William Kentridge at the Royal Academy of Art in London

THE ARTIST WILLIAM Kentridge (born 1955), son of a prominent lawyer, is a South African. His creations are usually highly imaginative and often politically challenging and critical of the subjugation of non-European African people. This is fascinating given his privileged background – having been brought up in a South Africa where the ‘white’ people were a highly advantaged section of the population until the ending of the apartheid regime (and maybe even now to some extent).

His artworks are frequently dramatic, often employing cinematographic and sometimes theatrical techniques. The messages they convey to the viewers can be both disturbing and humorous, sometimes both simultaneously. Whenever I have seen them, I have been both fascinated visually as well as moved emotionally.

The Royal Academy of Art in London’s Piccadilly has a large retrospective exhibition of Kentridge’s work until the 11th of December 2022. Apart from numerous drawings, tapestries, and other static artworks, there are plenty of his cinematographic installations on display. In fact, there are too many of these installations. Each one is amazing to see, but having so many together in one place spoiled their intended impact. Just as the first chocolate from a box is wonderful, eating all of them at once gives one indigestion, and this was the case with the Royal Academy’s crowded assemblage of Kentridge’s works. Too much was crammed together in insufficient space. To be fully enjoyed, each of his installations should be seen on their own in a sufficiently spacious environment – they need ample room to breathe and express themselves.This overcrowding was a pity because the exhibition does not allow his works to shine in their full glory.

An artist and teacher in West Hampstead

WHILE I WAS STUDYING to become a dentist (in the late 1970s), I used to attend an etching and engraving class in a studio in West Hampstead’s Sumatra Road. The class was supervised by the owner of the studio, my mother’s cousin Dolf Rieser (1898-1983). Like my mother, he was born in South Africa. They were both born in King Williams Town, but he was 23 years older than her.

An engraving by Dolf Rieser

Dolf ‘s childhood memories evoke South Africa as it was at the turn of the century (19th/20th) and are recorded in his unfinished autobiography (dolfrieser.com). Here is an extract that gives a flavour of them:


“The climate of King William’s Town was particularly difficult to bear and my mother suffered greatly especially where her nerves were concerned. I vividly remember her awful attacks of migraine when she had to stay in a darkened room. In the end we decided to leave South Africa, as I shall relate later on . My uncle, my mother’s brother, was at that time living on the border of Basutoland. He was running a small trading post and also kept some horses and sheep. This place was right up on the high plateau and was called Moshes-Ford after the famous Basuto chief, Moshes. My uncle invited us up to him for a holiday and I think we first took a train and then had to continue by horse and carriage, which presumably was also the postal service at the time. I remember well an “ooutspan” for lunch near an immense field full of dried bones and skeletons. These were the remains of the “Rinderpest” which shortly before had nearly wiped out the cattle of South Africa. I played football with a cow or ox skull, very much to the annoyance of the grown-ups. The following night we had to spend at the German Pastor’s home and I remember how impressed I was with the enormous bed and unknown eiderdowns.”


The ’Rinderpest’ was a disease that afflicted cattle.

During his classes at Sumatra Road, he would regale us with stories of Paris in the 1920’s and 1930s, when he was there learning etching an engraving in the studios of both Stanley Hayter and Joseph Hecht. One story that sticks in my mind is how he used to attend the same Parisian café as Pablo Picasso. The great master sat at one table alongside the the other leading artists in Paris, and junior artists like Dolf sat close by at another table.

Dolf was an excellent teacher. He showed us how to etch and engrave. However, what impressed me most is that he had the ability to look at his students’ works in progress, understand what we were trying to achieve, and then provide constructive (rather than prescriptive) advice.

I really miss Dolf, even though it is so many years since he died. He had a wonderful sense of humour, was a wonderful raconteur, and, having once trained as a biologist (before becoming an artist), a wonderfully adventurous approach to his métier.

DEFACED TO DEFY: an exciting exhibition in Cambridge

POLITICAL PROTEST AND CONFLICT can be expressed in a wide variety of ways. Defacement of commonplace items is one of these. It forms the basis of a temporary exhibition, “Defaced!”, being held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (Cambridgeshire) until the 8th of January 2023.

Many of the exhibits on display are banknotes that have been defaced or altered in design to express a political message or protest.  One example of this is a five-dollar US banknote with the words “All Lives Can’t Matter until Black Lives Matter” embossed on its portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Another is a five hundred Indian rupee note with a coloured picture of an endangered rare bird printed over it. Yet another banknote is designed to look like a British £20 note at first sight, but it soon becomes apparent that it is not what it seems: it has been modified to include a portrait of ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the words “The ruling class. We own you.” It also includes the words “We were born to lead, you were born to follow.” Other banknotes have been redesigned so that they appear to be valueless: e.g. zero Japanese Yen and zero US Dollars. The diversity of altered banknotes and parodies of actual banknotes on display is staggering.

Occasionally banknotes lose their value during periods of hyperinflation. The exhibition includes several examples of objects, such as wallets, made using trashed valueless notes. Particularly striking is a life-size sculpture of a hand grenade made using shredded PRC ten Yuan banknotes.

There are also many coins on show. They have all been altered to express protest and/or political sentiments. One dramatic example of this is a coin issued in France during the reign of Napoleon III. This was altered by carefully cutting around and removing the portrait of Napoleon III from the coin, leaving the rest of the coin intact. There are several coins and medals on display that depict political events such as the American Revolution and the Peterloo Massacre. A few coins relate to the unrest in Northern Ireland. One of them is a 1970 Republic of Ireland fifty pence coin with the words “Ulster is British” stamped on it.

The show at the Fitzwilliam does not confine itself to the defacement and parody of currency for political and protest purposes. It also includes currency either modified or specially created for special purposes. Simple examples of these are overprinting of low value notes during hyperinflation and modification of currency for use by the military or in POW camps. There are also coins, notes, and certificates created for specific purposes, for example for use in the Siege of Mafeking and for use by Boer prisoners imprisoned by the British in India.

Although most of the exhibits are related to currency (coins and notes), one room is dedicated to a spectacular sculptural exhibit, an installation called “Big Bang 2. Debt in transit”. A video is projected onto a wall. It shows a Ford Transit van being blown up by explosives. As it flies into pieces, bits of paper all marked with the word ‘debt’ float down like snowflakes. The film is projected in a room in which the fragments of the van are suspended from the ceiling so that the viewer appears to be seeing a still from the video but in three dimensions. The installation, which is a protest on the exorbitant interest on payday loans, makes a very powerful visual impact. (SEE my video of this posted on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7MgdDTfBivw)

Parasol in the palace: art and architecture

WHEN I SET off for Venice a couple of days ago, I doubted whether I would enjoy the Biennale as much as my wife and our daughter. How wrong I was. I have been enjoying exploring the artworks housed in a number of different places around the city. Some of the shows are in pavilions specially designed for Biennale exhibitions. Others are in places adapted, mostly temporarily, for use during the art festival. For example, the Nepalese and Armenian shows are in what look like disused shop premises. Others are in far grander edifices.

Today, we visited an exhibition housed in the courtyards and rooms of a huge palace, which is home to a music conservatoire (located close to Campo S Stefano). The exhibits (sculptures, paintings, and videos) were created by members of a group of artists within the fold of the Parasol Unit art foundation. The artists in the show are: Darren Almond, Oliver Beer, Rana Begum with Hyetal, Julian Charrière, David Claerbout, Bharti Kher, Arghavan Khosravi, Teresa Margolles, Si On, Martin Puryear, and Rayyane Tabet.

The show in the conservatoire is wonderful. The building itself is a fantastic architectural sculpture with a myriad of neo-classical decorative sculptural details. The works of art, which are in total contrast to the architecture, harmonise interestingly with the environments in which they have been placed. Photographs cannot do justice to this exhibition; it has to be experienced in person.

Although this show will be amongst my favourite exhibitions in the 2022 Venice Biennale, it is not alone in being magnificent. I am glad that we have come to Venice for this artistic bonanza.

Two empty pavilions at the Venice Biennale

THE BIENNALE IN Venice was first held in 1895. The original international bi-annual art exhibition was contained in public gardens at the Eastern end of the city of Venice in the Castello district.

Initially, there was a Central Pavilion, opened in 1894. Later, various participating countries built national pavilions, the first being Belgium in 1907. The latest is the Australian pavilion, built only a few years ago.

The national pavilions reflect both the politics and architectural styles prevailing at the time they were built. Therefore, they are at least as interesting as the artworks that take up temporary residence within them at each exhibition.

I will discuss two of the pavilions in this short essay, and hope to write about some of the others at a later date.

The Russian pavilion bears the date 1914 and several double-headed eagles. It was constructed before the 1917 Revolution, and has some traditional Russian architectural features.

Next to the Belgian pavilion, stands the Spanish one. First constructed in 1933, its facade was replaced by a modern brick one in 1952.

Both the Spanish and the Russian pavilions appear to be empty, but for quite different reasons. For the 2022 Biennale, the artist Ignasi Aballi (born 1958 in Barcelona) has left the pavilion empty but shifted its internal walls in an attempt to correct a discrepancy between its original architectural plan and what ended up being constructed. The result is an empty pavilion with a strange internal layout. It was at first disconcerting to discover a pavilion empty of artworks, but soon it became pleasurable to see the strange vistas and connections between neighbouring rooms.

The Russian pavilion, unlike the Spanish, is closed. But it is also devoid of exhibits. Russia was not invited to the Biennale this year. The reason for this was Mr Putin’s unwise decision to invade his neibour, Ukraine.

Art appealing to eye and brain: two exhibitions near Piccadilly

THADDEUS ROPAC GALLERY, in a most elegant building on central London’s Dover Street is four minutes’ walk from Waddington Custot Gallery on Cork Street. We visited both today (the 13th of September 2022). At Thaddeus Ropac, we saw an exhibition, “City of Silence” by Wolfgang Laib (born in Germany in 1950), and at Waddington Custot, we saw “In the Studio”, a collection of works by March Avery (born 1932 in New York City).

Works in beeswax by Wolfgang Laib

Laib’s works, the best of which is a collection of objects made in beeswax that resemble towers and ziggurats, were not particularly visually appealing at first sight. Neither were his numerous minimalistic works on paper or even a set of identical model boats made in brass. It was only after reading some of the explanatory material provided by the gallery that these artworks began to become interesting. They did not become more appealing to the eye, but they began to make some kind of sense to me. For example, the beeswax towers and other objects alongside them are supposed to evoke thoughts of dwellings in the Middle East and the Towers of Silence where Zoroastrians leave corpses to be devoured by vultures. To some extent, these objects achieve the artist’s mental vision of the structures, which inspired them. However, without the explanations, Laib’s exhibition would have ‘left me cold’.

Immediately on entering Waddington Custot, Avery’s colourful, mostly figurative paintings appealed to my eyes and provided feelings of visceral satisfaction. Although it is highly likely that the paintings are manifestations of the artist’s thoughts and ideas, the viewer can get enjoyment from the artworks without knowing anything about what was going through Avery’s mind while she was creating them.   

We left Avery’s exhibition both visually and intellectually satisfied. In contrast, we felt that Laib’s works on their own without explanation were far less fulfilling than Avery’s.

Some Islamic figurative art in the Victoria and Albert Museum

THE VICTORIA AND Albert Museum (‘V&A’) in London’s South Kensington is one of my favourite museums. It contains a huge variety of exquisite artefacts. Some of them were obtained by fair means, and others, such as Tipu’s Tiger (an 18th century mechanical toy), by means that some might consider foul. I do not propose to write about the current discussions on the ethics of museum collections, but instead I will concentrate on some interesting tiles that arrived in the museum from Persia, where they were made during the Safavid Dynasty that was established in 1501 AD, and lasted until 1722.

The 36 tiles, arranged in 4 rows of 9, together depict a garden in which a lady is reclining with her 5 attractively dressed attendants around her, all wearing headgear: their uncovered faces are portrayed fully. This tiled panelling might have been originally made as part of an extensive architectural project in early 17th century Isfahan, the capital of the Safavid Dynasty. Other similar tiled panelling can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, so wrote Farshid Emami in his paper “All the City’s Courtesans: A Now-Lost Safavid Pavilion and Its Figural Tile Panels” (published in the Metropolitan Museum Journal in 2019). The panel is shaped so that it could be fitted beneath a window.

The Safavid Dynasty was Islamic. Unlike many other groups in the Islamic world, which discourage or forbid figurative representation, the Safavid rulers, who were great patrons of the arts, developed a dynastic artistic style in which the depiction of human figures played an important role. The tiles that are on display are a fine example of this. According to the V&A’s website (https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O93167/tile-panel/) these tiles were:

“Bought from L.S. Myers, 6 Savile Row, for £275…”

Myers & Co, which flourished at the above-mentioned address in the 19th century, usually dealt with prints. “A Biographical Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Antique and Curiosity Dealers” by MW Westgarth (publ. 2009) revealed:

“Abraham Myers (born c1815/16) traded as a curiosity dealer in Old Bond Street and at New Bond Street, London, from the 1850s. Myers is listed as ‘antiquary dealer’ at 179 New Bond Street in Kelly’s Directory, 1878 and 1886 and at 6 Savile Row in 1886–91.”

So, assuming that LS Myers was associated with this firm, the tiling might well have been bought between 1886 and 1891.

Every visit to the V&A, which might take much of a lifetime to explore fully, is exciting because each time I visit the place, I discover something fascinating, which I had not noticed before. These tiles are no exception to this.

The Black Chapel in the park

EVERY SUMMER SINCE 2000 except for the year 2020, the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has hosted a special event. On each of these years between June and October, a temporary pavilion has been erected near to the original Serpentine Gallery (now known as Serpentine South). No two pavilions have looked the same. However, what they have in common is that each one of them is the first ever completed structure erected in England by the pavilion’s designer/architect.  

This year (2022), the pavilion, called “Black Chapel”, was designed by the American artist Theaster Gates (born in Chicago in 1973). In the past, we have seen exhibitions of his works hosted in the White Cube Galleries at both Masons Yard and in Bermondsey. Many of his exciting artworks have impressed us greatly. So, it was with high expectations that we went to see his pavilion.

At first sight, we were disappointed by the Black Chapel. It is a huge black cylinder with three apertures. Two of them are entrances and the third is a circular orifice in the centre of the tall structure’s circular, domed ceiling. A segment of the cylinder is walled off and serves as a café servery. Benches line the lower parts of the wall of the rest of the building. Seven large, flat rectangular, metallic paintings (or plates) are attached to a part of the internal wall, and there is a large bell just outside one of the pavilion’s two entrances.

Today, many people like to have art explained to them. For me, it is my visceral reaction to an artwork that is more important than its intended meaning or the artist’s intentions. The ‘meaning’ of a work of art is, for me, secondary to the way I am affected by it. For those, who seek meaning in art, this is what the Serpentine’s website has to say about the pavilion:

“The structure, realised with the support of Adjaye Associates, references the bottle kilns of Stoke-on-Trent, the beehive kilns of the Western United States, San Pietro and the Roman tempiettos, and traditional African structures, such as the Musgum mud huts of Cameroon, and the Kasubi Tombs of Kampala, Uganda. The Pavilion’s circularity and volume echo the sacred forms of Hungarian round churches and the ring shouts, voodoo circles and roda de capoeira witnessed in the sacred practices of the African diaspora.”

Interesting as this might be, it neither increases nor diminishes my appreciation of the Black Chapel. Theaster Gates’s Black Chapel is less exciting visually than some of the past pavilions. Although our initial impressions of this seemingly simple structure were not particularly favourable, after spending a little time in it, the place grew on us and now we hope to visit it again.

Images of my mother’s sculptures rediscovered

MY LATE MOTHER (Helen Yamey: 1920-1980) trained as a commercial artist in Cape Town (South Africa) before WW2. In 1948, she came to London to marry my father. In London, she painted and, according to my father, took lessons from the great Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Around the time when I was born (1952), my mother began making sculptures. The first of these was a terracotta mother and child. Maybe, she was depicting herself with me in her arms.  By the 1960s, she was working in the sculpture studios of St Martins School of Art, which was then near Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road. There, she was in the company of artists such as Anthony Caro, William Tucker, Philip King, and William Turnbull. At least one of these now famous artists taught my mother how to weld and solder.

My mother exhibited her works in important art galleries at least twice. In late 1961, she exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in a show called “26 young Sculptors”. In 1962, she exhibited sculptures at the Grabowski Gallery, along side works by Maurice Agis and David Annesley. Although she sold a few of her creations, she did them more for pleasure than for profit.

My mother was a perfectionist. She destroyed much of what she created. However, at some time during the 1960s, she had a series of professional photographs taken of some of her mainly abstract works. These were kept in a yellow Kodak photographic paper box in a drawer in our home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. As a teenager, I used to look at them occasionally and wonder what became of some of the creations recorded in these photos.

My mother died in 1980 and my father remarried 11 years later. After remarrying, he and my stepmother moved from our home in Hampstead Garden Suburb to another house (near Primrose Hill). After the move, I used to ask him what had happened to the photographs of my mother’s sculptures and other family photos. Each time I asked, he would say that they were stored somewhere, possibly in the garage of his new home. After a while, I gave up hope of ever seeing these pictures again because it was clear to me that Dad had little or no interest in these photographs and in addition he could not imagine why anyone else would find them interesting. My father died, aged 101 and 6 months, in 2020. What with covid19 and its associated problems, we did not see his widow, my stepmother, again until recently this year (2022).

When, at last, we met her, she arrived carrying a plastic carrier bag, which she handed to me. To my great delight, it contained the box of photographs described above and another filled with family photographs taken mainly in the late 1950s. My stepmother told me that she had found them when she was sorting things in the garage of the house where she and my father had lived.

The photographs of my mother’s sculptures all bear the name of the photographer: Joseph McKenzie, ARPS (95 Blenheim Gardens, Wallington, Surrey). According to Wikipedia, Joseph McKenzie (1929-2015) is regarded as “father of modern Scottish photography”. More relevantly in the context of my mother’s works, he taught photography at the St martins School of Art.

Some of the photographs have notes written on their backs. The handwriting is my mother’s. One of the pictures, that of the mother and child has the words: “my first ever sculpture, terracotta, mother and child, 24””. Some of the other photos have information about the size and the material of the work depicted.

About 10 years before she died, my mother became disillusioned and practically gave up making sculptures. Although she made a few abstract images in pen and ink and a few carvings in alabaster, her abandonment of sculpture making as a full-time activity left a great hole in her life.

I have taken pictures of the photographs, and they can be seen on:

http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/album/1323344

The fantastic herons

ON SUNNY EASTER Sunday (2022), we took a morning walk along the Thames Path from the Black Lion pub (and the excellent Elderpress Café facing it) to Dukes Meadows, upstream from the pub. Dodging the endless stream of mostly courteous joggers and less polite cyclists, we enjoyed splendid views of the River Thames and the many old buildings lining Chiswick Mall. Several of the buildings were covered with flowering wisteria.

The Fantastic Herons

The river was well-populated with waterfowl including swans; geese of various kinds; ducks; a pair of cormorants resting on a buoy; and several herons. The latter were either standing on the sand and mud at the waterside or in the water close to the bank. Eventually, we reached Dukes Meadows, which consists of fields formerly part of the estate of nearby Chiswick House.

Near the Hammersmith end of the Meadows, we saw a metal sculpture, ‘The Fantastic Herons’, on top of a tall pole. Created by the artist Kevin Herlihy (born 1962) along with pupils from Cavendish Primary School and unveiled in 2004, it depicts three herons standing on a nest. Like most of Herlihy’s creations which often depict animal life, it is made from recycled waste materials. Funded by Singapore Airlines, who held a series of art workshops in the school, it is an appropriate sculpture for the area as herons can often be standing by, or in, the Thames flowing past the Meadows.