Extraordinary exhibition by no ordinary artist
NAUGHTY Forty is a little different to earlier Marc Lottering shows. Gone are all the uncannily true-to-life characters he often portrays, such as Smiley the “taxigaartjie” from Cape Town, who collects the passengers’ fares, and Galatia Geduld, the Mariah Carey wannabe who never made the Idols cut.
Lottering has retained only one character, the beloved Aunty Merle, an arbiter of appropriate social conduct and housewife from Athlone, a mixed-class suburb on the Cape Flats.
Naughty Forty quickly establishes itself as a much simpler, slicker and tautly constructed production. It explores turning 40 (Lottering hit the mark last year) and growing older and wiser in South Africa.
After Aunty Merle’s sprightly welcome, Lottering appears on stage as himself, looking suave in a suit. Of course, the build-up to the 2010 World Cup is top of the list, with comments about South Africans excited about renting out their homes to foreigners — “many of those people don’t even own houses but they plan to rent out homes,” he quipped. “I can imagine some German tourist excited about having secured a fancy loft apartment in places in Hillbrow.”
As you get older, explains Lottering, you realise that you have “no time for kak anymore”. Now is the time to simplify your life by cutting out what he calls “standardgrade friends” and “oxygen thieves”, those people in your life who simply add “no value”.
He also debases the philosophies espoused by what he calls “the church of Oprah”. As a society, he observes, we’ve become “very spiritual”. Oprah and her health guru, Dr Oz, tell us to go organic and buy free-range eggs, never mind the fact that the eggs we’ve been eating have been perfectly fine — after all, they got us through apartheid “when we ourselves weren’t free”.
Funniest of all are not his hilarious views on call centres or his first-time experience in the gym, where he was guided by an overly muscular body builder with a “tiny penis”, but when he paints with incredible detail archetypal characters from everyday life. Herein lie his insights about life and much of the thrust of the jokes that lead to tears running down your cheeks.
He reminds us of the modern-day parent who vows never to beat his kids the way his own parents did, at a time when there were no children’s rights. But then, when these modern-day kids become the adolescents who steal three of your “Rothmans cigarettes” and confront you with their Halls mint breath, you suddenly understand, says Lottering, why our parents “ moered us” the way they did.
The most successful comedians are the ones who are keen observers of culture and human behaviour. They take in all the things we consider the “ kak things in life” and, like an oyster, give it back to us as hilarious pearls of wisdom.
Lottering is such a comedian.
Past/Present, which celebrates the 70th birthday of Durbanbased artist Andrew Verster, has returned home after touring Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Johannesburg for just over a year.
It is a selection of his works from the beginning of democracy in South Africa to the present — which sounds a lot more politically correct than it sets out to be.
As Verster himself remarks: “Nominally it is a collection of works since ’94 — supposedly what happened after democracy. Well, for me, nothing happened after democracy, in the sense that I continued painting the pictures I always painted. I always felt free in myself. My work didn’t change at all. I never obeyed government rules that said you can’t do this or that.”
He certainly didn’t. It was Verster who helped Rashid Meer, son of activists Fatima and Ismail, to forge documents to flee the apartheid regime.
That was “perhaps the most direct use of art in the struggle against apartheid,” writes Nick Paul in a publication on the exhibition.
A former arts lecturer and award-winning playwright, Verster maintains that he never sees “issues”.
“I think you can make art into a theoretical thing and set out to talk about changing the world but it’s nonsense. Change is the way you look at anything and the way you love it — that is ultimately what matters. I just paint what I like. I never plan ahead. I work from moment to moment.”
Walking into the exhibition is a joy, enhanced by the Durban Art Gallery’s ornate Victorian rooms with high ceilings. This is Verster’s favourite exhibition venue. “I have most enjoyed the exhibition here because of the magnificence of the rooms. It makes my pieces look like real work. They look like they belong in a museum and I’m rather flattered by that.”
This is no ordinary exhibition, as Verster is one of South Africa’s most prolific artists, having tried his hand at everything that falls within the boundaries of art, including oils, etchings, drawings in ink, silk-screening, sculpture, woodcarving, tapestry, set design, costume design and wax paintings on tissue paper.
The exhibition is made up of many of these mediums — all bold, all boisterous, all animated. A lavish costume hangs from the rafters. A 2.2mhigh oil, incorporating seven different shades of black, is so textured that you want to dive into it. Perfectly, precisely detailed shoe-box size models of sets for La Traviata occupy a side wall. A stylised, life-size cardboard cutout of a dog begs for attention and a lotus flower sits on another side wall.
It’s delightful and I’m having a marvellous time. So is Verster. He walks with me through the exhibition, stopping to point out details that take his fancy.
“I like them all and certain pieces I love. I think my art is accessible because what you see is what you get.
“You can see that is a landscape,” he says, pointing to a set of four large oils, an explosion of reds, oranges, yellows and blues that are immediately identifiable as tropical, humid, Durban vegetation. “You know that it’s a painting of leaves but there are no naturalistic elements — the leaves aren’t green, the colours are brash and clash. If you put it into Natal’s vegetation, it would stick out like a sore thumb, but it taps into your emotion. It’s a landscape about what it feels like, not what it looks like.”
Emotion underpins a set of finely crafted techniques. The best example of this is one of Verster’s most interesting and popular periods: “little India”.
“I was looking for a way to draw and paint at the same time, when I came across a children’s art class. They painted a sheet of colour and when it was dry they coloured on it in wax crayons. Then they took a pin and scratched through the crayon to reveal a drawing in the colour beneath.
“I went home and said to Aidan (Verster’s late partner, the artist Aidan Walsh): ‘I’ve found my technique but I’m going to do it in a grown-up way!’ ”
Verster then turned to Grey Street and the Hindu temples of Durban for patterns rich in texture and colour. “I have a particular affection for this period. It was my flirtation with India before I went there. When I eventually got there I thought, ‘But I know you, I feel at home here.’”
We stand in front of a piece called Indianesque. It’s slightly three dimensional because the background is made up of four or five layers of yellow paint that create the base. Once dry, a different colour was painted over it and before that dried, Verster used a darning needle to expose the yellow in intricate patterns. The painting is vivid, ornate and sensuous.
After a moment of silence, Verster says: “Your job as an artist is to find what excites you. You do what you have to do, and if you have touched a raw nerve in yourself, you will touch the same nerve in others because we are all the same.”