An insider’s perspective on SA’s curiously quirky art scene

David Mann’s collection of short stories draws its inspiration from the curiously quirky antics of the local creative community

03 June 2024 - 09:43
By Mila de Villiers
Editor, art critic and author of 'Once Removed' David Mann.
Image: Supplied Editor, art critic and author of 'Once Removed' David Mann.

“It’s fucking cruel to ask writers to explain themselves. It’s fucking sick!” laughs Joburg-based editor, art critic and author of short story collection Once Removed David Mann.

“We work on the page — verbal communication has never been my strong point,” he adds during our kaffeeklatsch at the retro Brixton cafe Breezeblock. (Mann is as reliant on caffeine as he was on penning his debut collection to stay sane during the insanity of lockdown.) 

Consisting of 13 stories, Once Removed (Botsotso) is a collection that explores South Africa’s contemporary art scene, featuring Mann’s musings, criticisms and observations of galleries, collectors, museums, relationships, interns, entitled artists, forgotten artists, wannabe artists, and people inadvertently drawn into the art world.

“It’s teaching me to be a more public-facing person. It’s teaching me to be confident in my words beyond the page,” the 32-year-old Mann says about having to discuss his work in public spaces. “I had to do a reading, which was kind of like that high school mondeling  stuff that sucked,” he says with a grin. 

Yet he remains cognisant that, just as visual artists “really put their stuff out there, which opens them to scrutiny”, writers are in their own ways also vulnerable to criticism. 

“Creating, showing and talking about a work of art makes one vulnerable. A lot of the stories in the collection are anecdotes of my engagements with South African art and artists. 

“I was worried that there was going to be some kind of bitterness or snarkiness in these stories. I never wanted them to be snarky or poke fun at artists because I love artists,” he says empathically. “They helped me make sense of the world. But the world they operate in is fucking ridiculous. And that’s what I wanted to poke fun at.”

The latter comment applies especially to a character in the collection’s final story, “Nothing to be Done”. In this piece, two gallery interns, Daniel and Cherise, are waiting during an art fair for an internationally renowned local artist, the mononymic and all-capitals “YANNICK”, outside a storage facility on a desolate day in Woodstock, Cape Town, to help him transport his installation to the event.

With just two hours to go before the art fair opens and still no sign of YANNICK, a Merc pulls up:

... the back window rolls down, and a woman with a neat, blonde bob and thick-rimmed glasses stares out at them ... “I’m here for a private viewing with YANNICK, the artist.” She draws out this last word as if she’s speaking to a pair of toddlers — “Ah-tist” ... “I’m here for a viewing. A view-ing with YAH-NNICK.”

You get the picture,

This wealthy, impatient, demanding woman is introduced as one “Ms Michaels”. “I had fun with Ms Michaels,” says Mann. “I guess characters like that are these amalgamations of insufferable personalities you encounter in gallery spaces.

'Once Removed' is Mann's debut short story collection.
Image: Supplied 'Once Removed' is Mann's debut short story collection.

“And she’s also a metaphor for entitlement and money and greed, and she doesn’t give a fuck about YANNICK. But YANNICK is at the top of this game, and for her that translates into value for her collection.”

Mann adds that it was a “fun story” because he based it on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where he drew inspiration from the character Lucky (“the enslaved person”) to portray Ms Michaels’ chauffeur-cum-assistant, Rodney.

Socially inept and treated with disdain by Ms Michaels, Rodney surprises Daniel and Cherise when, after he is told by his employer to share some background information about YANNICK with the two, lets loose with a stream of verbiage that skriks vir niks

“It’s been said that he is the kind of artist who, well, most seem to think of him as a kind of — there is a certain school who’d argue that his work, no, let me begin again: At the turn of the century, the new school of contemporary artists were largely preoccupied with the pursuit of language and meaning, though I suppose that might be something of a generalisation, but certain individuals like YANNICK were engaging in a Dadaist mode of working that saw a total, well, a mostly sort of international breakaway from the contemporary way of seeing ... ”

“I had so much fun with that outpouring because it became this vessel for art-world jargon and sloganeering, and the anxiety of excess, and ‘you need to know everything’, and ‘everything’s important, but it’s also meaningless’,” says Mann, adding that his “anxieties and neuroses” manifest in his characters: “There’s a bit of me in Rodney, there’s a bit of me in the intern Daniel, and there’s a bit of me in the critic Michael.”

The theory of cultural capital as defined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, which interrogates how we determine the value we attach to art, is dissected in “The Real Deal”, where the main character Lourens — a chain-smoking, bakkie-driving Harties denizen who, after many years in the construction industry, now runs a lodge — unintentionally gets drawn into the art world. (Lourens is — purposefully, à la Mann — portrayed as someone you wouldn’t expect to be interested in, or engage with, visual art.)

Lourens reads an article in Hartebeespoort community newspaper Kormorant about an artwork worth R6m that has gone missing. A reward has been offered for any information about this “valuable drawing by a prominent South African landscape artist”. Mann uses this narrative ruse to delve into questions about the monetary value of art. For, yes, after a number of jissies and deep draws on his cigarette, Lourens realises he might well be in possession of said artwork:

A week ago, driving back to Hartebeespoort after some business in Johannesburg, Lourens had pulled over at a roadside market in search of more of these African knick-knacks. The drawing caught his eye. Framed behind a dusty pane of glass and propped up against the leg of a fold-out table filled with beaded earrings and necklaces, the picture had glinted in the high afternoon sun. It was an old landscape drawing, charcoal on yellowing paper.

He hotfoots it to his local watering hole, O’Hagan’s, where he shares the revelation with his drinking buddy and tjom of yore, Tony, seeking his advice on whether to hand the drawing in. 

A number of the stories were written while Mann was completing his master’s degree in creative writing at Wits, during which time he became interested in exploring the idea of art changing one’s life. 

“It was more difficult to write,” Mann says of “The Real Deal”, “but that was the challenge I set myself. It’s like, ‘How does art change this dude’s life’?

“Capital becomes the entry point,” he explains of the value Lourens attaches to the art. “He’s interested on the level of ‘this is worth a lot of fucking money, and I could sell this and pay off my debt’.

“But it’s also rooted in reality, because around that time a prominent politician was sent packing. A fucking expensive Pierneef in his office went missing, and his bodyguard took the fall. Apparently his bodyguard ‘misplaced’ it,” Mann scoffs. “That showed up in Business Day, and Strauss & Co did the valuation of it. In the story, it showed up in the paper. ‘If you’ve seen this thing, it’s worth X amount of money.’ It was a staggering amount. That was one of the impulses for that story.”

The stories in Mann’s collection traverse provinces and cities, with the majority of them set in Joburg. What role does locale play in his writing?

“I’m stubbornly South African in all my writing, reading and art. It’s a bit of an obsession, but it’s also a deep love, and all my work emerges from there,” he says of his innate compulsion to write about, and for, South Africa.

“And then this thing of an international reader kept coming up and, in the politest way possible, I said, ‘I don’t care about an international reader. This is the world I’m immersed in, and which I love, and which drives me crazy but also nurtures me.’ And I want to write exclusively to that.

“Durban’s underrepresented, as always,” he says. “There were one or two Durban stories that didn’t make the cut. And I think that mirrors the art world as well, unfortunately. Cape Town and Joburg are the art capitals of the country.

“I think the locations in the book reflect the hotspots of the South African art scene, and also my navigations of that scene.”

Mann removes the reader from urban art spaces with his story “The Burning Museum”, which is set near the Tswaing meteorite crater in Ditsong.

Mann refers to “The Burning Museum”, which addresses questions about forgotten South African artists and the spaces intended to pay homage to them, as “a bitter story which emerged from a place of bitterness”.

Protagonist Maya Reddy is sent on an assignment to the crater museum to cover the unveiling of a plaque in honour of traditional poet and folk musician Mary Dladla. The discovery of a poem by Dladla on the premises has prompted the department of sport, arts & culture to honour Dladla’s work by unveiling the plaque and dedicating a viewing point overlooking the crater to her. 

Introducing herself as a journalist to the security guard at the entrance to the site, Mann writes:

It’s been years since Maya was a practising journalist. These days, she makes better money writing puff pieces and churning out glorified press releases for government types.

Of the site itself, he says:

Making her way around the side of the building, where old flower beds hold nothing but the odd weed, Maya discovers another structure entirely. She moves closer and sees that the place is abandoned — a burnt-out shell of a building. When she’d researched the centre, she had come across an article describing a 2009 fire that had gutted the original museum building.

“I went out on assignment to Tswaing, and that burnt-out shell of a building exists. The weird new museum sits right next to it. It’s really just inactive and unactivated,” says Mann.

“There’s no plaque or artist or poet, but there’s a close correlation between the actual site and the story,” he says, referring to the government’s apparent inability to maintain projects aimed at honouring the legacy of local artists.

“One thinks of Esther Mahlangu. Obviously, Esther Mahlangu is a national icon at the moment. But how many other artists are there out there who didn’t go on her trajectory? Then you find out about them on some dusty plaque somewhere long after they’ve passed away. Even talking about it, I still get quite angry. Funds are poured into these projects, and it all amounts to a fucking plaque somewhere — some shit that gets ripped off for scrap metal,” he says with disgust.

Mann identifies with Maya who, as a writer, has to “navigate weird lines of ‘I really need to pay rent, so if I’m getting this commission to write this puff piece, I don’t want to say no’,” because he earns his livelihood as a freelance writer (he moves between producing art criticism to copywriting to writing press releases for auction houses). 

“It’s inevitable that you end up working on these projects you fundamentally don’t agree with, and I feel like it’s rubbed off on me somehow.”

While he shares many similarities with Maya, Mann has also created characters unlike him. “The dad in ‘Rain’ is sad because he’s a sad person, and his relationship is the great sadness in that story,” he says of a bond between a father and a daughter where the daughter has to play a parental role. “But he’s also ridiculous. The way he shouts at the saxophonist is ridiculous, and I had fun writing that.

“And Michael is also ridiculous,” he says of the art critic depicted in “Resistance”. “He’s such a dick. It’s a bit of a circus, and some of it feels quite camp and outrageous. He has this ridiculous comeuppance where there’s this tragedy and he breaks all the artworks. I found that fun to write. 

“So many of the characters hold a seriousness and a ridiculousness in the same breath. And that’s largely my experience of the art world. We believe so strongly and passionately about what we do, but sometimes we’re also just full of nonsense,” he says with a hint of self-deprecation.

'Neighbours' by Daniel Nel.
Image: Supplied 'Neighbours' by Daniel Nel.

Once Removed contains a story with the same title. When I ask Mann why he chose this name, he says the answer is “very boring”. “I wrote ‘Once Removed’, and one of the paintings described in the story is by this artist Daniel Nel.” The painting he speaks of is titled Neighbours, and, aside from it being used on the book’s cover, this is one of the only instances in the collection where Mann directly writes about a real-life artwork.

Neighbours was exhibited at a solo show by Nel, and the painting Mann refers to in his story is called Once Removed, he explains. “I just loved those words,” he says.

The story “Once Removed” was penned during his master’s, and he initially used the words as a mere place-holder name for his collection, but “halfway through the degree they require a book title from you”. So lecturer and acclaimed South African author Ivan Vladislavić just said, “Put in anything — you can change it later.”

And — voilàOnce Removed it was.

In the end, university bureaucracy (Mann missed the time frame within which students can “fill out a bunch of forms” to change the titles of their theses) meant that Once Removed became the collection’s permanent title. 

“Having Neighbours on the cover was a deliberate choice because you’re this outsider looking in on a party or an event or a world, which resonates hugely with me,” says Mann. “Being an art writer, I feel like that almost always. It’s also that insider-outsiderness that the art world thrives on, which capitalises on making people feel like VIPs or outsiders.”

The writer-as-outsider trope is addressed in “Common Ground” — a story set in a student digs in Observatory, Cape Town — that features a group of youngsters passionately discussing forming a radical, experimental and interdisciplinary art collective. 

Amid rowdy discussions by the group of “cultural workers”, Lion Lager quarts being cracked open, and one gwaai after the other lit, the group’s attention turns to a lone figure: 

“You’ve been going on like spoiled children the whole time,” says Percy. “The only one who’s not making noise is this other guy.”

He is pointing at the young writer who’s been sitting just outside the circle, leaning against a worn, red couch, watching and listening. Throughout the day, his presence in the room has gone largely unnoticed. 

Now, people begin asking him questions. 

“Which publication did you say you were from?”

“What’s your agenda, hey?” 

They don’t give him a chance to answer. 

“That was fun on so many levels because I’m not a very technical writer,” Mann says of creating the narrator, “an omniscient, collective character”. He says, “The artist collective is a character, which also left this writer as this forgotten presence in the room who becomes — conveniently — like a scapegoat at the end of it all.”

They get turned-on, and they become the common enemy. I relate to that writer. Sometimes you are that person in the room. You just whip out a notebook and everyone’s like, ‘What’s going on here? What’s your angle?’”

Mann relates an anecdote from his student years in Makhanda, where he saw a group turning on a writer. “I have a clear memory of it. I was at UCKAR [the university currently known as Rhodes], and we were in the throes of the Fallist moment. I was involved in a lot of the movements, but I was also observing a lot of them, curiously, as a writer.

“And there was this poor little student journalist who came in while we were occupying this main admin building to protest against holiday accommodation — people who got kicked out of residences. 

“I caught the tail-end of it, but everyone just turned on this little dude and forced him to delete the recordings from his phone. And it’s just one of those moments that stays with you.”

(It’s fitting, then, that Mann describes his book as “a series of moments in my engagements with the art world and the world in general”.)

From one expat Capetonian to another (a fact we’re equally ashamed of), I just have to ask Mann about the inclusion of the now-defunct boere-Toskaanse-safari-kitsch theme park Ratanga Junction in his story “The Park”.

“Man, I totally forgot about this!” he laughs. “I love Ratanga Junction with all of my little child’s heart. Oh, man, a birthday party at Ratanga Junction? Come on!” he says with glee of the former amusement park a mere 15-minute drive from the City Bowl.

In writing “The Park”, Mann considered notions of the theme park as architectural site and sociological space: “It plays on a colonial desire, and that turns into entertainment which, as a child, you’re obviously not thinking about. You’re just like, ‘Yoh! I want to go on the Congo Queen!’ And then, as an adult, you’re like, ‘The Congo Queen? How fucking crazy is that?’” he says of the ride and its cringeworthy colonial name.

“If it was still around, though, I’d fucking go,” Mann says with a smile. “I loved Ratanga Junction, and I’m very sad it’s gone.”

And its Jozi cousin, Gold Reef City? 

“It’s OK, but it’s no Ratanga Junction.”

Finish and klaar.