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Field Notes | Theatre in the city, respite in photography

By David Mann

Public holidays aside, the month of April felt as if it blew by in the space of one very busy week. But it was not without its highlights.

On a Tuesday evening in early April, Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg offices in Houghton play host to the announcement of the 2023 Cassirer Welz Award winner. This year’s finalists produced some strong work, much of it centring around themes of memory, ancestry, and the personal archive.

Chumani Mantanga’s sculptural wall pieces are striking landscapes of materiality. Beadwork and textiles are woven throughout, snaking like thin roads or rivers across their sackcloth canvases. Speaking about her work that evening, Mantanga explains how her process is driven by introspective narratives. Her works, then, might be viewed as storied cartographies, or roadmaps of memory.  

Ciara Dunsby’s work grapples with loss and longing by using sculpture as a brittle, bristling vessel for memory, in this case, her grandmother’s drinks trolley. Originally created for her graduate exhibition at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, Dunsby’s work sits like a charged artefact at the centre of the space, fashioned out of parts of a kist from her grandmother’s home. Broken ceramic teacups cast in cement blocks, and used teabags fill the sculpture, lending a slightly surreal quality to her work.

2023 Cassirer Welz Award winner Bulumko Mbete
Bulumko Mbete, Upington to Elsies River (Detail), part of Memory as Location, 2021, digital print on cotton

Ultimately, it’s Bulumko Mbete who walks away the winner. Mbete’s winning work is from her Memory as Location series which traces her family’s complex history of migration – ‘Scotland to Tsomo’, ‘Tsomo to Elsies River’ and ‘Upington to Elsies River’ are the individual titles of the works – through a set of three digital prints on cotton. The works merge family photographs with digital maps data to evocative ends. Geographical routes and archival images alike rise up through the collective image like spectres – a reminder that one’s ancestry, no matter how complex or how far removed it might feel from our present life, is always with us.

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Much of my April was dedicated to The Head & The Load, William Kentridge’s world-renowned experimental theatre project about the role of Africa in the First World War. Initially scheduled to be performed at the Joburg Theatre in 2020, but waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic, this 2023 run at Joburg Theatre is the production’s long-awaited African debut.

  • The Head & The Load review
  • The Head & The Load review
  • The Head & The Load review
  • The Head & The Load review
  • The Head & The Load review

In the lead-up to The Head & The Load, The Centre for the Less Good Idea, an interdisciplinary incubator space for the arts co-founded by Kentridge in 2016, hosted a series of audience activation events in the form of workshops, mentorships and public showings, all drawing on the central themes and key moments of the production.

When I’m not writing about visual art, I’m writing about performance and artistic process for The Centre. Being able to witness different groups of participants engage with this lesser-known chapter of Africa’s history through the contents of The Head & The Load was a reminder of one of art’s vital functions – to help us make sense of the world by opening up new ways of looking at the past, or the present moment, and prompting a deeper engagement with what we find there.

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Breaths of Joburg review performance Lebo Mashile Tina Redman
Before the Breaths of Joburg performance PHOTO by David Mann

On a Friday afternoon, I drive down to the Windybrow Art Centre to see the live performance of Breaths of Joburg. The energy and activity of the city on a Friday is unmatched, but the group of performers, led by Lebo Mashile and Tina Redman, manage to become the main event for the duration of their site-specific performance.

The project is a combination of live performance, play, and literature in the city and is a moment of complete joy to witness. I had watched the performance online the day before, taking in its many incidental moments from different camera angles, but seeing the show in person is a real highlight. Breaths of Joburg is more than a theatre work in a public space, it’s a project that prompts new ways of thinking about city spaces and the characters that inhabit them, through the generative processes of writing and public performance.

Importantly, it encourages audiences to take part in these processes, too – to share a moment of play in the city. Will another iteration of Breaths of Joburg take place in other cities, or in different parts of Johannesburg? Let’s hope so.

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A four-and-a-half-hour loadshedding slot has forced me from my desk and into a noisy Johannesburg coffee shop. I find respite in a series of images that arrived in my inbox a few days earlier. They’re from Lamba Forever Mandrakizay, an upcoming exhibition at Hakanto Contemporary running from 8 July to 18 November 2023. An independent, non-profit and artist-led space based in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Hakanto Contemporary is under the direction of Joël Andrianomearisoa, who currently has work up at Cape Town’s Church Projects and Zeitz MOCAA

Kevin Ramorehatra Lamba Forever Mandrakizay
Untitled. 2023, Copyright Kevin Ramarohetra for Hakanto Contemporary IMAGE courtesy Hakanto Contemporary Lamba Forever Mandrakizay, runs from June 17 – October 14, 2023, Hakanto Contemporary, Antananarivo, Madagascar, Hakantocontemporary.org

The images I’m looking at are by Kevin Ramarohetra, and all depict the Lamba – the traditional garment that embodies Malagasy habits, customs, memories and values. Despite the Lamba’s central role in social rituals and narratives of commemoration and communication, the images are devoid of a human presence. They are moments of striking stillness, alive with colour and texture. In Ramarohetra’s photographs, the garment is put forward as a site of quiet inspiration, tucked away in a cupboard or draped across a doorway.

If, as the press release puts it, Hakanto Contemporary aims to be a “a meeting place for artists and audiences across the globe,” then these images serve as an intriguing invitation to engage with, and experience, the space and its community of artists through Lamba Forever Mandrakizay. I’m looking forward to seeing the full exhibition. For now, I’m content to stare at Ramarohetra’s photographs, imagining I’m someplace quieter.   

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David Mann is a writer and editor from Johannesburg. He writes at the intersections of art, architecture, performance, and fiction. He is a contributing editor at Creative Feel.

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