Curated retail is the antidote

Luxury shopping at the V&A’s Watershed and Zeitz Museum is not about price tags but rather authenticity and limited editions.

The World Design Capital 2014 year has been busy for Trevyn and Julian McGowan. Having spent the past few years establishing Southern Guild, internationally and locally, as the go-to for collectable South African design that goes for fine art prices, this year was about using their reputation.

In February they hosted South Africa’s first international design fair, Guild, and in October launched the Business of Design seminars. In November they opened Southern Guild’s first permanent gallery in Woodstock, having shown the collection at fairs in Dubai, Basel, Miami and New York. They also curated and launched the Watershed design and craft emporium under the contract of the V&A Waterfront, which included their first retail space, Odeon.

“The [local] design industry has come of age just recently, and it’s now ready to go from weekend markets and once-a-year affairs to 365 days a year of retail and staffing,” Trevyn McGowan said of the Watershed, named to reflect this serendipitous moment.

Trevyn McGowan

More than 400 local brands are presented in a remixing of the exhibitors from the old Red and Blue craft sheds, with hip young emerging and exclusive established designers thrown in to ensure there is something for everyone in every category, with prices ranging from R20 to R50 000.

“If something is R20 or R50 000, I’m as interested in presenting it in the discussion because if the product is good, the impulse is good, and it’s not clichéd, tired, copied, crappy stuff, then there’s something worth looking at,” says McGowan. He confirms the world trend for luxury not to be about price tag but about authenticity, limited editions, and being handmade and unique.

The age of isolation

There’s something new to luxury, though, in a social media-driven world in which everyone is both more connected and more isolated than ever before: human connection. “Meeting the people behind the brands is the absolute definition of luxury for me in a world where everything is nameless, faceless and generic,” says McGowan.

Besides many of the designers and crafters staffing their own stands at least some of the time, the architecture is intended to foster cross-pollination, collaboration and interpersonal inspiration.

An industrial shed from the dry docks of the harbour, Cape Town’s Wolff Architects prioritised translucent building materials and clear lines of sight between the storeys. Looking like a street market on the ground level, floors suspended from a fortified steel frame host the University of Cape Town’s Innovation Hub for the Graduate School of Business, co-working as formal office space, and exhibition areas. It recently hosted the world-renowned Lego art exhibition by United States artist Nathan Sawaya.

With 24-million visitors a year, the V&A Waterfront is the most visited site in Africa, yet it’s hardly news that money does not buy happiness. As George Monbiot writes in “Materialism: a system that eats us from the inside out”, a Guardian article in which he sites research linking loneliness and shopping: “Social atomisation may be the best sales strategy ever devised, and continuous marketing looks like an unbeatable programme for atomisation.”

Curated retail is increasingly being touted as the bricks-and-mortar antidote to the online retail game, and it’s not just about products but about drawing the right crowd. For instance, McGowan explains, curating is not just about “editing, selecting and having an opinion” but also about “being a connector” and “curating people that you think will be symbiotic or who will get on”.

Artist’s impression of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa

“Selection is a minuscule part of curating,” agrees Mark Coetzee, executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which has set up an interim pavilion for itself, just down the walkway from Watershed, on the bridge towards the Cape Grace. “It’s also about defining how the conversations add to the work. So part of our strategy is to open things up so that all people participate, regionally and globally.”

A safe space for tough art

Coetzee, who has returned to South Africa after 15 years abroad as director of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami and programme director of PUMAVision, is using the pavilion as an audience research project to inform decisions regarding the museum. A refurbishment of the historic Grain Silo undertaken by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, the museum is due for completion in 2016.

Using facial recognition video technology, Coetzee says they have amassed readings of about 250 000 visitors in the past nine months. The technology recognises how long they’re spending in the gallery and rooms, and with each artwork, as well as their use of public space and ablutions. “Some people think we have to dumb the art down but I can’t compromise what the artist wants to say. If you start dumbing it down and making it populist, why have a museum?”

Coetzee says his team of curators are trained to be on their feet for eight hours, greeting everyone who looks in, inviting them in, offering glasses of water and initiating conversations. This emphasises the human touch as opposed to the aloof elitism of many galleries.

“The more difficult the art gets, the more user-friendly we have to be in every other aspect. If you don’t feel you’re in a safe space, you become defensive, vindictive, vengeful, angry. But if you feel you’re in a safe space, you’re a little more open to difference and dialogue. So I don’t think we must underestimate the role of service industry-orientated practice in public institutions,” Coetzee reflects.

The V&A Waterfront contributed R500-million to the museum and Jochen Zeitz bequeathed his collection of African and diaspora art and underwrote the running costs. It is a not-for-profit institution that holds the art “in trust for the people of South Africa”, says Coetzee.

The museum is a powerful statement of community. But should such a democratic institution be on private land, which can still control the right of admission?

“There’s something that’s particular about the V&A Waterfront – it’s private land, yet it’s the most used land in Africa,” Coetzee responds. “It’s also one of the few spaces in Cape Town that are shared spaces – black and white, rich and poor, Christian and not, etcetera.”

It’s a social inclusion that remains a luxury in the Mother City.

Mail&Guardian, 19 December 2014

Changing the world of art – to click or not to click?

Clicktivism – can logging into a website and adding your name to a petition really change the world of art?

If 2011 was the year that “clicktivism” made it into the Collins dictionary, 2014 is the year it made it into the art world, courtesy of Cape Town.

In September, a Change.org petition against showing Cape Town artist Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B at the Barbican Gallery in London drew worldwide attention – and 22 988 supporters.

The exhibition – a performance artwork that recreates a colonial human zoo in which black people are put on exhibit in historical scenarios – was again petitioned in November to prevent its showing in Paris, drawing 20 433 signatories, who believe that it is racist.

Meanwhile, right in the Mother City, an Avaaz.org petition calling for the removal of the Perceiving Freedom artwork from the Sea Point promenade has received just over 1 000 signatures over the past month.

The appeal to Mayor Patricia de Lille and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille demands a full investigation into the process whereby the controversial supersized Ray Bans by artist Michael Elion was approved.

Can logging into a website and adding your name to a list really change the world of art?

The self-righteous mob

The London showing of Exhibit B was cancelled, but only after protestors created a disturbance on the opening night. Immediately, prominent theatre, art and museum curators from around the world rallied around what was labelled an act of bottom-up censorship.

Bailey has labelled the protestors a “self-righteous mob”, and decried the fact that none of them have actually seen the exhibition.

In Paris, however, the show goes on, despite protestors having smashed the door on the opening night.

Just a month since Paul McCarthy’s inflatable Christmas tree that resembled a buttplug was vandalised, forcing it to be removed, Fleur Pellerin, the French cultural minister, has come out in full support of Exhibit B, saying that they refuse to give in to censorship and intimidation.

A Paris court concurs, with a judge ruling against a collective of artists calling themselves “Against Exhibit B”, who brought a case against the City of Paris on December 8, to close down Exhibit B on the grounds of it being humiliating.

On Tuesday the judge said that: “The artistic representation in question unambiguously condemns the enslavement of black people during the colonial period and their treatment, contrary to the principle of respect for human dignity or human rights in the contemporary world.”

“The huge city block-sized building is completely sealed off by 300 policemen. One has to go through a labyrinthine security rigmarole to enter the cultural centre.

“We are performing in the bowels of the building with no access to what’s going on outside: apparently 100 or so protesters … Somebody in security said to me: ‘Its costing a fortune, 300 policemen, outside, in the rain, on a Sunday’.

‘Is the centre paying?’ I asked. ‘No. We are. Our taxes’.

“‘Hmm’, I thought. Maybe if your taxes were used to provide better opportunities for disenfranchised second-class citizens in the first place, the harvest wouldn’t be so bitter,” wrote Bailey.

Yes, just 100 protestors from 20 433 petitioners.

The number game 

The organisers of the Perceiving Freedom petition, John Nankin, Candice Breitz and Lizza Littlewort, know that they can’t “play the numbers game”, given the niche interest of visual art.

Instead, they have aimed to make their 1 000 signatories really count. Rather than a self-righteous mob, they have curated a who’s-who list of art experts as supporters.

“Many really well-known and influential academics, curators, critics, artists, as well as prominent people in other fields of culture signed,” says Nankin, making a special point to highlight the support of the original selection committee of Art 54, the project that Perceiving Freedom forms part of, as well as other artists involved in the project.

Nonetheless, the fact that the petition calls for the removal of the artwork may be why there are not more supporters, since it can be perceived to be censorship.

However, despite the widespread criticism of the actual artwork and concept, the organisers stipulate that they are not calling for its removal because of the nature of the work, but because it has become clear that due process has not been followed.

As one of the original Art54 curators, Farzanah Badsha, explained to the Daily Maverick, neither the artwork in its current form nor its location is what was originally approved. In other words, the petition calls for some form of justice, not an insurrection of popular opinion.

Will that give the petition more clout? Now we wait. Nankin says that they hope to present the petition to the City of Cape Town early next year, and it is still open for signatures – uh, clicks.

Mail&Guardian, 10 December 2014

Tokolos Stencil Collective: ‘Crap’ art designed to unsettle

Guerilla art group Tokolos Stencil Collective poses dirty challenges to audiences and the art gallery.

Defacing the Mandela Ray-Ban sculpture is not all that the Tokolos Stencil Collective, who most Capetonians know for the ubiquitous “Remember Marikana” stencils throughout the city, has been up to lately. A soiled government-issue porta-potty filled the Brundyn+ gallery in Cape Town with the stench of human faeces on the opening night of the Plakkers group exhibition of street art.

This intervention by the Tokolos Stencil Collective was unsanctioned by the gallery, as were the “dehumanisation zone” stencils and scrawled “bourgeoisie gallery” slogan spray-painted on the building façade in the dead of the previous night.

“The intention of our ‘Non-poor Only’ stencil sprayed directly on to the ‘porta-porta’ was a critique of the highly problematic nature of the Brundyn+ gallery and bourgeois spaces like it across South Africa,” reads the anonymous collective’s statement, which described the gallery’s immediate removal of the toilet as censoring “the smell of decades of indignity and oppression meted out against Cape Town’s poor”.

The intervention was simultaneously replicated during the Open City event held in the public space of Church Square during the First Thursdays festivities. “We feel that the entire #FirstThursdays initiative is an exclusionary space meant to help the middle class pretend that their culture is significant and relevant,” reads their website, tokolos-stencils.tumblr.com.

“Instead, First Thursdays merely serves to exclude the poor black underclass. Many of the art installations talk about the poor but rarely, if ever, do they actually build space of inclusion.” Of course, this is hardly the first toilet in contemporary art. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain – a urinal signed simply “R Mutt 1917” – was voted the most influential art work of all time by more than 500 art experts in the run-up to the 2004 Turner Prize in Britain.

“Poor only” 

The work raises a number of questions, most basically: What is art? Is it whatever the artist says it is? A number of artists, including South Africa’s Kendell Geers, have pulled out all the stops to answer this question by urinating in Duchamp’s gallery-reified urinals. Artist, musician and original producer of U2 Brian Eno stored his urine in a test tube that was poured through a crack in the sculpture’s protective Perspex case.

In a less egotistical response, British pop artist Alex Garnett commodified the question with his “Conceptual Crap” sticker that sports a “R Mutt 1917” signature. It can be bought at most gallery shops in Europe for (relatively humble) £6.50 and encourages everyone to turn their lavatory into a replica of the work.

It is, however, unclear whether the anonymous collective considers their porta-potty art, as the statement reads: “Tokolos made no claim to professional artistic intervention. We are not engaging in this conversation as artists but as an anonymous and universalised image of the worker wearing gas masks and blue overalls, and carrying our luggage of shit to disrupt spaces in which poor blacks are not welcome.”

Unlike Garnett’s commodification, Tokolos’s “poor only” slogan is available as a stencil for free download with instructions from its website. Everyone is encouraged to get involved, anyone can be a tokolos. When I contacted Tokolos for comment, I was informed that I had to be complicit in the collective – spray a stencil somewhere or another agreed-on action that I could think of – before it would co-operate.

‘The motives also come under scrutiny’ 

This raises the question of who the Tokolos Stencil Collective is. According to an interview with Dave Mann in Archetype Online magazine, the collective itself is not entirely sure: “We are a loose collective. We don’t really have members, just participants.” If not even the participants know who is in the group, how does one control what the group stands for, or prevent enemies sabotaging its directive? The motives also come under scrutiny.

If it is not money or artistic acclaim, then it is presumably to raise awareness. Yet nowhere in the media generated has Tokolos highlighted the organisations rallying against the poor sanitation infrastructure in Cape Town. Just over a month ago, the Social Justice Coalition released its toilet audit to a defensive City of Cape Town. And the night before Tokolos’s intervention, controversial leader of the “poo protesters”, Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement, Andile Lili, was shot outside his house.

Without this element of social pragmatism, Tokolos limit their effectiveness to the art realm. However, unlike Duchamp or Michael Elion – artist of the Mandela Ray-Ban sculpture – who declare art is in the eye of the artist, Tokolos stipulates in its statement that “real art makes those with privilege feel uncomfortable”.

Mail&Guardian, 21 November 2014

Spill the coffee beans and get people talking

A machine that is “definitely not the most efficient way to dispense coffee beans into packages” has been unveiled at the Truth HQ in Cape Town.

The words are those of Cape Town coffee maverick David Donde, who co-founded Origin Coffee Roasting in 2006 but went solo and established Truth Coffee Roasting in 2009.

Last year, he cranked open the doors to the new Truth HQ, decked out in a bespoke steampunk interior by designer Haldane Martin.

Local costume and millinery specialists the Little Hattery were tasked with creating staff uniforms that rival an opera wardrobe.

Steampunk is an aesthetic that brings together Victorian analogue technology and fashion, and transposes a futuristic science fiction narrative on it.

Or, as the joke goes, “what happened when goths discovered brown”.

Most famously seen in Wild Wild West, the subculture started surfacing when visual websites such as Pinterest and Tumblr brought the images into mass circulation, and steampunk-maker websites such as Etsy connected artisans with steampunks all around the world.

Events such as Burning Man in Nevada and the South African variation, AfrikaBurn, in the Karoo, have drawn gatherings — as per the Steampunk Saloon at the AfrikaBurn festival in May.

Donde “is steampunk”, according to Martin, who proposed the concept; the caffeine-prospecting techie has spared nothing in bringing to life an entire world at Truth HQ. The design has been short-listed for the world Restaurant and Bar Design award, the only finalist from Africa. The winner will be announced in September.

Theatrical showpiece

“It’s been fantastic. We’ve taken a spot that everyone said wouldn’t work, in the Fringe, and we’re probably the busiest coffee shop in Cape Town,” enthuses Donde.

“We wanted a signature piece that really said: we’re about coffee.”

This is where industrial designer and artist Chris Jones got involved in turning the coffee dispenser into a theatrical showpiece.

After his first proposal to Donde, which was too decorative and not functional enough, Jones spent a week on YouTube watching elementary engineering videos. He came back with a Meccano-like contraption that was built using reclaimed bicycle gears, cranks and pulleys, and used lights, bells and whistles for theatrical effect.

For materials, Jones went dumpster diving at Fair Trading in Salt River and Sunshine Scrap in Woodstock.

“It was like treasure hunting through a mass of rusted old metal to find the right piece.” He then customised his finds at the Fab Lab in the Cape Craft and Design Institute.

Fab Labs are free-to-the-public design workshops, conceptualised by MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld, and are found all around the world.

“On July 1 2012, Chris gave me a three-week estimate [of completion]. One year and a day later, July 2, we began with beta testing!”

Donde is actually bragging. Steampunk time, after all, is relative — it’s the industrial revolution emulating space travel.

Looking across the coffee shop at the sea of averted faces lit by laptop screens, your gaze stops at the table right beneath the contraption. They’re all looking up, mouth agape at the retro-tech of a Rube Goldberg-like chain effect that fills a packet with 215g of beans. Time travels in those two minutes.

Such is the curious case of the inefficient coffee contraption.

Mail&Guardian, 19 July 2013

Things of beauty: Rock girl benches

India Baird is a human rights lawyer who has taken the bench out of the courtroom and installed it in public spaces to create safe areas for women.

Titled Rock Girl, after the slogan “strike a woman, strike a rock”, Baird got the idea three years ago when she was volunteering at the Red River School in Manenberg, Cape Town.

“Girls were not participating in the after-school running programme because they did not feel safe on the sports field,” she explains.

“[We] began documenting the conditions around and at school, and created a plan to make their environment safer, starting with a safe place to sit at school when the older boys and gangsters harassed them.”

This simple intervention has inspired artists and designers such as Paul du Toit, Laurie van Heerden, Aidan Hart, Boyd Ferguson and Tracy Lynch to get involved, resulting in some 17 benches installed in central Cape Town, each with a sister bench installed at a school in the township, over the past two years.

“Each bench is linked to a toll-free number, which connects women to opportunities, resources and support, as well as inspiring stories of 75 successful South African women, from Life and Soul: Portraits of Women Who Move South Africa, compiled by Karina Turok and Margie Orford,” Baird goes on.

Earlier this year, the first bench in Johannesburg was installed at the Sunlight Safe House, designed by Switch and sponsored by Investec. A sister bench is installed at De Waal Park in Cape Town.

Just after Rock Girl announced that they have been short-listed as an official World Design Capital 2014 project, the newest bench, designed by architect Mokena Makeka, was unveiled at the Prestwich Memorial alongside Cape Town’s fan-walk bridge — although this location is temporary.

“I thought of a piece of furniture that was quite elegant and tough; might seem angular or austere from certain perspectives, but quite forgiving when you come into contact with it,” says Makeka.

The powder-dusted grey steel bench comprises faceted planes that make it seem both modernist and futuristic. It comes with a padded weatherproof jacket that is securely fastened with very strong magnets.

Relying on corporate sponsors and goodwill for funding, the Rock Girl budget is tight and Makeka admits to having extended his stipend to up to R30 000 from his own pocket.

“There’s this discourse around making benches uncomfortable so that you don’t lie down on them because of prostitution, you don’t make them wide enough so that people don’t sit for too long.

“Instead I wanted a bench that was more like a chaise longue, rather than a bench that could only be sat on for five minutes. Three people can sit on it or one person can take a nap,” says Makeka.

The cover is adorned with line art infographics that relate the city of Cape Town to its larger context in Africa and the world — the distance to Kilimanjaro, for instance. This is the first Rock Girl bench that has no fixed location and is travelling around the city seeking a home.

“Benches have a very specific location but I also wanted people to think about the broader city when they sit on the bench,” says Mokena.

Regarding permission, Baird says “the city and in particular mayor Patricia de Lille have been great support”.

In a city that still doesn’t have a public art policy and is hosting the World Design Capital in less than six months’ time, these functional creative interventions with social good at heart uplift the spirit.

Mail&Guardian, 12 July 2013

Rhode to fame well travelled

Incognito, Robin Rhode uses South Africa’s streets as his canvas – but his path to renown was international.

“Contemporary artists see me as a street artist and the street artists see me as a conceptual artist,” says Robin Rhode, sitting in the atrium at the Stevenson gallery in Cape Town. Around him, his “crew” is setting up his first solo exhibition in South Africa in about 13 years. “I use the same space [the street] but I use it so differently.”

The last time South African audiences saw a dedicated Rhode exhibition was at the Market Theatre Gallery in 2000, where half the shoes from his installation were stolen. That was the same year he moved to Berlin “for love”, where he still lives with his wife and two children. However, if you are to read his life according to the international press, they would have you believe that his first solo exhibition was in New York in 2004, shortly after a residency at the Walker Art Centre in 2003 where his performance brought the house down and saw his first work sold straight into the prestigious Rubell Collection.

After that, Rhode was the youngest artist to participate in the Venice Biennale in 2005 and has been included in high-profile group exhibitions around the world by institutions that include the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2008, he presented a solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, alongside a retrospective of Andy Warhol.

“What has brought me back is not ‘South Africa’ or the people, it’s the work. The concept of this exhibition, which I’ve been engaging with for the past year or two, had to be realised in South Africa.”

Titled Paries Pictus, which means wall drawing in Latin, the exhibition turns half the gallery into an oversized colouring-in book. In the days leading up to the exhibition, kids completed the images on the walls using oversized crayons. From the Cape Town-based arts education programme for disadvantaged communities, Lalela Project, the children were all “strictly under the age of eight”. At the opening, the audience saw only the completed work, not the children or any other form of performance or intervention.

The evolution of the project first began in 2011 at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, where Rhode worked with Italian kids. It was realised again this year at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York. “Working abroad made me realise how much my own country needs to access this working process, especially our youth. To plant a seed in their minds that visual arts or contemporary art is a way to nurture their growth and creativity.”

When Rhode talks with such philanthropic zeal about the impact of an isolated two-day gallery intervention on the youth of South Africa, I become sceptical. Who is this prodigal son of South Africa with his contemporary art cure-all? Is he even still South African — besides his 100% Mzansi accent?

Beyond the gallery

As the interview continues Rhode explains the origin of his art — the signature street art illusions that he has become known for. The second half of the exhibition comprises this work — photographs, drawings, moving images and sculptural works, ranging from abstract drawings made in Germany in 2007 to a new photo series done in Johannesburg in 2013. From talking about this work, I begin to understand the self-referential significance of Paries Pictus and the true impact of Rhode’s work being beyond the gallery.

The fact is that Rhode is making about 90% of his work in South Africa. About five times a year he returns incognito and heads straight to the Jo’burg streets to make work for eight- to nine-day periods. Berlin, he says, is too risky with the cops — he feels much more comfortable engaging in the local graffiti crew turf wars.

“It’s more theatre than graffiti,” says Rhode, who is known for whiting-out his work after he has captured it on film. Nonetheless, for the brief time in which he is executing it, he amasses an audience of “other street art crews, kids coming home from school, workers coming back from the factory, the junkies, the homeless people,” all who watch him.

“When I started out as an artist, I wanted to change the notion of the audience, so I started working outside on the street” — which makes one wonder whether the work, the photograph hanging in the gallery, is actually the real art or just a souvenir. But it’s impressive that such a high-profile artist still manages to keep such a large aspect of his work completely underground, beneath the radar of the art scene or the blogosphere. I ask why he doesn’t tweet it, secretly hoping in the future that he will at least tweet me. But Rhode is not into spectacle, he says, which is also why he has almost completely stopped doing performance art.

The invisibility of this rich community context of his work is part of the theatrical quality of his work — it’s the backstage of what the audience sees in the gallery. Just as the audience did not see the kids completing Paries Pictus, it is up to our imaginations to fill in that aspect, says Rhode: “Invisibility is the narrative that the audience needs to make.”

Generally, in his work the South African — and Jo’burg — context is completely framed out by the camera. It could just as well be Mexico City (which is where some of them were created). But Rhode is fundamentally a South African artist. “My art has to come from a lived experience. The only way I can make it is to find something inside myself that leads to my visual language.”

Childish pranks

This struck him in his second year at art school when he was learning about Duchamp, Dada and performance art. He recalled a teenage experience that has become the conceptual basis of all of his work: the Americans call it “hazing”, he says. The matrics in high school initiated the new kids by forcing them to interact with life-size drawings of everyday things — a bicycle and a candle, for instance — drawn with chalk on the bathroom walls. The kids were humiliated and then accepted. (It has nothing to do with William Kentridge’s stop-motion work, he claims, adding that he has started looking forward to interviewers asking him about Kentridge’s influence on him when actually he slept through that part of his art school lectures.)

“That moment meant so much,” Rhode says. The chalk was apparently stolen from the classrooms. So it makes reference to the basic material of education. The drawings were life-size and rendered on a wall, so somehow they also take us back to the historical art of the Bushmen. Furthermore, the physical act of engaging with his drawing leads Rhode into performance art.

One of the recurring images in the childish pranks he recalled was a bicycle, although none of the kids could afford one. The significance of the two-wheeler in the work of Duchamp, and throughout art history, shines through. Rhode marvels that “all of those [contemporary art] discourses formed my subcultural experience as a South African youth”.

He relates it to Paries Pictus: “I’m working with children, to educate them about artistic processes and introduce them to the notion of creativity. Contemporary art is a space that is overly refined, more adult, learned and institutional. I thought that working with children could inject a new energy into the process.”

Mail&Guardian, 12 April 2013

Put money where your mouth is

Jules Mercer spares no expense in curating her marvellous feasts in the most unlikely venues.

‘There is no dress code but please don’t wear high heels,” reads the ticket to the Outlandish Kitchen. And that’s about as pretentious as this pop-up eating experience gets. But how were we to know that, peering into the Kalk Bay Community Centre at two laden banquet tables, wondering whether we’d gate-crashed someone’s wedding?

We were expecting a five-course meal with wines and all the typical social aplomb that would go with it. Quite the opposite. A stack of serviettes was passed around on the balcony before we ate the snoek aperitifs (pâté with bread, fish balls with Malay mayonnaise and baked with apricot butter glaze) with our fingers; rather messy to say the least.

It did make for general ice-breaking, in which I met a couple from Australia who had seen the event on Facebook, figured that they would be in Cape Town at the time, and booked tickets.

The balcony’s waterproofing was the reason for no high heels. Built in 1906 and originally a sewage pump station, the Kalk Bay Community Centre was converted in 1935. It still plays an active role in the social life of the area, hosting markets, yoga, dance and other classes. Historically, it has functioned as a World War II entertainment centre, a municipal library and a council cash office.

We entered the hall and found our name cards; the “tablecloths” were newsprint, laid with mismatching plates and stock-standard tumblers, and decorated with unwashed potatoes, paper straws and glass paraffin lanterns.

“We’ve wanted it to be all about the food,” says organiser Jules Mercer, a trained chef-turned-food writer and stylist, who has leveraged her connections with local farmers to curate feasts served in unlikely venues.

“Once you’ve paid, I tell you where it is. That’s it. Otherwise people come with too many expectations,” she says, explaining the unpolished charm of the venture, still marvelling that complete strangers (from Australia even) are happy to put R550 a head into her bank account without even asking who she is.

Trust is the key to this story and it goes back to trusting our food, what’s in it and where it comes from — something all South Africans can identify with after the recent donkey meat scare.

“Are we happy to buy poor quality meat?” asks Mercer. “As long as it’s cheap, we don’t complain. But how much water is in that mince? And the addition of brine and meat extracts to chicken and other meats — is that okay with you?”

Local and lekker

The concept of the Outlandish Kitchen builds on the locavore principle (eating food grown within a 160km radius of your home) by adding that, not only is the produce reared in the immediate proximity and artisanally treated, it also has a person and a story attached to it.

By introducing the farmers and their fare and sometimes even their farms when they are used as venues, Mercer hopes to make diners more aware of what they eat and where it comes from.

As special guest of the event, Janine Basson of the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative, an initiative of the World Wildlife Fund, casually chatted to us about responsible fish eating, over courses of farmed Saldanha oysters, followed by trout boards from the Streams Fisheries in Franschhoek. The trout is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (an environmental standard) and “by using it in the menu we wanted to show how smoked trout can be just as delicious — local and lekker — as its Norwegian salmon counterpart,” says Mercer.

“Oh no, I’m not the chef; you must be crazy,” Mercer laughs boisterously as she hoists the huge mussel pots of the next course on to the table. Served with baked angelfish, potato salad and a garden salad with such unusual delights as zucchini flowers, the mussels were one of the two unanimous highlights.

Chef Rina van Velden studied at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch and has worked at Le Quartier Francais, Welbedacht Wines and Mamma Mac’s Bakery. With her emphasis on the produce itself, however, Van Velden’s style seems closer to Babylonstoren’s. “Rina is an alchemist in the kitchen — and ridiculously humble!” says Mercer.

All the while the food was served with wines from Usana Farming Estate where “brothers JP and Pierre Winshaw work hard to produce a range of delicious wines, along with pasture-reared eggs, lamb and beef,” explains Mercer, who has a similar anecdote for just about everything on the menu. The bread, for instance, is from Oude Bank Bakkerij in Stellenbosch and the exquisite salted-caramel and fig ice cream — the other unanimous highlight — is by the baker’s wife, Chanelle.

How does one really put a price on this word-of-mouth food network? “We all need to get it into our heads that we need to pay more for our food. Full stop.” Mercer puts her wine glass down and gets serious. “If something lands on my plate and it’s really cheap, it worries me.”

In an effort to make this type of food more accessible, Mercer has now also launched the Outlandish Kitchen food boxes — and we’re not talking limp, sandy, malnourished-looking vegetables, if the treasure-filled salad was anything to go by. A basic box includes seasonal organic veg from Naturally Organic and properly free-range eggs from the Winshaws. Two variations on the basic box include exotic mushrooms, wine and pork cured by the renowned Richard Bosman. Prices range from R150 to R500 and can be ordered online (delivery is extra).

Mercer talks about everyone as a personal friend and struggles to quantify the value of the venture. Deals and bartering, word-of-mouth connections, and new friends through the producers and the guests who come to the event … trust is the currency. Like the packet of heirloom seeds that each guest received as a take-home gift, the investment is more than money and the antithesis of the instantaneous gratification of our contemporary food culture.

“If I look at the amount of time that I put into each event, I’m not doing it for the money, and as soon as it stops being fun I’m going to throw the towel in,” Mercer says. “Although I very nearly reached that point when the hot water gave in on Saturday night and at 1am we had to put every drippy fishy plate in my car and drive them home to be washed!”

Mail&Guardian, 5 April 2013

Stepping on toes

Leanie van der Vyver says her designs are a reaction to the things that bother her about modern society.

‘High heels make you look like an easy conquest in the animal kingdom,” Leanie van der Vyver told a receptive audience at the Design Indaba Conference in Cape Town last week. Van der Vyver was talking as part of the graduate students’ PechaKucha session, in which top students from around the world present their design work.

Van der Vyver was born in Bethal, raised in Paarl, and completed her design degree at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam last year.

Her graduation project, Scary Beautiful, a concept piece exploring how high high heels can go, hit the internet and went viral with 2.8-million views on Vimeo. It even popped up on American talk-show TV, and she got a call from Lady Gaga’s wardrobe assistant.

“They all wanted to know who this sadistic, chauvinist designer was,” Van der Vyver said. “None of them read further than the images to see I was critiquing the very beauty system they were accusing me of fuelling.

“Shoes have become an accessory to posture,” she said, showing her earlier work — the Limp Shoe, which gives wearers a gangster swagger. “There’s extreme power in accessories.” What Van der Vyver did not tell the audience is that she had been a fashion model for six years before deciding to study design.

What did you dream of becoming when you were a child?
I wanted to be an artist-veterinarian. I wanted to paint and sculpt sick ­animals back to health.

What was the first thing you designed?
My first design was a ninth-grade assignment to make handskoene, and “hand shoes” was what I made. With the help of a leather artisan friend, Fred Liebenberg, I crafted a pair of sandals complete with soles that fit my hands perfectly.

Do you think of yourself as a ­fashion designer?
I am a critical designer. I am very influenced by my personal frustrations with modern society. My designs are a reaction to things that bother me.

Do you consider yourself an ­artist?
Maybe. My work teeters on the edge of art and design. I like the grey area.

What is your design philosophy?
I have two at the moment. The questions I ask myself when designing are, one, why should people care? And, two, does it make sense?

Who are some of your favourite designers?
Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, John Kormeling and Hussein Chalayan.

What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading two books. One, for looking at pictures, is called Shelter, edited by Lloyd Kahn. The other is for theory and is called The Unfashionable Human Body by Bernard Rudofsky. I don’t really like reading fiction; theory books are a kind of sensible fiction.

What’s on your playlist at the moment?
I have a terrible confession to make: I don’t really enjoy listening to music, I love silence. But if I have to get down, I like to listen to Tyler the Creator and R Kelly. I am going through a weird R&B phase because I was a metal- head teenager and totally missed out on that side of things. At home we like to listen to music like the Eagles and the Doors. My dad is a serious jazz musician so he won’t really approve of this answer.

Are you getting involved in the World Design Capital 2014?
I don’t know. I’m not planning anything especially for the event just yet. The city of Cape Town needs to stop demolishing heritage buildings. Soon Cape Town is going to look like a Los Angeles strip mall or, even worse, a Las Vegas strip mall.

What is your favourite building in your city?
The foyer of the Nico Malan Theatre at the Artscape is the nicest place, with the most beautiful chandeliers. I don’t think Cape Town has any nice buildings left; they all get modern upgrades or demolished. The most beautiful, enormous rose window in Orange Street was smashed to build another generic trying-to-be-something-it’s-not hotel, the African Pride. This makes no sense to me. It might be the inspiration/frustration for a new project about authenticity and what that means to our young nation.

Mail&Guardian, 8 March 2013

Creativity, allure and inspiration

There was no shortage of beautiful things at this year’s Design Indaba Expo.

There was no shortage of beautiful things at this year’s Design Indaba Expo; from the edgy trendware in the emerging creatives’ corner to the delicate bling in the jewellery corridor. There were all the “flavours” of the rainbow in the fashion boutique.

The Western Cape Furniture Initiative stood tall in its championing of contemporary design, showing original storage solutions by local furniture designers, and Parisian trend forecaster Li Edelkoort’s Memphis Meets Africa stand proved how well our country’s work is tracking international fads.

Our South African predisposal for cynicism reared its head at the abundance of craftwork. It is a criticism that is levelled at the expo every year by serious design professionals and minimalists who miss an element of architecture and industrial design. It is this tension between what the design pros and suits think South African design “should” be and what the 52 000 visitors (2012’s figures) actually buy that makes for the fascinating contrasts that distinguish our national aesthetic.

This year, both sides won — Gavin Rajah’s handmade leather pebble dress was named the most beautiful object in South Africa, as voted for by the public, and Wintec Innovations’s newly patented Stratflex furniture won the innovation award, as judged by professionals.

Part of the spring-summer 2013 couture collection, Rajah’s dress is the result of a collaboration with the Klein Karoo Co-op last year, in which a technique to foil ostrich skins was developed. The leather is moulded over pebble shapes and then embroidered on to mesh by hand. The colour of the dress is gradated from chocolate at the bottom to rose gold at the top.

Some South Africans may squirm at our handmade heritage, but the power of the handmade was emphasised repeatedly by international speakers at the Design Indaba Conference.

Touching and thinking design

Afropolitan architect David Adjaye predicted an urban crisis if we continue to let mechanisation build our cities. Daniel Charny told delegates that the 2011 exhibition titled The Power of Making, at the V&A Museum in London, attracted the biggest audience the museum had ever seen and launched his fixperts.org social network to promote making and fixing.

The message, perhaps, is that South Africans should own our national heritage with international pride. That said, it’s pretty exciting when an East London company comes up with a radical innovation to turn flat-packed furniture into comfortable, flexible and stylishly rounded lounge items.

Term it East London-style Scandinavian, if you will. Rubber-injected joints in plywood seats take the one-dimensional rigidness typically associated with flatpack and transform it into moulded sitting experience, even with a little bounce.

“This award is the culmination of a life of looking at, feeling, touching and thinking design,” said Al Straford, founder of Wintec, on winning the innovation award. “The product gives me a legacy to leave to those around me.”

Finding a happy medium between these extremes of the handmade and the industrial, Cape Town design duo Thingking walked away with the third Design Indaba Expo prize — the most creative stand.

Marc Nicholson and Lyall Sprong installed their Rube Goldberg-inspired gumball machine, which enchanted young and old alike. Made entirely from junk sourced at the Milnerton Market, the machine puts gumballs through about a minute’s worth of trials and tribulations involving a veldskoen, a car’s central-locking motor, a treadmill, plastic palm trees, a xylophone, a magnifying glass, a mirror ball, a midi keyboard played by a stick on a rotating arm, a plastic shark tank, a Polaroid camera, a birdhouse, a zoetrope of dancing bears, and wobbly legged wooden toys. Playful but high-tech, entailing good, old-school, home-programmable electronic boards.

The duo’s geeky industrial side really comes to the fore when they explain that the paper designs hanging off their mobiles have exactly the same mass — they calculated and designed them that way. Geometric powder-painted, steel-rod plant stands and trestles comprise their covetable industrialised wares.

It is gratifying to witness this increasingly diversifying South African design industry every year in Cape Town, delivering more original and radical wares for show at the Design Indaba Expo.

Mail&Guardian, 8 March 2013