THE PURPLE HAZE OF PRETORIA’S JACARANDAS CREATES THE PERFECT PICTURE OF A CAPITAL CITY

DIANE DE BEER

PICTURES: Thomas Honiball

PRETORIA, jakarandastad,

Dis weer Oktobermaand…

Miskien is dit die rede dat

Ek só verlang vanaand,

Want hoeveel jare het jy nie

My life en leed gedeel

En stil geluister wanneer ek

My ou kitaar bespeel

This is the first verse of singer/songwriter sublime Koos du Plessis’s ode to Pretoria.

He frames his beloved city in a cloak of purple haze, which is how many of us identify the most colourful capital city.

But much controversy has surrounded this emblem of the city over the years and there are visions of fights for this particular tree and the replanting and upkeep of the city’s pride for those of us living here long enough.

Money talks, and the hordes of tourists who visit the city annually is proof enough for everyone who witnesses this influx that, at least for the moment, Jacarandas are allowed to flourish and bloom in all their splendour.

The four annual stages of the Jacaranda tree

Jacaranda trees were first imported from Rio de Janeiro by Baron von Ludwig of Cape Town in about 1830. A travelling nurseryman from Cape Town named Templemann brought two Jacaranda trees to Pretoria in 1888. He planted them in the garden he had laid out for Jacob Daniel (Japie) Celliers at Myrtle Lodge in Sunnyside, shortly after it was established as Pretoria’s second suburb.

In the 1890s Celliers secured a concession from President Paul Kruger to plant trees in Groenkloof for the Government of the Republic. James Clark, a wholesale and retail seedsman, florist and nursery, received the order to import seeds from Australia.

The story goes that among the consignment of eucalyptus seeds Clark imported for planting in Pretoria in 1898, a packet of Jacaranda seeds had found their way.

On 16 November 1906, the 51st anniversary of the founding of Pretoria, Clark presented 200 Jacaranda trees to the City Council as a birthday present to Pretoria. These trees were planted in Bosman street in Arcadia Park where the Pretoria Art Museum was established in 1864.

Frank Walton James was appointed as town engineer in 1909. He suggested the planting of Jacarandas in all the streets of the town to enhance the status of Pretoria as the proposed capital of the Union. When Jameson left the Council in 1920, fewer than 6 000 trees had been planted. By 1939, with the constant encouragement of Jameson, the number of trees had risen to 17 000.

Today there are approximately 40 000 Jacaranda trees in the streets of Pretoria.

And these facts were all handed to me in a letter by Jacaranda activist, architect Thomas Honiball, a man who has always battled and fought for the preservation of Pretoria as the beautiful city it is.

Some of us still remember the huge controversy about the west façade of  Church Square, which was going to be demolished, but was finally left intact thanks to Honiball and a committee he had established with exactly this in mind. And the city proudly hails this part of its heritage today.

The aforementioned letter was written with a request to the Minister of Agriculture for the planting of Jacaranda trees in the city of Tshwane – and fortunately those battles were hard fought and won.

For Thomas, who lives in Nieu Muckleneuk with a spectacular view of Jacaranda blossoms when they are in full bloom, these trees hold and embrace the spirit of the city. He believes they were first planted to establish the character of a city that would be named the country’s capital – and thus it was.

“We have something that no other city boasts in such abundance,” he says. He also argues it is especially the city’s layout, the long streets, and the koppies,  that allow for the spectacular showing of this tree Pretorians have claimed for themselves.

And he has many anecdotes to claim the city’s towering Jacaranda status. “I was told the story that Elon Musk’s grandfather when he flew over the city and saw the spectacle of the purple blooms was so overwhelmed, he emigrated here,” he says.

He also remembers as a young Free State lad paying his first visit to the city and sighting the purple spectacle, how it overwhelmed him. “It was just so pretty!”

Thomas Honiball and the book of listings he instigated.

That’s not all he achieved in this city. He was also instrumental in the production of a book with the listing of buildings worth holding on to, often used by city planners to save specific buildings which form a part of the city’s heritage. It’s not something South Africa has always done well and we need these visual planners who understand the importance of cherishing the old while celebrating the new.

He is very aware that everything cannot be kept simply because its old. There’s a saying that if a city centre doesn’t change, keep up with the times, it will die.

Fortunately for Tshwane, we have citizens like Thomas Honiball in our midst who have the city’s interests at heart and understand the importance of the picture perfect visual that keeps us all mesmerised.

DIRECTOR SYLVAINE STRIKE CELEBRATES 60TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE ICONIC EDWARD ALBEE SHOWPIECE, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

PICTURES: Jesse Kramer

Edward Albee’s iconic play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf celebrates its 60th anniversary. But this didn’t scare seasoned director Sylvaine Strike, who jumped at the chance even if she knew it would be tough. She spoke to DIANE DE BEER about the process:

Alan Committie (George), Robyn Scott (Martha), Berenice Barbier (Honey) and Sanda Shandu (Nick).

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf runs at Cape Town’s Theatre on The Bay until Saturday 8 October with performances every Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm and a Saturday matinee at 4pm.  It then moves to Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre in Fourways, where it will run from 14 October to 6 November with performances Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm and matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 3pm.

An age appropriate restriction of no under 13’s apply.

Tickets are available through Computicket

“Where does one begin?

“A 60-year-old iconic play, a great classic known all over the world and translated into many languages. The first time I came across Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was at university when I was in first year and the play at the time was 30 years old and that seemed ancient! And now, it’s 60 years old and I’m doing it. So do the maths!”

But this is Sylvaine, someone who understands the pitfalls and go for it anyway. It’s been mammoth, far harder than she could imagine. And it started with the casting. The ensemble includes Alan Committie (George), Robyn Scott (Martha), Sanda Shandu (Nick) and newcomer Berenice Barbier (Honey).

Committie initially approached her with the project, asking if she would direct him and Robyn in those roles, she explains. “And quite frankly, even though the roles seemed so ancient when I attempted them in first year (I attempted to play Martha at 19, in an exercise of course when we were studying texts!), but now I realise that they weren’t that old at all.”

En famille in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

 Albee specifies that Martha is 52 and George is 48, so she’s gone with the original ages. “Robyn is a little younger, but it feels completely right so I immediately said yes, jumped at the chance of directing an Albee play. With him there’s always the circularity, the nonsensical, as each character exists in their own private ego, their own private silo, as we try and make meaning out of nothing for a night of absolute debauchery, madness, game playing and relationship thrashing.”

With her two leads in hand, it was time to turn her attention to the younger players. The chemistry between the couples as well as that between the younger and older couple, is what makes the play soar. That’s why, Alan and Robyn were both in attendance with the extensive auditions.

Post-covid, a lot of amazing young actors turned up  and much brilliance presented itself, but Sylvaine had to find the right match and chemistry. “It was also important to redefine the casting, to challenge Albee’s instructions, to challenge what an all-American couple looks like now, but it was finally determined by Berenice and Sanda, who are just exceptional together and have the most fantastic funny bones, and perfect chemistry.”

While it was written and produced as an all American play and Albee’s description of Nick is a blond, good-looking, all American boy,  the times determined those norms. “It’s a typical American look, but that’s changed 60 years down the line and about time,” says the director.

Sanda Shandu (Nick) and Berenice Barbier (Honey).

Once she had cast the production, she realised that hers would be a very new take on this play. And that’s the honest way to treat these classic productions – honour the writing yet adapt to the times.

As always, she did blind casting, but a very distinctive voice in her started asking questions. What would it look like, a Black man in the role of Nick? How will it be and what changes will occur in Albee’s writing that will hit home that haven’t hit home before in other productions all over the world?

And it came down to Berenice and Sanda who are just exceptional together. He isn’t new to the scene and people might recognise him from King Kong, but this is Berenice’s debut.

Sylvaine Strike pictured by Martin Kluge.

In the final analysis according to Strike, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has hardly ever been done any other way than with two white couples and that’s missing out on numerous opportunities, because the text lends itself to how much and how little has changed in the US. And that especially is thrown into sharper focus.

She got together with her set designer Wolf Britz very early on to discuss what the template would be. She reminds me that she works with her set before anything else and both of them were completely in agreement that Albee’s words are enough and very little else is needed to support this particular story, this particular night in these people’s lives.

“So we haven’t gone with the clutter and the realism of an academic’s house. It is quite stark and very inviting in the sense that it is all in plush pink. But I actually don’t want to give too much away. It’s a perfect setting for things to go absolutely wrong and dark.

General chaos with the full cast.

“We basically have sofas and curtains and that’s to be used in ways that haven’t been used before, as usual,” she says with hints of Sylvaine secrecy and surprise.

To get the orchestration of this world, she’s using a world of ice and of liquor, tinkling of bottles and even more. And that, she says is just a tiny bit of it all, but it needs massive orchestration.

She chose to go with the American version of the play, because of the 60th celebration, and the cast underwent serious dialect coaching under Robyn, who is a prolific dialogue coach in Cape Town.

“They are speaking with an American accent, but that’s really all that lends from an American world, the rest is left to interpretation. Sando playing opposite Alan will resonate on a local level because there’s very much a boss and an underdog relationship that forms purely from the hierarchy that George imposes on Nick as a young academic new to the university and George having been there forever.

“And suddenly Albee’s words are revisited in a light that is really painful, very incisive and quite brutal. When George says to Nick, ‘I wish you wouldn’t say the word sir like that, you always call me sir with a little question mark at the end’, things like that suddenly resonate so much deeper. The words do all the work”

And, she notes, Nick has some amazing retorts back at George in which he claims the space and the future as the young man on the scene, so it speaks for itself, and speaks volumes.

Those in Gauteng might have missed the fact that Sylvaine has swapped her home in Joburg and moved to Cape Town.

Her son is starting university and it made a lot of sense for her to move, but she had been toying with it a long time since she was spending most of her working time there; making work, taking work or filming there.

“It meant I was away from the family more and more and more, longer days, longer months,” she says.

She also needed to be in a place that inspired her because she was battling to be in Johannesburg, to live there as an artist. “It had fuelled my fire for so long, but in the last five years, it’s been very hard.”

This is the change she needed, in the future she will continue to make work, collaborate with the festivals, The Baxter and this is her first play ever for Theatre on the Bay.

And good news for Gauteng, the Cape Town run is being followed by a season at the Pieter Toerien Theatre in Montecasino.

THE RELEVANCE OF ART THROUGH STORYTELLING

The best thing about the arts is that it is all about storytelling of some kind. Whether you are looking forward or reaching into the past, those who are the blessed recipients of the work whether on stage or hanging in an art gallery, will learn something that will have relevance in their own lives. DIANE DE BEER takes a look at current exhibitions at the Pretoria Art Museum:

Mondli Augustine Mbhele with his winning work for the 2022 Sasol New Signatures.

Full-time artist Mondli Mbhele (28) from Durban, KwaZulu-Natal has done exactly that, tell stories, and in the process has been announced as the winner of the 2022 Sasol New Signatures Art Competition.

Mbhele won the grand title for his work titled Iphasi nesiphesheli, which is part of a bigger series titled Umlando uyaziphinda. This is an isiZulu phrase, meaning “history repeats itself”. And don’t we all know that.

The series of mixed-media works is inspired by various iconic events from South Africa’s history.  In his winning work, Mbhele explores the dynamics of protests in contemporary South Africa. Yet before one even gets to the story, it is the colour and the clothes that captures your attention.

Mondli explains that this artwork was inspired by Sharpeville’s 21 March 1960 Anti-pass law event and the 2020 Covid19 events/laws regarding vaccination cards and face masks. “I saw that both of these share the same ideas in terms of accessibility.

“I use fabric collage as my medium of expression, because I am inspired by how fabric can be used in creating garments for different groups and ages of people, and I also realised similarities that fabric shares with our daily life events in the perspective of covering our bodies and busting or elevating our confidence to be able to face a new day. And also as a symbol of recognition or direction for example uniforms, like doctors, police, cleaners etc.

Mondli Mbhele’s Iphasi nesiphesheli, the winning work.

“In my work, I also use offcuts that I collect from fashion designers around Durban. While collecting these, I realised that fabrics have a gradation of value, worth and qualities. But when those offcuts of fabric are thrown away, they share the same state of being vulnerable. I recycle those offcuts and create a new dialogue that will get a chance to be appreciated and have a sense of their own purpose and voice rather than being thrown away.”

The brightly coloured collage is a snapshot of an ominous moment in a protest wherein a person is lying lifeless on the ground, yet no one seems alarmed. And therein lies the tale.

Mbhele walks away with a cash prize of R100 000 and the opportunity to have a solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum in 2023. 

Sasol has been the proud sponsor of the New Signatures competition for 32 years, which was established by the Association of Arts Pretoria in the late 1960’s and it is glorious that this time around we can once again, if we’re lucky and live in the city or close by, see the full extravagance and exuberance of this national competition.

From left: Malik Mali (Cape Town), Linde Kriel (Bloemfontein), Omolemo Rammile (Bloemfontein), Rohini Amratlal (Durban), Mondli Mbhele (Durban), Herman Pretorius (Pretoria) and Andrea Walters (Durban)

“For emerging artists, the challenge remains the same: breaking into a very competitive, ever-evolving field. Sasol is honoured to play a role in providing opportunities for emerging artists to showcase their work.  This year we had an unprecedented number of entries, which reinforces the need for a platform such as this. It also highlights the depth of talent and creativity across South African society,” said Elton Fortuin, Sasol Vice President: Group Communications and Brand Management.

Pfunzo Sidogi, Chairperson of the Sasol New Signatures Competition, said: “This year, we received over 1 000 entries from the seven regional judging rounds, the highest number of submissions in the competition’s long history. We were particularly encouraged by the increased number of entries received from artists who did not attain formal university art education. This speaks volumes of the creative energy and passion to produce art that exists in all quarters of the country, and it is critical that we provide platforms for this creativity to be seen and celebrated”.

I was also pleasantly surprised for example that the country as whole seemed to be represented and wish the exhibition could travel more widely – or even digitally.

Runner up Omolemo Rammile’s Mére célibataire (single mom).

Omolemo Rammile from Bloemfontein was crowned runner-up and awarded R25 000 for her work entitled Mére célibataire (single mom), which pays tribute to her mother and acknowledges the personal sacrifices she makes on a daily basis as a sole provider and breadwinner for her twin daughters. Bread is universally considered a staple food source. The artist uses embossed bread tags to symbolise the ‘daily bread’ her mother buys to feed her family. The multiple imprints of the bread tag on the paper are akin to the lasting impact and inner mark that the mother’s love has left on the artist and her family.

And again, staying with the storytelling, the two winning works would both resonate with especially South Africans because the stories although with universal merit, is also particularly (and poignantly) from home ground.

The 5 Merit award winners are:

Rohini Amratlal (Durban)

Merit award winner: Durban’s Rohini Amratlal’s Unveiling the archive.
Epoxy resin, wood, ‘Icansi’ (grass mat)

Epoxy resin, wood, ‘Icansi’ (grass mat)

Merit award winner: Bloemfontein’s Linde Kriel’s (Rest)Room.

Copperplate etching

Merit award winner: Upington’s Malik Mani’s From the concrete grew a rose.

Pencil on Arches paper

Merit award winner: Instructures by Herman Pretorius, Pretoria.

Archival prints & computer installation

Andrea Walters (Durban) #OverMyDeadBody 1#OverMyDeadBody 4

Sunlight soap & Perspex and Hospital gurney, embroidered shroud & speaker

Each Merit Award winner received a R10 000 cash prize.

“The judges at both the regional and final judging round were inspired and impressed by the diversity of narratives and boldness in artistic vision evident in some of the submissions, added Sidogi. While he paid tribute to the judges, the biggest acknowledgement went to every artist who entered the competition this year. “Your creativity, passion, and commitment to artmaking are priceless. The incredible turnout of entrants bodes well for the current and future vitality of art in South Africa. Onwards with the spirit of creativity. All sectors of South Africa are desperate for it.”.

Those who didn’t see the winning work of last year’s new Signature winner, will be able to view Supernature: Simulacra, the solo exhibition by the multidisciplinary artist Andrea du Plessis. This exhibitionis a deepening of her research into the sublime experience and the complex relationship with nature in an age marked by technological augmentation and simulation.      

Her work is quite extraordinary and pictures as with many other artworks, don’t do justice. It’s an extension of the Supernature series, she began in 2020; the work features an exploration of emerging technologies in combination with traditional oil painting to create interactive, immersive realms as well as an encyclopaedia of hybrid lifeforms. The artist hopes to offer the viewer an opportunity to consider our interconnectivity with the natural world and examines the possibility of reconnecting to nature via technology.

The solo exhibition and the Sasol New Signatures Art Competition exhibition runs until  2 October 2022.  All the finalists are included in the competition catalogue which can also be sourced online. The full exhibition is also available to view virtually on the website.

https://www.sasolsignatures.co.za/.co.za/

The fantastic work of last year’s winner Andrea du Plessis.

Her work is quite extraordinary and pictures as with many other artworks, don’t do justice. It’s an extension of the Supernature series, she began in 2020; the work features an exploration of emerging technologies in combination with traditional oil painting to create interactive, immersive realms as well as an encyclopaedia of hybrid lifeforms. The artist hopes to offer the viewer an opportunity to consider our interconnectivity with the natural world and examines the possibility of reconnecting to nature via technology.

From the beginning of September until 30 October 2022, an exhibition titled Fired Up! – Celebrating Southern African Glass Art showcases glass art and design in a myriad of creative interpretations at the Pretoria Art Museum.

Fired Up! will be complemented by a day of glass-blowing demonstrations at the Tshwane University of Technology Faculty of Arts and Design Campus from 26 to 29 September 2022 from 9am to 4pm, as well as a symposium on Saturday, 1 October 2022.

Those who didn’t see the winning work of last year’s new Signature winner, will be able to view Supernature: Simulacra, the solo exhibition by the multidisciplinary artist Andrea du Plessis. This exhibition is a deepening of her research into the sublime experience and the complex relationship with nature in an age marked by technological augmentation and simulation.      

The United Nations has declared 2022 as the International Year of Glass. A multitude of international events are planned throughout this special year, and several local institutions have been hard at work to ensure that Southern Africa is featured on this prestigious global calendar.

Several speakers from artists, academics and the industry will discuss the theme, Glass and its Future in an African Context. Attendees of this symposium will also enjoy live glass-blowing demonstrations at the Tshwane University of Technology Glass Studio.

Also check them on Instagram @southern_african_glass or email them at yog2022.southafrica@gmail.com for more information.

https://www.sasolsignatures.co.za/

WHEN CREATIVES GET TALKING ABOUT THEIR WORK, IT CAN OPEN NEW WAYS TO NAVIGATE

As part of Karoo Klassique earlier in August, two Herzog prize-winners, Ingrid Winterbach (Voorouer. Pelgrim. Berg.) and Johan Myburg (Narreskip) chatted about their latest work. DIANE DE BEER reports on two informative conversations on creativity:

As a double Herzog Prize winner, a new novel by author Ingrid Winterbach is always a celebration. But it’s not only the accolades of course, it is the writing that gets people talking.

Voorouer. Pelgrim. Berg. (NB Publishers), her latest novel was the book under discussion and she was in conversation with book editor Elna van der Merwe. The fact that the one had written and the other was so familiar with the content, turned this into something extraordinary – and, for the prospective reader, an indication of whether this was something for them or not. That is what book discussions should do – not only explain or dissect the book but also encourage those listening to read.

Talking about the writing process, Winterbach was quick to note that if she had to wait for inspiration, she wouldn’t have been as prolific. As most writers would attest, it’s a hard daily grind of writing, re-writing and refining, and her latest book deals with family history and, at the other end of the spectrum, online dating to bring some light relief.

She and artist husband Andries Gouws have separate studios where they work every morning and where she writes. Afternoons might be spent painting. She chats delightfully about the writing process. Having written more than a dozen books (as well as others under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen), she finds herself revisiting old themes. “But now I approach them differently,” she says, the implication being that she’s older and wiser.

Elna van der Merwe and Ingrid Winterbach.

Even if her books are viewed as challenging, when writing, she doesn’t think about the readers. Writing is enough of a challenge and her plots are never straightforward.  She knows it would be easier to simply have a plot that’s marching towards a final conclusion, but that’s never been the way she tells stories. “That doesn’t interest me at all,” she says as she illustrates her penchant for a “sombre story with manic pace”.

When asked about the way she uses language and introduces English slang, she’s quick to note that she doesn’t know anyone under 50 who speaks pure Afrikaans. It would sound unnatural in today’s world, she believes, if she should write in that pure sense. The only character who does speak Afrikaans without any deviations in this particular book is a character called Gysbert, who is slightly mad.

And that is how she defines her characters, by playing with their dialogue. “The fact that he speaks in the way he does, is part of his aberration.”

Writing for her is a time she searches for something new, something that challenges her. Just as she doesn’t want to read the same book over and over again, the same instincts kick in when writing.

For her it is about writing brilliantly. As Van der Merwe pointed out, Ingrid would be bored with a mediocre novel – either reading or writing. It was fascinating listening to these two specialists in their craft talk about both writing and reading.

Poet Johan Myburg with author Ingrid Winterbach

Winterbach later sat down to speak to fellow Herzog prize winner, poet Johan Myburg, about his latest poetry book, Narreskip (Protea Books, see https://bit.ly/3bjfs9b) and with these two writers working in different genres, they shared their mutual admiration.

To listen to the novelist discuss her impressions of a master poet was extremely special. She started by describing Narreskip as fresh and astonishing, written with outrage, but never shrill, always controlled.

Both of them admitted that they would like to swap genres once in a while, but that it wouldn’t be possible, hence the admiration.

Winterbach explained the differences as poets (carrying) everything with them, while for a novelist when writing, it’s like going on a camping trip when writing a book.

Both were equally intrigued with the other’s process and because they understand writing, the process was also diligently discussed.

Asked about when to rhyme and when not, Myburg responded that the poem is the one that demands. “It also has to do with the look of a poem on a page,” he explained. Who would have thought?

As someone who uses a lot of references and not many that ordinary readers would recognise, Winterbach gave a handy guide of how to approach each of the Myburg poems. She obviously had huge fun reading and noted that it was a massive learning exercise for her. That’s just the way Myburg writes and because his areas of speciality are so wide-ranging, he can dip into quite obscure places.

Being an art critic is particularly handy as he reaches into the past to look at the present. Pointing to the famous Yeats line from his poem The Second Coming:

 And what rough beast, it’s hour come round at last…

This is where his poetry took her.

Two special writers.

She would first read the poem and then start analysing and checking possible references. It meant that not only was she more informed after reading the poems, she understood and thus enjoyed them more – and only then can the reader truly wallow in the wealth of riches provided by the poet.

And speaking about language, she was delighted to read that even when dabbling in the 15th and 16th centuries, he could tongue-in-cheek have a scribe writing a blog! Or when writing about muti murders, he would reference the Goya sketches Disasters of War and not giving these particular poems titles, it was as if the journalist stepped forward and reported what he had witnessed.

Both these two talks emphasized the importance of book launches and also the fun. If you match the right people, not only will prospective readers gain insight, but they will also have a much better understanding of the author as well as the writing process and in some instances, how to approach a specific poetry collection or novel. I felt blessed.

HOW THE HANDS OF THE MAPULA WOMEN OF THE WINTERVELD BECOME VOICES FOR OUR PLANET

PICTURES OF PANELS: PAUL MILLS

A group of South African embroidery artists recently turned their hearts and hands to the rapidly rising urgency of climate change with an embroidered artwork of 11 panels which is being displayed in Tshwane’s Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria until the end of the month. DIANE DE BEER gives the details:

Puleng Plessie, Curator: Education Mediation promotes the educational aspects at the Javett Art Centre.

“The world’s women are the key to sustainable development, peace and security,” said UN Sec-General Ban Ki-moon. (2010)

Acknowledging the truth of this statement, the Mapula Embroidery artists – who are rural women completely dependent on available natural resources for food, fuel and shelter for themselves, their families and community and, thus, extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change and environmental threats –  conceptualised and created a significant textile work: Women of the Winterveld: Hands Become Voices for our Planet.

The Mapula Embroidery Panels

The women of the project have demonstrated their resilience over many years and, through this work, aimed to show their agency regarding the global issue of our time. 

They depict in their embroidery their local environment and climate change impacts, as well as their vision of what successful activism can achieve in bringing about changed behaviours to promote adaption and mitigation in order to ensure a healthy, sustainable planet for future generations.

This puts them at the centre of climate change awareness-raising, activism and the promotion of an urgent response in their own community and far beyond. 

(Left) WATER: The story of drought and floods, wastage, water-borne disease and contamination.

(Centre ) EARTH: The images depict a dry earth which is infertile and polluted, threatening all forms of life.

(Right) AIR: Illustrations of the major contributors to a polluted atmosphere with CO2 emissions  –  the major cause of global warming  –   out of control.

Since research shows that gender inequalities, which result in the increased vulnerability of women, will be aggravated by climate change, it is fitting that the first showing of this piece is happening in South Africa’s Women’s Month. Mapula’s hope is that by engaging with this work the public will engage seriously with the issues of climate crisis, climate action, vulnerability of women in gender-unequal societies and their intersectionalities. 

The Mapula women’s lives have been transformed through their embroidery work. They have reached a stage where they are ready to become agents of change themselves as they advocate – using their own personal experiences and creative expression – on the climate emergency in the hope of not only changing their immediate environment but also bringing climate justice to the wider world.

(Left) FIRE: The story of death and destruction by spontaneous and uncontrolled fires caused by the extreme heat, dry vegetation easily catching fire and severe electric storms which accompany global warming.

(Centre) CLIMATE WARRIORS: The world’s most recognised climate and environmental activists as well as other prominent activists and active citizens  –  notably women dominate this space  –  are seen with placards broadcasting messages which show the urgency for changing targeted human activity.

(Right) WATER: A contrasting story of water where human activity is modified to preserve the health of our planet. Clean water, good water management, efficient water supply systems and humans taking care in using this precious resource without wastage.

As they have a large following, their voices will be heard locally and globally. The artists are already recognised for their story cloths, which they have designed and embroidered over the past 30 years, and their work hangs in museums and private collections worldwide, appears in many publications and is sought-after by textile collectors.

Future exhibition opportunities for this artwork will present chances for awareness-raising amongst an even broader public.

Importantly, such a large project ensures that the artists develop further and have work and income – all of which are central to vulnerable women and their families, as is a possibility with many of these participants.

Income from the sale of this collectable textile piece will contribute towards the future of Mapula Embroideries.

(Left) EARTH: The earth can be healthy, fertile and abundant if human activity is modified to care for the environment and global warming is not left unchecked.

(Centre) AIR: With good quality air plants, animals, humans thrive.

(Right) FIRE: Plants grow, people and animals thrive and are safe when global temperatures are kept at healthy levels and fire is not unpredictable, widespread and out of control.

The artwork Women from the Winterveld: Hands become Voices for our Planet is a piece of 11 panels hanging in sequence and measuring approximately 10 metres across and 2 metres in height.

Nine panels are held together by the first and last panels, which depict global temperatures, reminding the viewer of our collective global responsibility to keep the rise to a maximum of 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

The 1m x 2m panels are separated by a central panel paying respect to the climate warriors who are dedicated to climate activism and action urging the global population to modify their behaviours in order to save our planet. The first four 1m x 2m panels depict our planet suffering the impacts of global warming and the next four 1m x 2m panels show our planet recovering and restored with global temperatures being kept below critical levels.

Essentially the sequence shows an extremely endangered planet followed by a healthy, sustainable planet achieved through changed human activity. The four elements of water, earth, air and fire – their symbols headlining each panel – organise the thinking and images in the work.

A previous MAPULA EMBROIDERIES’ 2021 MAJOR WORK: 2020 Through the Eye of a Needle was well received and has been sold into the collection of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Art Museum (WAM).

To see the catalogue of the work go to the Mapula website www.mapulaembroideries.org and find the flipbook under the ABOUT tab.

GLASS SCULPTOR MARTLI JANSEN VAN RENSBURG PLAYS WITH FIRE

DIANE DE BEER

In troubled times like the world seems to be experiencing at the moment, the art world is a wonderful place to turn to if you’re hoping to find solace. Perhaps a solo glass exhibition isn’t exactly what you might be looking for, but that’s the magic of art  ̶  you never know what you’re going to find. And that’s why this introduction to the conceptual artist, glass blower Martli Jansen van Rensburg:

Artist Martli Jansen van Rensburg at work.

In recent years we have been introduced to the world of glass blowing on a wider scale by reality series on TV, and if there’s anything these seasons brought home to me, it was that this wasn’t an easy route to follow.

Martli Jansen van Rensburg has been working as conceptual artist and glass designer for the past 20 years and this latest exhibition, Ruach, is her first solo exhibition in 10 years … and she’s excited.

It might seem a long time in-between exhibitions but with the amount of work that has to go into especially a solo exhibition, the prohibitive cost as well as establishing her brand with her own studio, a furnace where there’s also access to the wider world as well as her lecture and teaching responsibilities, it’s a big ask.

But she knew the time was right and she got cracking. In-between came covid, all of which gave her a chance to breathe, to take stock of her life and her art, and to explore her possibilities. She was also approached by a friend who offered her the perfect space to exhibit her work as the inaugural artist – and the deal was done.

Vibrant shapes and colours.

She describes the show as a conclusion of things in her heart, a spiritual journey which explored why she did what she did. She started her artistic career by studying sculpture with no idea that glass sculpting would become her endgame.

She finished her degree in Fine Arts at TUT in 2000, received a scholarship to study glass design in Sweden in 2007 and had extensive training as glass blower in the UK, Germany and Scotland. Currently she is director at Smelt Glass studio together with Michael Hyam where she designs work and produces art. She also lectures at TUT.

She sees herself more than anything as a conceptual artist exploring the realm of abstract forms and then as a glass blower who practises a craft or a skill. In the past 12 years she has been part of many group exhibitions locally and abroad and has worked on many different projects including Afrika for Coca-Cola Lab, Light for Randlords Bar, an installation for the Graskop Hotel and Squaring the Circle 2 for the Michelangelo Hotel. She has also featured as a finalist in many competitions, including Absa Atelier, Brett Keble Artist Award, Ekurhuleni Fine Arts Award and FNB Crafts Award.

In 2003 she established a glass design company called Molten. The products include everyday articles, limited edition vases, bowls and custom-made lights. She also works with many architects and interior designers producing custom made lights and commissions. In 2009, Molten won the Elle Decorations – Edida Awards for best tableware in South Africa.

A play with glass and colour.

She has always had a passion for teaching and sharing her skills while developing glass in South Africa. She taught at TUT between 2004 and 2008 and from 2008, until 2011 she trained young up-end-coming artists and rural glass blowers from KwaZulu-Natal at Smelt glass studio. She has also hosted a student project for the National Arts Council and was part of the Ekurhuleni mentorship programme in 2009. Currently she lectures part time at TUT’s fine arts department.

But with this current exhibition she wants to showcase her work, specifically as a sculptor who works in glass. And to get to this point has been a slow process with the accent on process, which has been a tough one, but when you see the work, it has been hugely rewarding.

The reason there are relatively few (or perhaps unseen) artists who work in glass is because it is such a difficult art form.

With the title of her exhibition RUACH, a Hebrew word translated in three ways  ̶  breath, spirit and wind  ̶  she offers the following quote by American sculptor Janet Echelman to encapsulate the exhibition:

Breath is a strange thing, it is both tangible and intangible. You can sense it and feel it. It touches you, but you can’t grab it. You cannot completely control it, but it can completely control you. There is a power connected to wind and breath. A strong wind can tear down a city, a breath taken away always ends a human life.

It is how she feels about her work, the blowing of the glass naturally emphasising everything she feels, while the lack of control and never knowing what the final result will be following the process in the furnace, presents a specific challenge.

“Glass is a slow liquid and with the breathing and the blowing, as an artist, I am completely involved,” explains Martli. And part of the creative process is to push rather than fight  the uncontrollable, because part of the process is to let the glass happen.

As clear as glass.

She describes her colourful glass sculptures as floating objects and that’s also the way the exhibition will  be displayed. It’s all about movement, whether visible or not. It’s there in the sculptured pieces. Some of her work she titles landscapes, but the thing that struck me most was the individuality of her work and her electric colour combinations.

“If you engage and see it,” she notes, “you will be moved.” And I agree. With her guidance especially, the work invites you to enter this world and to learn to see – again.

“It’s about that moment just before the sun goes down,” she says. It’s brief but brilliant and if you catch it, it’s magical.

“You can choose to dwell on all the darkness in life,” but not this artist. She is intent on sharing the love. “My work is happy and features the brightest colours.” And all of this contributes to the emotional impact of the work.

She works intuitively and feels that there are specific keys that unlock the meaning of the work. She is doing a few walkabouts, which I would encourage art lovers to attend because it certainly adds to the depth and understanding of what she hopes to achieve.

But if you are fired up by your own narrative, that will also make her smile. She is intent on sharing the love and the light.

POET JOHAN MYBURG, A MAN OF WISE, WONDROUS AND WITTY WORDS

A book launch is exciting especially when something as rare as an Afrikaans poetry book is being introduced. Narreskip (Protea Boeke) by Johan Myburg was the collection being celebrated. DIANE DE BEER wants to invite poetry patrons to share her enchantment:

 

One of my favourite writers, Johan Myburg, recently launched his 4th poetry book titled Narreskip (loosely translated as Ship of Fools) and, without spoiling the fun, it is the life around him that he observes and spotlights.

Poetry is something I have always loved and checked from the side lines. More than anything, I love other people reading and talking about poetry – making sense of my own reading experience.

And then, Johan writes in Afrikaans, and while it is my mother tongue, I write in English and am perhaps not as familiar with my first language as I should be.

He was surprised when I told him there were many words I didn’t understand. It’s not that the language is that highbrow, it’s simply that he has a phenomenal vocabulary and makes use of words that few people still use. But that also gets your attention. It’s not just what he is writing about but the way he engages with the language.

Even his references send you scuttling to google and you do, because it is intriguing enough to get your curiosity salivating.

But I digress. In spite of all my qualms, Johan’s writing is especially interesting because, even if poetry might seem scary to some, and he is quite the intellectual, he has a way of writing that is embracing and accessible. And that more than anything is what makes it so fascinating.

Poetry can be alienating to many people and when you start talking about Herzog Prize winners like this particular poet, it could be even more intimidating. But now I’m starting to sound scary – even to myself – and that’s not the point of this exercise.

 I want to encourage – even second-language speakers – to try this book, which had already received a handful of glowing reviews from the top Afrikaans critics at the time of the launch. And yes, we’re talking poetry, that niche of writing exercises.

With Afrikaans poetry critic Karen de Wet’s introduction (at the launch) in hand, I am going to use her as my guide because of her in-depth knowledge of this poet and his writing. But also as someone who knows how to judge the value of someone like Johan, who still in this time we live in, has the chutzpah to write yet another book of poetry.

It’s not as if readers are clamouring for the latest Afrikaans poetry offering. But as an artist, I suspect, he can’t help himself. He has the skill and the artistry and something to say. His awards prove that he also has the means to say it magnificently. And even I, with my paucity of knowledge in this field, can attest to that.

Johan has the credentials. He is one of only 20 poets who has won the Herzog Prize in its 104 years of existence. And he is a true classicist. Not only is he knowledgeable about classical literature, art and music, he is also well versed in history and philosophy, as well as being one of the country’s top art critics who has often curated  small and large exhibitions.

And he uses this wealth of experience in his writing. In fact, he giggles as an aside when talking about all his references at the launch, “I had to make sure ahead of time that I could still remember where all those come from.” I know him well enough to suspect that’s just his insecurities. That mind of his would hardly allow one of those to slip away.

Poet Johan Myburg

In fact, if I could really make a wish, I would like to spend some time with Johan so that he can take me through the work and explain his thought processes. It’s that kind of work. There’s too much happening for everything to be grasped with a first or even second and third reading and my grasp of Afrikaans literature as well as the classics is much too scant to be truly comfortable with the essence of this work.

Both Karen and critic Joan Hambidge agree that this is something to read again and again. As Karen states so succinctly (and I translate loosely): “The 106 pages of verse in Narreskip will not be read only once, there is value in the money paid for this poetry book.” And then Hambidge gives you the key when she explains in her review that the poet uses the classical landscape in which to play with the here and now.

Again Karen captures it best when she explains what the real importance of these Myburg words, witticisms and wisdoms might be: “What is the role (importance) of the poet, the poem, here? That those of us who might be blunted, might see what is happening in our world, see ourselves, reflect, devise (or even rethink).”

Johan himself reflects in an interview about his preference for a participating society rather a grumbling one.

He practises what he preaches and invites his readers to engage. In fact, when we lose hope not only because of what is happening too close and personal for comfort, but also because of the universal fallout with wars, epidemics and economic downturn affecting everyone, this is indeed a way to climb out of that quagmire.

Allow this wise and witty wordsmith to take you by the hand and follow him on a journey, masterfully thought through, of the here and now. It gets your mind exercising in a way that presents much more in the way of positive than negative thought.

We do need those now.

Finally, if nothing else, it is the brilliance of the Myburg mind that will entice and enchant. We need to take time out to listen and then languish in the thoughts of others – especially those who make the time to not only think, but then also share it so bravely with others.

REINAARD

THE ART OF MARY SIBANDE AND DOROTHY KAY IN CONVERSATION ABOUT SHARED DREAMS

An exhibition of works by two female artists, Dorothy Kay (1886 – 1964) and Mary Sibande (1982 -), is currently being held in Strauss & Co’s dedicated gallery at its Houghton offices in Johannesburg (11 July – 12 August 2022). Hoping to inspire a visit, DIANE DE BEER shares her delight:

Cookie, Annie Mavata by Dorothy Kay. I’m a Lady by Mary Sibande.

Alerted to an exhibition of works by Dorothy Kay and Mary Sibande, I just knew that I would lose my heart.

I have been aware of Kay, but was more familiar with the work of Sibande, whose exhibitions I always try to attend.

Curated by Strauss & Co art specialists Arisha Maharaj and Wilhelm van Rensburg,  this latest exhibition is a renewal of their commitment to education, with a curated exhibition juxtaposing the work of two historically important South African artists, Dorothy Kay and Mary Sibande. Titled Dream Invisible Connections, it is a rare opportunity to view a large range of works by both these extraordinary artists with many of the works on loan from private and institutional collections.

And when you walk into the exhibition space at the Strauss headquarters in Houghton, it is immediately clear that pairing these two is a stroke of brilliance.

If, like me, you didn’t know or might have forgotten, Dream Invisible Connections is the fourth in a series of legacy exhibitions, pairing prominent South African artists.

And, as the two curators reminded us during the walkabout (there’s another on July 27 at 10am), it was introduced in 2019 with a presentation of works by Louis Maqhubela and Douglas Portway, and further explored linkages and commonalities between Maggie Laubser and Gladys Mgudlandlu (2020), and Robert Hodgins and George Pemba (2021). Having seen this one and none of the others, I have made myself a promise not to miss any of the future pairings. It’s just a hugely engaging and educational endeavour.

“The possibly unexpected pairing of Dorothy Kay with Mary Sibande fulfils the mandate of the exhibition series by providing new frameworks for the appreciation and interpretation of important South African artists,” explains head curator Wilhelm van Rensburg. “The exhibition proposes new ways of interpreting Sibande’s various depictions of her iconic domestic worker alter ego, Sophie, and, in the case of Kay, of delineating connections between her virtuoso realist painting.”

Even if the artists are described as vastly dissimilar, as an entrance point, Kay’s well-known realist portrait, Cookie, Annie Mavata (1956, based on a photo taken by Kay in 1948) offers immediate connections with Sibande’s equally famous domestic worker alter egos, many depicted in blue uniforms while Kay’s Cookie also depicts the artist’s Xhosa cook in the familiar blue uniform.

Van Rensburg notes that even if produced in a loaded historical context, the grandeur of Kay’s painting shares obvious affinities with the splendour of Sophie.

None of us can forget the series of Sophie billboards in Johannesburg’s inner city which certainly led to the greater visibility and wider prominence of Sibande. I can remember coming off the Nelson Mandela bridge on my way home from the Market Theatre – and every time those majestic Sibande images would make me smile. It was such a glorious way to honour your family’s women by telling their stories in such striking fashion. The message was loud and powerful without any compromises – and remains so.

As can be seen in this exhibition, she works across diverse media, notably textile, sculpture and photography. The exhibition features a number of photographic prints, as well as a magnificent series of new figurative bronzes on loan from SMAC Art Gallery. They are simply exquisite and beautifully contrast with Sibande’s larger works which can easily fill a room.

Clockwise: Dorothy Kay: Forms in Rain; Deck Chairs in the Wind; and 1910 – 1960.

Here though you can move up close and personal, experience the delicacy of her work and also her colours that change as you move around the sculptures as they catch the light differently. If ever I have wanted something … but the pleasure is really in  the viewing.

And the experience of Sibande’s work which is constantly evolving as she explores identity in a world that’s constantly changing.

Mary Sibande: I have not, I have. Dorothy Kay: Three generations – after Sargent.

It’s as if in these smaller sculptures she has captured the different elements of what a woman could be, or simply that there’s no door closed if you wish to walk through it.

From a completely different time and world yet with many similarities in what they wish to express and explore, Kay is represented by what is described as “a number of historically important oils. They include The Elvery Family: A Memory (1938), which montages recollections of Kay’s siblings and parents, on loan from Iziko South African National Gallery, and Commerce (1943), a multi-part harbour scene, formerly installed in in the Agents’ Room of the South African Reserve Bank in Port Elizabeth and now in the collection of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum.

And what stood out for me are her family paintings. The links and  historical references were marvellously explained on the walkabout but also captured in the masterful catalogue, which is something to treasure. That and the quirky nature of her portraiture.

Both Maharaj and Van Rensburg are fascinating about different aspects of the exhibition and if you can make the walkabout, do yourself a favour. But they have also included all the information in their catalogue featuring an essay by both curators and contextual texts related to key works in the exhibition.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wa8eQy3xTDA

 It is worth taking the time to dive deeply into this one. The rewards are huge as you discover much more about these two remarkable artists and their work. And then have the chance to experience their work.

www.straussart.co.za

FASHION MAVERICK ANDRÉ LEON TALLEY CONQUERS THE CHIFFON TRENCHES IN STYLE

There’s so much surprising in the André Leon Talley book, which as the title suggests is all about the haute couture world, that temple of mainly French fashion, but also the world of the high priestess Anna Wintour. And then he deals with the rapidly declining media world because of the shift of advertising and of course all the personalities he mingled with daily. DIANE DE BEER hangs on to every word:

Pictures from the book

André Leon Talley’s The Chiffon Trenches (4th Estate)

Anyone who has even the slightest interest in the fashion world would at least have noticed this author at international fashion events.

He stood out –physically because of his size and his race in this almost lily-white world, but also because of his presence, his flamboyance, yes even amongst the fashion glitterati. He knew how to do that.

I’m not sure I would have read the book if one of my smartest friends didn’t gift it to me. She sussed that this might have more depth than simply chronicling the sometimes vacuous world of couture.

And indeed it does. If we have realised anything in this past decade if paying attention to America (and how can we not), it is that nothing when race is involved is as it should be. That was even true for this remarkable man, who made such an impact in the way he celebrated fashion.

There was really nothing he loved more. His own stylish entrance into this world, the way he found a way to work for Andy Warhol and form a decades-long friendship with Karl Lagerfeld. And finally at the tail end of his career, his working and more intimate relationship with Anna Wintour.

As part of the printed world, I was stunned by the revelations in this book almost mirroring what happened in our newspaper and magazine world when their advertising platforms started imploding.

I used to jokingly say that I would be switching off the lights, but not thinking for a second that the rarefied world I had been working in for most of my life would end almost with my formal career – and quite harshly at that.

Surprise then that even for those glamorous journalists and editors who are almost as much part of the story as the people they write about, life was not much different. When printed journalism’s problems escalated locally because of a dearth of advertising, it was happening worldwide. And the bosses there behaved as badly as the bosses locally.

“When Polly Mellen who had been at Vogue for thirty years, was forced to retire, they gave her a cocktail party in the basement of Barneys. I went, and remained utterly confused about it throughout the night. It didn’t make sense; it was undignified. They could have honoured her with a seated dinner, with guests of her choice. Or a golden watch, a Bentley, a Rolls Royce, something! She could decide to keep it or sell it, but a little cocktail bash in the Barneys basement? Ageism at its worst. They wanted to get rid of her at Vogue to make way for someone else. They booted her upstairs to Allure, and she retired soon afterwards. That was not befitting of what Polly Mellen had contributed to Vogue, nor of the decades for which she worked there

This might all sound a bit over-the-top. Who gets a Bentley when they leave the company? No one who can be described as middle class. But I suppose in this moneyed world where the journalists become as famous as those they’re writing about, it happenened.

What fascinated me was the business ethics which are on a par around the world. One thinks it is just in one’s little corner. But as Talley illustrates, this is the way the world turns and why we have the top 1 percent so far removed from ordinary lives that they can’t respond to their employees with any humanity.

It’s not all gloom and doom, however, not in the life of the larger-than-life André. Because of who he is and where he works, he doesn’t have to name drop, those are the people who are part of his immediate circle. From Lee Radziwill (Jacky O’s sister) to Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour (whom he both admires and admonishes for her lack of warmth), and of course many others like the supermodels who reigned during his time as well as the different designers who would share their design secrets, their fears and their dreams with someone like André who had both power and empathy.

From the early days, long before Vogue, he established his own style. That’s what propelled him into this world. He could identify style, he could step into that world with grace and he could write about it with flair. He also became part of the fanfare which is part of the chiffon trenches if you really want to be part of that world. And he did.

His passion for couture and everything that represented is what dominated his life. And like any creative, he simply put his head down and found a way to become part of everything he most loved in this world.

Friends in fashion: Lagerfeld and Talley

Sadly, Talley (and of course Karl Kagerfeld) died early this year and that world has lost one of its most entertaining and flashy personalities. And as is often the case, he is really only appreciated now.

It’s a fascinating read, because of the man and the universe he lived in. No one is irreplaceable, but I’m sure even Ms Wintour must miss this valued eye who was both honest and honoured to be asked for advice on, for example, her outfit for a smart occasion.

But also his take on the world, his way of entering a room, what he believed his role was and how his whole being was thrown into his daily work. The chiffon trenches is where his heart and his passion lay.

KAROO KAARTE LEADS THE WAY IN THE ARTS WITH A PROJECT DESIGNED AND DESTINED TO ELEVATE AND PROMOTE REAL CHANGE IN COMMUNITIES

South Africans are starting to realise that we have to do it for ourselves. That’s how change will really make an impact. It’s something artists Neil Coppen and Vaughn Sadie put into practice with the establishment of Karoo Kaarte at (and with the help and support of) the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees and a handful of other funders . DIANE DE BEER spoke to the two art activists about this ongoing dream of theirs:

Co-Facilitator Vaughn Sadie leading a discussion with the core team (left) with co-facilitator Neil Coppen during rehearsals for Op Hierie Dag. Photography by Ryan Dammert.
Karoo Kaarte (Karoo Maps) was one of the most intriguing and important productions at this year’s Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK).

The project’s name Karoo Kaarte plays on the dual meaning of kaarte in the Oudshoorn context. The English translation of kaarte is maps and in the local vernacular “om kaarte te sny” refers to hanging out and telling both serious and light hearted stories.

Described in the festival guide as the heart of the festival, it was the result of months of research and work done in Oudtshoorn. It was the dream of the late Dr David Piedt, a founding member and Chairman of the KKNK and someone who worked tirelessly for the transformation and renewal of the KKNK over the years.

The project driven by the KKNK was established to make a transformative difference in the Karoo town where the festival is based.

Facilitated by the smart combo of the innovative theatre maker Neil Coppen and the visual artist Vaughn Sadie, the idea was to use the arts in many different ways to change the narrative of the Oudtshoorn community to a more inclusive one.

Karoo Kaarte team gathers for the research and creative process used to bring together a range of participants to reimagine the archive as an inclusive community resource. And images and details of the Karoo Kaarte team engaging, over a series of workshops, with Zietske Saaiman’s large-scale map of Oudtshoorn and its many suburbs which she painstakingly demarcated in masking tape on the floor of the CP Nel Museum Hall. Photography by Ryan Dammert and Karoo Kaarte.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful and compelling tools we have as people to bring about change, and it is exactly what was applied in this project in many different forms. The whole community of the town was encouraged to participate and engage in the research projects, which focussed on as many individuals as possible telling their individual stories, and more particularly, how they saw themselves featured in the town.

The whole exercise is about bringing people together. With our past in mind, many of our towns and cities still show the former fault lines and it is wishful thinking to hope that things will slide into normality by itself. This is some of what they were working with to incorporate and bring everyone together to tell their stories and become part of the fabric of this Karoo town.

Coppen explains how it all started: “I’ve worked with Hugo Theart (KKNK Artistic Director) multiple occasions as a producer and across many of our conversations, he always expressed the festival’s need and enthusiasm for developing projects that invested in the Oudtshoorn arts community and deepened the relationship between the festival, residents and local artists.”

 “The Karoo Kaarte Project was born from these conversations and is an expansion and deeper iteration of a variety of projects Vaughn Sadie and I have worked on over the last decade, both in collaboration and separately. As artists and facilitators we both are deeply passionate about, and committed to, initiating public participatory arts and theatre projects across South Africa, creating work that attempts to stimulate empathy, awareness, dialogue and deeper listening through performance and visual arts mediums.”

With the help of  the KKNK, their resources and energy, they were able to pull off a project and programme of this depth, complexity and reach. Both Coppen and Sadie moved to Oudtshoorn for six months, collaborating daily with what they  describe as an incredible team of young artists, writers, musicians, performers, arts leaders, activists and educators.

The good news is that this is an ongoing project. With the KKNK, their vision is to establish a solid and effective long-term engagement with the community of Oudtshoorn through the arts and expand the project annually to include and feature more and more local artists at the festival.

A big part of the success depended on the people involved. The process was one of broad consultation, which meant that Coppen and Sadie engaged with around 60 businesspeople, traditional knowledge holders, political leaders, supporters of the festival and artists to reflect on the possibilities of implementing a community-led festival programme for the KKNK in 2022. 

“Once the project began, we selected a core team of Oudtshoorn-based artists, poets, arts leaders, writers, musicians, researchers, facilitators and educators . These participants were guided over the four-month ‘first phase’ of the project through a series of weekly workshops to introduce the project methodologies and processes.

“Essential to the success of these processes was the involvement of leading intangible heritage consultant Deidre Prins-Solani, who facilitated a series of key workshops around developing the project ethos,  harnessing deep listening skills and the importance of preserving and archiving the intangible heritage of the region.” 

The core team participants were then trained in oral history skills and methodologies and, from October 2021, conducted 35 oral histories with a range of residents around the themes of music, land, identity, sexuality, disability, history and place. These unearthed a compelling set of stories and life histories which were and are being collated and used to bolster the existing archives housed in the CP Nel Museum, which means that the history of the town is being broadened to capture as much of the community as possible.

For change to truly manifest, everyone has to claim ownership.

From this body of research the team also generated content in the form of four Zines (small magazines distributed at the Festival), art exhibitions, a theatre production and a musical performance for a week-long community-led programme at the 2022 KKNK Festival, all of which we as festival goers could engage with.

On the art side, a participatory collage process saw the team working with hundreds of images handpicked from the CP Nel Historic archives and a selection from the KKNK’s past 25 years of theatre festival photography, as well as personal images brought to workshops by participants. These collage workshops were held with school learners, unemployed youth in outlying rural areas (in partnership with the Youth Cafe) and the broader public. 

This process was designed as a quick but thought-provoking introduction by capturing how participants from various walks of life imagined themselves, as well as their sense of place and context within the town and outlying areas.

 This then lead to the theatre production Op Hierie Dag and the public arts programme. Both the theatre and arts teams (each featuring around ten participants in their teams) sifted through vast bodies of research to create performances and exhibitions which fall outside of the more stereotypical ones that have come to define the region – and of course many others.

To find musicians, actors, writers and poets for the theatre production, a series of open auditions were hosted covering the town extensively. In the end, the panel saw over 100 people and completed call-backs and workshops to finalise the cast and musicians for the production.

Sadie explains that the visual arts, theatre and music are all invaluable modes of expression for communicating the research. “It’s important to have multiple entry points to make the project accessible to different audiences through different registers.”

“I was deeply inspired by the level of dedication, talent and commitment shown by the whole team and was challenged and changed by creating this work and dreaming alongside all of them. I believe the Karoo Kaarte process proves that collaboration at this scale can yield powerful and exciting creative results,” noted Coppen.

He argues that  much of art and theatre making in the Western world is about individual ego, hierarchies and ownership, while all the outputs of Karoo Kaarte were achieved through deep conversation, consultation and collaboration with dozens and dozens of incredible minds and talents. “It was a process whereby each one of us were encouraged to contribute our respective skill sets and abilities to the mix.”

 The theatre production of Op Hierie Dag, for example, featured many voices and contributions and a text inspired and co-authored by the citizens of Oudtshoorn. “One of the local participants, Tiffany Saterdacht and I worked incredibly hard to wield all these narratives into a coherent theatrical experiences, but the material itself literally stems from thousands of pages of research and interviews that were gathered by the Kaarte core team.”

“In the end there were so many people responsible for its success and reception and who could feel a sense of pride in what they collectively accomplished and saw up there on the stage.”

Some of the Karoo Kaarte team members including (L to R) Clarissa Saaiman, Glenisha Tarentaal, Tiffany Saterdaght, Cole Wessels, Zietske Saaiman, Lauren Theodore, Mirinda Ntantiso, Ané Koegelenberg,  and back Theo Witbooi, Janion (Noemwoord) Kennedy Vaughn Sadie and Neil Coppen.

What excites Coppen and Sadie is the talent they unearthed. Many of them were young artists and arts leaders who worked tirelessly at their craft and disciplines for several years and honed their abilities despite the challenges they have faced around lack of access, recognition and platforms.

 They both agreed that many of the participants across this project were some of the most talented and hardworking artists they had the privilege of working with.

If anything, this project set out to try dismantle this misconception that artists and performers from small towns (the fringes of more urban arts centres) are lesser or “amateur”… when all that’s really missing from the equation is the access to space, platforms, mentorship and resources.

 When you are able to offer these elements to these artists and storytellers, they are truly able to shine and receive the sort of recognition that is long overdue to them. So a project like Karoo Kaarte tries to foster and build these platforms and shift the national spotlight to shine on worlds, people and stories that have been excluded from national stages and conversations for way too long. It’s really about treating Klein Karoo based artists and storytellers with the respect, audiences and attention they deserve.

For those of us lucky enough to see some of what they had created, the most impressive was the participants and their enthusiasm.

Thato Mbambe during his solo in the Vallei Klanke concert at the 2022 KKNK festival. Mbambe was one of the successful younger candidates from the audition process to land roles in both the theatre concert and stage production.

If I had one bit of criticism it was about not understanding the breadth of the project. I missed out on the museum collages and I know many were unaware of the musical evening at the end of the festival, one of my highlights of the festival. The result was that even more excitement around the project could have been generated.

 Fortunately, as Coppen states, “the dream is for this process to continue and grow and expand well into the future and we are already dreaming up new processes as a collective for 2023”.

The acclaimed Lida Botha as part of the Op Hierie Dag cast.

That is heartening and I for one will be planning ahead to make sure I witness Karoo Kaarte’s evolvement from start to finish. And I’m crossing fingers that this is a process that will spread to cities and towns across the country.

The six Kanna Award nominations for the theatre production alongside the Kanna Herrie-prys for cutting-edge contribution to the festival saw the Karoo Kaarte team sharing stages and recognition with some of South Africa’s top theatre and arts luminaries, an achievement that further begins to blur the lines between so called “community” artists and those who operate in the “mainstream.”

Karoo Kaarte, a KKNK project, was supported by the ATKV, Nasionale Afrikaanse Teater-inisiatief (NATi), the Oudtshoorn Municipality, the Western Cape Department of Culture and Sport, Mzansi Golden Economy (MGE), the Netherland Embassy of South Africa, the University of Stellenbosch’s Department of Social Impact and Transformation, the C.P. Nel Museum, SON, Business Arts South Africa (BASA) and Absa. Research was supported under the To-Gather programme of the Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia.