To get to Vryburg in the North West Province from Bloemfontein, you have to drive for almost four hours. Past game farms and termite mounds and roadside cafes offering ROOMYS! and KOEK! from behind a barbed wire fence hung with abandoned shoes.
In mid April I was travelling to Vryburg with Kate Marais of the University of Free State to attend the unveiling of a sculpture of the matriarch Ruth Mompati, ex secretary to the young lawyers Mandela and Tambo, ex MK leader, ex ambassador to Switzerland, ex mayor of Vryburg.
Vryburg has long been a kind of mythical small South African town to me. Artist friend Penny Siopis was born and grew up there, and as it turned out, the Siopis family bakery which features in her new monograph Time and Again is two blocks down the street from my b ‘n b, Twiggies. No longer a bakery, but still there.
The events celebrating Mama Ruth start next morning with speeches and music in the town showgrounds, followed by the unveiling of the bronze bust in a park in the centre of the town. Mama Ruth makes a speech in which she says, “This statue symbolises the struggle of all races because it is the struggle I was involved in. I dedicate it to all South Africans; especially the people of Vryburg and women of this country, the sculpture must always be seen as a mark of unity, which all must embrace”.
The bust does not look much like its subject, but this seems to be a problem with almost every bust unveiled of struggle veterans.
Next morning, Kate has made us an appointment to meet Mama Ruth, who arrives at her house at the same time we do, accompanied by Max Sisulu. We talk for an hour about Mama Ruth’s amazing life and I take some photographs and then we leave, asking for permission to come back for more conversation next day.
But on Sunday when we arrive, poet Wally Mongane Serote is there, accompanied by two young girl scribes. Apparently he is to write her biography. Mama covers her face with her hands when she sees us, clearly exhausted by the whole process, so we leave.
I have a very interesting time meeting and talking to people in the town – Kate Marais grew up here too, and knows everyone – taking in the whole scene, and then it is off back to Bloemfontein and on to Johannesburg. Vryburg is much more upbeat than I expected it to be … and the restaurants (choice of the Spur, Wimpy and Ocean Basket) are all well attended and fully integrated.
In Joburg, Penny is hanging her retrospective at WAM, a very different space to the National Gallery where the exhibition was last shown, and Lisa Brice is hanging her show ‘Well Worn’ at the Goodman, so it’s fun seeing their shows slowly come together, day by day. I also visit Robin Rhode’s exhibition, ‘Recycled Matter’ at the Stevenson.
In this extremely sophisticated video, Rhode’s lithe alter ego struggles with all manner of shift shaping obstacles to progress from one side of the screen to the other. In the room behind the video, the props from the video suggest a surreal domestic interior.
‘Well Worn’ opens on my last night in Johannesburg, a lively opening. Brice allows viewers into the intimate world of the dressing rooms of women, clad and unclad, regarding themselves in mirrors with that critical and sometimes perplexed gaze women reserve for their own reflections. The artist often uses striped fabric as a canvas, and the bars function as a domestic interference, a kind of screen between the viewer and the subject, Soft, rich ink washes soak into the fabric and suggest the figures behind. It’s a beautiful show.
The evening ends, as all openings should, with a great dinner.