WHAT WOULD compel you to attend the funeral of someone you had never met? In the last ten days, two great men in the arts in South Africa have passed on: Francois Theron, artistic director of the National Children’s Theatre, and veteran photographer David Goldblatt. This country is the poorer for losing them, and the clarity they brought in confusing times.
Theron, who captivated children with classics such as The Pied Piper, The Wizard of Oz and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as well as local shows performed by professional actors, died last week. He was a maestro of children’s theatre in Johannesburg. Exposing young children to high-quality theatre to ignite a lifelong flame in them was his goal. Located in a heritage building in the old neighborhood of Parktown, the Theatre was founded in 1989 as a non-profit by Joyce Levinsohn. The current director is Moira Katz.
Watching excited tots buzzing on the theatre’s floor in front of the stage, and their parents and schoolteachers revelling in the spectacle from behind, was Theron’s delight. During his eight years at the Theatre, he produced 42 plays.
Theron was born in 1965 and grew up during apartheid. By the time he came of age as a director, however, apartheid had been dismantled, and in the past eight years of his career at the National Children’s Theatre, he could concentrate directly on the children and performers, black or white. But in the past, apartheid affected everything. Great theatre confronting apartheid goes way back, much of it linked to the late Barney Simon, co-founder in 1976 of Johannesburg’s gutsy Market Theatre – home to the country’s first non-racial theatre movement. One had to be brave to fight the regime. Contravening racial laws and working under threat of arrest, Simon staged provocative plays with multiracial casts to multiracial audiences, challenging apartheid bullies.
Ballerinas also work on the stage, and during apartheid South Africa’s legendary prima ballerina, the late Phyllis Spira, was accepted at London’s Royal Ballet School in 1959, and was the only South African awarded the Prima Ballerina Absoluta in 1964, classical European dance’s highest accolade, in recognition of her work as a powerful influence on cultural trends in dance. She was never directly affected by apartheid or the growing cultural boycotts of South Africa, nor was her work overtly political in any way. However, she is still respected as one of the icons of South African art of that period.
While Spira captivated audiences with movement, another South African who made words dance like a ballerina during apartheid was Lionel Abrahams – described as the ‘yeast in the dough’ of South African literature. A novelist, poet, editor, critic, essayist and publisher, he was born with cerebral palsy, making him walk with undulating movements. He was eventually confined to a wheelchair – the ballerina’s opposite. But language was his joy, and critics said he “could make it dance as he himself, severely disabled from birth, could not”. Until his death, he enriched writers and artists as teacher, editor and critic, delivering advice with a cheeky humour.
Dancing happened on easels too in those times, with painters’ colours led by artist Bill Ainslie, a quiet man who established the Johannesburg Art Foundation in 1982 in an old heritage building in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. He was a major force in developing young black and other artists, such as Mmagkabo Helen Sebidi, William Kentridge, Dumile Feni and David Koloane, some of whom went on to have illustrious careers which they might not have done without his help in breaking through apartheid restrictions. He helped start the Federated Union of Black Artists in 1976; the Thupelo Art Project in 1985; and the Alexandra Art Centre in 1986, where he provided inspiration and possibilities to many young black artists. Ainslie was killed in a car accident in 1989.
At some point, even for artists, the dancing stops. What is left is their life’s work. Tuesday saw two very moving events, just three hours apart. One was the memorial in the main auditorium of the Market Theatre for Theron, attended by the cream of Johannesburg’s theatre industry. The other was the funeral of Goldblatt at West Park cemetery, attended by the cream of the intellectual and artistic world.
Goldblatt was a great man who danced with his camera lens and enormous wisdom, and who will be sorely missed. He documented South African scenes in thousands of pictures over his lifetime, during and after apartheid, mainly in black and white, with the finest artist’s touch. His work is held in major museum collections worldwide and has been published in numerous books. A solo exhibition of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1998. A comprehensive retrospective of his work opened in the AXA Gallery in New York in 2001, offering an overview of his oeuvre from 1948 to 1999.
Theron and Goldblatt were humble men who brought magic. What is the value of standing at the graves of such giants, whether you knew them or not? It’s all we can do to thank them for giving us their gift.
- A version of this article was first published in the SA Jewish Report on June 27, 2018