Looking for Mister Vicious Deliciousby Sean O’Toole / 13.07.2012
I’m thinking about Bev Shaw. You know, dumpy, bustling, black freckles, close-cropped wiry hair, and no neck. Ring a bell? It’s the faded green SPCA sign planted in the winter veld that sponsors the thought. Perhaps, I think, bringing my bicycle to a standstill, this is where David Lurie drove to meet Bev, where he made the desperate choice between the operating table and the floor, laid out two blankets, one pink, the other grey, then… well, you know the rest. Disgrace.
Argh. Enough of Coetzee. Turning left off Rautenbach Road I pedal down the N2 towards the 1820 Settlers National Monument. Well spotted: I’m in Grahamstown, on a bicycle. The plan is to see as many events at the National Arts Festival as possible between editing Cue, the daily festival newspaper. In a town the size of a R5 coin, you’d expect cycling to be commonplace. It isn’t, not during the icy winter months, when a leotard and full gloves are a must. Then there is also the wind that one has to contend with, which blows in from the northwest, making the morning ride up Cradock Road, to where it connects with Rautenbach, teeth-grittingly slow.
But, once you connect with the N2, the wind is behind you.
So here’s the plan: cycle up to the monument the long way round, run inside to do a refresher on Mikhael Subotzky’s new exhibition, Retinal Shift (which I have to lead a walkabout of in the afternoon; the 2012 Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art doesn’t do press interviews or walkabouts), then back on the bicycle, freewheel down the hill into town, pedal a few blocks to the Observatory Museum, and look out for Skattie What Are You Wearing’s other half, Athi-Patra Ruga.
I top 70km/h without too much effort, then brake hard, lean low into the left turn, and pedal up towards the monument. In the half-empty parking lot on my left I see that the exposed parts of Ivan Mitford-Barberton’s bronze sculpture of a settler family – he wears top hat, she a parrot cage for a skirt – are still an ochre colour. Faces, necks, hands, all clayish red, as if burnt by the sun. The gag, the intervention, the performance, the decoration job – whatever the right designation – is by Doung Anwar Jahangeer, a Mauritian-born Durban-based architect turned storytelling artist-walker.
Where to lock up my lightweight liability? I look at Bruce Arnott’s bowler-hatted clown-labourer outside the monument. Nah. Those old sculptures are easy game for someone trying to make a tenuous point. I find a lamppost near two inexpressive young Xhosa mimes in whiteface, one of them wearing tinted wraparound glasses. Seeing and not being seen: this, pretty much, is the central idea behind Mikhael’s PG15 exhibition. (The rating went up a day or two after the show opened.)
Two big prints, retinal scans of the photographer’s eyes, greet you at the entrance of Retinal Shift. A flash of medical light made each image possible, but it also temporarily blinded the photographer. The event has been transformed into a kind of allegory for the occlusions that happen in the moment the shutter records seeing.
Retinal Shift is a self-consciously queasy exhibition. In a stop-motion film composed entirely of still photographs taken from the balcony of his student flat in 2004, we see a vagrant seated on the pavement opposite. He pulls open his pants, exposing his erect manhood. He begins to slowly, pleasurably jerk off, wank. (My thesaurus is politely mute on the subject of masturbation.) Titled Don’t Even Think of It, this doodle of a film anticipates the real centrepiece of Mikhael’s exhibition, his new film Moses and Griffiths.
Composed in four parts, the film features two detailed interviews with Griffiths Sokuyeka, a guide at the monument, and Moses Lamani, who works the Victorian-era camera obscura at the Observatory Museum. It’s a documentary film, of sorts. The editing is the first clue that this is not an attempt at a naturalistic portrait. The work splices together two sets of interviews, one a kind of official public version of each of these two men, the other offering more intimate accounts. For instance, Griffiths, an animated speaker, was accused of setting fire to the monument in 1994. The scar of the allegation (unfounded) lingers.
Moses also has his stories. They are unrelated to the history of Grahamstown’s antique all-seeing eye, which originally helped locate the whereabouts of the town doctor. His stories point to landmarks picked out by the contraption he operates all-seeing eye. “That’s the Raglan Road, from East London to Ciskei,” he says. In the 1980s he travelled the road to the Ciskei, to study. “I was tortured and detained there, for politics…” Listening to Moses speak, a jolt of awareness: I’m late.
Mister Vicious Delicious, aka Athi-Patra Ruga, is about to freak out the frontier mense with his bad attitude, high heels and balloon dress. A newspaper article from the day before suggested that city bureaucrats in bakkies might halt his performance. This I have to see. My bike is still there. For the umpteenth time, I repeat a basic cycling aerobic exercise: bend over, unlock chain, stand up, put on helmet, bend over, roll up right leg of jeans, stand up, leg over crossbar, push, brief wobble, pedal like crazy to Grey Street, then freewheel down into town. I sneak past a line of cars waiting at the intersection with Somerset. It is a small victory. There is real menace in the looks of some drivers as they make a point of passing me, then suddenly stopping for an open parking bay. It is an unequal negotiation. I let it slide.
The Observatory Museum performance, which involves tracking a balloon-costumed Ruga mincing through Grahamstown on the camera obscura’s viewing plate, is sold out. Full. No exceptions. Come back later. (I can’t, I’ll be editing.) Sorry for you. I do the next best: I go look for Mister Vicious Delicious. From Bathurst Street I head for High. Nothing but car guards in yellow bibs with desultory poses lurking beneath trees and under awnings, watching the parked cars, which is another reason to cycle. The bibbed proletariat have no truck with cyclists. In their eyes, any non-motorised road user must be hard up. Fine by me.
Finding a black man in stilettos and balloon dress ought to be a cinch, especially given the K-Way army’s tea cosy and fleece uniform – but it isn’t. On Prince Alfred Street I ask two young mimes – they look like Jane Alexander’s Bom Boys – if they have seen Mister Vicious Delicious. Big balloon dress. Mad heels. The baddest attitude since Ice T said those nasty things about George Bush’s mom. One removes a pipe stuffed in his mouth, pauses for emphasis, says “No”, and then looks accusingly at his empty bowl. I leave a green note.
This is where having a bicycle comes in handy. Stop and go, hello and goodbye, have you seen a man in a balloon dress… no I am not joking… well yes, of course, you haven’t. I cycle down New Street, past The Rat, turn left into Allen Street. A noteworthy fact: I haven’t passed a single cyclist yet. I turn right into African Street, pedalling without much enthusiasm for the chase. Mister Vicious Deciduous has shed his leaves and disappeared into the twig-coloured winter landscape. At the roundabout, I take another right, into Hill Street. A black BMW hoots; my hand sign is not a wave. I continue cycling, a left and a right. I’m in Fitzroy Street, climbing, then left into Trollope. I’m on the opposite side of town and the monument, at Sun City, an informal settlement where the sun shines and the tar road turns to dust. I’m late for work. What the hell! I continue cycling, straight past the sign that says “Do Not Enter”.