AUTHORS MICHAEL LEWIS AND TA-NEHISI COATES WRITE AND MAKE SENSE OF OUR CRAZY WORLD

DIANE DE BEER

Two of my favourite authors wrote books recently focussing on issues that are part of how we function and why. I want to urge anyone interested in the world and how we view it, to tap into their insight:

THE PREMONITION:  A PANDEMIC STORY BY MICHAEL LEWIS:

“I would read an 800 page history on the stapler if Michael Lewis wrote it,” writes a New York Times book reviewer and that is pretty much exactly what I feel about Lewis and anything he writes.

His last book, The Fifth Risk, looked at the federal bureaucracy during the Trump years and how things unravelled because of incompetence, or if you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, ignorance.

So it was perhaps justified to expect this latest book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, to put all the blame on Trump and his coterie of civil servants. But not so.

What he does is to go and fetch the facts from way before the pandemic, when a group of medical specialists started warning about the possibility of a pandemic like Covid-19 and how best to prepare for it. The problem was that few people were listening and the government specifically didn’t want to listen.

He has a handful of heroes and one of the most intriguing individuals in this story is a California health official, Charity Dean. Lewis has a knack of discovering these characters who seem to almost hand him his story on a plate – but it’s perhaps not that easy. You have to find them and then you have to both listen and pay attention; and that he does quite brilliantly.

He also has the instincts to know which story to follow. And if anything, Dean wasn’t obviously the voice that many would listen to. She admits that who she really is has nothing to do with her exterior, which is apparently more Barbie than Florence Nightingale.

But that’s only part of the story. Two doctors, Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher, were part of a pandemic planning team set up during the George W. Bush administration and then they hooked up with some other extraordinary individuals who were all extremely good at what they were doing.

Almost by accident these people all get together or connect in some kind of fashion. Rather than predicting what was going to happen, as one might expect, all these people in some kind of form become interested in pandemics and start looking out for the possibility of future disaster(s).

The frightening thing though is not the incompetency of the Trump administration or even Trump’s wild claims during some of the worst times of the pandemic, but rather that this first-world country with all its expertise and some of the best brains in the world was so ill prepared.

 Most of the rest of the world is less alarmed by some of the incompetency in their own countries, having a much more jaundiced eye, but most of us will be surprised that those who constantly hold themselves up as being the best, can do so badly.

It’s worrying when even the “best” fail so miserably. And to this day, people are dying because of a refusal to take the vaccine. How is it possible to keep on refusing to take it seriously even after the high death counts? And now many of those naysayers are starting to die, so it will be interesting to see how that changes the dynamic.

The best of the Lewis style is the way he finds and fetches the story, dresses it up in the most palatable fashion and then allows the story to unfold. It’s powerful and will keep me reading – yes even when the topic doesn’t grab me. I know his storytelling abilities will.

WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER BY TA-NEHISI COATES (Hamish Hamilton):

In a sense, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a similarly mesmerising voice. He deals in a different world but also with the lives of people; and perhaps that’s the common thread.

This time it is the late Toni Morrison who is quoted on the back page: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.”

This one was published in 2017, but I’ve only recently received a copy and can’t resist bringing it to anyone’s attention who doesn’t know about it or is unfamiliar with this particular voice.

The premise is the Obama presidency and what Coates did was to take eight articles written during the eight years of the first black presidency. Before each of these essays, there is as the author explains “a kind of extended blog post, one that attempts to capture why I was writing and where I was in my life at the time.”

He describes what he has put together as almost a “loose memoir”. And at the end of the book, he attempts to assess the post-Obama age in which we find ourselves. He wanted all these eight essays (originally published in The Atlantic) assembled in a single volume.

It’s as smart as it is clever and I can’t think of anyone else I would rather have guide me through that particular time in American history. And because of these times of George Floyd and the renewed urgency of Black Lives Matter, it almost lands with more penetration because of current events than when it was first published.

He deals with so much that is out there right now and for years to come. About reparations, for example, he says the following: “What would it mean for American policy so often rooted in its image as the oldest enlightened republic and pioneer of the free world, to forthrightly note that freedom and enlightenment were only made possible through plunder that stretched from the country’s prehistory up into living memory?”

And that’s just a tiny snippet and sits sweetly next to Prince’s brand new album (posthumously, of course) and the searing lyrics:

“Land of the free, home of the brave

“Oops, land of the free, home of the slaves…”

Coates doesn’t mince his words either. If you want to hear, he will tell it like it is. And if anything, you could read it just to see what he has to say about Trump, the man he describes as America’s first white president. And that already is a fascinating story.

He writes in his incisive epilogue that Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that in working twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. “But Trump’s counter is persuasive  ̶  work half as hard as black people and even more is possible.”

Much was explained about both the Obama and Trump presidency (according to Coates, the result of having had a black president) and again Coates steps up as the voice of a new generation, insightful about the world in which we live in, and more importantly, not one where he sees white supremacy disappearing anytime soon.

It was reported recently that Mitch McConnell expressed initial satisfaction about the Obama presidency because he felt this would put a stop to the kind of complaints heard from the Black Lives Matter movement.

Which says everything about his understanding of the lives of others especially those of colour. And again underlines the importance of this book.

ESCAPE FROM LUBUMBASHI IS ABOUT A REFUGEE’S DETERMINED STRUGGLE TO REUNITE HER FAMILY

The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention is a key legal document and defines a refugee as: “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”.

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With The Escape from Lubumbashi (published by Unisa Press), author Estelle Neethling tells a story that she felt compelled to share especially of this particular woman and her excruciating journey and circumstances to find a life and home for her family. And more than ever, this is the time to share the stories of refugees she tells DIANE DE BEER :

When author Estelle Neethling first met Adolphine Misekabu, her dignity and obvious honesty struck her forcibly. “From the very first time I saw her sitting in a makeshift classroom at a refugee centre in Cape Town in the mid-2000’s, teaching refugee children,” she says.

At the time Neethling was working for the South African Red Cross Society as the national tracing coordinator (restoring of Family Links Programme, International Committee of the Red Cross).

When the South African Red Cross, where she was based in Cape Town, relocated to Pretoria, she chose to remain in Cape Town. “I felt the need to write about the hardships of the genuine refugee, something I came to know all too well during my 10 years working in the refugee sector, my main mandate being to restore family links in cases where people had been displaced due to conflict and political turmoil over which they had no control.”

She was especially affected by the sorrow felt by women and children. And this is how her book Escape From Lubumbashi: A Refugee’s Journey On Foot To Reunite Her Family was given life.

“My life-changing ten years at the Red Cross also made me realise that there are other forms of displacement and I needed to explore and come to terms with my own personal history of emotional displacement,” she explains.

The author Esteller Neethling.

“Because Misekabu’s story so poignantly represents what the refugee goes through, I wanted her story to be ‘out there’, to combat the scourge of xenophobia so rampant in the world, but particularly among our communities in South Africa. It can be said that displacement – brought even more into focus because of the Covid-19 pandemic – is the theme of our time, second only to the ravages of World War 2.”

And fortunately or so it seems, the world is very slowly waking up to this reality with books like these and more and more real-life stories emerging. It is becoming harder and harder to simply ignore.

For Neethling this dignified woman’s story reflects the power of the human spirit to combat unimaginable challenges. “When Misekabu was finally reunited with her husband, Sepano, in Cape Town after almost two years through a confluence of circumstances, some kind of synchronicity that baffles me to this day, she suffered enormously because of cruel xenophobic attitudes, including the 2008 xenophobic violence that raged in South African for many months.”

And when you read her story, at this stage, this young woman had endured and survived what most of us will never see or experience in a lifetime. In fact, it’s impossible to understand how she motivates herself to keep going. That took willpower and courage, something not asked from many of us

“Emotionally drained at times due to the humiliation inflicted by local people and crime she encountered here after her gruelling search for her husband all the way from Lubumbashi in the DRC, she remained undaunted,” writes the author as she highlights Misekabu’s strength of character. And that’s what it takes once you’re part of that world, one you’re not a willing part of – but without any choice.

“In trains and on buses, when she was called amakwerekwere and other derogatory names, she would speak out: “Excuse me. Are you talking to me? Forget about other people’s business. Think development!” In telling me, she’d add, with eyes flashing: ‘I didn’t come to Cape Town to give up’,” explains Neethling.

She knew that this was a story that needed to be told. But she was also aware of the responsibility towards Misekabu to honour her truth. She was especially aware that she was delving however respectfully, into the life of a highly traumatised human being who had lost all her family, except for her baby, her small brother and eventually her husband.

Adolphine in the Meheba-camp in Zambia.

She explains that the enormity of this remarkable woman’s loss was due to the First Congo War during which Mobutu Sese Seko’s ruinous reign destroyed innumerable lives. “Probably only my work with people in crisis made it possible for me to take on such an onerous task, albeit with the utmost respect and sensitivity.

“Misekabu immediately agreed when I initially approached her. The problem of re-traumatisation was always foremost in my mind, but slowly we pieced together her story, because there were times when I needed to do extensive research regarding the history of the times she lived in as a Kasaian, and a member of a family which was persecuted by Mobutu’s army and the factions which supported him.

“Her enduring love, especially for her dead father shone through all our interactions. Nkudimba’s name means ‘man of peace’ was a trained doctor, an internationally recognised artist and a leading politician in opposition to Sese Seko, who had disappeared mysteriously months before she and Sepano had to flee Lubumbashi in 1976.

“Our interactions over four years, with a few intermissions when I had to earn my daily bread, were of course often emotionally draining for me. Undoubtedly these intermissions gave her respite from verbally relating her memories. However, she expressed that our work together had had a healing effect on her. But of course that is an ongoing process,” Neethling stresses.

The impact of reading  her story is one of admiration but also trying to understand why such a gruelling journey, probably the toughest you could ever make on every level possible, is turned into even more of a nightmare because of the impossibly difficult hoops refugees are asked to jump through when applying for the necessary status.

Neethling explains that there are organisations which assist refugees as best they can, but the process to obtain refugee status is gruelling, shared with migrants, persons who have come to South Africa ‘in search of a better life’, some whose goal is to be resettled in an overseas country of their choice.

“The Department of Home Affairs needs to deal with applications to become, first, an asylum seeker, secondly, a recognised refugee and, if it is the final goal, to seek permanent residency. The road to the latter is arduous, very long and not easily achieved.”

And she explains further: “The ‘refugee question’ is convoluted and many refugees become desperate. Some do ‘fall through the cracks’ or remain in the country illegally. Refugees often speak of corruption during their efforts to remain in South Africa. Our country has also had its fair share of troublemakers among these ‘immigrants’ or ‘foreigners’, as they are often called, and those who turn to crime, just as one would find in most groups of people.”

Add to that xenophobia which Neethling describes as a universal problem and based on the difficulty diverse groups have of accepting the ‘otherness’ of people who are strangers to the ways of their adopted country. “Lack of respect for human rights, an absence of tolerance, the burning issue of scarce resources and jobs play a huge part in the cruelty on which xenophobia is based,” she notes.

And how is the family doing now? In many ways fortunately after many years of unthinkable hardship and miraculous survival, three more children were born to Adolphine and Sepano.

Adolphine with her brother Joseph who finally has also received his residency papers.

There was much distress when her young brother, Joseph (five when she fled Lubumbashi with her baby, Ilunga, as a 22-year-old woman) was not granted permanent residency with the rest of the family through some bureaucratic error, but after persistent efforts, he is now also a permanent resident.

But that doesn’t mean their lives aren’t still a daily struggle. Despite being a permanent resident, finding stable work is difficult for this warrior woman. “As a strong, confident woman, a trained teacher, she should in my opinion have more employment opportunities. But as it is, she plays a significant part in assisting refugees and in helping local communities to accept refugees,” Neethling says.

She concludes that the world has in many ways become a perilous place, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect it has on people and the economy. “My hope for the future is that people will stand up for and support basic human rights. All of us have agency – even the most humble among us. Tolerance and a word of kindness to someone ‘at sea’ in their desperation can go a long way in alleviating distress and even open the door to hope of acceptance – and a good life.”

And as a final word: “The journey with Adolphine started in 2010. Writing her story was an experience I wouldn’t change for the world. However, I always knew it would be difficult to find a publisher, because it is nonfiction, although a memoir in many ways, because most of her story is told in her own words. Further, the book isn’t about a famous person or a politician. Therefore, much of the time it took before I held the book in my hands was harrowing.

I have Unisa Press to thank for believing in Escape from Lubumbashi. When all’s said and done, it is in many ways a life’s work that has become an integral part of my very being.”

And in this time when millions in the world are either refugees or displaced people, all of us have to understand exactly what that means.

At a price of R137, the book can be ordered from Emily Monyai at monyaen@unisa.ac.za or from Johannes Morodi at morodjm@unisa.ac.za.

THE KKNK VIRTUAL ART GALLERY IS ALL ABOUT FEELING YOUR EMOTIONS THROUGH FANTASTIC ART

Feelings dominate in the second Klein Karoo National Arts Festival Virtual Gallery. DIANE DE BEER chats to the curator Dineke van der Walt about the moods she hoped to capture in Feel/Voel, with artistic director Hugo Theart adding his impressions:

Emotion (Curator Dr Paul Bayliss , Absa Gallery)

The Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK) was the first of the arts festivals to be impacted by Covid-19 last year.

Announcements of the country’s first lockdown came crashing down during the last weekend of the Woordfees (Stellenbosch) only a couple of weeks before the start of the 2020 KKNK.

It was a huge blow and while we are much more adept at adapting almost 18 months later, at the time festival managements were reeling and artists were trying to work out how they would earn a living without live performances.

Thinking on their feet, Artistic Director of the KKNK Hugo Theart and his young first-time festival art curator Dineke van der Walt realised that they could create a virtual art gallery of the 11 exhibitions which were already on their way to Oudtshoorn at that time.

And it worked! Following the huge success of last year’s first Virtual Gallery, supported by Absa, they have flung open their “doors” for a second time running.

They had tested it almost on the run the first time round, but this year they had the experience of the first effort, which had been richly rewarded. And this time they could work with a digital endgame from the beginning.

“It is a privilege to be able to offer such a fantastic range of visual art to art enthusiasts in the comfort of their homes for the second time,” says Theart. “Van der Walt is again the curator of this gallery having won a Fiësta Award for her work on last year’s virtual gallery.”

This time round, the gallery showcases of six exhibitions with a total of 260 works by 83 artists from far and wide across South Africa, as well as from Zimbabwe, Taiwan, America, Ghana, Mauritius, Kenya, Iran, and Namibia, with many artists from the Klein Karoo and Garden Route region, which is also the festival’s home ground.

The theme of this year’s gallery is Voel/Feel. “This collection of exhibitions presents a wonderful opportunity for us to see, feel and understand more about the way we experience and process feelings and emotions. My hope is that viewers will find the experience enriching and exciting,” she says. 

If you think about it, just midding in the meantime (or) Progression (Curator Fadzai Muchemwa)

The six exhibitions are: Emotion (Emosie),compiled by Absa with Dr Paul Bayliss as curator,Feeling Things, compiled by Donavan Mynhardt, Paint. Verf., compiled by Johan Myburg, If you think about it, just midding in the meantine (or) progression, compiled by Fadzai Muchemwa, Something Pauses, compiled by Christa Swart and Amplifica: A Medley of Moods in Miniature, compiled by Van der Walt herself.

“Since we built the platform last year, we have received valuable feedback from our visitors regarding what worked. So this year we had the opportunity to focus on aspects we couldn’t introduce last year. The artworks are, for instance, available on our e-commerce platform making it much easier to acquire. 

“Having the virtual architecture in place for our gallery was also beneficial for curators, who could select work that would present well in the virtual rooms. This however didn’t stop us from experimenting. I believe it’s important to continue exploring ways to present works and mediums that might be regarded as too difficult for digital platforms, even if it’s not yet clear how to do so.”

All artworks, she believes though, need to be seen. There are miniature artworks, three-dimensional sculptures and ceramics (Feeling Things), as well as primarily paintings (Paint.Verf. ), or digital artworks (Emotion) and works on paper (Progression). “We’re exploring how these different mediums interact with the overarching theme of emotions, but also how various mediums present online,” she notes.

And especially  from a digital perspective, I have sometimes found these works difficult to view as part of a more conventional exhibition because it breaks the rhythm of the viewing process. But here, it can be seen as a stand-alone exhibition and because it is digital, it makes sense to view it online.

Talking about the theme of the exhibition, Van der Walt feels there’s a striking irony in titling the virtual gallery VOEL/FEEL and presenting various material textures of artworks that viewers are unable to access through touch. “For me, this presents a playful opportunity for unpacking the possibilities of art as an emotional access point or a way of finding an emotional connection with others – even when it is presented digitally and virtually.”

It was particularly important for them to continue to expand and optimise the user experience of the virtual gallery started last year.

“I have noticed many people shifting focus and looking inward, considering the emotional impact that the outside world has on them. With this in mind, I wanted to select a theme that could be both meaningful – a way for viewers to contemplate their inner emotional lives – and that would allow playfulness. After all, emotions are not all dark and challenging, they can be light-hearted as well,” she reminds us.

In these times she specifically aimed for balance in the emotions explored because she wanted an equal playing field for both positive and challenging emotions. “Too often we regard the one as more important than the other. We might feel pressured to be happy all the time, or consider the ‘tortured artist’ exploring her/his dark emotions as more intellectual or powerful than light-hearted approaches.

“There’s certainly immense value in both, but I don’t think specific emotions can be regarded as more complex or important than others. We need the variety in that medley of moods we experience from time to time. Placing too great an emphasis on feeling happy, for instance, disregards the necessity of other emotions. Similarly, focussing on dealing with challenging emotions ignores that emotions can be shaped by our thoughts and how we choose to guide our attention,” she argues.

Her hope and her aim was for artists, curators and viewers to explore the fascinating complexity of our emotional lives. “There is so much that we can still learn about our own feelings, and we do this best when learning from one another.

“In observing how others express their emotions, we can learn to understand our own. We shape each other, and heighten the role that emotions play collectively. And while we cannot connect to people in all the ways we did before, art can be a form of exchange. It becomes our meeting place.”

This is even more important than before, and art also benefits from being seen virtually and in everyone’s own time and at an  individual pace.

Ilene Bothma’s Displacement (She Felt her Heart Sinking to her Feet)(Emotion)

There are many ways to view the work, and the gallery encourages individuals to find their personal preference. On the kknk.co.za website viewers can get a quick visual overview of each exhibition and read more about each artist, curator and artwork.

There’s an option to view each individual artwork in full screen, where one can also zoom in to see more detail. This allows you to get closer to inspect a work than you probably might in brick-and-mortar gallery spaces.

“Being able to zoom in is especially helpful when viewing the miniature artworks of Amplifica, and also specifically when viewing Paint.Verf. curated by Johan Myburg – an exhibition that centres on the medium itself.” 

Each exhibition is also curated in a virtual room, showcasing the works in relation to each other, as artworks in dialogue encourage fascinating themes to emerge. In the virtual room for Emotion, viewers can watch video and sound artworks in their own time but also as often as they choose.

It’s also insightful to listen to the audio walkabouts of the curators when virtually ‘walking through the spaces’. Language choices are also available.

“In many ways, the virtual experience empowers viewers to construct their own ideal viewing experience,” says Van der Walt. And that is true. You have the choice to view in exactly the circumstances that are personally ideal.

In conclusion, Theart notes there is something for everyone in these exhibitions, with fantastic artworks on sale from only R500. “Absa customers also receive a 10% discount on their purchases as a bonus.”

Visit the KKNK Virtual Gallery, supported by Absa, at www.kknk.co.za until the end of August 2021.

THE DURBAN FILM FESTIVAL INVITES YOU TO FREE ONLINE SCREENINGS WITH FILMS THAT EXPLORE THE DREAMS AND DETERMINATION OF WARRIORS

In spite of everything that has happened these past 10 days, the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts (CCA) will still host the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) from 22 July to 1 August 2021. And the films and documentaries they screen talk about the world we live in which passes most of us by unseen and unheard. DIANE DE BEER looks at just a handful of entries available for free viewing – and encourages viewers to look more closely at our world – all of it not simply the one we find palatable:

This year, for its 42nd edition, the festival presents close to 140 feature films, documentaries and short films alongside an exciting industry programme: Isiphethu.
DIFF which is located in Durban but representative of African voices across the continent and the diaspora, is a dynamic platform that aims to broaden our viewpoints and allow for robust critical discourse about our societies. The Festival hopes that its extensive programme drawn from across the continent and from other parts of the globe will disrupt, challenge, provoke and provide directions for a deeper and more empathetic understanding of the human condition – something that we need more than ever in these times.

The entire programme, alongside all the films that will be screening, is accessible through www.durbanfilmfest.com.

Programme and details

Screenings by film students and a diverse workshop and seminar programme are the pulse of this year’s Isiphethu industry-focused programme at DIFF, aiming to educate and up-skill, instil confidence in young aspirant filmmakers and share information that is relevant to the film industry and empowers young people. 

All workshops and seminars take place between 26 and 30 July and are accessible for free through Zoom and streamed live on Facebook. Find the entire programme and register for the Zoom Room here: https://ccadiff.ukzn.ac.za/isiphethu-2021-2/
 
The full programme, alongside all the films that will be screening, is accessible through www.durbanfilmfest.com. Tickets for the virtual screenings are only available from South Africa and free and accessible through a booking system, which will open tomorrow (21 July 2021).

The 42nd edition of the Festival is organised by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts, in partnership and with the support of the KZN Film Commission, the National Film and Video Foundation, KZN Department of Arts & Culture, the Film and Publications Board and other valued funders and partners. 

Here are four of the films/documentaries available and if this is any indication, the stories are extraordinary and will change the way you view the world:

Rickshaw Girl: This was my first experience of a Bangladeshi film and I was quite interested to see what I would make of it.

Rickshaw Girl, a story about a young girl trying to make a living to save her father’s life.

What I didn’t expect was to find a mind that I completely identified with – that of the scriptwriter. After all, or so I thought, we live on different continents and live completely different lives. If I know anything about Bangladesh apart from frequent flooding and natural disasters (I think), it is also that  every so often we read of a large number of women, garment workers, who die in a factory fires!

That’s true then I realised as our Rickshaw Girl is adamant that even if she has no income or food, that’s not where she is going to work … ever

Work becomes what drives her when her father falls ill and loses the family’s main source of income as a rickshaw man. But she can’t simply take over because to do the work, you have to be male – and after many struggles, that’s what she decides to become – a man.

I lost my heart to our heroine, who had a very specific outlook on the world and what she was prepared to do and take to provide for her family. And that’s how dreams come true…

Not only do you make contact with a different part of the world in this beautiful film, it is again reinforced that we all have the same dreams and desires and will do anything to achieve them. It’s a message of hope and one we could embrace  ̶  especially now.

The Last Shelter: The title explains exactly what this documentary is about. It is the last place of safety for hopeful immigrants in Gao, Mali, a refuge at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. It is a final stay-over for those in transit towards Algeria in the north or their way back from a failed attempt to make it to Europe.

Two teenage girls from Burkina Faso named Esther and Kady are the ones who tell this particular story and the thing that grabs you by the throat is the desperation, the determination, the daring of these two young girls. What is clear, though, is that both feel they don’t have any choice. While everyone they come into contact with explains the hardships and horrors of this particular journey, where else should or could they go?

And probably/possibly, that’s what people don’t understand about immigrants. These journeys aren’t undertaken with much hope, joy or even expectation. Those participating with this level of trauma at play, feel this is their only outcome – even if there’s a 50 percent chance (probably higher) of dying.

I found it mesmerising to watch, especially in these times when many people for whatever reason are reassessing their lives. Those of us who have homes have to think hard about our privileges – really.

I Am Here: This is something completely different but sadly no less harrowing, as one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors, a spirited Ella Blumenthal, at her 98th birthday celebrations tells of her life and her past so that her Cape Town-based family can experience just what she had gone through as a young Jewish girl from Warsaw, Poland during World War 2.

Many of us know the stories and have read and watched many horrific tales but there’s always another tale of heroism and resilience that gives us hope for anything we might have to face in life.

It is Ella’s spirit, her courage and the way she approaches life and the world around her that is so encouraging in someone who has endured more than any of us could even imagine. So many stories, so much pain but there are always those who stand up, fight back and remain vigilant and determined to tell their stories. She’s truly an inspiration.

Zinder: It’s the name of a town, but it kept steering my mind to tinder because that’s what the lifestyle I was being exposed to, reminded me of. Something that might go up in smoke at a whim. It is, however, a town in Niger, and in the poor area of Kara-Kara which used to be a leper’s district, a culture of gang violence reigns.

It’s not the kind of topic that would normally appeal to me, but in this world of the haves and the have nots (and you don’t have to have that much to fall into the first group, and most of the world falls into the second), we have to start paying attention – and the recent events in our own country pointed to just that.

The reason we are watching flames rising in many different parts of the world is because those who have something are so busy accumulating and flourishing that they haven’t noticed those who struggle simply to survive  ̶  day by day. As the apartheid fathers showed, it’s easy to ignore what is happening all around you, if you don’t want to know. Simply turn away.

And this is what makes this festival and its choices such a gripping one, it takes you to places you might be aware of but will never visit. This is your chance, in the safety of your home, and it is both well made and doesn’t cost anything. Even if or when reluctant, I was totally gripped and warmed to the people telling their stories.

It truly is time to pay attention if you haven’t before.

And if I haven’t been persuasive enough …

* The Generation Africa film Zinder directed by Aïcha Macky, won the Ladima Foundation  Adiaha Award for Best Documentary Film by an African woman at this year’s 23rd Encounters South African International Documentary Festival last month.

Winning director for Zinder Aicha Macky

The Jury gave this citation: “For its powerful and engrossing deep-dive into the life and struggles of young people in the streets of her marginalised home town. The director paints a compelling, unadorned and humane portrait of a harsh and neglected corner of the world, providing a non-judgmental and trusting space for her characters to reflect on their own choices and on the social inequity and spirals of violence that pervade their lives.”

The prize includes $2000 towards their next production and an invitation to attend the Dortmund Cologne International Women’s Film Festival 2022 in Germany, where their film will be screened.  

“It is an honour for me and my team to receive this award at the Encounters Festival,” said Macky speaking from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. “The film itself is the result of an ‘encounter’ between me and a newspaper that painted a bleak picture of the youth of my hometown without any glimmer of hope. This is our first international award, and for us it means that this work made from a singular story touches many.  It is the voice of the youth to whom I dedicate this film that begins to remember them.”

At the 2018 Durban FilmMart, Zinder also won the AfriDocs award of €2500 for further development, funded by the Bertha Foundation.

“For STEPS it’s been a great journey working with Aïcha and her co-producers on this film,” enthused Don Edkins, producer at STEPS and AfriDocs. “She has crafted a beautiful film that asks pertinent questions about her country and the futures of its youth. Aicha is not only a courageous woman filmmaker but also a leader in her country’s film community leading the change that young people are yearning for.”

MILK TART HAS BEEN ADOPTED, ADAPTED AND SUBSUMED BY DIFFERENT CULTURES AND BACKGROUNDS INTO SOUTH AFRICAN HERITAGE

PICTURES: Theana Breugem (thefoodphotographer.co.za/).

DIANE DE BEER

The milk tart queen Rachel Botes.

From the time I first heard that power chef Rachel Botes was going to do her masters in the origins and originality of the South African milk tart, I knew that she would be stretching the limits of this local sweet thing to places where none of us could imagine.

Now with her master’s degree (Cum  Laude) in hand, she has done exactly that. I also knew that her approach and research would be complicated and worth getting your teeth into. Her aim was to also use the milk tart as an artefact of food culture to enable a better understanding of food as a vehicle for identity, food as memory as well as a form of communication.

Just allow your mind to linger a little on that and the of scope of what she was hoping to achieve boggles the mind.

Botes stated her intent right from the start as she approached her research from a historical point of view, with the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies (Faculty of Humanities, University of Pretoria) her place of departure.

She notes that the milk tart is often perceived as something that’s derived from Afrikaners’ tradition and culture. This, however, isn’t entirely  founded. “…milk tart has been adopted, adapted and subsumed by women of different cultures and backgrounds into South African heritage,” which is good news for our South African cuisine  heritage … and something most of us have suspected anyway. With our history and diversity, nothing simply happens simply.

She further notes (and that’s more good news) that it has been given the nod widely and indigenized to such an extent that it is now considered a national treasure regardless of background. We even have  a National Milk Tart Day, for heaven’s sake!

At the heart of investigating the much loved milk tart lie questions of identity, belonging and heritage – all arising at the intersection of food culture and history.

She quickly discovered that recipe books would be her best source of information – that and food writing. These were generally done by women and thus became the diaries, the memory bank and a gendered food archive that reflects as  a particular identity marker within the South African context.

Melktert at its best

As we know, women are not well considered or documented in the past (look at writers like Hilary Mantel,            who are taking new points of view just to introduce everyone into their writing) but what has emerged has exciting consequences. “Whole classes of documents which were previously held in low esteem, including household inventories as an index of kinship, obligations and ties” come into play, for example, argues historian Raphael Samuel.

She also deals with the problematic racial classifications of our past, the national identity of food, with examples of every nation borrowing freely  –  as renowned South African author Louis Leipoldt states, “often with unblushing audacity” –  which leads to  the term “indigenization”, meaning something becomes distinctive to a particular people or place.

Many argued that women’s handwritten books and published guides or recipe books, as well as those of servants, will not be found in history books. Their history, especially in the domestic domain, was not regarded as important enough to be formally. But that is what turns this into something so much more than simply the origins of the milk tart.

Penelope Hetherington, for example, explains that women’s history was ignored in the documentation of national history at least until 1960! That’s yesterday!

Keeping all this in mind, even though enslaved people shaped South African cuisine in many unexpected ways, it was never formally recorded and thus has to be found in the pages of the recipe books of the time.

As Botes reviews the research she has done on the milk tart, she encapsulates some of what food means (with a smile) in the following quotation in Hastings Beck’s book Meet the Cape Food: “During the war a general who is, in the grand phrase of Izaak Walton, now with God, visited a school in the Cape, somewhat suspect of subversive activities. On his return he declared, ‘There is absolutely nothing wrong with that school. Why! They entertained me with milk tart!’

This, explained the author, was the significance of milk tart, which he describes as more than a pastry. ‘It is a gesture, like the breaking of bread or the offering of salt in other times and places. When judges go to circuit or Important Persons open bazaars, they must be served milk tart. To fail to do so would be a social solecism if not an actual affront.’

Rachel Botes, a woman who knows her food, knows best how to make it and knows how to write about it.

Another quotation that appeals was that of Charlene, Princess of Monaco, who announces in You Magazine, “I want to take milk tart and mealiepap to the rest of the world.”

Botes also reports that milk tart was often served during the Mbeki presidency, but she reminds us that he certainly was not the only South African head of state to do so. The Rand Daily Mail of 6 January 1975 announced that “melktert and eclairs for tea…” were served at formal talks between Prime Minister John Vorster and Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Callaghan.

Milk tart was also a conciliatory symbol when former President Nelson Mandela went to the Afrikaner enclave of Orania in August 1995 to visit Mrs Betsie Verwoerd.

She notes that as indicated by philosopher Martin Versveld, it is evident that the cuisines of the world came together at the tip of Africa. In most cases, she suggests, it was not a willing or voluntary convergence and therefor the process to reach the fusion of these cuisines must have been troublesome.

It is apparent to her from many of the recipes discussed in her dissertation that custard tarts were introduced and adopted in the early colonial era by the people doing the cooking, either on their own or under instruction. It is also clear from the recipes she investigated (and these are all included) that a basic milk tart recipe evolved over time, but that each baker had her own secret milk tart success, be it in method, the pastry, the preparation of the filling or its flavouring.

She highlights that the role and influence of all the women from diverse cultures is undeniable in this process and most often not acknowledged. Most importantly, she adds, considering the milk tart as an artefact, it becomes clear that the archive was not only silent about women in history, but also about their day-to-day activities – whether it was baking a milk tart or recording a recipe for the family collection.

The original Rachel Botes.

It’s a tough one to capture everything of interest in a column like this, but being a fly on the wall during these studies, I always knew that Rachel Botes could publish the definitive milk tart book once her studies were completed.

Here’s holding thumbs that it will see the light of day!

And some examples from the earliest, then earliest local and then a local favourite:

“Tyropatinam” (Milk and egg sweet)

Origin:    Roman, 1st-3rd century CE

Estimate the amount of milk necessary for this dish and sweeten it with honey to taste; to a pint of fluid take 5 eggs; for half a pint. Dissolve 3 eggs in milk and beat well to incorporate thoroughly, strain through a colander into an earthen dish and cook on a slow fire [in hot water bath oven]. When congealed sprinkle with pepper and serve.

Apicius, 2009, De Re Coquinaria, translated and edited by J.D. Vehling and published digitally as Project Guttenberg’s Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome, E-book 29728, Recipe 301, no page no. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29728/, access: March 2020.

The earliest local milk tart recipe found for this study was in a handwritten manuscript identified as Keuke boek van mijn De Weduwe Blanckenberg gebore Zeeman Den 15 October 1819 (Kitchen book of mine, the widow Blanckenberg born Zeeman The 15[th] October 1819)

Recipe 49 is for a Room taart (Cream tart)[2] that is made with eggs and sweet cream or good milk. A little flour is added to stiffen the mixture. It is left to cool before the mixture is poured into a tart base and baked until cooked. It is finally sprinkled with sugar. This recipe is similar to that of a milk tart, except for the fact that no butter is added to the filling and it is not flavoured in any other way. Recipe 75, for Melk taart (Milk tart), is briefer and makes no reference to the method, crust or flavourings. It simply reads “6 eyeren, 2 lepels meel en een bottelmelk” (6 eggs, 2 spoons of flour and a bottle milk).

And then perhaps to bake …and one of the Botes favourites

The Zola Milk Tart

Crust:

Origin:    South Africa, 2017

60 g butter, at room temperature

¼ cup (50g) castor sugar

1 egg

1 cup (140g) cake flour

1 tsp (5ml) baking powder

A pinch of salt

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180° Celsius. Grease a 23 cm tart tin.
  2. Cream the butter and castor sugar together.
  3. Add the egg and stir to combine.
  4. Add the flour, baking powder and salt and mix into a stiff dough.
  5. Press the dough onto the base and sides of the tart tin.
  6. Prick the base of the pastry all over with a fork.
  7. Blind bake for 30 minutes or until golden and crispy.

Filling:

2 ¼ cups (565ml) milk

1 cinnamon stick

1 egg

½ cup (100g) sugar

1 tbsp plus 1 tsp (20ml) cake flour

1 tbsp plus 1 tsp (20ml) corn flour

1 tsp (5ml) vanilla essence

20 g butter

1 tsp (5ml) ground cinnamon

  1. In a saucepan set over moderate heat, add the milk and cinnamon stick and bring to a boil. Remove the cinnamon stick.
  2. Whisk together the egg, sugar, flour, corn flour, and vanilla essence
  3. While whisking continuously, slowly add the hot milk to the flour mixture.
  4. Return the mixture to the saucepan and set over moderate heat. Whisk until the mixture has thickened.
  5. Add the butter and stir through.
  6. Pour the filling into the prepared pastry crust.
  7. Sprinkle with the cinnamon.
  8. Allow to cool completely before refrigerating.

M. Loewenstein, ‘The Zola Milk Tart’, Woman and Home Magazine, 24 February 2017, pp. 3-4. https://www.womanandhomemagazine.co.za/recipes/zola-milk-tart, access: October 2020.


 

 

FLAIR AND PLAYFULNESS CREATE CUISINE PERFECTION TO CELEBRATE JAPANESE CULTURE

PICTURES: HENNIE FISHER

When the Japanese Ambassador invites you to lunch and there’s no specific directive, you pay attention. DIANE DE BEER gives you some table talk:

Perfectly placed Japanese sweetness.

As my dealing with the Japanese have been mainly about their beautiful country, where I lost a piece of my heart, and their magnificent cuisine, which I still know very little about but am learning step by step, I was excited.

Instinct told me I should take along my chef friend Hennie Fisher, who shares my obsession with all things food and Japanese – and he takes fantastic pictures.

I was right, and delighted when Ambassador Norio Maruyama received us and we discovered we were the only guests on the day. That meant personal attention and  ̶  we suspected  ̶  a spectacular meal.

We had no idea. I hadn’t met the ambassador before so I didn’t know that he had a specific interest in food, and is also a marvellous storyteller. He told us that he had only arrived a year before Covid and when the pandemic hit these shores, he had to come up with innovative plans.

Dining companions Hennie Fisher, Ambassador Norio Maruyama and Diane de Beer.

He is in the fortunate position of having a fantastic chef, and his wife as his assistant, in his employ. When he was leaving for South Africa, a friend of his suggested he check out a young chef who was in the process of opening his own restaurant in Tokyo. Maruyama persuaded Jun Suzuki and his wife Mutsumi to accompany him to South Africa, and after a few hours in the ambassador’s company, I know his powers of persuasion are impressive.

What he decided was instead of trying to host large functions in these hectic times, he would invite small parties to dine at his home in Waterkloof. He happens to have magnificent views and of course, the secret ingredient, a chef and his partner who are willing and able to play. How clever of him to allow these young ones to experiment with their country’s cuisine with such spectacular results.

Cold brewed green tea.

Maruyama explains that because of their relatively new emperor (since 2019), the current theme of the country is beautiful harmony. And as ambassadors do, he has decided with these meals to incorporate it in a way that honours both Japan and South Africa – hence the harmony between the different cuisines.

What that means is that while there is a strong Japanese influence and theme running through the menu, it is combined with food flavours and dishes we’re familiar with. This was a tasting menu with the added flourish of a green tea pairing. A silky smooth Sake, and a couple of South African wines, also with a particular story, were included.

Even my wine connoisseur had not hear of the Stark-Condé winery and the first wine offered, Round Mountain (a sauvignon blanc) is actually the translation of Ambassador Maruyama’s surname. “The owner’s grandmother was Japanese and the wine was named in honour of her surname!”. This was followed by their rich cabarnet sauvignon, which was as impressive, but the focus of the day was the green teas, which were all cold brewed, a method which originated in Japan.

Just like the superior sake we were served as an aperitif, we have all had our own versions of green tea, but nothing to compare with what the Japanese themselves serve you. Each one is carefully selected to go with each particular tasting. It added to the overall taste as well as intrigue of the masterful menu.

I can’t think of many things I enjoy more than being served the food of a particular country by someone who is a specialist and then to have an expert explain everything you’re savouring from beginning to end. That’s soul food for me and the best way to get to know a particular country’s cuisine!

They started us off with something they named One Bite Happiness of which there were two sample tastes. The first was the Reiwa Monaka, a rice wafer that appears cheekily more like a French macaron filled with duck rillettes and topped with a Japanese spice called kuroschichimi. Paired with a one-bite Kobucha, a green tea beverage using dried seaweed and coagulated with a seaweed-based ingredient. In different fashion, both captured the essence of Japan in the fine detail and the delicate taste.

This was followed by something more familiar, or so we thought, but the Salmon mi-cuit, Yuzu (Japanese citrus best described as tart and fragrant) flavoured, is an extremely slow- and low-cooked salmon. It was melt-in-the-mouth.

This was followed by a green salad with Hoozuki  ̶  Cape gooseberrie, which the ambassador explained, are regarded as a fruit in South Africa, and a vegetable back home in Japan. The compromise in the salad was perfect and pretty.

The meat of choice was a beef fillet with Kyoto miso (soy bean paste) with the meat thoroughly cooked first, then roasted topped with miso and roasted again together with leeks. Stone-milled sansho (a citrusy Japanese pepper) is sprinkled carefully as a final touch. It had a spectacularly robust Japanese flavour because of the flavouring.

To complete the main tasting, there was a Japanese-style pasta combined with fermented tuna and seasoned with Ume (Japanese plum), dried fish flakes and finished off with nori, all sparingly and subtly done and served in a spectacular dish. It’s all about the flavours, which make this Italian staple their own.

A Yamogi chiffon cake with Anko.

The sweet piece de resistance is a Yamogi (Japanese herb) chiffon cake accompanied by Anko (sweet bean paste). Light and airy as they are traditionally, yet in colour and taste, quite unique. The sensational tasting concluded as it started with two small bites in perfect harmony with a walnut mochi (tapioca) and a matcha coated cashew nut, so perfectly served as if offered to a fairy queen.

It was simply extraordinary and just the most exquisite meal to have in a mid-week breakaway lunch. And apart from the food, the plating and the presentation was  breathtaking.

Meeting the kitchen artists, dressed in kitchen couture perfectly suited for what I imagine a Japanese kitchen would need, was wonderful. We didn’t expect them to be quite so young, but in reflection, I thought the meal showcased exactly that.

The stylish couple Chef Jun Suzuki and his wife Mutsumi

The thing about young creatives in any artistic endeavour is that they show respect for what has come before and they honour it, but they also play around to reinvent in a manner that shows their personality and reflects the times – and that’s what keeps us interested.

ARTISTIC FIREWORKS AS THREE COMMUNITY EMBROIDERY GROUPS SHOWCASE THEIR WORK AT THE ASSOCIATION OF ARTS IN TSHWANE

It’s a triple treat with three important community embroidery groups coming together for a phenomenal exhibition at Tshwane’s Association of Arts with the bonus of some traditional work, which had an influence on all the others. DIANE DE BEER embroiders on the show that will be running until May 29 :

MAPULA EMBROIDERIES: A Covid-19 panel by Dorah Hlongwane, Maria Phalatsi & Rossina Makhubela.

With Needle and Thread is the perfect name for this exciting and extraordinary exhibition where three community groups creating hand embroidered textiles from the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and Limpopo as well as some solo women making traditional cloths from Northern Limpopo, are all brought together to showcase their work.

Included are the Keiskamma Art Project, (Hamburg, Eastern Cape), Kaross (Letsitele, Limpopo), Mapula Emrboideries (Winterveld, Gauteng) and as an added bonus some traditional Minceka by the Tsonga-Shangaan women in the far Northern Limpopo.

All three projects are established embroidery groups with works hanging in museums locally and abroad and they feature in many national and international publications on textile art. All three are highly regarded and can be seen as the most important community art projects in their field in this country.

The Kaross embroidery project produces beautiful and evocative quality African embroidery,  which are hand-crafted by women and men from VaTsonga and Northern Sotho cultural backgrounds since its inception in 1989. Their impetus has always been sustainable development and employment and they strive to create a commercially viable product that will help sustain all their embroiderers and employees. 

Before the devastating effects of Covid-19 on International tourism, they provided an income to more than 1 400 embroiderers, mostly women.

Their skilled stitching and their affinity for unusual and artistic colour combinations combined with well-designed Kaross images, makes their work distinctive.

They create mainly tableware, homeware and wall art, and currently export worldwide.

www.kaross.co.za

www.karossfoundation.org

The Keiskamma Art Project is part of the greater Keiskamma Trust, a South African not-for-profit organization dedicated to the holistic care of the communities that live in the area. alongside the Keiskamma River in the Eastern Cape. The trust was founded in 2000 by artist and doctor, Carol Hofmeyr and today the Keiskamma Art Project, the flagship of the greater Trust, works to maintain its founder’s vision, providing vital livelihoods through dignified work, while communicating, through art, the reality of rural lives affected by both poverty and history. 

Their aim is to provide employment and to support the development of creative skills for predominantly women and young members of the community who are then empowered with entry into the economy.
The Art Project engages collaboratively with artists from around the world and supplies training in design and craft skills and nurtures skills in production, financial administration, and computing, useful for the running of the Art studio and its shop. 

They are especially well known and loved for large scale monumental artworks, from the Keiskamma Tapestry on permanent exhibition at the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town to the Keiskamma Altarpiece which has toured North America and England for two years, displayed in the most prestigious cathedrals, such as Washington and Southwark and their Keiskamma Guernica, a magnificent work can be seen in the UP Javett Art Centre.

But the anticipation for this current exhibition are the three large tapestries depicting key events in the life of Reverend Stephen Mzamane, the main character in A Sin of Omission (2019), the novel by Marguerite Poland, which has just been named as one of the books on the Sunday Times longlist for fiction 2021.

The novel is based on a true story and opens with Stephen (Malusi) Mzamane, a young Anglican priest, journeying to his mother’s rural home to inform her of his elder brother’s death. First educated at the Native College in Grahamstown, Stephen was sent to England in 1869 for training at the Missionary College in Canterbury. But on his return home, relegated to a dilapidated mission near Fort Beaufort, he had to confront not only the prejudices of a colonial society but the discrimination within the Church itself.

Seventeen artists from the Keiskamma Art Project were involved in the making of these works, in tribute to Poland, a long-time collaborator and close friend of the project. The themes of her literary works are felt intimately within the communities of the rural Eastern Cape where their Art Project is based.

The artists visited Nondyola, the missionary station to which Stephen was sent on his return from Canterbury, and the site of the Anglican Institution in Grahamstown, in order to understand more fully who Stephen was and what he experienced. Moved by his story, the artists chose scenes from his life to depict as tapestries.

Once you’ve seen the embroideries, you will want to read the book.

Mapula Embroideries celebrate their 30th anniversary this year. They assist over 150 women in developing artistic skills as they create unique embroidered works for sale. This income helps to feed and educate their children and improve their overall lives.

The Winterveld, where the women live and create, 70 kilometres northwest of Tshwane has a complex and troubled history because of political, social, economic and gender forces that have left the area under-developed and many residents unemployed, poor, and vulnerable. Their struggles and triumphs have been reflected in many of their embroideries over the years.

MAPULA EMBROIDERIES: Elizabeth Malete.

The project was initiated by the Pretoria Club of Soroptimist International in 1991. They have developed an intricate system involving design, production, and development of artistic skills. The project is now administered through the independent Mapula Embroidery Trust, a locally registered non-profit organization.

The Sisters of Mercywho live and run an education and skills training centrein the Winterveld, provide the embroiderers with the use of a workspace free of charge and have been involved with the project from the beginning.

They are internationally known for their depiction of historical events and social history through their embroideries. Their part of the exhibition will consist mainly of wall hangings with these themes. They include deeply personal images of the very real implications that Covid-19 has had on their lives and their society. 

MAPULA EMBROIDERIES: Elizabeth Mafamadi and Kelelo Maepa.

www.mapulaembroideries.co.za

Shangaan Minceka:

The traditional Tsonga /Shangaan Minceka are also being shown at this exhibition as they can be regarded as influencing some of the embroiderers of Kaross and Mapula Embroideries.  They are, for some of the embroiderers, their traditional inspiration.

A ncheka (singular)  (minceka, plural) –  is part of the traditional attire which is worn as a wrap that ties across the woman’s shoulders. It can be either a cloth, printed in bright colours, or a dark blue cloth with a printed black pattern, richly embroidered by incorporating beads, small mirrors, bells and safety pins. Hundreds of small brass safety pins are used to pin on the garment which then forms the patterns. The brass safety pins are referred to as the quick stich.

To see these authentic and increasingly rare cloths in real life is special.

As in so many instances across the country, Covid-19 has had a severe economic impact on each project. They’re hoping that the sales from this exhibition will help towards their sustainability but for viewers, it’s a fantastic opportunity to see the scope of the country’s community embroiderers – and that’s quite something.

The exhibition which opens this weekend runs until May 29 at the Association of Arts, 173 Mackie Street, New Muckleneuk.

Tel: 012 346 3100

Gallery Hours Tuesdays to Fridays: 9am to 5pm; Saturdays: 9am to 1pm

RESTAURATEUR GIOVANNI MAZZONE WILL BE REMEMBERED AS A GIANT OF A MAN WITH A GENTLE SOUL

DIANE DE BEER

Father and son Giovanni and Forti Mazzone

When Giovanni Mazzone passed away last week, it was with great sorrow that I received the sad news. But it also reminded me of the warmth and gentle smile of someone who very easily crept into your heart.

Paging through stories I had written through the years about the Mazzone father (Giovanni) and son (Forti) team, emphasizes the fact that any of their restaurants but especially Ritrovo (because my focus had been especially at that time), is as much about family and friends as it is about food.

Once you got to know these two very special men, you understood what their restaurants through the years meant to them. As Forti so poignantly wrote on social media the day of his dad’s death, Giovanni died like he lived – surrounded by his family.

That word is writ large in their world and it was always clear for everyone to see. One of my best invites was always to join the post-lunch meal in the deli-side of Ritrovo with the whole family and some staff gathered around the table.

It was a Giovanni institution which he explained was his solution when he realised he had to do something practical about cementing family life when his children were young.

This is what I wrote in the past: Visit the restaurant on any day in the early afternoon and the Mazzone clan and colleagues are gathered around a table enjoying their late lunch. Large bowls of pasta or some of their moreish pizzas are scattered on the table and in-between the patter, the diners are tucking in before they start preparing for the evening rush.

What started as a single restaurant (Giovanni’s brainchild) in Sunnyside a few decades ago has been turned into a small empire by an inspired son.

But that is only one of his legacies. Think of Giovanni the restaurateur and if you are led by your stomach you will remember that he is the bread specialist and to this day, it is his recipe that plays such a huge role in any of their restaurants or coffee bars.

That and of course the magnificent ice cream that was served by all the many BICCCS stores from here to Cape Town and in Franschhoek. And Forti is always very proud to point to his heritage. We were lucky enough to be close to his dad’s birth town in Naples while Forti and his family were doing their annual Italian trek.

He picked us up in Naples and took us to the quaint mountain village of Giovanni’s roots, Pietrastornina  and it was with great pride he introduced us to his dad’s family and showed off the region and the secret of his Italian flair.

It was a day filled with family, friends and the Mazzone warmth and bonhomie. And that started with Giovanni who in contrast with his flamboyant son, was quiet and always gentle with a twinkle in his eye. You could slip into a chair, he would bring a coffee and chat about his life and his world. But always he would make sure that you were content and had everything you needed. His was a quiet yet impactful presence.

Three generations with Forti, Giovanni and granddaughter Isabella Mazzone.

Right up to the end, Forti made sure he was kept busy where he knows what to do and how to be. Brooklyn Bridge’s BICCCS was specially created for his fabulous father and more often than not, that was where you would find his son during the day. These two were inseparable and like father like son, Forti was given the foundation to create what is there today. And rumours are swirling about new ventures!

Pretoria is a city that is known for its family restaurants and by that I mean there are quite a few of our most popular restaurants, which have established themselves because of the family running the establishment.

They love what they are doing, are usually on the premises and the standard has been established and maintained because of dedication and determination.

This is what it meant to those of us visiting the their premises. Nowhere was that more evident than in the Mazzone restaurants through the years.:

“It’s catching, this enthusiastic approach to life which is the ethos that runs through the restaurant. The staff has been empowered to take ownership and it shows from the moment you enter.

That is the secret Mazzone ingredient. It’s tough to invent or teach. You either have it or you don’t and you find it here in abundance. It’s what makes the Ritrovo (and now Forti’s Grill) ritual such a compulsive one.

It’s not just about serving good food in a gracious venue. It’s about the ambience and the attention that makes dining out at this Italian home-from-home such an embracing experience.”

And still Forti says it best: “I, who had the privilege of working with him for 35 years, only knows that he entered life a simple man. He left life calmly and with a simple beauty. But in between. He became an icon. But always part of the people. He served kings. Presidents. Ministers. Captains of industry. But always spoke to a humble sculler with the same respect and warm twinkle in his eyes. Pomposity never impressed him. He had a beautiful way with everyone and they gave it back in ladles. He was a soft touch for those in need. He could never say no. And his grandchildren adored him. And he adored them more.”

For those of us who knew him, the silver fox will be missed but his memory won’t fade. About that – with his gentle soul – he made sure.

WITH HIS LATEST EXHIBITION WORD/WOES, WILLEM BOSHOFF GETS THE WORLD READING

It’s glorious to know that one of our most exciting and enchanting artists Willem Boshoff is currently exhibiting in the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria. DIANE DE BEER tells more:

No better introduction of Willem Boshoff possible!

When genius artist/wordsmith Willem Boshoff appointed Hélène Smuts as his curator a few years back, his instincts were as savvy as his art.

Bless the Javett Centre that in these tough times they had one of the few art exhibition openings worthy of a creator of Willem Boshoff’s calibre.

And with the wealth of experience of the curator and artist combined, they have stretched this one to early January 2022, so that South Africans will have more than enough time to experience both the earlier and latest work of one of our most exciting artists. Also keep an eye out for all the events, workshops, launching of an extensive catalogue, druid walks by Boshoff, all of which will be announced and will be huge fun to engage in.

Willem Boshoff’s BLUE close-up of making process

The exhibition (as the press release states so succinctly) Word Woes is a retrospective of works spanning the duration of  Boshoff’s artistic practice. The exhibition title, taken from a signature work by Boshoff, is understood in English and in Afrikaans. In either language the two words look identical, but their meanings differ sharply. Read in English, the title WORD WOES bemoans difficult issues around words and language. Read in Afrikaans, the same words liberate, prompting us to let go and be wild.

Detail of Word Woes etching (2014)

And so it goes with Boshoff’s art. It is as awe-inspiring as it is accessible, and huge fun as the artist works with words in a way that is genius while those who look, first have fun with the vocabulary and then get lost in the artwork and the way the artist produces something so spectacular. His work is always detailed and can take the viewer exploring indefinitely.

He has already moved on, he says. Busy with approximately 30 works currently, he had a breakthrough that morning (of the opening) and was itching to get back to test his solution – something that will probably brilliantly bewitch viewers in the future.

Boshoff’s concern according to the curator and entrenched in his work is often with the context in which we receive language and the power it yields to exclude or to privilege. He uses unconventional tactics, she points out, to challenge the use of language as an instrument of cultural identity or exclusion. He describes all his works, whether sculptural or graphic, as conceptual books. That’s why it needs time to view as you not only look at the work but also read the different “books”.

City Book

As art writer/critic Dr Johan Myburg, the opening speaker noted: “Although meaning (what does it mean?) is an important aspect of Willem Boshoff’s art – in order to get the meaning, to get the hang of the words, requires a performative input from the viewer (the viewer has to change his or her position: either to under+stand or to vêr-staan or to get up close to (I am thinking of Abamfusa Lawula)) – the presence of the artwork – from the earliest aluminium Cube to the recent Blue, made from wood, cut paper and glue – has the ability to communicate immediately. In the words of the poet TS Eliot: ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’.

It is the way he states his case – not with the obvious but in a way that is often playful yet deadly serious in message.

Myburg also explains that WORD WOES/WORD WOES (and a preamble to this current exhibition as are many other works), the mural made in Richmond in 2018, has been dedicated to a fellow artist, the writer Karel Schoeman – known for his novels (translated) such as Promised Land, Another Country and This Life.  He died the year before in 2017.

In front of the word wizardry of artist Willem Boshoff at MAP

The similarities between these giants are remarkable, says Myburg in his speech. “Both Boshoff and Schoeman are writing with stones and slabs of granite, both are writing with thorns and sand.  Both are employing words searching for meaning, for double meanings, for hidden meanings, for meaning lost in translation. Both are employing woeful words to lament the lack of meaning. Above all, both require to know: What is the meaning of it all.”

And that, he says, is what Hélène Smuts as creator, translator of meaning, states so clearly with this remarkable retrospective exhibition.

“The ability to marvel – and not to know for sure.

The ability to doubt woes – without any one firm belief.

The ability to question, om te bly torring, to unravel, om te ontrafel.

Die vermoë om te speel, om te goël, om woes met woorde om te gaan. (The ability to play, to cast a spell, to work fiercely with words.)





And then concludes: There is only one Willem Boshoff.”

 And it takes one poet to recognise and explain another.

Smuts elaborates that the wanderings of Word Woes started in 2019 when a smaller version of the current exhibition was curated for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) in the UK by Smuts and Louise Lohr (YSP) to introduce the spectacular artist after he had a work included in the YSP’s permanent collection.

As with this current exhibition, the Claire and Edoardo Villa Trust facilitated the Yorkshire exhibition after Boshoff had received the trust’s award in 2018. And with this current one,also co-sponsored with the Matthias and Gervanne Leridon Collection.

Smuts explains that she has expanded the curatorial focus “to a locking and unlocking of knowledge and meaning through the artist’s life-long exploration of language”.                          .

A supporting educational and public programme will offer guided tours, school/student workshops, printed educational resources and weekend events with invited guests.​ Watch this space. It will be worth watching out for walkabouts with the artist talking about his work. He is as much an artist when he talks.

Willem Boshoff Druid Walk Main Reef road (2010)

Venue: The Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria, 23 Lynnwood Road, Hatfield, Pretoria. https://javettup.art/contact for more detail. Open daily from 10 am to 5pm and they have a number of free entrance days throughout the year  listed.

Guided tours on the hour from 1pm to 4pm.

To book for tours email: bookings@javettup.art

KKNK INVITES ARTISTS TO COME OUT TO PLAY WITH DIRECTOR MARTHINUS BASSON IN THE LEAD

Like everyone else art festivals are trapped in a kind of no-man’s land. It’s a time to think on your feet and make use of all the skills lying dormant. DIANE DE BEER reports on the Klein Karoo Art Festival’s most recent brainwave – a director’s course with the brilliant Marthinus Basson at the helm:

The superb Koningin Lear starring the magnificent Antoinette Kellerman in the title role.

In this time of Covid it is up to artists and related organisations to be creative because no one else is going to do that for them.

And it is interesting to see in these dire circumstances how the innovations keep flowing. If anyone knows how to turn nothing into something, it is the artistic community.

A director’s course for aspirant as well as experienced directors is the latest project from the KKNK (Klein Karoo National Arts Festival).

Marthinus Basson in rehearsals of Koningin Lear

The first (of hopefully many) KKNK/NATi Studio project is a directing course to be presented by acclaimed veteran director Marthinus Basson (Tom Lanoye’s Koningin Lear, Mama Medea and Bloed en Rose and premieres of most of Reza de Wet’s work amongst others), someone who should excite both potential and established directors.

Two things come to mind immediately. Basson, who is passionate about teaching and one of the best in the business, has a wealth of knowledge to impart and what better time, when many of our stages are still closed for viable performances, to hone your skills, whether novice or practitioner.

Their aim (in conjunction with NATi ­ – the Nasionale Afrikaanse Teater-inisiatief) is to add value to the arts as they unlock the potential of promising directors. “The main purpose is to create work for artists,” says Basson.

I was upset a few years back when the University of Stellenbosch’s drama department seemed to show a lack of insight when not doing everything in their power to hold on to this particular lecturer, but this is simply the best news. I can think of many who would benefit and add to their riches with this director’s insight and abundant creativity. It starts with his choice of text, the way he thinks about every production and his knowledge which has no equal.

Tinarie van Wyk Loots in Asem directed by Marthinus Basson.

The 9-month long course will guide participants through a number of texts from different genres and time periods. Basson will zoom in on interpretation, directing and design, concept development, performance challenges for actors and how directors can manage these.

“This director’s course is a wonderful opportunity for theatre makers to hone core skills and critical thought,” says Hugo Theart, artistic director of the KKNK. “And what a privilege to learn from one of this country’s most experienced directors. Not only is he one of our best directors, he is also regarded as one of the best mentors and teachers. It is a rare opportunity and an honour for the KKNK in combination with NATi to facilitate this season.”

Basson himself is nervously excited about the project. “It gives hope in a tough time for the performing arts and offers a welcome opportunity for theatre makers to gather regularly, inspire one another, study a few exceptional texts in depth, dream and think about them while also questioning – and hopefully add passion and fire to the neglected theatre community.”

Tinarie van Wyk Loots in Basson’s Koningkryk van die Diere

Something he is anticipating is gaining the insight of 12 new artists and to get to know 12 fellow artists during the lengthy course. “The first session will probably be taken up by a kind of meet-and-greet,” he says and then they will get stuck into reading the first text. “Everyone has to participate actively. Ideally a directing course should be a live event,” he says and he is determined that it will not be about him giving lectures. “Once everyone has read the text, ideas should determine what follows. People never feel the same about things,” and I suspect, that’s what gets this director going.

Cornelia Faasen, CEO of NATi, says Covid-19 has given them the time to reflect about the fault lines in some productions. “We have had the grace of time to see how to approach these challenges. It is good that the KKNK is tackling projects rather than productions because these are often too expensive to fail.”

She adds that she’s excited about the future of KKNK/NATi Studio projects – as she should be.

At the recent theatre/dance-driven Take-a-STAND dialogues, the desire and need for mentorship was a high priority for young and established artists. And we have a wealth of artists who can contribute with Basson leading the pack.

The course consists of two formal group sessions of between three and four hours twice a month and will be presented online on Sunday afternoons. Live sessions will only start if the impact of Covid-19 allows it

Basson’s children’s production Huppelkind
Picture: Retha Ferguson

The chosen texts will be read and discussed with Basson handing out tasks in preparation for the following session. Already he speaks enthusiastically about some of the selected works. He is, for example, looking at Bartho Smit’s Moeder Hanna in contrast to Friedrich Durrenmatt’s Die Besoek van die ou Dame. And starting out with an Afrikaans translation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream followed by Die Park by Botho Strauss which plays like the converse. Even explaining his choices already points to the value this course will have for any prospective participant.

With thorough feedback, they will sharpen their critical thinking and heighten their creative impulses. Basson will also be assisted by experienced set designers, writers, directors and actors. He has worked with the best which makes his selection an easy one.

The sessions will start at the end of the month on March 28 and those participating must attend every session.

Financial assistance is available and all candidates must be older than 18 and understand Afrikaans.

Two groups are participating. Twelve candidates will be selected as the core group and they should be involved in the theatre industry in some way. But to stretch the reach of the project, further candidates will be invited to listen in as observers. This is aimed at especially young

talent not necessarily involved in the industry professionally yet and could include drama students.

For more information and to apply for the season, go to kknk.co.za/kknk-nati-studio, or phone the KKNK-offices on 044 203 8600.

Get jumping, the closing date is this Friday (March 19) at noon.