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Charcoal breathes fire into African artist’s Jewish works

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Lifestyle

A man wrapped in tefillin, head bowed in prayer against a background abstracted with an intensity of brush strokes; Haredi scholars striding like warriors; soldiers’ heads pressed against Kotel stone; a young girl enfolded in a windswept Israeli flag; an elderly scholar illuminated by light: These are just some of the iconic scenes of Jewish and Israeli life rendered in charcoal by a remarkable new South African artist, Treatwell Mnisi.

“I am myself, in my heart, an Israelite of some sort,” is how Mnisi, born in rural Mpumalanga, describes the unique intersection of his African identity and the Judaic and Israeli subject matter of his work.

“The Jewish art that I do; it’s already a living thing. The Jewish people live it; they practice it. I’m merely a vessel to bring that into fine art. I am simply somebody who is showing them the greatness that they already have.”

Mnisi’s unique artistic style was discovered by members of the Jewish community, who have since formed a team to help him showcase his work. Most recently, Saul Jassinowsky, Gila Zulberg, Gila Abramson, and Daniella Ash helped host his first solo exhibition.

Zulberg, a rebbetzin and an artist herself, and Jassinowsky, a businessman, were the first to hear about his art. “It’s such a different kind of stroke, very expressive. I found it to be a deep and proper understanding of movement,” says Jassinowsky about what moved him in Mnisi’s style.

Beyond his talent, Jassinowsky was impressed at how Mnisi engaged in the world. He recalls a fundraiser where many upcoming artists had their pieces on show. “None of their pieces sold for values, except Treatwell’s, which sold for five times its value. When his friends’ pieces weren’t selling, he picked the pieces off the wall and walked around, encouraging the crowd. He is this small guy, but he put in the effort. I just thought: he’s a mensch.”

Jassinowsky decided he wanted to try and help Mnisi. He and Zulberg then thought of commissioning Mnisi to make works related to Judaica and Israel. “I always have to go overseas or look in Israel to find something Jewish to put on my walls. You can’t really find anything here,” says Zulberg.

Ash, a South African interior decorator living in Israel then brought Abramson into the fold. Although a lawyer in practice, Abramson has been extensively involved in curating African art. They planned to host a small gathering at one of their homes with maybe 20 pieces on this theme.

“I sent him three or four ideas, but he just didn’t stop,” recalls Zulberg. “He just painted and painted and painted and painted. We ended up with 100 pieces. The night before the exhibition, an Uber arrived at my house with an extra 28 pieces.

“The charcoal was still wet,” recalls Jassinowsky.

The exhibition, held at Under the Trees, a restaurant in Johannesburg, left people mesmerised. “There’s been an outpouring of awe at how he has captured Jewish experience,” says Zulberg.

What was incredible was the thought and emotion behind the work, says Abramson. Mnisi relentlessly researched and questioned in order to understand the full meaning behind the imagery he was capturing. “He said when it’s right; it’s respectful. He has such a huge amount of respect for the religion.”

Mnisi has the highest regard for his connection with these community members, and a deep sense of gratitude. “My favourite person in the world is Grandpa Mandela. According to him, we are a nation, and we must build a system in which all people are able to coexist,” he says. “Being with Saul, Gila, Gila, and Dani is a beautiful thing. It was meant to be. Their coming into my life and my coming into theirs, it’s two sides coming together as one, doing the very thing that we’re supposed to do as blacks and whites: come together for a specific purpose and find common ground in what we do.”

Mnisi says his earliest memory is of drawing at the age of three. After matric, he followed his passion and started studying at the Tshwane University of Technology in fine and applied arts. However, as a result of difficult circumstances, he couldn’t continue, and instead entered “the nine-to-five hard labour, minimum-wage industry. I was mixing concrete, cement, building RDP houses, working as a gardener. My last job was at a car wash.”

Then COVID-19 hit. “Although it’s a pandemic and not something good for us as human beings, for me, it was a blessing,” Mnisi says. Working as a night security guard at a crèche during lockdown, he had “time to think about my life, my dreams, and whatever it is I want to do”.

He also reunited with renowned artist Azael Langa, whom he had previously known at university. “He started to tell me about all the endless possibilities that we can have as artists if we put our minds and hearts into it. He gave me a piece of charcoal, but I told him I don’t do charcoal, I’m a pencil guy, I use oil paints for superrealism.”

Langa said, “Do the opposite of what you normally do.”

In hindsight, Mnisi realises that it was a process of coming full circle. “As a child growing up on my mother’s side in the village, after they cooked, I would go to the ashes to find charcoal to draw with. It was my first love.”

He returned to the visceral experience of painting with his thumbs, and started creating impressionistic works radically different to what he had done before. Since then, he also incorporates tools like rubber brushes in his process.

He recalls his first encounter with Jewish life as a small boy in Middelburg. “I remember as a kid going into the city, and I saw these men dressed up in black suits, coats, and hats. So I asked my grandfather, ‘Who are those people?’ And my grandfather said, ‘Those are the Jews.’” I said to him, ‘The Jews from the Bible?’ and he said, ‘Yes, those are the descendants of the Jews from the Bible.’ That day, I vowed that I would become friends with a Jewish boy because I was still a little boy, but I never did. And now that I’m a grown man, guess what? I meet two brothers [Jassinowsky and his brother] and they have become my friends.”

When Jassinowsky sent Mnisi Psalm 121 as inspiration for the exhibition, Mnisi not only recognised it as “scripture I used to read to my mother”, but took it as a deeper “subconscious, spiritual” sign. It was telling me “’to lift up my eyes”. I thought back to the conversation with my grandfather telling me, ‘Those are Jews.’ Those Jews dressed in monochrome, and my art is monochrome. I could see the art before I even started.”

He dreams some day of “mixing this project with my own African culture. Imagine putting a Jewish guy next to a Swazi guy: one dressed in his Jewish regalia, the other in his Swazi wear. They are sitting together. That would be a beautiful piece.”

It’s an image that evokes Jassinowsky’s reflections about the deeper meaning behind their cross-cultural interaction: “A founding tenant of Judaism is to look outwards and reach outwards. It’s a reminder that we can’t exist in isolation. We have to engage. We have to reach out and people on the outside need to reach in.”

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1 Comment

  1. Treatwell

    Jun 10, 2021 at 12:21 pm

    This is a wonderful article;it lays emphasis on the the power of love for self and also others. Acknowledging our differences and embracing our similarities. I thank Ms Langer who captured the essence of a partnership between people who share a common goal and vision 🙏🏽

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Lifestyle

Snapshots of youth

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To commemorate Youth Day, the SA Jewish Report asked some of South Africa’s most illustrious photographers to share a photograph that they felt evoked something of youth, either past or present, within our land. They reflected on their choices.

Ilan Godfrey, Swimming in the ‘Long Sea’, Diamanthoogte, Koffiefontein, Free State, 2013

I came across these kids swimming while travelling across South Africa to various mining towns for my book titled Legacy of the Mine. Daily life in and around these mining towns was an important component of this project, and this scene really emphasised how this legacy is engrained on our landscape. The pure joy, spontaneity, and youthfulness of the children, and their ability to find the most imaginative of spaces to play, really epitomises Youth Day for me.

The suburb of Diamanthoogte (Diamond Heights) is home to a predominantly coloured community that lives on the outskirts of the diamond-mining town of Koffiefontein in Free State province. During the summer months, children enjoy swimming in the canals, which they refer to as the ‘Long Sea’. The canals carry the overflow of water through the town from Kalkfontein Dam and the mine dam to outlying farms.

Koffiefontein became a stopover point for transport riders travelling between the diamond fields in the south and gold mines to the north during the 1800s. After diamonds were discovered here, Koffiefontein developed into a mining town. The town has a significant military history. It was seized by the British during the South African (Anglo-Boer) War, and was later used as a detention camp in World War II. Among the internees was John Vorster, who later became prime minister and president of South Africa. The mine has been closed several times over the years, but continues to recover some of the most valuable diamonds in the world.

Jodi Bieber, Soweto Country Club, Soweto, 2007

Through all my travels in South Africa and around the globe photographing different communities, my experience reveals that children the world over, often living in environments with few opportunities, show resilience and creativity with very little. I fantasised that one day, I would become a talent scout for those children that shone in order for them to live out their dream.

Marc Shoul, Jané, Sydenham, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 1999

I took this photograph in my early 20s before I became a father. When I Iook at this image, I see the gentleman in the background, and I can sort of relate to the feelings in a way. I shot this in a house that I would frequent from time to time when I was in Port Elizabeth. This was when I was completing a body of work called Beyond Walmer where I was concentrating on the lower-income white group, post-1994. The little girl’s expression is just priceless. The man on the very right hand side, to my knowledge, is her father; the guy holding her is a mother’s new young boyfriend or husband at the time. It would be amazing to go back to that house and see where all these people are now. Perhaps I will.

It’s an image that has contrasts, and hopefully, it has some sort of hope for the future, not only doom and gloom, but the reality is that there is a long, winding road ahead.

Alon Cohen, Kids of the Street, Oaklands, Johannesburg, 2016

This photograph of four young men that live together in a community on the streets of Oaklands, Johannesburg, represents a massive segment of the youth that we sadly haven’t managed to cater for in this country. These guys are well meaning, lost people that come each from their own unique, dysfunctional background where they felt they could no longer stay because to live amongst their families was more torturous than living on the streets.

I just know that given a healthy place to live and a basic purpose to fulfil every day, many of these youth could bring value to their lives as well as the country as a collective. Yet, in spite of everything, they’re still able to look at each other and have a laugh. So human, just like any one of us.

Paul Weinberg, Dancers, 1995

I took this photograph of two Zimbabwean dancers while on an assignment for a cultural magazine called Du in 1995. It was a dance production with a group of street performers. A fleeting moment of connection between two people, whose parents had been engaged in a conflictual past, but now were kinetically and intimately bonded through this performance. Images provoke arresting questions. That was 25 years ago. The two youths then are now middle aged. So much has happened in Zimbabwe since this period, as in this country. What happened to these two people, where are they now, how did life play out for them? This image also provokes an important meditation for me. A moment of synthesis that speaks back as well as to the future. How difficult is it really to suspend prejudice and polarity to find our common humanity and human potential? Why do we struggle to learn this over generations? This image, buried deep in my archive, has come back to life. It’s a touchstone for a more humane and loving world, as relevant now as it was then.

Eric Miller, Poverty, the Third Pandemic, Ingwavuma district, KwaZulu-Natal, 2002

In the middle of this pandemic, the consequences on the poorest and most vulnerable are exacerbated by the poverty and circumstances within their communities. My work as a documentary photographer in this country stretches back several decades, and includes the documentation of a previous pandemic, HIV/Aids. Ingwavuma district, KwaZulu-Natal, was at the epicentre of the HIV/Aids pandemic, with an infection rate generally greater than 30%. The photograph shows the three oldest of five sisters orphaned after their parents died of Aids-related illness. Four of the girls attended school, the fifth taking care of her own two-month-old baby at home. The girls, aged then between eight and 19, were left to care for themselves, collecting water from a nearby stream for cooking, washing, and so on. They were reliant on assistance, receiving food provided by a local community organisation which survived on donations from well-wishers. During the current pandemic, my thoughts often turn to them and the many similarly orphaned children left to fend for themselves or in the care of elderly grandparents who during this pandemic have been most vulnerable in the face of rampant COVID-19 infection, often relying on government grants as their only income for survival.

Ilan Ossendryver, Tyre Race – Kliptown, Soweto, 2019

Kliptown is an area in which everyone has been forgotten, yet it’s quite an amazing place. I’ve been working with the community there for many years.

I selected the photograph because of the creativity with which children create toys and games. They have parents that care, their parents will fight for everything, but the government doesn’t care. The photograph shows the creativity of the children, but also the failure of government to really help people. They live in really terrible conditions: no running water, no toilets, and no electricity.

I do outreach programmes and we hold a tyre race where they get prizes. Eventually, I give everyone prizes, but first I want them to learn to keep trying better next time. In their expressions, you can see the absolute determination to win, and the community watching them. One of the men watching is actually one of the best drummers in South Africa, and even played at a Lag B’Omer celebration at a shul in Johannesburg.

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It’s lift off for Novick and SAA

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Former kulula.com now LIFT Airline mastermind Gidon Novick may be a sucker for punishment, but he has taken to turning South African Airways (SAA) around and making it something South Africans can be proud of.

“I’ve already got grey hairs, a few more can’t hurt,” Novick joked, speaking to the SA Jewish Report last weekend, days after his involvement in the 51% buyout of SAA was announced.

Novick and Global Aviation, which partnered to launch LIFT in December, have joined up with Harith General Partners, a private equity firm that invests in infrastructure across Africa, to buy a 51% share of the national carrier. The Takatso consortium will be chaired by Harith’s chief executive, Tshepo Mahloele, and Novick, who was also the former chief executive of Comair. The government will still own 49% of SAA.

SAA was put into business rescue in December 2019, costing the country about R250 million. Late last year, R10.5 billion was allocated to SAA for business rescue. This was released over time, and some of it (roughly R2.7 billion) will be allocated to SAA’s subsidiaries.

The government will have no further financial obligations to the airline. Said Novick, “We will control the company, but also value and respect the input from government as a significant and strategic shareholder.

“No doubt there will be excitement and stress,” he said. “I feel like there comes a point in life where you need to chill or give it a real go and take what comes with that. I believe I’m up for the challenge. It feels opportune.”

He said he was at a unique point in his life where he has both energy and experience. “I have done a few things along the way, and am still young enough to have the energy. This venture will make good use of that energy and experience and hopefully, will be meaningful on a few levels.”

Novick comes from an airline family in which his late father, Dave, was in the industry for 51 years. He took Comair from a company with two aircraft and built it into a major player in the industry with British Airways and kulula.com. As part of Comair, Gidon, a chartered accountant with an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at North Western University, started the then innovative kulula.com.

In 2019, Novick told financial journalist Alec Hogg that running SAA would be “pretty much the worst job – after Eskom”. However, he did say that if he were ever to take on SAA, “certain things [would] have to be put in place, and one would require the autonomy to make some quite drastic decisions in that organisation”.

So it may not be such a surprise that Novick now says this has always been something “that could emerge or evolve over time”.

He is excited to take on what many may consider to be a dinosaur because, “Government has come a huge way, some of it by necessity, and the dealings we have had have been so positive. I understand it better now, and believe we have a real opportunity for alignment and pulling the right interest and skills together in the private and public sector.

“The best thing is we all have the national interest at heart,” said Novick.

He said real discussion about the SAA takeover started during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he reached out to the department of public enterprises to start talking. “They had put together various advisory teams to look at SAA’s future as it was under business rescue.”

These discussions began before Novick launched LIFT. “I was sharing some ideas about what we could do with SAA. It was very initial, and then we got stuck into launching LIFT, which we are still completely submerged in,” he said.

“At the time, I had been out of the airline industry for a while, and was building an airline model in LIFT that was right for this time. That helped a lot, and became more practical and real in relation to working with SAA.”

To create LIFT, Novick partnered with Global Aviation, a company that leases out fully crewed, maintained, and insured aircraft to established airlines locally and around the world. Then, he met the leadership of Harith that already co-owns Lanseria Airport and was interested in investing in airlines.

“I was introduced to Tshepo Mahloele, its executive director, who said they were interested in SAA and we combined our efforts,” said Novick. Harith committed the finances necessary for the deal.

As to what exactly the future SAA will look like, Novick said, “I don’t quite know yet. We have done a lot of work in planning how things will operate, but there is still mountains to be done.

“I believe in the creativity that exists in South Africa, and the solution will capture the best of the legacy of the SAA emblem and its name. We will infuse modernity and creativity into something all South Africans can be proud of. It will be iconic and fresh, stand out, and be globally recognised.”

Novick said he planned to import some of LIFT’s efficient agile operating model into SAA, among other things. “The customer obsession we have at LIFT will also become a mainstay of SAA,” he said. “It’s critical, everything has to revolve around the customer.”

As for staffing, he said 80% of SAA’s staff had already taken voluntary retrenchment, but, “we need to take a good and careful look at the organisational structure”.

He is clear that the vision for the new SAA is to build an iconic national brand and a globally competitive airline, particularly on the African continent. “It will be a cornerstone of commerce, tourism, and industry.”

He isn’t yet sure how LIFT will fit in, however he says experience and skills will be exported into SAA so that the national carrier can benefit from its learning.

Novick plans to start local flights soon, and get going with regional ones soon after. “Regional flights use the same infrastructure as local, so that isn’t too complicated. The long-haul network will depend on tourism, the opening of borders, COVID-19, and global collaboration.

“I am hoping this initiative becomes a blueprint for future public-private partnerships, and gives all South Africans the confidence we need to continue building this incredible country,” Novick said.

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On cantors and choirs: sifting through the soundtrack of SA Jewry

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History books may detail the facts, but it’s through the notes and melodies of Jewish liturgical music that the emotional story of the Jews of South Africa can be heard. Now, two afficionados on the subject have begun the mammoth task of collating the tales of cantors and choirs on the tip of Africa, detailing its rich legacy and hopes for the future.

Chazzanut [cantorial music] is a unique Jewish creation. The chazzan [cantor] is described as a chacham lev – he who has the wisdom of the heart,” says Evelyn Green, who along with Professor Russel Lurie, has dedicated herself to the preservation and practice of Jewish liturgical music in South Africa. After all, she reflects, “What are the Jewish people without their music?”

Green and Lurie have been stalwarts of the Johannesburg Jewish Male Choir (JJMC), Green since its inception in 1985, and Lurie, an acclaimed maxillofacial and oral surgeon, since 1987. Green, who is also renowned for her work as a Unisa (University of South Africa) music examiner and private music and singing teacher, is the choir’s musical director, secretary, and repetiteur (singing coach). For the past 25 years, Lurie has served as its chairperson. Most recently, they have begun collating and researching the history of the cantorial and Jewish liturgical musical tradition in this country – the first such project of its kind.

Last month, they presented a set of webinars under the auspices of the Cantors’ Assembly in America. They also spoke to the SA Jewish Report about their extensive work together and their determination to take it even further while keeping the art form alive and thriving.

The interweaving of the everchanging South Africa context and this centuries-old Jewish tradition is illustrated by a delightful anecdote involving a cross-over choir, a bottle of whiskey, and a compulsory invitation to the home of the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.

As South Africa commenced its democracy, “within this political scenario, the choir embarked on an outreach programme and on occasions, combined with one of the country’s best black choirs, Imilonji KaNtu Choral Society,” says Green.

However, Imilonji KaNtu is made up of male and female singers, and this doesn’t comply with Jewish Orthodox tradition. Nevertheless, in 2000, in the spirit of the times, the JJMC felt the collaboration had such deep meaning, performing together could be justified.

“A few days before our concert,” says Lurie, “my secretary [of his medical practice] came into the office and said Chief Rabbi Harris was on the phone and wanted to speak to me. In his broad, Scottish accent, he said, ‘Russel, I want you at my home at 18:00, and bring Evelyn as well.’

“We walked in, and the tension was there. We sat down, and he brought out a tray with whiskey. He said, ‘We have a problem: Russel, Evelyn, you are against halacha. You know that men and women cannot sing together, but I want to congratulate the two of you because you have made a stride in the building of a rainbow nation.’”

Then, recalls Lurie, he immediately turned to the next task at hand asking, “Now how do you take your whiskey, because if you want water with it, you’ll have to find some other place.” Then he turned to Evelyn, joking “and you are too young for this, you can have a cooldrink”.

At the end of the evening, he told Lurie and Green, “Anne [Harris’s wife] and I will be at the concert. Leave the rabbinate to me, but don’t ever do it again.”

Green remembers opening night. “It was at the Linder Auditorium, which was totally packed except for two empty seats. We waited for five and then ten minutes before deciding that we had better start, and as I walked onto stage, they arrived.” Harris remained a keen fan of the JJMC for the rest of his life, hosting them for a lunch every year. “He was the most wonderful man and supporter,” reflects Green.

Jewish liturgical music was first carried to South African shores by immigrants fleeing pogroms and unrest in Eastern Europe. The Yiddish songs they carried with them were anthems to love, loss, and resilience.

After World War II, South Africa became a safe haven for refugees who brought both Ashkenazi and Sephardi music traditions. Lurie details how one chazzan of the Oxford Shul in the 1970s was in fact a Holocaust survivor who was taken, along with thousands of others, to the shooting pits. “He lifted his arms and pleaded with the officer in charge to let him sing a prayer for his people. They let him sing, and they pulled him out.”

Indeed, as Europe struggled in disarray in the aftermath of the devastation, South Africa was seen as an attractive option for chazzans to come and work. “South Africa was a springboard. The cantors would come and stay for four or five years and move on,” says Lurie.

Some of the most acclaimed cantors in the world spent time in South Africa. A special story is told across three generations of the Alter family, starting with Israel Alter who was born in the Ukraine, and studied in Vienna and Hanover, before arriving in South Africa in 1936, fleeing Nazi rule. He went on to serve for 25 years at the Great Synagogue in Johannesburg. His son, Elazer Alter, followed in his footsteps at various shuls in Johannesburg and today, Israel’s grandson, Avron, serves as the cantor at Sandton Synagogue.

In the 1980s, visits by icons of liturgical music like Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and cantor Sol Zim, as well as the influence of cantor Ari Klein, resulted in experimentation in a new direction. Classical chazzanut was blended with Hasidic and even contemporary pop and folk music. Klein “introduced a light-hearted approach to services and his rendition of foot-tapping music had his congregation in awe,” recalls Green.

So popular did this trend of contemporary experimentation become, Harris even joked in his memoir that he had not known that Andrew Lloyd Webber composed music for the synagogue.

From this heyday of excitement and innovative energy, the current status quo is more concerning, say Lurie and Green. While South Africa certainly boasts superb local home-grown talent in the field, there appears little community support for these efforts in terms of sponsorships. Moreover, say Lurie and Green, there isn’t sufficient effort in Jewish education to promote musical appreciation and practice.

Most chazzans are able to practice their art only in a part-time capacity as they must find other employment to make ends meet. In addition, in South Africa, the shtibl shul set-up, whereby there is no chazzan or choir at services, is the increasingly popular choice, particularly of younger generations.

It’s all the more pity, say Green and Lurie, because their own lives are testament to what richness an immersion in the music has brought. “There is no end to it, and it is so beautiful,” says Lurie.

Green recalls the poignancy of experiences like when the choir was invited to the first International Louis Lewandowski Choral Festival in Berlin in December 2011. At one point, the choir was taken to the cemetery of Lewandowski, one of the greatest composers of Jewish music. It was pouring with rain and freezing cold, yet the choir sang in his honour by his grave. When they visited the Holocaust memorial in the city, they too chose song to express themselves.

Lurie says it was an act of the most sacred affirmation. “It showed, ‘Look we are here. Not only are we here – we are singing!’”

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