Jozi’s cultural scene is back on full throttle – looking back at 2023

Emerging from the Covid Schlumph 

It took some time for night life, theatres and galleries to get back to full functioning after Covid lockdowns and it seemed that many formerly cultural enthusiasts were still not in the habit of venturing out, preferring Netflix, eating at home and early nights.   And many had simply got out of the habit of being “plugged in”, checking events pages and calendars, and so missed out on some marvelous exhibitions and productions.

Here are some of the highlights from 2023 

Tapestries from the Keiskamma Collective 

This exhibition at Constitution Hill which ran from November 2022 to March 2023 included most of the Eastern Cape initiative’s large scale works, along with a fascinating history of the project.  While the display of some of the massive altarpieces and embroidered long cloths was not ideal, and the venue was quite difficult to navigate (spread over two sections of the prison), and there was little reference to European source material, it was nevertheless an astounding exhibition of exquisite works by some 140 women from the Hamburg Eastern Cape region.    

This is the second opening of the multi-panelled Keiskamma Altarpeice drawing inspiration from Matthias Grünewald’s massive and highly complex 16th C altarpiece in Isenheim

Head and the Load 

After 3 long years of postponement due to the Covid upheaval, William Kentridge’s production of The Head and the Load came home. After it premiered at the Tate Modern in July 2018, it was performed in New York at Park Avenue Armory, in Germany and in Amsterdam, and late on 2022 in Miami, all to international acclaim. It opened at the Nelson Mandela Theatre in Jozi on 21st April for 14 performances only. To have this truly world class production in our Joburg theatre was an extraordinary privilege but what was even better (if it could get better) was to have been able to attend an event in a small intimate space at The Centre for the Less Good Idea at Arts on Main in Maboneng, where Kentridge, and four key collaborators, spoke about the background to the work and gave insights into how it was made. 

Focusing at close quarters on one ‘vignette’ is a different experience from the sensory assault of the full production. Here Kentridge demonstrates the language of shadow. Those performers closer to the projector are projected in larger scale than those further away. Plus on the sides are dark areas where the performers are still on stage, but their shadows will not be projected.

RMB Latitudes 

This mad collection of eclectic architectural styles and buildings made for a pleasant change from the usual art fair space of a large hall in a convention centre

Latitudes in May was a curated experience of contemporary art from Africa held in the magnificent buildings and grounds of Shepstone Gardens. Shepstone Gardens is one of Johannesburg’s premiere wedding-venues for good reason. With its iconic 3 acre garden and whacky blend of architectural building styles, it was  a perfect venue to enjoy exciting art works, art talks and walkabouts, wines from Franschhoek and a host of yummy food offerings. There were more than 40 exhibiting galleries, studios and designers located in different spectacular art hubs: “from marble halls, to secret gardens and rooftop pavilions”.  A fabulous 3 day event. 

Don Quixote 

Effortless command … Marianela Nuñez in the Royal Ballet’s Don Quixote. Photograph: Foteini Christofilopoulou.  This photo was included in Winslop’s review of Don Giovanni in The Guardian 1st October 2023. I saw her performance in Johannesburg on 8th October so I’m not sure how she managed this with a concurrent run at the Royal Opera House in London (which ran until 17 November)?

September/October saw the stunning production of Don Quixote performed by the Johannesburg Ballet Company.  And what was the best is that I attended one of the two performances where Marianela Núñez and Vadim Muntagirov of the Royal Ballet performed the leading roles. I know very little about ballet but was aghast to watch the lightness of both these dancers, literally like feathers with such consummate skill and crispness. Quite breath-taking.

The Promise, Market Theatre

October saw the superb production of Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize winning novel, The Promise produced by Sylvaine Strike. I am ashamed to say I have not yet read Galgut’s book, but from comments of those who have and who also saw the play, the theatrical production is quite different in its absurdist comedy and clowning which provided a cathartic release for the audience. Galgut’s novel recounts the unravelling of the Swart family living on a small holding outside Pretoria during the years 1986 to 2018.  Cohen in her review writes: “Galgut’s novel is exquisitely crafted and hinges around four funerals which heighten the rifts and fissures in the family, juxtaposed against what is happening in South Africa – pre-democracy and through the hope of the New South Africa and then into contemporary times, when everything seems to be slipping away. ” Strike’s production with its raked stage set with minimal but precarious props and the slipping and sliding of actors, give visual and physical expression to this ‘slipping away’.  Hopefully this production will travel internationally. If so keep an eye out for it. 

The Promise Photo credit: Claude Barnardo The raking set design is by Josh Lindberg

Otherscapes at JCAF

On the left of this image is part of Siemon Allen’s massive installation Stamps V 2010; on the right Nicolas Hlobo’s Ndize 2010 (Xhosa name for a popular game of hide and seek); and in the background a glimpse of Wim Botha’s Solipsis 2011. Courtesy JCAF, photograph by Graham Lacey

Otherscapes which ran at JCAF (Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation) for 4 months from August until November comprised single installations by 4 contemporary South African artists: Sethembile Msezane, Siemon Allen, Wim Botha and Nicolas Hlobo.  These artists, in differing and non-literal ways, grappled with how we, as South Africans, can deal with the disjunction between the 1994 miracle of the rainbow nation and the present dystopia, between promise and disappointment. Msezane drew on the spiritual space of ancestors and the connection to harsh realities of everyday material existence. Siemon Allen ‘records’ South Africa’s official representations of itself over a period of a century through a very specific archive: a massive installation of over 23,000 South African postage stamps from 1910 to 2010. Part of this installation is seen in the photograph below. Wim Botha engaged with the fractured and wounded nature of South African society through art historical references to fragments of antique sculptures. And in a large performative ‘hide and seek’ artwork by Nicolas Hlobo, the viewer is confronted with unsettling responses to the uncomfortable experience of darkness, having to crouch and bend in confusing corridors of moving strands of ribbon dragging across face and arms, and a startling and unexpected encounter at the heart of the journey

Midsummer Night’s Dream at Pieter Toerien Theatre  

Robert Kyle as Titania and Chi Mhende as Oberon. To die for headgear and cloaks used to swishing dramatic swirling perfection.

How does the Bard do it? How can something written over four and a quarter centuries ago still have relevance in the present day?  And how does South Africa produce this seemingly ever-deep pool of supreme talent- the characters’ sense of comedic timing had the audience howling with laughter. And with Geoffrey Hyland’s direction, the minimal stage setting (2 queen size iron bedsteads and a back drop of greenery), costumes which varied from mad whimsy to dramatically bold – this production was just perfection.  Absurdist humour (Shakespeare meets Monty Python), and slapstick that just works – the play was a tonic from beginning to end. If it ever has a rerun … BOOK IMMEDIATELY.    

Peter Pan, Nelson Mandela Theatre 

A wonderful rolicking way to end the year with yet another of the extraordinary Janice Honeyman’s clever productions which delight adults and youngsters alike. Her 33rd panto was as creative, fresh, and engaging as ever, with a wonderful combination of LED screens and traditional stage set. Think December holidays, thing Panto, think Janice Honeyman.  The productions just seem to get better and better. 

Jozi certainly woke up in 2023 and shook off its Covid fatigue.  So make sure you get plugged in to what’s on and happening in 2024. 



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