customers and invites passers-by to try some of her sweet biscuits, she keeps her eye on the cookie trend and the like and dislikes of what she sells.

For someone this young that she is even aware of products like real vanilla extract is endearing and points to a prosperous food future, but Audrey isn’t thinking that far ahead. So far the money she makes from her cookie craft has taken her and her Dad to New Zealand where she visited a friend she met in South Africa who emigrated there and she has many more dreams for the future, like a computer to keep in touch with online friends –  as she never stops baking.

The family is involved to help this young baker whose cookies include the much loved choc chop, an oats cookie and something I had never heard of, a snickerdoodle – but as I discovered, it was my absence of cookie knowledge rather than it being quite obscure. Either way, once you’ve tasted any of Audrey’s cookies, you will be addicted. I have watched those with a sweet tooth around me, it’s a stall that always makes them linger.

Audrey Milligan in the kitchen with her cookies.

Her stall also packs a double knockout shot. There’s the cookies, but there’s also Audrey and because their stall has changed into something of a family business, each one with their own passion, one assumes at the start, that the young Audrey is simply a fun sales ploy – until you dig deeper and discover that there’s much more to this youngster with the enchanting smile and endearing sales talk.

She has her eye on the future, is traveling back to the US one of these days with hopes of returning, and has future dreams of studying to become an orthodontist. “I want to help people live healthier lives,” she says.

For now her online schooling and baking keep her busy, in fact her business has blossomed and her Mom has to help with the baking. She has sold more than 10 000 cookies and apart from her Boeremark endeavour, she also delivers to few outlets across Pretoria.

Having talked and written about Audrey, but not yet published the post, lockdown happened, and I put the story on hold. In the meantime the Boeremark is up and running again with strict lockdown adherence and I caught up with Audrey:

Audrey Milligan back on the job at Audrey’s Cookies stall.

“During lockdown I spent time  with my family. It was hard at first to not be at the market, but after a year and a half of waking up every Saturday at 3:00am it was also nice to sleep in for a few weeks. Also during lockdown, friends of ours opened a coffee shop called Wild Cactus Café in Garsfontein, and they asked if I could supply them with cookies to sell. I said, “Yes, of course!” Sales have been going well there and it’s nice to tell people where they can buy my cookies during the week.

“Just before we were locked down I thought about expanding my range of cookies and ultimately decided to come up with my own new cookie. It’s a chocolate version of my classic Snickerdoodle cookie that I call a Chocodoodle. I baked a bunch and was all set to debut them, but that was the first week the market was closed.

“Since we’ve been back to the market my Chocodoodles almost always sell out. They’re delicious. We were planning to visit America for a month in April/May this year but with the lockdown all of those plans changed. Looking at the numbers in different parts of the world, we’re happy to be in South Africa and feel safe here because people seem to care about being careful.”

So get to Audrey’s Cookies stall when you can, to catch both the sweetness in the young teen as well as in her wares!

Don’t miss the hugely popular Pretoria Boermark night market on Tuesday December 15.

A PIECE OF ART HEAVEN IN THE KAROO

All pictures courtesy of MAP

MAPSA Contemporary Art Gallery in Richmond
Mapsa logo

When traveling internationally, we wouldn’t think twice about going into an art gallery in a village you might be passing through, but locally – not so much. Harrie Siertsema and his team have made sure that both Richmond in the Karoo and Mpumalanga’s Graskop should stop you in your tracks. DIANE DE BEER takes a closer look and loses her heart:

MAP Opening of exhibition by Sam Nhlengethwa at Harrie’s Pancakes in Pretoria.

“Living with art” is a phrase invented for art connoisseur and instigator of the Modern Art Projects South Africa (MAPSA) Harrie Siertsema, which is mainly found in the small Karoo town Richmond and Graskop with two extraordinary galleries.

That’s right, not many when driving through or rather passing by on their way to either Cape Town or in the other direction, Johannesburg or pass through Graskop, would consider it possible to visit what many consider world class galleries.

But that’s exactly what Harrie and curator/artist Abrie Fourie have established with financial assistance from Harrie’s longtime partner Willem van Bergen with art possibilities growing and evolving at some speed..

It all began with Harrie buying what he thought was a single house in the small Karoo town, only to discover at closer inspection that it was much more – almost an entire block. While peeping through a window of the house he was interested in, someone tapped him on the shoulder and asked for work. The deal was done.

MAPSA Collection Richmond: from left Eric Duplan, Jan van der Merwe, Seretse Moletsane and Maja Marx

When you arrive in Richmond, this same George Williams will welcome you to MAPSA or for a stayover at their guesthouse.

With the purchase, Harrie’s many hours of play as a youngster-  when this former architect was measuring not only every room in his childhood home but also the furniture – kicked in.

But not only that, he can remember buying his first artwork at the age of 15 with money he earned working at a local stationery shop. “I still have it,” he says as I sit admiring the amazing art I can see over his shoulder in his city home, a constantly growing extension of that first purchase.

This is a man with a straightforward passion, but one he has followed without fail while on the way, not only supporting established artists, but also discovering up-and-coming artists at shows, SASOL New Signatures and Absa L’Atelier.

He describes his particular art bent as close to the Italian Arte Povera (poor art) movement that emerged in in the late 60s. “It wasn’t as if I knew of them at the time, it simply must have been a part of the zeitgeist,” he believes. His interest is recycled and rescued art rather than the corporate kind and when you look at the names like Jan van der Merwe, Gordon Froud, Jeremy Wafer, Sam Nhlengethwa, Willem Boshoff, Robert Hodgins, Cecile Heystek, Diane Victor, Claudette Schreuders, Sandile Zulu, Seretse Moletsane and Strijdom van der Merwe (a who’s who of local artists and the list goes on).

The narratives grow and there is a multitude of  South African stories being told by a diversity of local voices magically reverberating in places that will hopefully capture a much larger audience – of both local and international travellers.

Since its inception in 2005, MAPSA’s activities have included exhibitions in various venues in South Africa (Cullinan, Dullstroom, Graskop, Pretoria, Aardklop, Potchefstroom and Richmond) determined by Harrie’s many other business interests.

Like in Richmond where an old supermarket packed with broken pinball machines was turned into a spacious art gallery, Harrie was having a pancake at a small café in Graskop when before he knew it, he was the owner of a pancake joint with two burners. Many years later it has been turned into a flourishing business with Harrie’s Pancakes thriving in Graskop, Cullinan, Dullstroom and in Pretoria with a Delagoa Arts and Crafts alongside.

Colombé Ashborn’s MAP Graskop Cottage

Further expansion in Graskop also includes a hotel where it really all began and where some of his favourite artists were asked to decorate the rooms, which allow visitors the delight of sleeping in a space filled with not only the individual artist’s art, but also a real sense of the artist. A gallery similar to that in Richmond also features in this Mpumalanga town with space that artists can usually just dream of.

There’s always something happening in their art world. MAPSA has commissioned site-specific installations and published limited edition monographs while artist’s residencies, workshops and retreats are ongoing at different properties in Richmond.

They constantly engage with the community and well as dealing with the challenges facing contemporary artists. They are determined to make a difference and to contribute to change and development whenever possible. Collaboration is something they encourage and nurture and with Harrie and Abrie a dynamic duo backed by the rest of the team, including the logistic genius, executive manager Morné Ramsay, they are constantly at work to provide creative opportunities to artists from around the country as well as Richmond inhabitants.

For people tackling the N1 in any direction, Richmond is the perfect stop for a stayover. The first time I did this with family and friends, finding ourselves the next morning with mugs of coffee still in pyjamas in a gallery with spectacular art – in the middle of the Karoo – was simply magical and unexpected. And still feels unreal and something to be cherished with every stopover.

That’s what art can do for you. It keeps on giving in the most imaginative fashion and when you have someone like Harrie with the team he has surrounded himself with as he would, you know that you have to keep an eye on what they come up with next.

MAP Richmond Bookbinding Project, from left to right, Jesica Olifant, Felicity Pipes, Elizabeth Jones, and Mongezi Ncombo

On site in Richmond for example, they also have an extraordinary Bookbinding Project overseen by artist Mongezi Mcombo, an Artist Proof Studio alumni, who also produces his own work on the premises, OpenLab, a biennial project where artists can explore site-based public interventions, an interdisciplinary laboratory, the yearly Land Art Project for art students of the University of the Free State under the guidance of Professor Willem Boshoff (how can you resist with the never-ending vistas of the Karoo) and an informal Clay Brick Making Collaboration. And this sentence should really be open-ended because they are constantly coming up with yet another collaboration or creative venture that adds to MAPSA’s art experience.

Staying over is an option, but not everyone wants to take such a specific break when on the road. In that instance, Richmond is the perfect turn-off for a well-deserved artistic break. Pick up a MAPSA art walk map from the gallery, which will point you in the right direction to include their magnificent contemporary art collection. Also discover Willem Boshoff’s dictionary Word Woes (which as the title suggests works in different ways when read in either Afrikaans and English) as well as work by Strijdom van der Merwe, Johan Moolman, Gordon Froud and Abrie Fourie in the connected Sculpture Garden.

MAP Martli Jansen van Rensburg room in Richmond

Included in this space is also the previously mentioned bookbinding project and Ella Ziegler’s Does The Ground Feel Tears?, a text-based work using handmade alphabet bricks, a MAPSA collaboration with local brickmaker Trevor Snyders.

Sculptor Guy du Toit has added his version of Two Thousand and Ten Reasons to Live in a Small Town, a public art project facilitated by VANSA and funded by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund, which has many different goals incorporated in a single project.

 The latest in the MAPSA series is Richard John Forbes’s Black Room (see more detailed story following in this space) which will blow your mind and give you a sense of experiencing art in a very distinct and visceral manner.

Add to that MAPSA’s fruit and veg garden, Hoggie Viljoen’s indigenous garden as well as Shane de Lange’s text-based work The Fence and Hannelie Coetzee’s Tokkas, Londa and Oom Samuel engraved on a plastered wall.

If all of this sounds quite hectic, this is just a taster and not even half of it. But it can all be explored in your own time.  I would simply start with the gallery, have a wander through the sculpture garden and then see how much more is possible or keep the rest for the trip back or whenever you pass through Richmond again.

It can easily turn into a lifelong and life-enhancing discovery.

For more info and bookings:

www.map-southafrica.org

For stayover bookings at Richmond: contact Hazel Mbuyane on 073 386 8509 (but be aware that they often have residencies or other activities which prevent stay-overs)

The gallery has a number for George Williams on the outside which can be contacted for info or a walk-along: 073 436 4413

For bookings at the hotel in Graskop: 013 7671244

Phone Harries’s Pancakes manager Lindy Kruger, for gallery viewings or accommodation in Harrie’s Cottage: 078 111 9060 .

For good food when passing through:

Vetmuis: Magriet Burger on 082 380 1196 or

Die Padstal: Klaradyn Grobler 079 755 8285.

READ INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST RICHARD JOHN FORBES AND THE ASTONISHING BLACK ROOM FOLLOWING:

RICHARD JOHN FORBES’ ODE TO DARKNESS

The latest addition to Richmond’s surprisingly bustling art scene is BLACK ROOM recently established by sculptor Richard John Forbes who opened the door during the town’s annual book festival in the last week of October. DIANE DE BEER speaks to the artist:

Eclipse with black book in the background

What you find in Black Room, is a collection of his work of the last 15 years.

It’s all still a project in flux and one that flourished due to synchronicity, believes the artist. When standing quietly and motionless just after entering the Black Room, what you discover is that this is a place where the artist, his work and the space found one another, and the winner is the viewer.

It all happened when Richard was in transit between Joburg and George where he was moving – and lives now –  and the work was waiting to be moved from the north to the south. By the grace of how these things happen, Harrie Siertsema of Modern Art Projects South Africa (MAPSA) had a space looking for transformation, loved the work and Forbes’ ethos, and voila!

While Richard, always the philosophical one, doesn’t believe in luck but rather coincidence, he knows that what has been happening these past few months with his work – and the future to come – is meant to be.

Richard J Forbes with a blackened skull – found object

He works predominantly with large sculptures, quite a limiting niche to occupy, because it is art that is bought mainly by serious collectors and institutions. Synchronicity plays an especially large role because of the way he works and produces, and when you walk into Black Room it makes sense with it all coming together.

He  feels there’s a kind of providence about this specific exhibition and space, with Richmond on one of the main tributaries in the country (N1). It is meant to be seen and it seems the stars have aligned.

Entering the Black Room disturbed by light

 As an artist, he has often been told that his work is unpredictable. To my mind, with Richard being an artist, that’s a compliment. But, as with most things in life, people want you to keep producing the thing that perhaps made the biggest impact. That’s just not who he is. From start to finish he is about change and movement. Even the individual pieces move.

Richard J Forbes’ introductory poem read by his niece Delilah Richie Kaufman who is 10 and lives in England followed by his proposed viewing of the room:

He has also changed mediums. He started out as a painter, one who loved colour. Since he turned to sculpting, he prefers to stay with the colour (or lack thereof) of the material he is working with.

The word that has been used to describe what he does is ‘erratic’ and yet, there’s no sign of that in Black Room, which has brought many of his big pieces together enabling a conversation. “When I put them all together, there was a flow with the different pieces communicating with one another,” he says. “It was so exciting and I really hope that many people get to experience this.”

And if I could do anything to help and encourage, this is it. Being in Black Room with the artist is a privilege. While these creative individuals are often reluctant to speak too much about their work, Forbes explains that his partner, Kate has encouraged exactly that. She believes that it can only enhance the work if the artist shares something about the process.

“I always felt that I had spoken my words in art, but she has taught me that I need to express myself,” he explains and in the process perhaps accessing the work more easily for the viewer.

As such, because he is seldomly around, he has introduced quite a few aids to help viewers to engage with his work. One of these was to invite a 10-year-old niece (living in the UK) to read his poem that’s a kind of introduction to the exhibition and now can be listened to instead of just being read. And there’s more, which should allow passers-by to access the art easily.

Tornado in Richmond, NC – block print on Gelatong wood

With this work all gathered together, he introduces different themes and layers. As the viewer standing in this dark room with light intruding as much as you wish, there seems to be a kind of silence before the storm – something which permeates the work, one piece even representing a tornado with everything else seeming to flow from that.  “I feel there’s a bit of a storm in the room and it is important for me to have governance over that storm,” he says.

He adds that there are things in the universe that leave us in awe or that scare us and hopefully some of what you experience in the room filled with Forbes’ art is a pathway to navigate some of those feelings.

“People who have visited this work told me that at first they felt fear or confusion, a feeling of lostness,” he says, but he doesn’t want to elaborate more because it is something that people need to experience individually. And as is often the case, it’s all about who you are and what you discover that determines the experience. “The artist is a filter for the world and what filters out is his experience.”

Personally I felt an immediate emotional connection  to the space – quite turbulent. But then everything went very still …

Richard John Forbes working on his Black Book

What we then do with what we see and understand will be different for everyone. And that is what Richard enjoys, seeing how people experience his work and the effect it has on them. Just being in his presence, his excitement about the work is extraordinary. It’s what creatives do. They make something, put their feelings on display and allow you to do with it what you will.

Another unexpected bonus of Richard’s Richmond experiment is not working in isolation.  Being an artist in a studio can be a lonely occupation but once you start collaborating with others, it becomes a community. This is exactly what he found while working on the installation in Black Room.

Once he started talking to Harrie and they discovered similar obsessions with the tone (or lack thereof) of black, his journey took on new twists and turns – hence Black Room. Apart from the sculptures, it’s also black that keeps evolving and that keeps Richard engaged and playing. “Black became more and more significant in my work,” he says as he experiments with all kinds of ways to create a specific tone, a different dramatic effect. It is his curiosity about materiality that drives this particular experimentation, like when he works in paper pulp or burns charcoal, all of which imbues his work with energy.

With this current exhibition, Richard’s dream, which was sent into the universe, has come true. “All I want is a curator that allows me to be the expansive person I’m meant to be,” he says.

From left: Like-minded souls – partners Willem van Bergen, Harrie Siertsema and Richard J Forbes.

And in stepped Harrie Siertsema … and his team including curator Abrie Fourie, executive manager Morné Ramsay and the list goes on.

And we, the viewers, benefit from an experience that’s all heart.

www.map-southafrica.org

For stayover bookings at Richmond: contact Hazel Mbuyane on 073 386 8509 (but be aware that they often have residencies or other activities which prevent stay-overs)

The gallery has a number for George Williams on the outside which can be contacted for info or a walk-along: 073 436 4413

For bookings at the hotel in Graskop: 013 7671244

Phone Harries’s Pancakes manager Lindy Kruger, for gallery viewings or accommodation in Harrie’s Cottage: 078 111 9060 .

For good food when passing through:

Vetmuis: Magriet Burger on 082 380 1196 or

Die Padstal: Klaradyn Grobler 079 755 8285.

BUTTERFLIES TAKE FANCIFUL FLIGHT IN THE NEW FESTIVE NATANIЁL SHOW

It’s a time for festive celebrations and collective reflection Nataniël tells DIANE DE BEER as he elaborates about his end-of-year show at the Atterbury Theatre,  Butterfly running from December 1 to 6 and again at the beginning of February:

This is not a time to pontificate, be prescriptive or preachy. It’s the end of a tough year with calamitous interruptions of which no one knows the outcome  – yet ­– but with his traditional festive season show, Nataniël wants to spotlight the effect of this period of isolation without dwelling on Covid19 specifically.

He mentions love and loss, neglect and honesty, blame and forgiveness, insanity and hope, all of which he wants to investigate from his unique vantage and inspired by his continued isolation.

For some of us, being cut off from the rest of the world might have been frightening but for others it was a time to exhale, try to regain a sense of focussed living. “I discovered I quite enjoyed the frugal lifestyle that resulted,” says this artist of extravagance, and he immediately points to his costumes for this show specifically.

Deciding on their design route, he and his long-time designer Floris Louw went big. “Once the shops opened, we could buy fabrics but nothing new was coming into the country,” he notes.

Anyone who knows his particular bent to surprise will know that this simply wasn’t good enough. And because they had to work from different towns, it all happened digitally. “We found all these fabrics that I had bought and never used for previous shows, pieces that could be mixed and turned into something else.”

And it is all this improvisation that brings a different kind of creativity to the surface. In the end, the costumes might have had an element of frugality in terms of what was available, but being the artists they are, these garments are even bigger and more spectacular than before.

That’s Nataniël. Make it tough and he will find a way to make it work. While the theatres are only allowed a 50% capacity, the costs of staging a show remain the same.

He is flummoxed about the fact that theatres are compared to rugby matches in the pandemic sense because it has been found internationally that theatres are some of the safest venues around. “Audiences sit quietly and listen to a show. There’s no communicating and cheering or physical touch. But we still have similar costs as if the auditorium is fully packed. Theatres aren’t charging you only 50 percent fees,” he notes.

And again being artists, they don’t provide 50 percent shows. Once they decide to step up, it’s all systems go – and with more than a few months with dark theatres, there’s an excitement bubbling as the doors are open slowly yet with exuberance.

Musically he believes he has made accessible choices. “This is easy on the ear,” he says as he turns to his text which consists of different stories – not dealing with the pandemic and yet, he has been intrigued by the way individuals have reacted to these unexpected challenges. – — “People talk about going back to normal. I don’t want to go back.’’ This is a time for change and that’s the extraordinary opportunity he hopes many will embrace.

It is a time to learn and to leap into a newfound reality. “Many believe in stability but that sounds like a slow death to me,” he says. “I might be exhausted, but I’m excited.”

The butterfly symbolises conscience.

As always Nataniël is joined on stage by Charl du Plessis (piano), Werner Spies (bass), Peter Auret (drums) and Nicolaas Swart (vocals). With a soft sigh he knows live theatre comes with its own baggage and a recent visit to the Charl du Plessis Trio album launch reminded him how some people simply ignore theatre etiquette. “We had someone in front of us who was conducting a WhatsApp conversation throughout the show. She was in and out of the theatre to receive and return messages. I wanted to trip her,” he said. But few will dare to be a disturbance in his shows. In recent years, he simply calls them out aware that if they disturb those on stage, it also worries the audience.

Another irritation he has discarded is corporate bookings. “I only want people in the theatre who want to be there, not because someone else has bought them a ticket!”

While the show running from December 1 to  6 is practically  sold out with only a few seats left, bookings have been opened for a later mini season which runs from February 2 to 6, a great way to start 2021 –  in the theatre. Book at itickets.co.za for the first season or for the February show at itickets.co.za

Talking about exhaustion, apart from the TV show Toegang, currently on kykNET (find all the recipes in English on his recently launched blog www.smallcoronations.com), he has also launched some ridiculously delicious cookies available in selected shops and a smart new olive oil range, as well as his latest book of short stories.

Nataniël Stories Dik Dun Think Thin will be sold at his many shows and as always is a collection of stories in Afrikaans and English, some written for shows and tweaked for a book and others specially written.

Regarded by many as one of our best short story writers, anyone who has listened to one of his tales will know about his use of language, the way he plays with and applies specific words and then, of course, his imagination, which seemingly has no limit. From show to show, book to book, they keep spilling out from a mind that doesn’t appear to be working too hard to create a world we all want to escape to.

He describes this as “a very happy book”. The title won’t be explained in any of the stories but recently someone gave his childhood piano teacher the funeral programme of a woman called Sally from Porterville who used to work for the Le Roux family when they lived there.

“Paul Kruger had smaller funeral,” says Nataniël, who explains that Sally was larger than life with HUGE personality. “She always used to say Dik, Dun, Thick, Thin,” he says almost like an exclamation mark. “I couldn’t believe how they found a way to get it (the programme) to me,” he says as he pays tribute to someone who made an impression on his young life.

Again that is part of his extraordinary storytelling ability. It often seems quite fantastical yet much of the time reflects the weird and wonderful byways of his life. He has a way of exploring those adventures with eyes that look at the world with wonder.

And we’re the blessed recipients.

CAROLS AND CHORDS IN THE CAPITAL

It’s time to make music in the capital city says the CEO of Aardklop, Alexa Strachan, as she gathers a coterie of classical contributors to lead the charge. DIANE DE BEER reports:

Following a critical call from Nataniël about a crisis in Pretoria’s classical music world because of the closure of yet another venue,  CEO of Aardklop Alexa Strachan knew she would have to take action.

With designated classical venues diminishing in the city and classical musicians finding less and less opportunity to perform, it was time to act.

“I know that our audiences hail mostly from Pretoria and Joburg and the Jacaranda city has always had a strong classical music following. It suddenly felt as if we were being presented with an opportunity in what have been tough times for especially performers and festivals,” she notes.

There aren’t many venues with grand pianos and that was the first priority, with funding also a head scratcher.
“But I was willing to take the risk with the first show,” even before she had all her ducks in a row. She turned to classical musician Charl du Plessis and together they approached Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool with the hope of finding a new home for the birth of their new  brainchild, Aardklop Aubade (morning love song) – which they duly did with great success.

Their aim is to present monthly Sunday morning concerts in Pretoria at a venue that is both familiar and easy to access. With their youth drama projects, Aardklop has forged a relationship with the school and it wasn’t too much of a stretch for them to step in as partners with Radio Sonder Grense (RSG), a media partner.

What appealed to Strachan was that music is an universal language which also broadens their base which is a bonus in tough times. “It’s always better to have more than one basket,” she points out.

For Aardklop, as for many others, 2020 has been a year of dread and disappointment which has forced them to take a long view but even more specifically, to think creatively – something that’s part of being an artist.

Their first show will be presented on  December 13 in the AHS Potgietersaal at Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool at 11am. “I wanted to end the year on a more optimistic note,” says Strachan.

With Du Plessis her classical contact and compiler for the future, she wanted him to be part of the first concert and they decided on Carols and Chords with Du Plessis on piano, Lizelle le Roux on violin and Ockie Vermeulen on organ. The focus is on specially arranged Christmas music of the past 300 years from Silent Night to Bethlehem Ster and Somerkersfees and many more.

Accompanist to Nataniël, Du Plessis is a solo artist in his own right as a classical pianist who also performs regularly with his own jazz group, the Charl du Plessis Trio. Vermeulen, who is currently the university organist for Unisa as well as the organist at the Pretoria East Ned Geref Church while Le Roux is a lecturer in Law at the University of Pretoria and also launched her first solo CD last year which earned her a Ghoema for best solo instrumental album. It’s a formidable combo stepping out for this debut concert.

They will also be joined by an Affie saxophone player, Rohan Grobbelaar (gr 10) who will perform Jean Baptiste Singelée’s Concertino, accompanied by Dr Jannie le Roux on piano.

“We’re hoping music fans will make a morning of it because snacks and wine will be available with seating in the shade before or after the 60 minute show,” says Strachan who believes these first steps will herald small new beginnings.

Du Plessis is thrilled with this new venture, excited about the future and the planning of a series of classical concerts.

“It’s also exciting to discover and explore a new space with an already established tradition. Acoustically it is sound and a beautiful auditorium,” he elaborates.

And Strachan loves the expanded gallery which guarantees good viewing as well as listening.

They hope that this will be viewed as a gift for classical music lovers.

Covid rules will be followed strictly.

Aardklop Aubade – Carols & Chords

Date: 13 December 2020

Time: 11am until noon

Price: R150 (R120 pensioners)

Venue: Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (school hall)

Tickets: Ticketpro

In A World That Feels Closed, Teksmark Breaks Down Barriers – As The Arts Should

PICTURES: Nardus Engelbrecht

It was the fifth year of the Teksmark (text market) at the end of last month, something originating from Hugo Theart (artistic director: Kunste Onbeperk) and supported by Cornelia Faasen (CEO of the Nasionale Afrikaanse Teater-inisiatief NATi) and Lara Foot (CEO and artistic director  of the Baxter Theatre Centre) – and not even Covid-19 was going to scupper their plans.  Going from strength to strength, this year’s crop of entries exceeded 120, a clear indication that people had time but also the talent to start writing. DIANE DE BEER reports:

Die Sondige Sewe by Niël Rademan
For many this was their first outing to the theatre post Covid-19 and Cape Town’s Baxter (the home of the Teksmark) made surer everyone complied with the rules.
Fortunately, huge crowds are not a necessary part of the deal as the three days pack in mainly the playwright and artists involved, a few producers and possible independent funders, as well as representatives of the different festivals.
A clutch of debut plays are selected for possible further development and short extracts are featured by selected directors and casts. Sometimes the playwright is involved but not always. The most exciting development these past few years has been the inclusion and thus expansion of entries from all the official languages. It has made a huge difference in a country too small to create pockets of the arts. We need the cross-pollination to grow and flourish.
We should all be pulling together but language has always been a stumbling block in the sense of who speaks and understands what and with not many (white folk) who can speak more than two of the 11 official languages.
Two of the comedies from the Suidoosterfees Nati Rising Star Project: Die Workshop by Fabian Rainers (left) and Al Dra ‘n Aap ‘n Goue Ring by Margo Kotzé

But if anyone is going to find a solution, this is the perfect platform and already this year there has been a much stronger push for collaborations. Sometimes a playwright would use three languages to tell a story. In another instance, a gang of playwrights got together to write a play almost in Robert Altman fashion where different sketches are pulled together to make a whole.

It’s just easier to mix and match on every level when this kind of collaboration becomes the norm and for audiences the variety is huge. As much as everyone has their favourite artists, there’s nothing as exciting as a much larger pool to choose from and to witness.
This is a time to move forward and not back. Once the barriers came down, there was an explosion on our stages of new talent. The diversity is to our benefit locally and we could lead the way internationally. This is the way to enrich and enlighten minds by experiencing one another’s stories and the way stories are told.
Covid-19 has been a nightmare for everyone, but if anything has been a certainty in these uncertain times, it is that artists will find inspiration and show us many different ways to move forward.
When one of our top and most prolific playwrights Mike van Graan, for example, collaborates with the likes of Wessel Pretorius and Malika Ndlovu sparks are going to fly. There were six playwrights in all, none of whom had met before when they arrived at the Teksmark.
They had been commissioned by Lara Foot to attempt this way of telling a storie(s) with Van Graan as the one who had to pull everything together with some kind of through-line. They had weekly digital meetings but this was the first time they saw an extract from the work.
The Valley of the Shadow by Qondiswa James, Tankiso Mamabolo, Tiisetso Mashifane, Malika Ndlovu, Wessel Pretorius and Mike van Graan.
The thing I found interesting having read the play, The Valley of the Shadow, without knowing who the writer(s) was – was that I didn’t detect that it was a team effort. Because of the different characters (and that was a clever way to do this kind of collaboration) each story had a specific voice which meant that the writing could organically change from scene to scene.
Playwright Kanye Viljoen’s text was in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa, as she dipped into a Karoo tale familiar to many – a mermaid somewhere in the Meiringspoort environs. It’s a magical South African story with roots in the past (meaning different things to different people in the group) but set in our present and how we can tell stories.
Kanya Viljoen’s multi-lingual Grot
She wanted to uses different languages as would happen in a South African context. Even when you don’t understand everything, it doesn’t land strangely on the ear because it rings true. I have watched many bi-lingual plays at The Market in the past where English was used to tell the story and isiXhosa or isiZulu perhaps to capture more of the culture through the language.
Do you miss out when you don’t understand something? Of course, but perhaps finally in this technological advanced  time, there’s a solution other than just sticking to a universal language – in the South African context, English.
People playing in their own language and those listening is something to experience – still not common in this country. Hopefully, as this kind of writing happens more frequently, someone will find an imaginative fix.
Another language case in point was iNau and ander drama by Jolyn Philips, who brings the lives of three women, Bientang, Narina and Lydia, to share a very particular story of which this particular unfolding makes a strong statement of this time – and more than anything it is about time.
To capture these silenced voices for those who have never been without voice, she sat down after the performance (in which she also participated) and described the toughness of allowing the drama to unfold. It needs to be part of the performance because it explains so much for those who need to hear. It’s a powerful performance and can be described as life-changing without any dramatics.

There was much to praise in all the other selected Teksmark plays including themes of dysfunctional families playing out by using mercy killings (assisted dying) at the heart of the story in Mike van Graan’s What We Wish For; Covid Moons, Clare Stopford’s response to being trapped in a high-security block of flats in Cape Town during the first Level 5  lockdown (the play opens on Friday 20 November and that night is sold out but tickets are available for all other performances from 17-21 November. Book online now at https://artstown.co.za/) and what she achieves is innovative and refreshing; Niël Rademan’s contemporary cabaret Die Sondige Sewe managed to revive a tired and now neglected genre with smart writing and snappy performances with a simplistic execution which benefits the script.

What We Wish For by Mike van Graan

The other magnificent move was the inclusion of a series of plays which formed part of the Suidoosterfees Nati Rising Star Project. As the name implies, these are young playwrights who attended a writing school in the Eastern Cape led by Abduragman Adams through the Jakes Gerwel Foundation.

They dovetailed smartly with the Teksmark and addressed issues such as bullying and sexual predators on the one hand, while on the other there were two delightful comedies; the issue-driven farcical Al Dra ‘n Aap ‘n Goue Ring and Die Workshop, with playwright  Fabian Rainers finding a tongue- in-cheek way to tackle universal issues.

As in previous years, the playwrights keep moving the goalposts for the following year’s  crop – and this time it feels as if a closed world allowed everyone to break down all existing barriers!

Viva the arts!

 

 

 

Featuring Both Old Worlds and New As European Film Festival 2020 Goes Virtual

Polish film Sweat

It’s movie bonanza in November with the annual European Film Festival going virtual for free. The movies are premiere productions from different European countries with topics ranging from serious to silly, depending on your mood. DIANE DE BEER takes a closer look:

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, European movies were commonplace on our screens. Not so much anymore – sadly. But it has been remedied, the blow softened by the emergence of the annual European Film Festival from November 12 to 22. And in the past couple of years, the contributions have been quite extraordinary.

Not much good has come from this year, yet trust the innovation of the arts to save the day every once in a while. This year’s European Film Festival goes virtual and the good news is that it comes for free – bar one which many will gladly pay to see.

With a diverse line-up of 12 brand new films, all of which are premiere screenings in South Africa, for those who have been lost without movies it’s a bonanza with a wide range of topics and performers from different European countries.

Making a personal pick of four films to watch in advance, I started with two very different war movies – a sign of the times:

Belgian contribution Home Front directed by Lucas Belvaux is set in a small French village where the 60th birthday of one of its female inhabitants is being celebrated.

But times stops when her estranged brother (in the imposing yet almost brutish form of Gerard Depardieu) suddenly interrupts the festivities.

The implosion is almost immediate but apparently also not unexpected. That he turns up with a gift is what surprises everyone, but he quickly eradicates any possible goodwill by upending the proceedings – and thus the film unfolds in a horrific story of war set in the past but with the present of this small community held in a vice grip that seems immovable.

It’s a thoughtful and beautifully wrought film, unexpected in its powerful storytelling of a past that is hidden, mostly in shame, but also in denial as happens with war and the atrocities (in this instance mostly) men do, in situations of entitlement and terror.

Delicately told, it also unveils a story of racism between two countries of which everyone is aware but the victors rarely acknowledge – and those times are illuminated by a harsh spotlight that cannot be ignored – and hopefully allow people to move on .

It’s of its time yet perfect for our current times when marginalised lives matter.

War is also the subject of Lithuania’s In The Dusk directed by Sharunas Bartas and part of the Official Cannes Selection 2020.

It is post-World War 2, 1948, but it is as if no one has noticed that the war has ended. “You can find the same war in Ukraine – and its happening today,” says the director by way of explanation. And it is exactly that.

Imagine that the rest of the world is still in shock and recovering from a world war but yours is still ongoing. Yet no one cares, they’re done. And that’s when those who want to invade find fertile ground. “It’s a world of real wars, not Cold Wars or hybrid wars,” the director elaborates.

Lithuanian film In The Dusk

Living in the forest near the family farm to which the  19-year-old Unte returns from the war, is a partisan group resisting Soviet occupation. While the invaders are promising better times, having just come through a long period of war, those defending their country are suspicious. They know not to trust and are determined to stick it out.

It’s a grey and grim reality for those who can hardly survive in peaceful times and now have to keep fighting for their homeland. But that’s what war is.

And perhaps these two films want to make exactly that point. There are no winners. For those dying to keep the fight going all around the world, what is the end game?

But again it is hauntingly shot, the performances detailed and emotional, especially from the young Unte and his father, and the harsh reality simply cannot be kept at bay.

Talking about marginalised people, especially with extremists again causing mayhem and murder in Europe, they don’t come more targeted than the British Pakistani rapper in Mogul Mowgli starring the extraordinary Riz Ahmed, such an exciting young actor who makes such interesting role choices.

British film Mogul Mowgli

As Zed, he is on the cusp of a huge career breakout tour, but is suddenly struck down by a terrifying illness and forced to move back into his conservative family home. Here he has to battle not only the disappointment but also the traditions of his parents which are far removed from what he hoped his life would be.

Quite a few films and TV series have been made about second generation immigrants who have to balance the imbalance between their land of birth and the traditions of their parents, but this is a novel approach and one that reaches across genres and generations.

It’s the UK’s offering and a smart one at that, with the whole world trying to come to terms with shifting borders and identities. Directed by Bassam Tariq, it won the Fipresci Prize in the Panorama section of the 2020 Berlinale. It’s both thought-provoking and cunningly told with rap playing a vital role.

Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund could sound quite daunting, but I was quite fascinated as I wasn’t familiar with the book but had seen director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Oscar-winning film The Counterfeiters.

This is something completely different and even though the film disappointed, I was pleased to engage with the story.

Austrian film Narcissus and Goldmund

This Austrian entry is set in the dark Middle Ages where two very different characters meet in a monastery, become close friends, but choose very different lives. Narcissus prefers to spend his life in prayer and meditation even though he has fallen in love with his adventurous friend Goldmund. He in turn decides to escape into the more enticing life outside of the restrictions of religion to lead a more hedonistic life.

The problem was in the script rather than the filmmaking. It felt as if the scope could have been narrowed down to bring more substance instead of a sketchy retelling of the basic storyline. Too much information and too little enquiry.

Despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, EU Ambassador to South Africa, Dr Riina Kionka, said: “Twelve films in 11 days shows the determination of this European partnership to overcome difficult circumstances. Since my arrival in South Africa this is my second European Film Festival:  I can tell you that it is a cultural highlight not to be missed. In addition, I invite you to participate in the various special events lined up during the Festival!”  

Dutch film Becoming Mona

Other films include: 

  • Marco Bellocchio’s award-winning film The Traitor  about an ‘80s whistleblowing  mafia boss-turned-informer who triggers the largest prosecution of the Sicilian mafia in Italian history.
  • The German film Curveball is a sober warning about how terribly easy it is to slip into war, with this fact-based story about how a lie regarding chemical weapons sets in motion a chain of events that results in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, forever changing the global political landscape.
  • The Spanish film One Careful Owner tells how a woman buys a new home with a certain ‘inconvenience’, namely that the 80-year old current owner will remain living in it until she dies. It’s a story filled with tenderness, emotion and much laughter. 
  • Also honing in on female relationships, the French film Proxima, by director Alice Winocour, is about a French woman astronaut who is forced to consider her priorities of family versus career. *
  • Becoming Mona, directed bySabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden, deals with Mona’s struggle to break free from the stifling constraints of a life lived in service of other people’s egos.  
  • The Polish film Sweat by director Magnus van Horn focuses on a fitness motivator who has become a social media celebrity and influencer, highly pertinent issues in this modern digital era.

 The line-up also includes two powerful documentaries.   The Irish representative, The 8th, is about the highly emotive and divisive topic of abortion and women’s reproductive rights. And Nathan Grossman’s deeply personal Swedish documentary I am Greta follows the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg from her one-person school strike to her astonishing wind-powered voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to speak at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City. 

The festival is accessible online across South Africa only. The film screenings are free, except for I am Greta, whose entry fee of R50 serves as a fundraiser for a climate action group that will be awarded screening proceeds after the festival.

Look out for the full programme of screenings and special events as well as bookings on  https://films.eurofilmfest.co.za/ only available for viewing in South Africa.