Archive: Issue No. 87, November 2004

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SUE WILLIAMSON'S DIARYARTTHROB
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Diary

Alexandra skyline at sunset

Diary

El Max canal

Diary

Gudran Art Centre from the canal

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'We are like the fish - we cannot live away from the sea'.

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On top of the white roof, the offending structure of Jean Christophe Languetin

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Curator Clive van den Berg speaks at the gala dinner of the BKAA

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A moment from 'Kitchen', Jay Pather's award winning dance.

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A bag on Cameron Platter's show

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Crowds on the last day of the BKAA


Sincere apologies to all that the diary did not appear last month. An epic double issue follows.

September

Saturday, September 11

Touch down in Cairo at 11.30 p.m., flying all the way up Africa via Johannesburg, Nairobi, Khartoum.

Over the next two and half weeks, together with 20-odd artists from other parts of Africa, the Arab countries and France, I will be working in El Max, a small fishing community in the ancient city of Alexandria. One of the few places left in Egypt where the fishermen still go out to sea in their own small boats to set their nets, El Max is a unique community, just a few narrow streets on either side of the canal which runs down to the sea. A military base flanks one side of the village, and a petrochemical company occupies the space further up the canal, both of which put the traditional way of life of El Max under threat. The bridge under which the boats must pass to get to the sea is already two thirds blocked by the military police so each boat can be monitored as it goes back and forth, and only registered fishermen may go out to sea. Sometimes military manouevres in the bay cause the third arch to be closed too, and for several days, the fishermen are unable to fish.

Some four years ago, an NGO called Gudran Art and Development started working in El Max. A building next to the canal was acquired as a centre, art and music classes for the children started, and funding raised for the cement block buildings to be renovated, plastered and painted in bright colours. Now, Gudran is the host organisation for a project called Boustashy 01, which will bring together artists to work in El Max, culminating in an art festival on September 29 and 30.

Tonight, I am met at Cairo airport by Aliaa el Gready and Sameh of Gudran and driven back to their apartment in Old Cairo, an area of markets and exquisite old mosques. It's now well after midnight, but there are still vast throngs of people out on the streets.

Sunday, September 12

Quiet day, mainly spent impatiently editing on laptop instead of visiting nearby Pharonic Museum as I would have liked. This year has been deadline hell. Late restaurant lunch with Aliaa and Sameh. 'Limoon' is a drink made by simply cutting two or three of the tiny sharp flavoured Egyptian lemons in half and tossing them into a blender with water and sugar, skin and all, to produce a foamy, intense drink. I am to grow completely addicted.

Sunday, September 12

Back to the airport tonight to fetch Jean Christophe Lanquetin of Urban Scenography in Strasbourg, one of the organisers of this project and the one who invited me to participate. Driving again through the night streets of Cairo, the high wailing song of the mullett draws us to the area in which lights have been strung, a stage erected, and a rapt crowd sways and dances to the hypnotic Sufi songs. Swathed in white, only her eyes visible, one woman dances while holding a clay water vessel in position on her head. High on the rhythms and the spiritual poetry of the songs, the crowd will sleep in the streets around for up to a week.

Supper tonight is from the barrow below the window of Aliaa and Sameh's apartment: puffy, hollow Arab bread to be stuffed with mashed fava beans, tomatoes and a spicy paste. The vendor closes his stall at dawn, washing down the street before departing for a few hours rest.

Monday, September 13

Cairo is left behind this morning as we set off across the desert road for Alexandria. Jean Christophe points to the horizon on the left. What am I supposed to be looking at? Three small hazy grey triangles are the pyramids of Giza. Much more prominent are the large scale advertising billboards which line the road at intervals all the way. Tonight we are invited for drinks at the French Embassy in Alexandria. Do people still read Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, the four novels set in post WWII Alexandria? Entitled Justine, Clea, Mountolive and Balathazar, the protagonist is a young diplomat at the British Embassy, enamoured of the city and deeply ensnared in romantic and diplomatic intrigue. His evocations of Alexandria, ancient, exotic and glowing, have lived in my consciousness ever since I read the Quartet one after the other in my impressionable 18th year. Thus drinks in the garden of the French Embassy, a classic colonial building now unfortunately overlooked by a towering skyscraper, seems the appropriate way to commence a visit to the city. Turn my back on the skyscraper and think of Durrell.

Tuesday, September 14

Gudran had planned for the artists to stay in holiday cottages on the beach, five minutes walk from El Max, but the weekend before, foreigners had booked out the cottages for a wedding, there was drug dealing, police etc so Gudran were told foreigners were no longer welcome. Our accommodation now is in a large modern apartment block a 15 minute taxi ride away. Too far to walk. A pity.

Wednesday, September 15

A communal dinner for all the artists at our apartments. Languages spoken: English, Arabic, French. No one speaks all three. Herve Yamguen, Herve Youmbi and Goody Leye are from Cameroun, Jimnah Kimani is from Kenya, Hicham Benohoud from Morocco, Antoine d'Agata, Francois Duconseille, Gilles Touyard and Jean Christophe Lanquetin are from France. Hany-El Gowily, Aliaah Gready, Ahmed Askelany, Mohamed Soliman and Mohamed El-Gonuby are Egyptian.

Some ground rules are laid down by Gudran. We have already been advised by email ahead of the projct that certain topics should not be broached in the El Max community - sex, politics and religion - for fear of causing offence. This may seem unnecessarily restrictive and sweeping but we must understand that this is an extremely conservative community. Each artist will have a production budget of US$300 towards their piece.

Friday, September 17

The Gudran Art Centre is where we spend a lot of time during the day, sitting on the deck overlooking the canal, talking to the other artists, trying to get to grips with what each of us can bring to the project. Lunch is served by the Gudran volunteers every day, usually fish, couscous, salad Since my work often involves listening to what people say, I find not being able to speak Arabic a major stumbling block, so I try to learn a bit, making lists of words each day and pinning them on my wall at night.

Saturday, September 18

This is not an arena for sophisticated conceptual work. Hicham Benohoud, currently showing on 'Afrika Remix' in Dusseldorf, will hand disposable cameras to 10 pairs of children, instructing each to direct his or her partner to pose. The series is to be projected on the swiftly flowing water of the canal. Jean Christophe is searching for a flat roof on which he will erect a structure using local materials in which he will do an installation. Photographer Antoine d'Agata wants to photograph everyone in the village, but is up against the problem that nearly all the men will not allow their wives to be photographed. Most of us are still casting around for what we will do.

A diversion is a walking tour this afternoon, round the centuries-old Ottoman Turkish part of Alexandria, a district of narrow streets and ancient doorways. Supper is at Sablon, an excellent fish restaurant where one selects one's fish from a selection of the freshly caught, it is cooked on the charcoal grill on the pavement, and served up at the table accompanied by bread, rice and salads. The price per head for the whole meal? About R12 a head - US$2. Egypt generally seems terribly cheap.

Sunday, September 19

From almost the first moment we got here, the locals have been asking us, 'What do you think about El Max?' By now, I have decided that I will start asking the question back, to try and find out how people feel about living here in the traditional way, but with a lifestyle under threat from the military and a changing world. It's not an easy way of life, and people have very little in the way of material possessions in their houses.

Salma, an art student from Cairo University is working with me as interpreter, and we start making connections in the village, talking to people and writing down what they say. That is, Salma is writing it down.

Poor as people are, every house has a television set, and in the setting of these sparsely furnished houses, there is something really incongruous about seeing brittle British drawing room comedies from the fifties with Arab subtitles.

It is eight days into Boustashy 01, and the artists projects are going slowly. Jean Chistophe cannot get permission for a roof for his structure. Hicham has not yet received the disposable cameras he needs for his project ... and he has to leave early, in a few days time. There is a heated general meeting with the organisers, after which Hicham decides to leave the project.

Monday, September 22

After the day's work in El Max, some of us meet Hicham in the city for supper. He hands each of us an envelope stamped MADE MAX which lists his problems with the project and the way that it has been organised.

Tuesday, September 21

A day bus trip to Cairo is planned for the artists, with a meeting at the Town House Gallery in the evening. What would we like to see? 'I can't go back to Cameroun if I don't see the pyramids', says Goddy Leye. What can one say about these mysterious endlessly photographed structures at the edge of the desert that link us to the distant past except that - yes, we had to see them.

The dust and the heat of the desert have made a glass of chilled limoon a necessity, so moving to the centre of the city, we find a caf´┐Ż to sit down and relax. I know six people in this city of untold millions, and one of them crosses the road in front of me - Maha Mamoun, a photographer who won a prize at the Dal'Art Biennale this year. She has time for a quick drink.

The Town House Gallery is Egypt's finest for contemporary art, under director William Wells. Located in a large old building, the gallery also has a foreign residency programme, and a new industrial space for installations and large scale work.

Late evening drinks at the Cairo apartment of Hany El-Gowely and his wife Gigi. Hany tells me the word in El Max is that I am the personal friend of Nelson Mandela. Laughing, I say that Madiba is my hero, I have heard him speak many times but have never been introduced.

Wednesday, September 22

Salma's last day before she must leave Alexandria for Cairo. My project will be painting the statements people made about living in El Max on the outside of their houses - in English, Arabic script and Arabic in a western alphabet., and the day is spent revisiting residents and confirming earlier statements. Jean Christophe has finally got permission for his roof, and will start erecting his structure soon.

Antoine has decided to set up a studio in a vacant shop, and will photograph as many people as he can persuade to be photographed. Gilles will make a monument of wire rings and helium balloons - a monument to love set on a line between the minaret at one end of the village and the petrochemical tower at the other - symbols of religious and commercial power. Each balloon will carry the name of the sweetheart of someone in El Max.

Herve Youmbe is making a video of El Max and its residents, and will set this up in the base of a basin on a pedestal, which will also be a public fountain.

Thursday, September 23

Buy the paint and brushes for my project. JC puts the wooden poles which will form the basis of his structure in position.

Friday, September 24

Start painting, assisted in the writing of the Arabic script by Mahomed Bassiouny, a volunteer doctor on the project. My name, Sue, has intrigued the El Max people who find it very strange, but there is a popular song which goes 'O! Yo So! Habiba aba So! ' Or something like that, and people now sing this to me as a greeting. A driver of one of the little horse drawn carts which operate as taxis is particularly fond of the song, and each time I hear it again, I must stop painting and smile an acknowledgement.

Jean Christophe is told that the father of the man who gave permission for his structure to be erected on the roof facing the Gudran Centre has withdrawn permission, because the structure is against the Koran.

Saturday, September 25

The Islamic Judicial Council is to be called in to give a ruling on JC's structure.

There are other problems besetting the project. All the fisherman's boats here have an open hand icon painted on the sides - a symbol warding off jealousy, I think. Francois had planned to make large scale hand images built up of Post It notes like pixels, and attach them to the side of the bridge which spans the end of the canal, but he has been told he cannot do anything on the bridge, as it is controlled by the military.

Sunday, September 26

Apparently the ruling is that JC's structure is not against the Koran, but now we hear that the man who made the complaint has been picked up by the police for complaining. He runs the battery recharging shop for the boats, and the door of his waterside shop is now closed. 'He may be detained for two to five months', says someone. Without trial?

Monday, September 27

The man has been released from police custody. The way seems clear for JC to finish his structure after all.

I am working hard to try to finish three to four houses before Wednesday, the opening of the festival. Standing on the roof of one house to paint the wall of another, exchanging greetings with passers by, talking to the two young doctors who are helping me paint, volunteers on the project and both called Mohamed, is a very pleasurable experience.

Tuesday, September 28

This morning the nets which formed the walls of JC's structure have disappeared in the night. Gilles realises that the names of the sweethearts he wished people to write on the balloons for his piece will not be written on - here, one keeps the name of one's sweetheart a secret, to be known only by close friends and family.

Wednesday, September 29

Today is the opening, but there is not all that much to see. Antoine is still working in his little studio behind the green door. Viya Dibe has painted a charming mural of fish, the arabic text of a song about fish and some nets, Goddy Leye has handed out stickers to children to place where they wish, Aliaa designed a swing for the children to play on, but it still has to receive its swings, Hany's photos are up in the centre, and from the roof of the centre, hands Jimnah's structure - a sculpture made by gluing wooden clothes pegs together. There is a farewell supper at a restaurant in town. The mood is subdued. It has been a very difficult project from many points of view - but perhaps the fact that on the whole the residents of El Max really seemed to enjoy having the artists amongst them and that a few things did get done was enough. One cannot expect everything to go forwards as it would in Europe of the States, or even South Africa. I know that it has been an important experience for me.

Thursday, September 30

The last day. I need to finish one more house. If only I had more time. I would also like to redo two of the four I have done, which are not painted as well as I would like. Maybe I can come back.

October

Saturday, October 2

Back in Cape Town. Spend most of the day at the Turkish Baths in Long Street, recovering.

Monday, October 4

Edit yet another version of 'Welcome to the Jet Hotel', my piece for the Brett Kebble Awards show. It has been accepted, but I want to make a final adjustment on sound levels.

Wednesday, October 5

Much of the next two weeks will be spent on finishing up the information for ArtThrob 1999-2003: The Archive, the CDRom which has developed into a project far exceeding anyone's expectations in time and effort. Originally planned to come out in 2003 and cover the first five years, we decided last year to extend the coverage by a year. Several extra people have been drafted to help us finish - Kim Gurney is editing the months, Matt Hindley the artbios.

Monday, October 11

All Star Studio is half empty this week - three of the artists are part of the team putting up the Brett Kebble Awards show in one of the vast exhibition halls of the Cape Town International Convention Centre. In the late afternoon, I go down to see how Welcome to the Jet Hotel will be installed. Curator Clive van den Berg has located it behind the reception desk. It will be shown on a monitor faced by two white leather chairs. Cool. Take the opportunity to look around. The space has been completely transformed with drywalling and lighting, and looks great - at a daily rental cost of R80 000, Brett Kebble's investment into infrastructure has been enormous. Workers are everywhere - the installation team numbers 16, I think.

Saturday, October 16

Awards night. Impossibly beautiful model like creatures are on hand to greet and direct the crowds to the registration desk. The catalogues are a vast improvement on last year - printed on a slightly lustrous matt paper, the reproduction is excellent and the design restrained. So heavy are they, that the organisers have arranged a special catalogue check-in desk for those who don't want to schlep them around all evening. Want to look at the work on the exhibition, but so many people stop to talk I don't really take in much before dinner is announced.

Moving on past the fine food, the dinner entertainment and the waffle, we get to the announcement of the awards. Merit awards of R10 000 each go to Bronwen Findlay for her sensous Painting about a bedspread, Zen Marie for his Pitch Markings, a witty digital photograph in which artist appears in four different positions on a cricket pitch, to Mberegeni Ndou for his joyful wooden sculpture, Celebration for winning the 2010 world soccer bid, to Phumulani Nemurunzini for June 16, Youth Day, also a sculpture and to Jeremy Wafer for his strong wall installation Enhlobe. For their technically innovative video on the shocking subject of child rape, And There in the Dust, Lara Foot Newton and Gerhard Marx also win a merit award.

This year, it seems the judges did not restrict themselves to one major prize per discipline. I realise the deviation only some time after Nathaniel Stern has been announced as a major winner (R60 000) for Step Inside,his inspired interactive installation triggered by the sound of people's feet on the floor of his space. I had thought he had won my category, new media, but suddenly I hear my own name being announced for Welcome to the Jet Hotel. Incredulously, I walk up on to the stage to receive an envelope and the highly desirable award trophy - a Doreen Southwood sculpture entitled Big Night Out - from judge Zwelethu Mthethwa.

'You've got one minute to speak', hisses PRO David Barritt at me. I use my minute to say what I think - which is that the awards have become an enormously important part of the art world in South Africa, in that it is the only large scale exhibition which is by open submission, thus giving a unique opportunity for the rest of the country to see what artists are doing. Also, in being held in a popular venue like the ICC, and being surrounded by the hype that it is, the whole idea of art is being made much more accessible to a general audience - something which we have needed for a very long time.

Other major award winners are Marco Cianfanelli for his laser cut steel sculpture, Timeline (D10) , the Kieskamma Art Project for their 100 metre tapestry on the history of this country, and Jay Pather for his dance, Kitchen. The top award is split between two artists. Tanya Poole receives R130 000 for Missing, a subtle and moving two screen video about the relationship between a father and a child. Poole has worked with animated oil portraits. Lice Rikhotoso wins the same award for his series of spirited and lively painted wooden sculptures. Am thrilled at winning, want to party all night, and am disappointed to find myself in bed by 3.30 a.m.

Sunday, October 17

Back to the International Convention Centre at lunchtime - I want to see Jay Pather's company's performance, Kitchen, one part of suite of dances called Home . The dancers are mesmerisingly powerful. I wish I could see the rest of the series.

Crowds are streaming in to the exhibition space.

Wednesday, October 20

Breakfast at Kirstenbosch with Gavin Jantjes, now a consultant for contemporary exhibitions, and here from Norway to pursue the idea of creating a comprehensive digital database of South African art since World War II. Having been involved in the ArtThrob Archive CDRom for the last two years, my imagination boggles at the immensity of this task, but it is absolutely necessary that this kind of archiving is done in order to fill in the massive gaps in our cultural history. Gavin's idea is that a foundation will be created to finance the project, and that it will be attached to a South African university. I can only wish him all strength with this ambitious and most worthy project.

Tuesday, October 26

After being out of print for almost ten years, Resistance Art in South Africa, first published in 1990, has this year been reprinted by Double Storey Books and today I see the first copy of the re-issue. Everything is the same as the original except that I have added a new introduction, and Jenny Young has redesigned the cover. The new one looks much better - the paper is of a higher quality, and we have had some images rescanned. So - everyone who has been asking me for a copy of Resistance Art for years - it's available again at selected bookstores!

Wednesday, October 27

Missed the opening of Cameron Platter's show 'In/Motion' at Erdmann Contemporary, Heidi Erdmann's new space in Shortmarket Street. Luckily the exhibition, featuring blowups of images from his crazy animated videos has been extended, so I make a point of going this morning. Andrew Lamprecht has been going on about the beautiful handbags which are part of the show, with printed images stitched on to the sides and all sorts of bits and pieces, mainly elements from Cameron's drawings, attached on little chains, and I am intrigued.

Love the bags! Designed in a collaboration with Linda Notelovitz, there are 100 in the series, each numbered with its own disc, each different. Spend a long time looking at them all before succumbing to one which will come home with me.

Friday, October 29

Last day of the Brett Kebbles. Must go down and look properly at all the things I haven't looked properly at so far. Bronwen Findlay's bedspread painting, for instance. Such an enjoyable use of paint. Tanya Poole's award winning piece needs to be looked at in its entirety, probably twice, to pick up all the subtleties of minute expression changes. Mberegeni Ndou's celebratory figure with its penis extended into a happy twist makes me smile.

Someone tells me later they heard two blue rinsed ladies discussing my piece. 'It seems to be a promotion film for a hotel', says one. 'Where is this hotel?' asks the other. 'Haven't heard of it,' says the first. 'Must be in Johannesburg'.

Spot Clive van den Berg. 'More than 2 000 have already been through today', he says. Must be a record for an art show. Apparently a selection of the work will go to the JCI head offices in Johannesburg for exhibition. Personally, I'm still walking on air.
 


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