Macron’s French win: Viva la dance!

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From Soweto hostel to international dancer: Gregory Maqoma was knighted this month by France, together with Georgina Thomson, director of the Dance Umbrella festival. Political centrist Emmanuel Macron’s presidential victory on Sunday makes it more likely French backing for international arts will continue

AMONG the people who are relieved at political centrist Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election on Sunday, are arguably South African artists who have benefited over the years from French support. Macron won 66 per cent of the vote, against far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen’s 34 per cent, which is nevertheless a significant percentage and also revealed the uglier, chauvinistic side of French society.

Their contrasting world views is not just political, but about values – Macron’s belief in creative, positive engagement with the world, versus Le Pen’s emphasis on a French machismo and rejection of ‘the other’ – such as immigrants and refugees – entwined with grandiose patriotic posturing. Her supporters have compared her immoderately to French historical heroine Joan of Arc.

Last week a moving ceremony at the French Embassy in Pretoria showcased French openness when South African dance guru Georgina Thomson, long-time artistic director of Johannesburg’s annual Dance Umbrella, was knighted by the French ambassador, along with Soweto-born dancer Gregory Maqoma, artistic director and founder of Vuyani Dance Theatre. The latter is a protégé of contemporary dance pioneer Sylvia Glasser, who started the mixed-race company Moving into Dance Mophatong in the garage of her Johannesburg home in 1978, seeking out talented young black and white dancers and turning them into skilled professionals – a brave act at a time when the apartheid regime frowned on such inter-racial activities.

Other protégés of Glasser have thrived in France, including Vincent Mantsoe whose company Association Noa is based in Saint Pont. Glasser was knighted by the Netherlands in 2014 for her achievements.

Backing for South African arts has brought French artists to South Africa and promoted local artists internationally. In 1991 the iconic ‘white Zulu’ singer Johnny Clegg was knighted by France for his courageous voice against apartheid in its darkest years, and legendary South African choreographer Robyn Orlin received the French Order of Merit in 2009 for her “spirited and dedicated work in the sphere of arts and culture.” A similar honour was given in 2013 to Johannesburg-based artist William Kentridge.

Provocative performance artist Steven Cohen, who broke new ground for his genre locally, was headhunted by Paris-based Ballet Atlantique’s Régine Chopinot in 2002 and now lives in Lille, France. His seminal work Golgotha, which debuted at the prestigious Fest d’Automne at Paris’ Pompidou Centre, was billed by critics as the definitive 9/11 artwork in its engagement with loss. Cohen’s confrontational work later offended some Frenchmen in 2013 when he tied a rooster – the ‘Gallic rooster’ is a French symbol of nationhood – to his genitals at the Place de Trocadéro, known as the Human Rights Square near the Eiffel Tower, and subsequently was fined after a trial for indecent exposure.

As today’s politically tense South Africa attempts to clarify its own distinctiveness, and as militant ‘anti-colonialism’ among certain political activists wants to cut off European influence in all spheres, engagement with the French and other countries is doubly important. While nurturing indigenous, local arts is crucial to South Africa’s quest for a new identity, so is openness to the best of world culture, of which the French are a great example.

The rise of ultra-nationalists globally such as Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May in the UK, with their inward-looking ethos, will endure for the foreseeable future. A Le Pen win would have given another boost to this phenomenon and conceivably raised questions about continuing international support for the arts. For now, for Jews, growing anti-Semitism in France is causing extreme unease, which has led many Jews to emigrate to Israel and elsewhere. Some 94 per cent of French citizens who cast their ballots in Israel, voted for Macron. Negative sentiment against other minority communities, particularly Muslims, is running high.

Macron’s win, however, seems to be an encouraging sign from the liberal centrists that they are still a force to be reckoned with.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

  • Read about the Pretoria knighthood ceremony here

Is painting a rose permissible in the midst of SA poverty?

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Students attack the defaced statue of British mining magnate and colonialist politician, Cecil John Rhodes, as it is removed by a crane from its position at the University of Cape Town.

When a well known South African art critic last week bemoaned the decaying state of a once-venerable art museum in a major South African city, she was accused of seeing things through the myopic eye of her ‘privilege and its archaic association with art’, blind to the ‘social deprivation of our citizens.’ It was another indication of the battle going on in a country searching for its new identity after apartheid. When there is so much poverty and suffering, can we justify giving precious resources to things of beauty, like paintings?

The word ‘privilege’ has almost become synonymous in public discourse with the word ‘white’ and is used as a racial jibe. Populist politicians like EFF leader Julius Malema, call for lessening white influence in national life, and decry the influence of ‘white capitalists’. European values imported as part of the colonialist era are slated; 2015 was a year in which statues of arch-colonialists like Cecil John Rhodes were torn down – to the applause of some and dismay of others.

Amidst this difficult search for where this country is heading, it is easy to understand the anger of the people attacking colonialist vestiges, which to them represent white racism. Their rage is a legitimate part of the mixture of forces from which will emerge a new society. But South Africa has been a ship without a rudder for years, since Mandela’s potent push for a non-racial, liberal society. Self-serving incompetents now pretend to be leaders.

During the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1970s, ‘80s and beyond, pioneering white artists and mentors like Bill Ainslie, Sylvia Glasser, Lionel Abrahams and Barney Simon – among many others in visual art, dance, literature, theatre and music – were passionate about finding and nurturing young black artists as part of their protest against apartheid, and their vision of the new South Africa they hoped would come afterwards. For them, the making and cherishing of art would be intrinsic.

They went into impoverished townships looking for talented youngsters and provided spaces and facilities for them. Some of these protégés are now pillars of the cultural scene, such as Vincent Mantsoe, Mncedisi Shabangu and Gregory Maqoma to name but a few.

But something has gone wobbly along the way. Huge questions are being raised about the things the country should be doing. So what kind of society are we building?

A hint at an answer was provided in 1986 by Mandla Nkosi, a black artist from Soweto then in his early twenties. He lived in a shack with his mother until he was discovered by white artists. They arranged for him to move into a back room in Ainslie’s art school in Saxonwold, a white suburb of Johannesburg. This was when apartheid was in its last violent throes. A state of emergency had been imposed by the government, and widespread violence raged between township blacks and security forces.

Nkosi’s paintings portrayed these confrontations. His huge black, white and red collages hung in the hall of the art school, depicting larger-than-life figures of police with dogs and guns fighting with outraged black people. The combatants’ faces were twisted and anguished.

He was asked what this meant as an artist. Was his art inevitably political, did he have to be part of the political struggle?

He answered yes, of course his art was partly political. His experiences made it unavoidable. But his goal was beyond, in the realm of beauty, where one does not have to choose sides between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people and be defined by the ‘struggle’.

“I paint about anger, injustice and conflict. But I also like to paint a rose!”

After living at the art school for two years, a wealthy white family offered Nkosi a room in their house. Sadly, he was killed a few years later.

Art, beauty and things of the spirit are not about Verwoerd, colonialism and the legacy of the apartheid killing machine. There are many cultural institutions like the art museum mentioned above which are in decay, and denigrated as bastions of white privilege and colonialist culture. They should be embraced and re-dedicated by new visionaries, and merged with the vibrant energy of contemporary South Africa.

If we lose the ability to celebrate the rose because there is poverty and suffering, and because there was apartheid and colonialism, we will have lost the battle for a good society.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was Editor of the SA Jewish Report for 16 years, from 1999-2014)