Standard Bank
Young Artist Awards 2017

Some of the country's top young arts writers give you a sneak peek into the lives of this year's winners

Joining a rich legacy

Renaissance poet William Wordsworth wrote: “Pictures deface walls more often than they decorate them.” It’s an uncomfortable observation, and one that’s still sadly relevant today, perhaps more so than ever. There’s a proliferation of “art” out there, but works that resonate and play in the fleeting space between discomfort and joy is rare.

To be sure, there’s a great deal of subjectivity in art. But can we call it art if it operates only in safe and familiar spaces; if it speaks more to imitation than creativity and originality? Art’s function should be to make us think, feel, discover, confront; it shouldn’t always be easy or even pleasant, but dynamic and provoking, and should stay with us long after the viewing or interaction.

Luckily, we live in a country in which there is no short supply of artists who are at the forefront of their craft, and who are able to tap into South Africa’s rich and unique context to create art that succeeds not only in an aesthetic sense, but functions as social commentary. Art provides a lens from a nuanced and particular perspective, a self-expression that seeks to uplift its recipient or question the status quo while standing as valid in its own right.

In 1981, the National Arts Festival (NAF) established the Young Artist Awards to acknowledge emerging young South African artists who demonstrate outstanding artistic talent. These prestigious awards are presented annually to deserving artists in different disciplines, affording them national exposure and acclaim. Standard Bank took over the sponsorship of the awards in 1984 and has presented Young Artist Awards in all the major arts disciplines, as well as posthumous and special recognition awards. For the past 33 years, the Standard Bank Young Artist Awards have sought to recognise South African practitioners pushing the limits in their respective disciplines.

The awards are regarded as the most illustrious arts accolades in the country, and recognise established but relatively young South African artists who have not yet necessarily achieved national exposure or acclaim. The awards represent a concerted and sustained effort on the part of corporate South Africa to generate a rich artistic legacy by identifying, honouring and nurturing young and emerging South African artists.

The awards are regarded as the most illustrious arts accolades in the country, and recognise established but relatively young South African artists

The Standard Bank Young Artist Awards also form part of the NAF programme. A key aspect of the awards is that they guarantee the winning artists a place on the main programme of the following year’s festival. Apart from a cash prize, each winner receives substantial financial backing for a festival production/exhibition, thereby guaranteeing them exposure to a broader audience. Partnerships with institutions such as Standard Bank Gallery also provide a platform for winners in the visual art category to showcase their work in a widely recognised space.

The roll of past winners reads like a definitive list of South Africa’s creative talent, many of whom have gone on to gain international recognition. Luminaries such as visual artists William Kentridge, Jane Alexander, Brett Bailey, Pieter Hugo and Nicholas Hlobo; musicians Sibongile Khumalo, Johnny Clegg, Bongani Ndodana and Gloria Bosman; stage practitioners Andrew Buckland and Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom; director Akin Omotoso; and jazz extraordinaires Kesivan Naidoo, Bokani Dyer and Nduduzo Makhathini are just some of the previous recipients, representing some of the country’s most recognised artistic exports.

Recipients have proven themselves worthy of the prestige befitting the award through the work they have created

This year is no different. The recipients have proven themselves worthy of the prestige befitting the award through the work they have created, and the NAF Artistic Committee did not make their selections lightly, knowing that the 2017 group of Standard Bank Young Artists will fly South Africa’s artistic flag high locally and abroad for years to come.

This year’s winners

This year’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Music, cellist Abel Selaocoe (24), is a shining example of a musician pushing the limits. “Abel is quickly becoming a consummate artist possessing great skill, command and flair on the cello. Coming from humble beginnings in Sebokeng, he has ascended to perform on world stages, combining a new eclectic sound with the mainstream. Abel’s extensive and impressive CV is the product of hard work and the sort of excellence that bodes well for a young artist with an exciting career ahead,” says Samson Diamond, member of the NAF Artistic Committee for Music.

Alan Webster, the director of the Standard Bank Jazz Festival and member of the NAF Artistic Committee for Jazz, selected young pioneer Benjamin Jephta (24) as the winner for Jazz. “Benjamin is an excellent young musician who is technically very adept, creative in his improvisation, skilled in a wide variety of music styles and, very importantly, organised … He is prepared to work hard and has the confidence to present himself – very important qualities in a professional musician.”

Although Beth Diane Armstrong, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Visual Art, may be just 31 years old, her acclaim as a sculptor has already secured her a place in the art world. Mandie van der Spuy, independent arts consultant and member of the NAF Artistic Committee for Visual Art, says: “Beth has a strong intellectual approach to her work, which has identified her as a leading sculptor in her generation of younger artists. Her work has matured over the past few years, and although she has exhibited predominantly monumental works made of steel and aluminium, her creativity extends to include a variety of different media ranging from printmaking, video, photography and drawing to temporary installations.”

The Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Performance Art is none other than Dineo Seshee Bopape (35) for her use of experimental video montages, sound, found objects, photographs and sculptural installations in her work. Ruth Simbau, the National Research Foundation/Rhodes Research Chair and member of the NAF Artistic Committee for Visual and Performance Art, selected Bopape because: “Dineo’s complex and often enigmatic work engages with performance, installation, video, digital montage, sound and text as she plays with our notions of space and time through an exploration of bodies and materials … Deeply psychological, her work registers both trauma and playfulness, pushing viewers to raise questions rather than find answers as they are drawn into her performance and installation spaces,” she says.

Storyteller and director Monageng “Vice” Motshabi (34) is the winner of this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Theatre. “Motshabi's work is audience-centred and socially engaged, and his mode of creation is intensely collaborative. In essence, he is an enabler of local stories. Through his role as a creator and facilitator of theatre, audiences confront this country's history. These are confrontations that aim to help our ruptured society claim and recreate itself,” says Greg Homann, the 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Theatre and member of the NAF Artistic Committee for Theatre.

Rounding out the list of winners is Thandazile Radebe (33) for Dance. Gregory Maqoma, a member of the NAF Artistic Committee for Dance, selected the renowned dancer and choreographer as the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Dance “thanks to her incredibly diverse approach to movement and choreography. She is certainly one of the pioneering female choreographers in South Africa. Her work is an ode to the country’s cultural and political heritage, often dealing with complex issues and constantly stepping out of the comfort zones, and discovering new and interesting artistic offerings. She is also consistent in her practice of her art, and functions as an independent artist while still managing to perform and make art.”

Scroll down to read the full profiles of the 2017 winners

Abel Selaocoe

Building from the bass

Cello comes to the fore in this year's music category

Lloyd Gedye

“It is important to rethink the presentation of classical music to make it more inclusive,” says 24-year-old Abel Selaocoe, the winner of the 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Music. “I certainly feel classical music still has its place in modern society.”

Abel’s large body of work, for such a young artist, displays this intent. As a cellist, he has collaborated with beatboxers, improvised with jazz musicians and explored various forms of folk music through his band, Kabantu, in addition to his many solo classical recitals and concerto performances.

Abel says the name Kabantu is a hybrid of isiZulu and seSotho, meaning “about of the people". His band, formerly known as Project Jam Sandwich, was formed when he was in his third year at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, United Kingdom, where he is currently completing his master’s degree.

The band features Abel’s fellow students – Katie Foster (violin), Ali McMath (double bass), Delia Stevens (percussion) and Henry Alexander (vocals and guitar). According to Abel, the band was formed as a way of reconnecting with African music, but the multitude of cultural and musical influences within the band led to a decision to explore “world music as a genre”.

It's both humbling and encouraging to join a lineage of great artists who have walked this very same path

Kabantu’s critically acclaimed live performances incorporate music from Bulgaria, Scotland and South Africa. Their fusion is something to behold, a whole new musical language that draws on diverse cultures and histories. “We have enjoyed playing in great concert spaces across the UK such as Bridgewater Hall, Royal Albert Hall and On BBC Radio 3,” says Abel, adding: “We are also looking forward to releasing our debut album in mid-2017.” The band has already won the 2014 RNCM Cross-School Chamber Music Award and the Elizabeth Warren Award in the RNCM Salon Prize Competition.

For Abel, winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Music is an honour. “It's both humbling and encouraging to join a lineage of great artists who have walked this very same path. I can only look forward to the future of a lot of music-making at home.” One of his immediate dreams is to tour South Africa with Kabantu. “I hope to have the opportunity to collaborate with many types of artists and orchestras. It is a great opportunity to collaborate with artists from other genres and disciplines. It's exciting to learn each other’s languages and eventually create our own.” He also has plans to release an album based on the idea of sirocco, a wind that blows from Africa to Europe.

It is a great opportunity to collaborate with artists from other genres and disciplines. It's exciting to learn each other’s languages and eventually create our own

Abel’s brother influenced and inspired him to learn music while growing up in Sebokeng, south of Joburg. He went through many instruments, from flutes and tubas to violins, before settling on the cello. As a child, he was drawn to the size and the incredible resonance of the cello. “I was impressed with its versatility to sing passionately and yet be the ground that all parts of music stood on – the bass,” he says. He was not allowed to take the instrument home, and had access to it only on weekends, so his brother taught him how to read music while he practised on a broomstick.

In 2005, he received a scholarship to attend St John’s College in Joburg, where he says his music education began in earnest. After school, he auditioned for the royal colleges in the UK and was awarded scholarships to all of them, but he picked the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester because of its reputation for cellists.

According to Abel, the Royal Northern College of Music has been a fantastic musical home. He says: “It's an environment that has allowed me to answer some of my most peculiar and crucial questions about music and life. I owe my gratitude to the abundance of performance opportunities it has given me, such as one of my first BBC Proms concert with Kabantu. This is a great example of how the Royal Northern College of Music is building bridges into the professional world for its students.”

At the college, Abel studied under world-renowned cellist Hannah Roberts.

For him, having the opportunity to study under Roberts has been an incredible path of discovery, as a person and as an artist. “She has always encouraged me to push boundaries, and gives her students a great foundation to build on. I feel very privileged to have studied with someone who is so devoted and selfless.”

Abel has been a recipient of various awards: first prize in the Phillip H Moor Competition (South Africa); winner of the Sir John Barbarolli prize (UK); a gold medal in the Royal Northern College of Music Concerto prize; and he has been chosen as the new recipient of the prestigious John Hosier and Biddy Baxter Award, with Sir Simon Rattle as its patron.

He has previously performed with the Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the Multi-Story Orchestra, the Rand Symphony Orchestra, the Quartet of Peace, and the Lighthouse Jazz Trio.

When asked if he is getting used to winning all these awards, he says: “I am just happy that I can get the platform to share and create music with all kinds of people.”

Benjamin Jephta

A jazz prodigy emerges

Hustling in the new age of composition

Ahmed Patel

In June 1974, amid forced removals under an oppressive government, something extraordinary was happening in Cape Town’s jazz scene; something that eventually sent shockwaves throughout the world. This was a time when the sweet melodies of one of the most iconic jazz songs reverberated through the harshness of apartheid, shaking it up and making a clarion call for change. This was when Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenberg began its journey in contributing towards a nation’s emancipation.

Fast-forward almost exactly 18 years, to July 1992, when the grip of apartheid began to slacken and Cape Town became home to another jazz prodigy, this time in the form of Mitchells Plain-born Benjamin Jephta, the winner of the 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz.

The 24-year-old has already made a name for himself as one of South Africa’s premier jazz double bass and electric bass players, having performed at venues and festivals locally since the age of 15. Watching Benjamin work is something to behold. While getting lost in his mesmeric compositions, one wonders how it’s possible for someone so young to reach such depth in his craft.

“I would say there were two turning points in my life. The first was meeting one of my first teachers and musical mentors, Fred Kuit, during high school [Muizenberg High School]. Lots of what I know today I learnt and experienced during those last three years of high school. It was also when I probably did most of my shedding (practising).”

As he continues, there’s a certain sense of satisfaction that can only be conveyed in the voice of a young man, as he speaks about moving from his hometown to the big and scary inland city. “The second was the beginning of 2014, when I graduated from university and moved from Cape Town to Joburg, and I had to hustle my way into a new scene while still trying to push my own stuff. I got to play all sorts of music with different musicians and slowly started making a name for myself.”

I create music to motivate, inspire and transport people

Benjamin is motivated by music above all else. “I am always grateful I get to do what I love. Then there’s the listener. I create music for people. I create music to motivate, inspire and transport people.” His romanticism is as charming as it is convincing, especially in the dreamy context of jazz, broadly, but also specifically in his unique, gospel-inspired brand of South African Jazz.

Besides being rooted in the jazz genre, like any millennial, Benjamin is reluctant to confine himself to a single style or genre. “I am constantly evolving and, as a young person, I find myself definitely influenced by a lot of popular culture. I really dig hip-hop/rap, electronic music, folk (singer-songwriter) and rock. I would say that my music has become an amalgamation of this in the context of jazz/improvised music,” he says, once again displaying his musical depth. It’s hardly surprising, then, that he finds it difficult to pin down his influences. Coyly, he says “everything” influences him, but then recoils and quotes a legend. “There’s a saying by Duke Ellington that there are two kinds of music, good music, and the other kind. I like good music.”

The tall, dreadlocked and well-dressed musician has a voice that cuts through the room. It’s not so much booming as it is commanding, but it’s certainly not imposing. During a jam session with his band, the Benjamin Jephta Quintet, which features 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Jazz Kyle Shepherd (piano), Marcus Wyatt (trumpet), Sisonke Xonti (sax) and Sphelelo Mazibuko (drums), one gets a sense that here’s a musician who knows what he wants. “Back to the intro,” he instructs the band, “Then A, B and then C. A is twice, but C is only once. And like I said, at the end if you guys play the melody just watch me, depending on the vibe we can take it more than twice.” And away they go, deep into a world of quality jazz.

“Music and composition reflect the composer’s life, and there are always elements in your music of where you come from,” he says. His most rewarding project to date was creating the Benjamin Jephta Quintet’s debut album, Homecoming, which was released in January 2015. The album went on to be nominated for Best Jazz Album at the SA Music Awards as well as the Metro FM Music Awards. Another career highlight was performing at the 2016 Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

Music and composition reflect the composer’s life

Along with other accolades, including two 2016 SAMRO Wawela Awards for Male Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year, the graduate from the University of Cape Town’s prestigious South African College of Music recently participated in a collaborative “residency/tour” in the US, which involved 25 musicians from 17 different countries.

On winning the 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz, he says: “First of all I am grateful to have now been recognised among many of the musicians I admire and respect. With the backing of this award, I will have an opportunity to showcase my work on a larger scale and reach a bigger audience. Creatively, it will afford me the tools I need to materialise many of my ideas.”

This correlates with his immediate plans, which include “trying to perform/tour more as well as host my own events together with other musicians in unconventional spaces. I also want to start collaborating with artists outside the jazz genre and work on releasing a few singles, music videos, merch, etc”. With all this on the horizon, it seems there’s no limit for South Africa’s rising jazz star.

Beth Diane Armstrong

Enter the steel matrix

Density and looseness in visual art

Gemma S Hart

A corrugated gateway is hoisted upward into a tightly coiled spiral, revealing an artistic sanctuary. Cascading light streams in through high windows, casting geometric shadows against double-volume walls. Metallic tendrils rest entwined, nestled in a corner of the room. Adjacent lie elongated beams, some pummelled to the point of distortion. Apricot-coloured gas cylinders line the wall in descending height. They extend upwards as vertical columns, foregrounding the white-washed brickwork. Notebooks filled with rhythmic digits are scattered atop wooden workbenches. The lofty space is punctuated by clusters of steel rods, all precisely ordered. Lines in relation to lines in relation to lines. This is sculptor Beth Diane Armstrong’s studio.

I think and feel in formal elements in relation to each other

The space is located in an old industrial suburb in eastern Joburg. “There is something intoxicating about this city, [like] the proximity of objects to you. Joburg is giving.” Beth draws on her immediate environment and is stimulated by the array of structures around her. She describes her practice as one defined by introspection – often working alone and in a state of contemplation. She uses the process of creating as a means of orientating herself within the world, following the trajectory of sensation, observation, translation and expression.

“My internal world is very abstract. I think and feel in formal elements in relation to each other,” she says. A series of intersecting relationships are formed between the physical, emotional and psychological. When clad in a protective armour of woven navy fibers and a white visor, Beth’s work comes to life. A surge of fiery embers unites hollow steel poles together, controlled by skilled and nimble hands. The repetition of joins has a meditative quality. Often, the process is toilsome as she engages with the material. After much work, the rigid forms give in to her creative will.

Out of this emerges a steel matrix, connecting and entwining notions of structure, both cognitive and physical, to construct a system of interlocking mechanisms. “My approach to anything personal is systematic and structural. My approach to anything structural is personal and systematic,” she says, “I realised that I simply think better in three dimensions.”

If you don’t commit your mark to the steel it holds you accountable to it

From a very early age, Beth was drawn to processing information this way, something that remains at the core of her practice. The physicality of the process and the way it manifests in space creates a kind of conceptual anchoring, a point of reference for other elements to stem from. “It’s only more recently that I have been able to articulate why it is that I love steel. Steel is not a fluid material; if you don’t commit your mark to the steel, it holds you accountable to it.”

Beth’s clear blue eyes light up when she articulates ‘density and looseness’, an idea central to her work. The concept originates from relationships between lines, and the system is articulated in a varying spectrum, from densely clustered to dispersed. This set of conventions serves as a lens through which the world is seen. “This lens navigates my gaze, my interests, what structures fascinate me, my thoughts, my reading material, my conversations,” she says. In a sense, it brings order to chaos.

When approaching her work, Beth uses a combination of emotional intuition and rationality. “I have to resolve all mathematical and physical engineering well in advance. There is no room for error.” But the structures also emanate from a personal space, where there is an interplay between “structural intuition and practical resolution for the integrity of the sculpture.” She remains grounded through the physical demands made by her materials.

“Often, part of my process is to count things, order, measure, number and systematise. Those are more hidden processes, but are not altogether lost on the works. I often have pages of maths equations to ensure correct scaling. Days of complex understanding to ensure they are correct,” she says.

She’s gathered years of experience through a process of trial and error to compensate for a lack of formal welding training. One could argue that perhaps it is because of this unrestrained experimentation between material and technique that Beth has been able to develop her own language within the medium.

Her interest in monumental scale stems from a desire for the viewer to have an emotionally reactive experience. “I want to present them with scale and object that is un-relatable to anything they know; that they can’t contextualise easily or in any automatic response; that challenges, questions and surprises. It’s about opening up the audience’s potential to engage with a form.” Beth yearns for there to be a certain “longevity” in the audience’s gaze.

When using practice as research, she employs “problem-solving phenomena” in many of her projects. This approach operates under the conditions in which constructed obstacles are used as springboards of engagement. “It’s these parameters that allow me to enter a space of intuition and connective flow with the work. [They] are also flexible and changeable as the work develops, but there have to be parameters for me to be able to create.” A conceptual thread running through Beth’s work is ‘dynamic tension’, which is often understood in binary terms. According to her, “there is always a … push and pull between knowledge and ignorance in the creative process”.

As winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art, Beth hopes to expand her immersive studio practice, enabling her to create even larger and more demanding works while continuing to refine the ‘density and looseness’ concept. She ends off by saying: “I’d like to remind the rest of the world of what we are doing on the African continent.”

Dineo Seshee Bopape

A fearless artist for a fearful world

Performance art that mocks and mirrors reality

Binwe Adebayo

Dineo Seshee Bopape is a hard woman to write about. Constantly jetting from place to place, tough to categorise, and the kind of woman who is best described when she describes herself. She is a prolific mixed-media artist whose work is both deeply personal and infinitely accessible to anyone willing to dive deep into her pool of anecdotes, song lyric snippets and half-finished conversations. She is also this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Performance Art; and at just the right time, when an increasingly opaque world needs artists with a clear vision.

“Dineo Seshee Bopape was born in 1981 on a Sunday. If she were Ghanaian, her name would be Akosua/Akos for short. In the year of her birth, the Brixton riots took place; two people were injured when a bomb exploded in a Durban shopping centre. Bobby Sands dies, MTV is launched, the Boeing 767 makes its first flight, Umkhonto we Sizwe performs numerous underground assault operations against the apartheid state. There was an earthquake in China that killed maybe 50 people. Hosni Mubarak was elected president of Egypt, there was a coup d'état in Ghana. Princess Diana of Britain married Charles. Bob Marley dies. Apartheid SA invaded Angola. AIDS is identified/created/named. Salman Rushdie releases Midnight’s Children. In the region of her birth, her paternal grandmother died. Julius Malema is born. Millions of people cried. Millions of people laughed! The world's population was apparently at around 4.529 billion,” she says of herself in her official (albeit not so official-sounding) bio.

Like her work, Dineo’s public biography, and apparent view of herself is both deeply personal and wrapped up tightly in the political. Her works have canvassed a broad sweep of social issues, and she moves effortlessly between the inner workings of being an individual and the business of being an individual in the world.

“Life itself is quite ‘kaleidoscopic’ and surreal. Perhaps as an artist or a ‘self’, it is an assemblage of possibilities, probabilities and the real is more strange than the fiction,” she says, speaking about how she draws inspiration for her work.

Life itself is quite ‘kaleidoscopic’ and surreal

Effortless transition has also characterised her artistic career, which she started by studying sculpture and painting at Durban University of Technology before continuing her academic journey at two prestigious institutions, with a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University, New York.

While there is no doubt Dineo draws from the South African well for her internationally acclaimed mixed-media work, from the subject matter to the use of indigenous languages, the experience of drawing on international teaching is reflected in the nuance she brings to her work. Her unpretentious use of ordinary objects, pop culture references and familiar forms allows us, her awestruck audience, to be impressed without feeling alienated.

It’s important to me that the work seduces; that it invites and does not build a wall or barrier

“It’s important to me that the work seduces; that it invites and does not build a wall or barrier,” she says of her 2008 installation entitled Lovestrung, which she made while on a residency at the Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Dineo pulls no punches. Like her self-created mini memoir, her work is brash, bold and unforgettable. Some of her titles include You Fucking Horrible Bitch, Slow-Co-Ruption and, in case you were wondering, This is What You Will Look Like When You Die. She is uncompromising in her story, and carries off even the moodiest of artworks with impeccable style, which has come to define her work locally and internationally.

“I would like to grow as an artist, to clarify my thoughts, for my work to be sharper, to continue being curious and continue to play ... also to share with others... to remain healthy and able,” she was quoted as saying in a ROOMS magazine interview following her first solo exhibition in the UK.

From intricately placed dots and seamless video edits, to capturing the human body at its finest, her ability to oscillate between mediums with an equal level of prowess suggests that although Dineo possesses natural talent, and by all accounts, has received many accolades for it, she has a supreme attention to detail, even when dealing with raw subject matter.

It is this exact attention to detail that has made Dineo widely revered and intimidating for anyone who tries to capture exactly what she is about. She is an artist’s artist – the kind who no doubt will feature in art textbooks, just as she has done in galleries from Joburg to Tokyo. She is cautious about the meaning she makes. In this way, she takes care of her audience and herself all at the same time.

“I‘m not sure if it is about trust – trusting the audience or the reader with anecdotes – but I’m also not sure where or what my ideal audience is. Perhaps it is made over time. What the work is and what it is about also changes slightly depending on where, when and with whom it is shown. Because words and names mean particular things in particular times,” she says.

Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi

Vice’s dream factory

Futuristic visions come to life on stage

Ahmed Patel

Some time in 1998, as a young and spirited Monageng Motshabi walked around his neighbourhood in Soweto, he stumbled on to something that would change his life forever.

At first he describes what he witnessed as a township play, housed in a “poor theatre”. But in fact, as he continues, it wasn’t a theatre at all, at least not in the conventional sense. “There was no stage or seating or anything like that, just performance and people engaging with that performance,” he says as his eyes well up. “It touched me so deeply, man. The way it was executed ... It was really something special.”

This new and exciting form of expression soon began taking over his life, captivating his every thought, entering his dreams and igniting his spirit. “It made me realise how much of a dreamer I am, and that was liberating.” What draws Motshabi, also known as Vice, to the art of theatre is storytelling and its ability to provide a unique kind of freedom and independence. “I am strongly motivated by being able to do what I want and never having to compromise my standards and vision,” he says on a balmy, mid-October Sunday afternoon, sitting at a table on the pavement outside a café off Gandhi Square in downtown Joburg.

I am strongly motivated by being able to do what I want to do and never having to compromise my standards and vision

Just as the second round of drinks arrives, what seems to be a fight breaks out in the street. Vice shifts his attention to the “performance” as it unfolds. “Haha … you can see these guys are just playing, and now the very drunk one has realised he has an audience so he’s going to play up to it.” As a keen observer of his surroundings and completely immersing himself in the role of storyteller, Vice says his work is not concerned much with being a mirror of society. Instead, he is more focused on projecting where we can be, or what might be, in the indefinite future. The common thread running through his work is hope. “I feel if storytellers offer no hope in their stories, they might as well be writing newspaper articles, where everything is grim and there is no hope.”

Common themes in his plays include dispossession and reclamation, not entirely in the political or economic sense, although this does feature strongly in his work, but in the sense of self, as he believes only once the we reclaim aspects of our true selves are we able to engage honestly with our environment and those around us. And this reclamation in itself creates the hope that is essential for us to survive and thrive.

For Vice, theatre is a living organism that evolves based on the energies of all involved, including the audience, who, according to him, are not passive recipients. “Feeling the kind of energy exchange that goes on in a theatre is something else,” says the 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Theatre, his eyes lighting up as he speaks about his passion.

He credits iconic figures in theatre such as Eugenio Barba and Jerzy Grotowski for inspiring his method, especially in terms of his process-driven approach. “My approach largely involves working with the actors, from scratch, to mould and create a unique production,” he says. He singles out Ben Okri as one of his key influences, speaking of the Nigerian visionary with great admiration. “His thinking is so true to my own world.”

To label Vice a “writer” or a “director” sells him short. The prolific 34-year-old also produces, serves as a dramaturge on some productions, and is involved in teaching and development work. He graduated from the Market Theatre Laboratory in Newtown, Joburg, in the early 2000s, an institution he is still involved with in terms of teaching and mentoring.

There’s a certain calmness about Vice, as if he’s reached a point in his life, and career, where he feels completely at ease and confident. “To me it’s not just about making plays. It’s about doing more. I see theatre as having the potential to effect real change. I dream of an untouched world and I imagine what kind of world that would be.”

I see theatre as having the potential to effect real change

Given the poignancy of his work in this dreamlike context, as well as his prolificacy, one could assume that him winning the award was bound to happen. “When I was told I’d won, I received the news quite rationally. I wasn’t completely out of breath,” he says, signalling his maturity as an artist. “I am excited, though, about producing something new without the usual pressures,” he adds, referring to the prize money he will receive to fund a new production.

Writing something new is approached as an experimentation. “I’m always trying to go to new places and find myself there. Writing and directing is a lot like solving a puzzle in collaboration with so many different energies. It’s a nuanced, process-driven means of learning,” he says.

In the near future, theatre enthusiasts can look forward to a book of three plays by South African playwrights published by Vice’s Diartskonageng. Its something he considers a “reclamation project”. There’s another exciting project bubbling under the surface, but he isn’t keen to let the cat out of the bag just yet. All he divulges it that it has something to do with the legendary Gibson Kente.

Suddenly, as in a play, the lights dim as the sun sets on a charming Joburg skyline. In the twilight, Vice points to a building on Gandhi Square where writer Herman Charles Bosman once worked. He greets a few passers-by who seem to know him intimately and at once respect his presence. Someone outside a tavern on Eloff Street lights his cigarette. Lights fade. Another dream is made.

Thandazile Radebe

Embracing gravity through movement

'Queen of Afrofusion' gets the nod for dance

Garreth van Niekerk

You’d struggle to find someone in the arts who doesn’t have awe reserved especially for Thandazile “Sonia” Radebe’s work as a dancer, choreographer and educator. Hers is a unique story of triumph and technique, taking the best of the township dance scene of the 1980s from where she found her feet, to developing her unique take on Afrofusion – the style she has become so well-known for. It’s why legendary dance theorist Adrienne Sichel once referred to Thandazile as the “queen of Afrofusion” – a title most would agree with.

Known to many as Sonia, it was her early days with Arco Dance Theatre in Soweto, then later the Soweto Dance Theatre, that opened the door to her first professional opportunity in 2001 at Moving into Dance Mophatong (MIDM). But, as Thandazile says between rehearsals in Joburg, it really all began the first time she “danced to Sarafina by Mbongeni Ngema”. She explains the importance of Ngema’s now-iconic work, along with other symbolic pieces from that period, such as Mango Groove’s Special Star, as intrinsic to the growth of “township dance” that came to lay the groundwork for contemporary Afrofusion.

“At around that time, I was introduced to a company called Soweto Dance Theatre, founded by Jackie Semela, who was very instrumental in terms of honing my craft. He saw great potential in me and was very active, through his dance work, in South African politics. That political element of dancing made me realise that I wanted to do this,” she says.

Thandazile’s life as a dancer has been markedly untouched by Western classical dance, despite being encouraged as a child to do ballet. “I couldn’t quite identify with the forms and I couldn’t relate to them. At the Dance Factory, I had access to classes like African Dance, which I really loved and that was enough for me.”

Arts create a platform for people to express and fight for their rights

At those classes, Thandazile would come to meet Dame Sylvia Glasser, the founder of MIDM, who would personally mentor her at the school. She says: “You know that in the 80s people like Robyn Orlin, Sylvia Glasser and Jackie Semela were really some of the few people who were advocating for the emancipation of the African child and for the human race to be one. The arts create a platform for people to express and fight for their rights, and they made me believe this would be possible in my own life and career.”

“For me, MIDM defines Afrofusion as a form of movement that tributes African dance ritual, and movement, together with a Western influence in terms of sound or music. Technically it is unique because it encourages a distinctive angulation of the spine while being grounded – so you don’t defy, but embrace, gravity. I still believe in that mission of Afrofusion.”

Thandazile’s work has seen her take the stage in across the world, from dancing in conventional costumes to dancing draped in fruit, vegetables and dry teabags in Orlin’s Beauty Remains and in a tutu (and topless) in Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake, to playing a worn-out acoustic guitar in a chicken cage on the streets of Diepsloot.

“Our indigenous art forms really encourage storytelling, and my work is drawn from there. I find this need when I’m choreographing and dancing to tell a story and pass on the narratives of oral history.”

Highlights of her career thus far include being featured in the Mail & Guardian’s list of 200 Young South Africans, and being selected among 14 other creatives, the only one from South Africa, to take part in a three-year residency programme called Shifting Realities in Senegal, Germany and Morocco. During the residency, each creative is paired with a mentor, Thandazile’s being Orlin, who was the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Dance in 1990.

She also mentions the honour of being awarded the Sophie Mgcina Best Emerging Voice for Choreography award, which is sponsored by The Market theatre, as well as Best Female Dancer in Contemporary Style at the Dance Umbrella in 2003. In 2011, she was voted Best Female Dancer of the Decade at the Gauteng Dance Manyano Awards.

Her work as managing director and co-founder of Song and Dance Works brings her great pride, and affords her the opportunity to work with theatres, prisons, schools, NGOs, community groups and people with physical disabilities.

Afrofusion has this way of making space for people’s dreams

“I find that in most communities, the youth really lacks someone to look up to, so I really encourage the visibility of role models in society. If you know your next-door neighbour or teacher or anyone who is doing it, then it can really become a part of your reality as you become a human being. Afrofusion has this way of making space for people’s dreams,” she says.

Winning this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance means a lot to Thandazile. “I have been granted the opportunity of a lifetime that would never have happened if it wasn’t for a couple of people who believed in and supported me, especially my husband and business partner Nhlanhla Mahlangu. I thank everyone. I am now one step closer to where I want to be as a creator – a young female voice that celebrates the ordinary citizens of this country, and creates a space for them to celebrate who they are and what they represent.”