Macron’s French win: Viva la dance!


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: )

  • Read about the Pretoria knighthood ceremony here

Wacky Steven Cohen nudges South Africans out of their comfort zones

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Challenging tired old comfort zones: Performance artist Steven Cohen poses new ways of looking at art, identity and politics in the confusing context of South Africa today

WHEN 54-year old, controversial performance artist Steven Cohen astonished a sober gathering of arts lovers two weeks ago at the Wits Art Museum by bursting into the centre of them and doing his bizarre dance routine, anybody who happened to be thinking about something else was instantly riveted. He was dressed – actually only partially dressed, since much of his body was naked – in an outrageous get-up consisting of lily-white skin, high-heeled pointed shoes, naked backside behind half a black dress, and other tricks.

His entire performance lasted five minutes, then he was gone. But it left intriguing questions about what is art and identity, what is Jewishness – he wore a silver Magen David above his eyes and another mounted on top of his head which he discarded at a certain point, accompanied by music from Fiddler on the Roof – and what is the meaning of everything else?

The gathering marked the 80th birthday of a South African icon of the arts, Linda (Goodman) Givon, who for the past fifty years – through Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery – had encouraged, cajoled and facilitated development of a veritable parade of young black and white artists, during times when the apartheid regime did everything it could to discourage such mixing. The event marked a dignified end to her career, described eloquently by one of her gallery’s successes, celebrated artist William Kentridge, in his speech, and the handing of the baton to younger people.

Steven Cohen’s shaking up of conventional notions about identity, something he has done for the past twenty years, is a metaphor for the unpredictable events unfolding in this country today. Such as the thrashing which the ANC’s tired old men – epitomised by President Jacob Zuma and his cohorts – received in the recent elections at the hands of the young bucks of the EFF and DA opposition parties, which are bursting with fresh energy. The leaders of the latter parties – Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane – are in their mid-thirties and at the beginning of their political careers. Anything is possible.

In similar fashion, this country and its component minorities, including Greeks, Jews, Afrikaners and others, are in need of new, forward-looking people who recognise past history but are not hamstrung by old slogans hanging like lead balls around their elders’ ankles.

What will this country look like in twenty years time? No-one can say for sure if South Africa’s non-racial project will succeed. And what will minority groups look like, such as the Greeks and Afrikaners, when most of the older generation has passed on?

Given recent demographic trends, will the shrinking of the minority groups continue? If the size of the Jewish community today is already down to a mere 70 000 in a national population of 55 million, only half of its high point in the 1970s, will it have dropped to 30 000 in twenty years time? And if it is so much smaller, what kind of community will it be – both in Jewish and South African terms? Greeks and Afrikaners are asking similar questions.

Every generation has its challenges. Young South Africans who grew up after apartheid – the “born-frees” – do not want to be forced to follow the old Struggle catchphrases of their elders who fought apartheid. Those are now in the realm of folk history for most people, and things are different. Looking forward is the only meaningful path.

Every generation needs a Steven Cohen to shake things up and give a glimpse into a different way of looking at things. And it also needs the courage he has shown in charting his own path, despite the dangers it has sometimes posed. For example, on the day he walked onto Loftus Versfeld rugby field in Pretoria in 1998 during a match, dressed as an “ugly girl” in his characteristic, half-naked style, and confronted hundreds of conservative, macho, white – mainly Afrikaans – sports fans who couldn’t work out what he was saying to them, and some of whom wanted to attack him.

We live in exciting times, even if we can’t quite work out what it is all about.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:

Can arts pioneers outpace cultural barbarism in South Africa?


Waiting for the barbarians? Angus Taylor’s large work which has been permanently installed at Nirox sculpture park in the Cradle of Humankind. (Photo: Geoff Sifrin)

South Africans’ rage at President Jacob Zuma’s looting of the country for his own benefit, and the battle since December to protect the constitution, symbolised by Zuptagate and Nkandla, echoes another struggle for the country’s soul in art, music and other forms. The country’s citizens must ensure that the tide of anger and frustration does not obliterate precious things in its path. The burning of 23 artworks at the University of Cape Town during a student protest in February is an ominous portent.

In contrast to this cultural barbarism, South Africa also has visionaries cultivating South African art, such as entrepreneur Benji Liebmann, who established a huge sculpture garden in the Cradle of Humankind, north-west of Johannesburg, called Nirox. It is open to the public a few months each year, featuring works by celebrated sculptors such as Nandipha Mntambo, Hannelie Coetzee, Willem Boshoff and others, and offers residencies for selected artists to live there to produce works. In May, the festive opening for 2016 takes place. Equally bold, Liebmann’s son Jonathan is the developer of Maboneng arts precinct in Johannesburg’s CBD, where well-known and rising artists have studios.

South Africans should be highly sensitive to artworks’ desecration. As German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote prophetically in 1821: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”

UCT’s vice chancellor Max Price faces an unenviable task in trying to hold the fort against destructive rampages born out of the students’ #RhodesMustFall movement. But it seems he has already surrendered a significant point of principle.

The university has reacted to student violence by taking down or covering dozens of its artworks that might be considered “offensive”. Its large collection includes 1,100 pieces displayed in 50 buildings on five campuses by 520 South African artists. The important Porer collection includes works by noted artists such as Steven Cohen, Cecil Skotnes, Pippa Skotnes,  Marion Arnold, Guy Tillim, Malcolm Payne, Mark Hipper and Paul Stopforth. Others include Diane Victor, who has expressed dismay at the covering of her work.

A UCT Task Team is assessing the collection through the prism of the “transformation” of the new South Africa, particularly seeking pieces which might offend for how they depict black people, and looking – according to its brief – for artworks that “may be seen to recognise or celebrate colonial oppressors”.

According to whose artistic viewpoint are these decisions being made? In recent weeks more than 70 works, some by the country’s best artists, have been taken down or covered. Among them, Willie Bester’s Saartjie Baartman and anti-apartheid playwright Breyten Breytenbach’s painting Hovering Dog. Others whose works have taken the chop include William Kentridge, Stanley Pinker and Zwelethu Mthethwa.

These dangerous trends have echoes from tragic history. During the Second World War in areas under Nazi control, Hitler sought to rid Europe of what he considered ‘degenerate art’. Hundreds of paintings were removed from museums, many eventually going up in flames in symbolic burnings. The Nazis also looted many of the best works of European art – the ones Hitler considered not degenerate.

European museum officials acted assertively. The Allied armies assembled a team of museum directors, curators, and art historians known as the “Monuments Men” who accompanied the forces, attempting to minimise damage to European monuments, architecture, and artworks. They also tracked down art stolen and hidden by the Nazis in hundreds of repositories in mines, castles and other places.

With South Africa’s history of white domination and contempt for black people, one can understand black students’ ire at pieces they find offensive. Some of UCT’s halls are adorned with portraits of dead white men in colonial mode, evoking discomfort. To add to this is the dominant colonial-era architecture, influencing the students’ experiences.

However, great art can come from anywhere, notwithstanding the artist’s politics. JH Pierneef’s landscape paintings, for example, are exceptional despite his racism and role in the Broederbond. His racial views on society might be offensive to many, but his art is highly acknowledged. Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery recently hosted a major exhibition of his works.

For many Jews, Wagner’s music has been shunned because of his anti-Semitism and status as Hitler’s favourite composer. For years, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra did not play Wagner. Yet classical music without him would be infinitely poorer. And looking from the other side, some of the world’s greatest, provocative artists have been Jews, such as the Abstract Expressionists in New York in the 1940s – Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and others.

In South Africa, performance artist Steven Cohen has rocked many boats with his wildly provocative depictions of Jewish and South African themes. However, he has become a celebrated artist in France – where he now lives – and elsewhere, although still reviled by some.

South Africa’s cultural battle, like the political one, will be fought for many years to come. Its post-apartheid identity is in flux. The best art provokes questioning. If we only allow sanitised, politically correct works which toe the “party line”, society will be the worse for it. Art which disturbs must be countered not by destroying it, but producing other art.

Populist politicians pursuing their agendas through narrow racial prisms are rampant in South Africa. This is as dangerous in politics as it is in the arts.

At Nirox, there are magnificent works by sculptors such as Angus Taylor, which viewed through the narrow lens of racial rage, might be interpreted as “offensive” to some. With any luck, the burning mobs will not get there; or if they do, hopefully the lovers of great art will be there to protect them and the society’s cultural future.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email