CHRISTIAAN OLWAGEN – THEATRE
CHAT to one of the most exciting theatre prospects, director, actor and writer Christiaan Olwagen, about his Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Theatre and you can hear how thrilled he is by the honour.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” says the young director who at the most recent Aardklop National Arts Festival walked off with a prize for most innovative work as director for his contemporary staging of The Seagull, translated into Afrikaans by Saartjie Botha.
It’s been tough because he wasn’t allowed to share the news with anyone, but it’s “cool”, he says.
“There’s such a divide between Afrikaans and English theatre in this country,” he points out and those of us who straddle the theatre worlds are constantly bemoaning the fact that Marthinus Basson has no idea what James Ngcobo is doing while Megan Wilson’s excellent Bash would also go under the radar for the arts community in different provinces.
Grahamstown broadens the platform and Olwagen is very aware of that.
“I admire the Tara Notcutts who take the risk on the fringe, but I haven’t yet taken the leap,” he says, but now he has the chance – and it’s even better, as it’s on the main programme.
“I have been limited to Afrikaans festivals,” he says, even though he is immensely grateful for that platform and exposure. “I’m indebted to them.” The only time he has been to the National Arts Festival was with the student production Woza Andries a few years back which was also his breakout piece at Potchefstroom’s Aardklop later that year.
It’s an illustrious list that he joins and he’s delighted that his mentor, Marthinus Basson, was also awarded the honour previously. “If he hadn’t urged me to become a director, I would probably still only be acting,” says this triple threat artist who includes directing, writing and acting on his CV.
It was during their final year concert in which he was cast as the MC in Cabaret and they just could not quite get the first Willkommen song raised to director Basson’s impeccable levels. “I spoke to the girls simply because I couldn’t face another disappointed look from Marthinus,” he says. They rehearsed this number on their own and finally pulled it off. “I think he saw something there.”
But when Basson first asked him about directing and if he had given it any thought, Olwagen thought it was because the maestro thought his acting wasn’t good enough.
Also at Aardklop earlier this month, where Olwagen staged a self-written and directed Dogma (which he describes as semi-biographical, about his childhood with parents who were almost trapped in a religious fervour) he was part of a revival of Yasmina Reza’s Art. Directed by Basson, he played with Wessel Pretorius and Wilhelm van der Walt in this delightful ode to art and relationships.
It’s tough not to rave about this young lad’s extraordinary career in such a short space of time. Still in his 20s, he was blessed to emerge from Stellenbosch University’s mindboggling drama department (with Basson as teacher), surrounded by a group of actors that stop you in your tracks.
But having witnessed a few years of plays and performance from this startling talent, there’s not much that could have stopped this dramatic force. It’s hugely exciting to watch and wonder how all this early promise will evolve. It’s almost easy to predict that he will keep us glued to our seats whatever he chooses to do. It’s the fact that there’s also an understanding of who he is, a generosity of spirit that he has received from others and passes on, and a willingness to listen to his mentors and peers.
“Karen Meiring (head of Kyknet) has always said that generosity generates exactly that,” he says.
He’s excited about this breakthrough, pleased that he can cast wider and look at English actors, and already knows what he wants to do at next year’s Grahamstown. “I will be turning to the classics again,” he says. “I think it’s a bit much to try to write something new as well. Let’s stick to one thing at a time.” - Diane de Beer
ATHI-PATRA RUGA – PERFORMANCE ART
WANDERING around Grahamstown, trailing Athi-Patra Ruga as he created an art route, I hear someone ask, “Ma, wat gaan aan?” to which someone else replies “Dis art”.
Ruga chuckles when I recount this over the telephone. He makes art for the man on the street, he says, not for the art critic with a blog.
That particular 2012 collaborative performance with Mikhael Subotzky, Performance Obscura, marked the first time Ruga ever performed at or engaged with the National Arts Festival.
Turning 30 this year, Ruga grew up in Mthatha and was schooled in East London, so Grahamstown was “slap bang in the middle” of the family’s regular travel route, but they never could afford to attended the festival.
“So we watched the festival from our TV in East London,” said Ruga.
Performing on what was then, in a way, out-of-bounds ground for the first time was therefore a highly emotional moment: “That’s probably one of the reasons there’s this legend of me crying,” he says.
In that performance, as in so much of his work, Ruga challenged the notion of being told when and what he could do and perform, in a way reclaiming his identity.
He uses his art to create characters who combat specific challenges, in so doing breaking down stereotypical thinking on race, sexuality and gender identity.
Ruga’s performance roots go back to helping his father create sound effects for a radio drama: “My dad was a sports editor and agent and he had a radio show, right after the funeral announcements.
“I remember being asked to walk on gravel and slam doors. It was quite amazing because it made me take on the idea of representation to make something possible.
“Through digitalisation you could make a small door sound like a big door. To know this technique, to take raw material and make it something bigger, learning to work with what you have, that’s what it did for me,” explained Ruga.
A sense of fun when working is also something he has carried over from his childhood into his professional work.
A the Belgravia Art College in East London he learnt to use his body as a tool to communicate, and a scholarship to study fashion design at the Gordon Flack Davidson Academy of Design in Joburg is where he learnt to integrate his passion for fashion design into his work.
Today his large scale works are a combination of performance through procession and interven-tion and The Future White Woman of Azania is an on-going series of performances centred on new definitions of nationhood in relation to the autonomous body.
He is currently taking part in the 1.54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London concurrently with the presentation of his latest Exile Series of tapestries at the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris.
Ruga likes creating spaces which can inspire people: “I believe that inspiration is like what spinach is to Popeye and the magic I do as Popeye is what connects me to the audience. My inspiration is very simply my partner in life who has been there from the very first show.”
He knows what he wants to do in Grahamstown next year, but he’s not telling. All he will say is he needs to lose some weight to pull it off. - Theresa Smith
LUYANDA SIDIYA – DANCE
LUYANDA SIDIYA is one busy fellow, and when we finally connect over the telephone, it turns out he is actually in Cape Town. He was invited by the Western Province Dance Teachers Association to present workshops to local students.
“The main focus is on the children,” explained Sidiya, who cannot stress enough how important mentorship is and was to his own development as a dancer and choreographer.
Born in the Vaal Triangle, the 31-year-old was first exposed to dance at school when he saw a drama production presented to the community as an outreach programme. At first he learnt modern and traditional dance through Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MIDM) and was then introduced to contemporary dance and choreography through The Dance Factory in Newtown in 1996.
He is matter-of-fact about the sheer number of auditions he failed at before he found his path in 2000.
“It’s funny because if you want to make it, you have to be patient and believe in what you do. It’s basically a lot of things but to cut a long story short I ended up in the Community Dance Teachers Training Course when I met Sylvia (Glasser),” he said.
“From then on I had a number of teachers who became my mentors and David April especially was very instrumental in terms of nurturing me as a young man.
“He believed there was more to me than what I imagined of myself. He invested time and became not just a teacher but also someone who advised me. He explained how things were going to be.
“That’s how I became stronger, until this was my art,” Sidiya.
Dancing with MIDM for six years he performed nationally and internationally in places like Botswana, the US, Sweden, Austria, Finland, Italy and Luxembourg and facilitated workshops in dance companies and universities abroad.
He left MIDM to teach choreography and dance at Bennington College in Vermont, US, before being headhunted to work as first a dancer and then rehearsal director with ACE dance and music, a company based in Birmingham, in the UK.
Coming back to Gauteng he won the award for the Most Outstanding Dancer in the Contemporary Style for the Dance Umbrella Festival in 2007 and has worked on a number of works, commissioned and otherwise, for the festival since then.
Non dance fans would be most impressed that he was the dance captain for the 2010 World Cup opening concert. But dance afficionados are more drawn to the work he has been doing with the Vuyani Dance Theatre.
While company founder Gregory Maqoma was busy with solo work it was up to Sidiya to shape the company as artistic director.
“That became a huge part of my life. We won the battle because we managed to create a great company. Just last week we came back from New York,” said Sidiya about VDT which debuted Umnikelo (The Offering) as part of the Fall for Dance Festival in the American city.
Festinos will be familiar with that particular piece which won a Silver Standard Bank Ovation Award as one half of double bill entitled Mayhem, at the 2012 National Arts Festival.
“It is such an honour, to know that I’ve done work with previous recipients, people that I look up to, and now I am a recipient too,” Sidiya said about being chosen as Young Artist for Dance.
When it comes to his choreographic process, Sidiya researches his theme thoroughly before he works with dancers on exploring the dance vocabulary.
While he hasn’t chosen the specifics of what he will do next year (“It depends on what fascinates me”, he says), the first person who will get an inkling of the work will be his wife, Thoko.
“She’s a much better dancer than myself,” he insists.
For Sidiya, dance is ultimately a healing process: “We’re the ones who become better people when we dance and when it’s personal to you, then it becomes personal to the person who is watching.” - Theresa Smith
NDUDUZO MAKHATINI – JAZZ
Nduduzo Makhatini, the jazz pianist who is the 2015 Young Artist Award Winner for Jazz, believes his instrument chose him – not the other way round.
“I wanted to play guitar, not piano, because that was my dad’s instrument,” he says.
But when he was doing auditions for post-matric studies, they advised him to switch to piano.
It made sense because as a teenager he used to watch his mom play her keyboards and be mesmerised by the notes.
“It wasn’t about the sound,” he explains. What really grabbed his attention were those black and white keys, the mathematics of playing the different keys. “I watched her play endlessly,” he explains. She would then lock the keyboard away in a bag and it was only when he was about 12 and discovered where she hid the key that he would try playing when she wasn’t at home.
When she first heard him play, she was astonished. “I played Amazing Grace,” he says and his mom was so impressed, she gave him the keyboard. But he doesn’t simply regard himself as a piano player. “I’m connected to the ancestors and have a diagnostic approach,” he explains.
Making music is a healing process for this pianist. He knows that he has been given the gift of many voices. “The keys sing in more voices than most,” he says of the instrument he plays.
And he is most comfortable and passionate in his music making when he can improvise, and reinterpret the compositions of other musicians. “I’m inspired by their music and I try to relate to their story when I give my interpretation. It’s a spiritual journey.”
He pays attention to the past, our history and what people had to say. “I am inspired by the people who came before me,” he says. His wife, who is a singer, also plays a huge part in his music. “If I have to think of where I am right now, it’s about being a father and a husband.”
His own father left the family when he was a young boy, something that loomed large in his life for many years but returned two years before he died. “My younger brother and I made a conscious decision to be different, to get married and to be part of our children’s lives,” he says. It’s been part of the pattern in his family from both his mother and father’s side and they are determined to change what seems like a generational course.
As a musician, he views himself as somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, a husband and a father.
“My family has given that to me.”
History, his heritage, the past and the future, all these things come into play and make him who he is as a human being – and a musician.
He has been influenced by the people he has played with, like Zim Ngqawana, Carlo Mombeli, Marcus Wyatt, and the list runs deep. “My musical journey has been defined by them,” says this KwaZulu-Natal son. “I am sensitive to the now while being informed by my culture.”
While he looks towards the greats of the past, he interprets their music through the lens of his own life. “We have so much to celebrate,” he says. His first album, Mother Tongue, was dedicated to his mother, the one who gave him his particular voice which he calls his “first language”. The next, titled Sketches of Tomorrow, speaks about being a father and what he is going to bring to his family.
He still has conversations with his father but now it happens through dreams. “I want to thank him because he has showed me how to love,” says this thoughtful man.
When he has a show, much of the practical work is done before the time. He doesn’t want his fingers to get in the way of the music when he’s playing. “The actual performance is a ritual of sorts. I play for the space I’m in and have to be sure the channels are cleansed.
“Busi Mhlongo used to say I’m an old soul,” he says when I ask him about all this wisdom and still being only 32 years old. “I don’t own the thoughts and the music. It comes to me and I’m just so grateful to hear these voices. Everything I have is borrowed.” - Diane de Beer
MUSA NGCUNGWANA – MUSIC
EVERY year I’m blown away by the personal stories and personalities of the Young Artist Award winners and this year is no exception.
Baritone Musa Ngqungwana (30), the recipient in the music category, has much more than just his singing on his mind.
He has just finished a memoir, Odyssey of an African Opera Singer: From ZwideTownship to the World Stage, even at this young age, but having listened to his life story so far and the decisions he made, he has role model and inspiration written all over him.
Brought up by his grandmother because his single mother had to work to keep the family going, he walked around with huge anger for his father.
“I had to let that go,” he says. Even in circumstances that weren’t ideal, he knew that if he locked into that emotion, it would define his life. “I wanted more,” he says.
Similar things happened when he had to leave Port Elizabeth Technical College in his home town, where he was studying building science for a year, because of lack of funds.
“It was a struggle,” he says. “I didn’t always have bus money.”
But he wanted to move on, not be that South African statistic of the township boy who cannot complete his post school studies.
Singing had always been something he loved and he had always participated in choirs, from primary school.
“I didn’t know I had a voice though,” he says. His introduction to opera was as a teenager of 16 when he saw a 1978 video performance of Die Zauberflote in which Sir Willard White played the role of Die Sprecher. “I was amazed when I saw a black dude singing. I didn’t know I could be part of that world,” he explains. He loved the whole performance, the German language, the costumes and the scenery.
Hoping to pursue a singing career and determined to get his life on track, he travelled to Pretoria for auditions with the Black Ties. Mimi Coertse and Neels Hansen recalled him the morning before he had to return home and told him he needed further studies to be part of the group, but his voice was too extraordinary for him to start as part of the chorus. They made contact with Cape Town’s Angelo Gobatto and Virginia Davids and he auditioned for a scholarship at the UCT Opera School. In 2004 he was given a full bursary.
He gained a Performer’s Diploma in Opera and Bachelor of Music Honours Degree in Performance (Magna Cum Laude) and then a scholarship to the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA), in Philadelphia. He graduated in May with an Artist Diploma.
He has already begun planning for his performances (one solo and one with orchestra) at the National Arts Festival and while this is unexpected, he smiles from ear to ear because it is so close to his home town and the festival was something he knew about as a child. It also means it is easy for family and friends to attend.
Still rehearsing for his first performance, his career ready to bloom, he is already making plans to pay back. “I was talking to a friend about the money we would make singing internationally,” he says. “Take for example $10 000 which would not be a huge amount of money once we start earning, but back home it would pay for quite a few scholarships.”
Not many people starting their careers, even if they believe in their talent, would give others a thought. But this is a young man who had the drive to push through all his adversities, because he remembers the tough times and how lucky he has been. “This has been such humbling confirmation of what I’ve achieved,” he says. - Diane de Beer
KEMANG WA LEHULERE – VISUAL ARTS
SIX INTERNATIONAL residencies, five awards (including the first International Tiberius Art Award Dresden, first Spier Contemporary Award and most recently the 15th Bâloise prize at the 2013 Art Basel fair), four solo exhibitions and 50 group exhibitions would be enough to give anyone an inflated ego.
Kemang Wa Lehulere, though, is the most level-headed, humble, down to earth 30-year-old artist you are ever going to meet. He is a quiet, curious fellow who seems to take in a whole lot more than he gives out – that is, until you see his work.
His visual artwork ranges across mediums, he doesn’t just stick to one thing – for example, for a solo exhibition titled Some Deleted Scenes Too in Joburg two years ago, he exhibited ink drawings and text works alongside a site-specific chalk mural on the Stevenson’s gallery wall, plus performance pieces which drew on art and literature.
This year his chalk on black-board mural, The Grave Step, was part of the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art which ended at the beginning of August.
Earlier this year, in February, he was part of a triple exhibition and debate at Den Haag in the Netherlands, titled This is not Africa, This is Us, in which he again used a chalk mural, this time around the life, work, exile and death of Nat Nakasa. This grew out of spending time in Amsterdam last year as a guest resident at the Rijksakademie and he continued exploring this theme at the Public Intimacy: Art and Social Life in South Africa exhibition at the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts in San Francisco in March.
Born in Gugulethu, Wa Lehulere spent a long time based in Joburg, but recently returned to work in the Mother City and most recently he was part of a group exhibition, Do It, at the Michaelis Gallery.
And to think, he initially wanted to work in theatre.
Wa Lehulere’s first encounter with the National Arts Festival was travelling to Grahamstown in 2001 with his cousin Ithumeleng Wa Lehulere who was directing a play called Echoes of Our Footsteps.
The now 30-year-old was in standard 9 (Grade 11) at the time and remembers it was very cold and very busy: “It was quite fun, having something meaningful outside of the daily class routine. It was also something that was relevant because of the narrative of the play, something powerful and striking.
“I still remember half of the play off by heart,” he says.
While he initially enrolled in a performing arts course at Community Arts Project, he quickly changed to Visuals Arts as a more challenging idea. Plus, all that dance and theatre work was physically demanding and he admits ruefully that maybe he was just a tad lazy because this wasn’t just an after school activity any more.
Fast forward to 2011 when he finished his BA Fine Arts at Wits via several exhibitions and workshops, lots of talking to curators about how the art world works, talking to people about what kind of art they actually would engage in (which led to the co-founding of the Gugulective and a collaboration with the Centre for Historical Re-enactments and the Non-Non Collective in Joburg) and group exhibitions stretching back to Thembinkosi Goniwe’s Amajita in Conversation at the AVA in 2006. - Theresa Smith