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Field Notes | Theatres, malls & make-shift museums

By David Mann

July in Johannesburg is still stubbornly committed to winter and so, weaning myself off the performance high that was the National Arts Festival in June, I spend most of the month seeking refuge in the city’s galleries, theatres, make-shift museums, and malls-turned-art-fairs.


The city is alive with theatre. Over the course of July, I see three shows – all very different, all well-attended, and all brilliant examples of the extraordinary range and skill of South African theatre-makers.

On a Friday night, they are just about to close the doors to Isidlamlilo when I arrive. I enter a packed-out Mannie Manim theatre and take the walk of shame up the central isle to one of the last remaining seats up at the top. Looking down at the stage, the view is of a single room, simultaneously sparse and detailed. It is the home of Zenzile Maseko, the complex character portrayed by Mpume Mthombeni in this devastating one-hander written by herself and Niel Coppen.

In short, Isidlamlilo is a play about a wounded grandmother living in a hostel in Durban who has been declared dead by Home Affairs. She was also, we soon learn, a notorious assassin for the IFP in the lead up to the country’s 1994 elections.

Isidlamlilo PHOTO courtesy of The Market Theatre on Facebook

The character of Maseko is angry, strange, motherly, nostalgic, jaded, shy, and familiar. Mthombeni moves through all of these states over the course of Isidlamlilo and, in the production’s best moments, she inhabits all of them at once. She’s a ghost, an amalgamation of stories and histories that both refuse to die, and have yet to be told in their entirety. Mthombeni holds all of this history, this complexity and this relentless sentiment, and in turn holds us, a captive and spellbound audience for a play that veers towards the two-hour mark.

Isidlamlilo is an important body of work in that it excavates and presents to the public the myriad (true) stories of women in the struggle. At times, the play struggles under the weight of its own story. It holds too much in its script and the character grows repetitive, tired, overwrought. It is not something that stays with an audience once they leave the theatre, but it also doesn’t go unnoticed. These are stories that are made possible through their unique manifestation in the theatre, but should text remain sacred? A bit of editing will turn an already great script into an outstanding one.

Such is the joy of theatre – it figures itself out, edits, and grows each time it’s presented before a live audience. I look forward to seeing Isidlamlilo again, at another point in its growth, in another venue at another time, and revisiting this history anew.


It is a bitterly cold Saturday evening, but the small bar heaters are casting a warm, red light over us as we huddle together in the Kippies Venue.

We are here to see Qondiswa James in her short, sharp solo work Retch. Directed by Mahlatsi Mokgonyana, the work is written and performed by James. It’s autofiction – based on a series of events from her own life and experiences with the South African theatre industry, augmented and enriched through the rare power of fiction and live performance.

Save for a cupboard – a bristling, anxious monolith – a towel and a tub of lotion, the stage is sparse. James employs various modes and tools to tell her story – performance art, live storytelling, audience interaction, conventional theatre. Her self-referential bravery (the great courage of being a performer, or perhaps just a human being in the world) endears her to us. 

Though the work is short, it holds a great deal. There is grief (the loss of her mother), ambition (a career as a young, gifted writer and director), self-doubt (a small voice in the cavernous reaches of one of Cape Town’s most revered theatres), and self-sabotage (an unhealthy relationship with alcohol). Or perhaps that last one is self-soothing. In any case, these heavy realities, emotional states and ways of being in the world are folded into a compelling narrative that’s delivered by James in a performance that is at once raw and enriching.

You feel for her, not only because she is all by herself up there on stage, in the cold, but because her personal ways of seeing and making sense of the world are told in a way that allows you to access them on a universal level. You recognise your own grief, ambition, triumphs and laments in her story. You understand what it is to care so deeply about something that you nearly ruin it.

Similarly, we are all experiencing some kind of grief, loss, and longing, and coping in whatever ways possible. Theatre is not a cure, but it can be something of a salve. Here, it is both commiseration and inspiration, a necessary reminder of one’s own value and resolve, be it in an ailing world or a broken arts industry.  

It’s rarely a bad thing when a play leaves an audience wanting more. Retch ends on a swift and unceremonious note, however, and feels somewhat unsettled – more the closing of a chapter than the end of a play. So, let’s hope James brings us another chapter.


There is overwhelming excitement at The Market Theatre. Lines snake out the front doors and, in the John Kani theatre, both levels are full, leaving the ushers looking suitably overwhelmed. It’s the opening night of Khongolose Khommanding Khommissars (KKK), the play penned by 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre, Jefferson ‘J.Bobs’ Tshabalala, and directed by 2022 Young Artists for Theatre, Billy Langa and Mahlatsi Mokgonyana (Theatre Duo).

Khongolose Khommanding Khommissars is politics as theatre, and vice versa. It’s a biting satirical play that takes aim at “our contemporary South African political camaraderie – the Comrades, the brown-envelope tenderpreneurs.” It’s the politicians, the big men, the fat-cats, cadres and businessmen. Together, they fuel corruption, greed, poverty, civil unrest – that old (like, 1652 kind of old) South African tale.

Khongolose Kommanding Kommisars
Khongolose Kommanding Kommisars PHOTO courtesy of The Market Theatre on Facebook

A simple and slightly surreal set made up of puzzle pieces goes a long way to set the tone of the play. It’s in this hybrid boardroom-bedroom-political court that it all goes down: dodgy deals, greased palms, bribery, blackmail and bullying.

It’s a familiar premise, and a simple one, that allows its spirited, razor-sharp, and satirical dialogue to shine. Still, such a script needs to be expertly held and the cast do an incredible job. The richness of the play is conveyed in the characterisation, the energy, the emotion of the performers, and how they hold and embody the text. Breaking up these fast-talking, hard-bargaining, conspiratorial scenes are moments of striking, mercurial physicality, completely devoid of speech, but brimming with emotion.

What magic it is to see these theatre-makers collaborate on a production of such a scale. Mokgonyana’s ability to seamlessly reconcile performer and text is evident throughout, Tshabalala is present in every line, and Langa’s enduring physical poetry punctuates both the small gestures and the grand choreographic moments. The resounding applause says it all.          


As writer and curator Anthea Buys puts it, “The weirdness of the South African art world is such that museums loan works to auction houses for museum-grade, non-selling retrospectives. The economics are roundabout, but ultimately money talks, even if it only whispers.”

The whisper in this case is Sydney Kumalo & Ezrom Legae: a retrospective exhibition. An exhibition accompanying the comprehensive catalogue raisonné of the two South African sculptors, it’s housed at Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg gallery.

Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae at Strauss & Co
Installation view of Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae at Strauss & Co
Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae at Strauss & Co
Sydney Kumalo’s The Happy Madala

It’s a crowded and well-curated exhibition. Featuring 60 Kumalo sculptures and 32 Legae sculptures, it’s wonderful to lose oneself in. In addition to serving as a self-contained masterclass on the work of these two prolific artists, the beauty of such a comprehensive show is in its ability to display the artistic process and development of the artists. Maquettes, drawings and studies for sculptures hang on the walls or rest on plinths near the completed works, and moving through the artist’s respective periods and influences simply means moving from one side of the exhibition space to the other.

Is a fine art auction house the most accessible space in which to view the works of these great South African artists? Of course not. But our public museums continue to fail us, and so it’s up to spaces like Strauss & Co, with their access to these valuable works, the resources to pull off such a rare retrospective, and their ability to bus in artists, journalists, and art students, to keep us in touch with our art history.  


Is there anything more quintessentially Joburg than an art fair in a shopping mall? In its 11th year, the nomadic Turbine Art Fair (TAF) seems to have finally found a permanent home. It’s the end of July and, in the upmarket Hyde Park mall, TAF is finding its feet in these new headquarters. Like any new home, it feels a little unfamiliar.

Usha Seejarim Turbine Art Fair
Usha Seejarim and David Mann in front of the artist’s installation, A Bouquet of Mother’s Milk at TAF23

Over the course of the fair, there is a steady crowd, but nothing like the masses that TAF usually garners. Situated partly in the building itself, and partly in a marquee in an open-air parking lot, the fair feels awkward to navigate (moving through the labyrinth of booths often sees you emerging in an empty patch of parking lot).

But what about the art? Without a doubt, Usha Seejarim’s A Bouquet of Mother’s Milk is a highlight of the fair. Made from the bases of more than 1 000 clothing irons and sculpted into form, the monumental installation of steel lilies is the first thing you encounter when entering the tented section of the fair.

Seejarim is this year’s TAF Featured Artist and A Bouquet of Mother’s Milk sees the artist drawing on her rare ability to find poetry in repetition and beauty in banality through her engagement with these domestic items. With each lily on sale for R920, it’s also an opportunity to own a Seejarim sculpture for under a grand. As buyers plucked their flowers from the bouquet, the installation changed, too, growing thinner, sparser – a shifting sprawl of flowers refusing to wilt.

Luke Rudman Turbine Art Fair
Luke Rudman’s canvas-turned-stage at TAF23

Other notable works at this year’s TAF include the sculptures of Bruce Murray Arnott, presented by the Villa-Legodi Centre for Sculpture, and Carving X, a group show by Collen Maswanganyi that grew out of a woodcarving and sculpture workshop he hosted with fellow artists Richard Chauke, Amorous Maswanganyi and Ben Tuge. I somehow missed both instances of Luke Rudman’s live painting performance, which I’m still kicking myself for, but social media snippets paint a collective portrait of a performance that manages to blend painting, photography, live art, ornamentation and more. I hope he does more.

TAF may have been a little on the quiet side this year, but it is not without its history – again, is there anything more quintessentially Joburg than hosting an art fair in an old power station? – and its continued contributions to the city’s impressive and enduring amount of year-round art events. To more art fairs in odd places.


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

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