What I Have Been Reading


The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.

—           Donna Tartt

I open my latest post with this quote from the author of that wonderful book, The Secret History. I really love this quote, particularly this bit: books are written by the alone for the alone. Now most people would view the use of the word alone in a negative context, lonely, isolated, insular (suggestive of an island and separated from others). Not me, I discovered the relationship between loneliness and creative vitality a long time ago. Like that most gifted writer, Virginia Woolf, I have found that lonely silence is inseparable from creative impulse. Adrienne Rich agrees, claiming that “the impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,”

the secret history



















But I digress because my actual point was to wax lyrical about the joys of reading, not of being alone…although I kind of love both.

I believe that one of the most amazing gifts you can give anyone is to pass on the joy of reading, to teach them how to read purely for pleasure. I myself am a voracious reader and a huge bibliophile. Yes! I consume books, I luxuriate in them! And I am unashamedly old school about it. I want the physical, the tactile, the actual book, not some glowing kindle screen!


In my apartment I have a library that I am really proud of. It contains mostly academic books now, focusing on art and art theory. This is due to the demands of my studies and lecturing duties.  But you can also find Tom Robbins Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas or Alice Sebold and her Lovely Bones amongst them. Carlos Ruiz Zafón and his Cemetery of Forgotten Books share shelves with Francesca Woodman’s ghostly portraits while Ana Mendieta and her Blood Works are pressed up against Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the DayI even still have my old copies of Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye and Goodbye Columbus from way back when I was a teenager. I love my books.  One of my greatest pleasures is to hang out in second bookstores on a rainy day. To be surrounded by shelves of old (and new) books is something I will never tire of. For me it is an almost-embryonic sensation, as if being embraced and enveloped by dear friends. I am at peace and yet simultaneously filled with anticipation and excitement at the thought of all the wonders that await to be discovered within the covers and on the pages.

the rites

So what have I read recently and what am I reading now?

I generally have 3 or 4 books that I am reading at one time. As I am doing my Master’s at the moment and this requires a massive amount of research reading, so there will always be at least one book related to my research next to my bed. I have just completed The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport by Varda Burstyn. In this fascinating book Burstyn analyzes how sport socializes boys into manhood by providing rituals of conquest and aggression. I played rugby from the age of 13 up until I was 36 so I really found it amazing to be able to relate my actual experiences to the theoretical thinking behind sports like rugby football. Kind of like how I felt when I began my journey as academic within the art world. Relating the thinking to the making is glorious.




At the moment I am reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I highly recommend reading this author’s work, especially The Remains of the Day. I have to sheepishly admit something though. I actually watched the movie based on the book first. To be honest the title left me cold and still does. It is a really lame title for such a beautiful piece of writing. Anyway, so I never read the book. But once I had watched the film-adaption I really just had to read it. It is a quite stunning movie and a very British . Ironically it is directed by an American though.

the beach

Alex Garland, who wrote another one of my favourite books, The Beach, is friends with Ishiguro and wrote the screenplay for the movie. It stars Carey Mulligan (love her), Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley as friends Kathy, Tommy and Ruth who grow up together in a seemingly idyllic boarding school situated in the English countryside. The story, however, is set in an alternate history where cloning has become every day and is socially and morally accepted. I do not want to spoil the movie or the book for you so I will not reveal any more of the plot suffice to say that both are totally engrossing, thought-provoking and just beautiful. Both have a place on swany’s list of awesomeness!












To end off I am going to reference my 2 previous posts which dealt with rape. A book that deals with the subject very honestly is Alice Sebold’s Lucky. It is an autobiographical account of her rape at the age of eighteen while at university. She describes what she was like before the rape and the aftermath of this harrowing, life-changing event. Her description of the actual rape is heartrending. It is a must-read.









Living Art

So in my previous post I shared some of the artwork I created for a fundraising auction for the rape victims support group called GRIP. Dealing with such a horrific theme set me thinking about this whole culture of rape and how it is possible for a person to do such a thing. It is just terrible that the thing men fear the most about being incarcerated is what women have to deal with every day of their lives: the possibility of being raped.
Here are some things you should know:
When Interpol released the staggering statistic that one in two women living in South Africa will be raped in her life, the South African Police Services stopped releasing rape statistics. Instead the authorities began categorizing rape under sexual violence. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) states that only one in 13 rape cases are reported. An estimated of 500,000 rape cases take place in this country, every year! It is also estimated that only 14% of perpetrators of rape are convicted in South Africa.
Horrific! But why are we surprised? We have a president who was accused of rape himself! This was by a woman known as Khwezi, a well-known HIV-positive activist and lesbian daughter of one of Zuma’s old comrades. She was forced to leave the country in the wake of the trial. Zuma, who was deputy president at the time, was acquitted by the courts. Gee, what a surprise! As we have found out since, our President Zuma is, by all accounts, a man of exceedingly low morals.
This low moral character appears to be endemic in our politicians and government officials. When discussing the problematic situation regarding rapes on our Rhodes University campus, our Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, advocate Michael Masutha walked out mid-interview on the SABC television programme, Checkpoint’s Nkepile Mabuse. This happened after Mabuse, the interviewer, asked Masutha how being an assertive woman links to rape, following his comment about rape and assertiveness. The minister later said he meant that assertive women were more likely to report rape cases. Idiot!
There is a history of violence at both ends of the political spectrum in this country and this has added to the toxicity of South African masculinities. Back in the old Apartheid days both sides were prone to hyper-masculinity: the anti-Apartheid activists as well as the white tribes of South Africa. This has not really changed much. Rape is about power and subjugation, the masculine dominating the feminine.

In a lecture about performance art I gave recently, I addressed the issue of rape with my students using the work of two artists. One is a personal hero of mine and a huge inspiration in my work, Ana Mendieta. While still a student in March 1973 she was deeply affected by the brutal rape and murder of nursing student, Sarah Ann Ottens, at the University of Iowa. In response to the attack on Otten, by another student, Mendieta invited her fellow students to her apartment where, through a door left purposefully ajar, they found her tied to a table and smeared with blood. This tableau recreated the scene as reported in the press. Later, Mendieta recalled that her audience “all sat down, and started talking about it. I didn’t move. I stayed in position about an hour. It really jolted them.” She further commented that the rape had ‘moved and frightened’ her: “I think all my work has been like that – a personal response to a situation … I can’t see being theoretical about an issue like that.” She said that she created the work “as a reaction against the idea of violence against women”.

Ana-Mendieta.-Rape-Scene.1973 (1)
The second artist , Emma Sulkowicz, references Mendieta’s piece more than 40 years later. A victim of rape at the hands of a fellow student after a party, Sulkowicz, after following all due processes without success, performed the endurance piece, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) (2014–2015). For 9 months (the length of a pregnancy) she carried a campus mattress around the university with her. Sulkowicz stated that the piece would end when the student she alleged raped her in her dorm room in 2012 was expelled from or otherwise left the university. This did not happen and she attended her graduation ceremony with the mattress. The President of the university, Lee Bollinger, in a hissy fit brought on by Emma carrying the mattress onto the stage, refused to shake her hand when she received her degree.

JPPROTEST-master675The reason I selected these 2 works to speak to the students about is not just because I feel that we should be addressing the problem of the rape culture we live in. We so obviously should! I also wanted to illustrate how really personal and extremely invasive these works were. Both artists used their own living spaces and their own bodies in very a publicised way to speak about something that they felt very strongly about. And this is the power of performance art, the fact that it is so very personal and that there is little remove between artist and viewer. It is a living art and this is the major reason why I have involved myself so completely in it. There is no other art form that will take you so very far out your comfort zone as performance art will do. And your work will be all the better for it. For me it is a starting point from where I can speak about and address so many issues. But I always begin with myself and performance. This ensures that I do not speak for others, I speak for myself. It is my voice and my conviction, and I believe that makes all the difference.

mattress (1)




All this talk of these awful things made me think of one of my favourite poems:

I once knew a girl who loved
Things most people shun.
Every man she ever loved was
Terrible to her, terrible
I tell you.
But there was something
About them that intrigued
Her – she liked broken things,
Broken people.
To her, if there was
Nothing to fix there was
Nothing to love.

– Christopher Poindexter

The Treachery of Images


The Belgian surrealist painter, René Magritte, he of the infamous “pipe” painting: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, “This is not a pipe”, in equally obtuse fashion, apparently said to someone asking him to explain what he meant by one of his works, “if could do that I wouldn’t need to paint them”.


Now Magritte may have said that, but I have found that in general artists love speaking about their work. I definitely do, but in my defence I love speaking about art, period. With my own I just have more insight into it, which is quite logical, and probably makes the talk more (I have been told this by people who have attended my lectures) heartfelt and passionate…and also informative, I suppose. So I use this in way of introducing the fact that in the past two weeks I have been interviewed twice about my exhibition at the artSPACE Gallery, Prick! Subverting the Stitch.















Above: Self-portrait 2013-3 am (2015).

The first one, and I was really humbled by this, was by a third year fine arts student from Rhodes University. She had an assignment which required her to review an exhibition and she chose mine! Me, being written about by a university student! An academic interest shown! The kind of thing an academic conceptual artist such as myself lives for! Here are the questions she asked and my answers:

1.) When/how did you start making art? Why do you make art?

I have always loved all the arts and I suppose I was what people called “an arty kid”. Despite this I never really had the confidence to fully commit to it, and as a boy in a tough neighbourhood I was never really encouraged to either. I suppose it was because I grew up in a low to low-middle class suburb and went to an all-boys school where art was not even offered to a matric level. As a result I honestly did not have much exposure to art whilst growing up apart from the odd craft class. I am reminded of something Scarlett Johansson’s character, Vicky or Cristina, I forget which, says in the Woody Allen movie: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).


“I just have to come face to face with the fact that I am not talented, you know. I can appreciate and I love music but … It’s sad, really. I feel like I have a lot to express and I’m not gifted.”


Awesome movie!


Sadly that is how I thought of myself: an art appreciator but never an art participator. As a result I walked around with this huge hole in my life that nothing I did seemed to fill. The truth is that you will always go back to what you love and I would repeatedly do this with art. I ran a décor and interior design company and then eventually ended up in the fashion industry which in turn eventually led to me getting into creating art and then exhibiting. As I acquired skills my confidence grew, and so did my thirst for all that was art, so I decided to go back to university and study art. I did this part-time through UNISA and am at the moment doing my masters through them. I also lecture for them now, mentoring the Kwazulu-Natal students.


As for why I create art, for me it is an integral part of who I am. I have a need to create and to communicate, to speak to people, through my visual language. The world can be a pretty grim place and this is because of the human race. Art reminds me that we are capable of more than just taking or destroying, it gives me hope. This is something I want to share with people. When I work on an exhibition I always have this in mind, so my goals are to entertain the viewer but also to educate and inform them.


2.) What is your preferred medium and why?

I am a conceptual artist so I tend to choose my medium based on what my theme is. Performance (my body) and embroidery (thread and stitch) appear in a lot of my exhibitions because my work often deals with gender issues. But if I had to select a medium purely based on the enjoyment of using it, it would have to be oil paints. I love the painterly, the joyful feeling of creating form and space on a 2-D surface is an experience like nothing else. Oils have their very own character and personality too, and the more you use them the more they become a part of who you are as an artist. They become friends you converse with or sometimes just hang-out with in your studio and on the canvas.


3.) Have you ever stepped out of your comfort zone and discovered a whole new genre of art? How did it turn out?

Two words: performance art! Way, way, way out of my comfort zone! I highly recommend every artist try it at least once. It is all about the body (un) comfortable, not only yours but your viewer’s too. For my third year practical requirements at UNISA, as the artist, swany, I explored the nature of my Gaze. I selected five performance artists to focus on: Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), Carolee Schneemann (1939), Mary Beth Edelson (1933), Hannah Wilkes (1940-1993) and Marina Abramovic (1946). Inspired by their work I chose to turn the gaze upon myself in an attempt to experience a little of what these women, and women in general, experience. The work consisted of an installation, visual works, a documented performance and the resultant video, and utilized the five selected feminist performance artists, and my presence as well as the audience to investigate, interrogate and comment on this relationship. I performed the exhibition piece, Gaze (2012), at artSPACE Durban. I shed my hair in it as a form of ritual cleansing and shame/grief/sacrifice before altars of each of the artists I admire.


Was it successful? On a personal level, and also as an artist, certainly. I grew tremendously from the experience. I learnt that our body is the very centre of our symbolic universe. It is a tiny model for humankind,  and simultaneously, a metaphor for the larger socio-political body. If we are capable of establishing all these connections in front of an audience, there is hope that they will recognize them in their own bodies. However, it is important to remember that the same thing that makes this possible also proves to be what makes performance art so very dangerous. There is very little remove between artist and audience/viewer. You have no control whatsoever over the audience/viewer. This is the challenge of performance art. This is what makes it so liberating and intoxicating but also what makes it so terrifying and hurtful. Often you get to experience both which I did.


From the Gaze exhibition I took what I had learnt and for my honours degree created Proof of Life (2013) which was extremely successful and for which I received distinctions from the university. If you go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esoe8bg3iLI there is a video of this work.


 4.) What, in your opinion is the hardest step in creating a masterpiece?

Ha ha, oh my lord! A masterpiece? Convincing yourself that you are capable of creating a masterpiece, I suppose?! Creating it and then convincing others that it is a masterpiece! What I hope you get from that is the one thing which I believe prevents an artist, or anyone for that matter, from creating: a fear of failure. You should never be afraid to fail. Failure means you are doing, it means you are learning, it means you are experiencing. Importantly it means you are in the game! Self-doubt is one of the biggest obstacles an artist faces.


5.) What inspires you? What inspired the idea behind Prick! Subverting the Stitch?

I was raised by women, notably my widowed mother, so the role models in my life have always been women. As an artist this remains the same.  I am a pro-feminist man and in my artwork I explore gender issues using embroidery and stitching to deconstruct certain societal perceptions: 1) that it is a craft associated with the feminine and not considered an art form, 2) the manner in which I create it which is associated with the masculine (in a factory, on production lines) as well as the non-creative, reproduction of banal images. Those things are generally at the centre of my work but if I am totally honest I am stimulated by virtually everything. As an artist you tend to see the world, and by “see” I mean “SEE”. In general the average person tends to just look at the world (and I realize I am being a little elitist here but it is what it is) while artists are continually questioning, deconstructing, imagining and re-imagining what they are seeing. I always warn my first year students that their year is going to make them incredibly uncomfortable because they are going to begin to see the world in a completely new way and it will never look the same again. So to return to your question, what inspired “Prick!”?, it was my exploration of embroidery, , challenging the traditional decorative connotations of embroidery and deliberately going against the assumed decorativeness of needle and thread.


6.) Is there an artwork that you are most proud of in the exhibition? Why?

Ah, tough question to ask any creative person…or parent for that matter. They are all your children and you love them all in different ways. I suppose if I had to choose one it would be “Merica, Fck Yeah! 2012”. It is probably my most personal piece (more so even then the self-portrait) in the exhibition. It took 3 years to complete and reflects my failed emigration (my green card fell through) to the USA in 2012 to become a full-time artist. Present are images/icons of my childhood saints as well as of my broken dreams. As usual I also question stereotypes and social constructs by using embroidery and stitching and the juxtaposition of images and media.

Below: Merica,  Fck Yeah! 2012 (2015)








The second interview by an arts journalist was for a regional newspaper. Here are the questions and my answers:


  1. What does your work in the exhibition, Prick! Subverting the Stitch represent/symbolise?

The works in this exhibition represent approximately 3 years of experimentations with embroidery, stitching and thread. These explorations of embroidery are also an exploration of gender, and reflect my continued struggle against societal constraints and prejudices. If we consider that masculinities and femininities are constructed by the societies we are part of then our behaviour and perceptions are therefore determined by them. I use specific images and instances from popular culture to illuminate this in an attempt to deconstruct these societal constricts. I also locate myself in this society in this exhibition in a self-portrait holding up a local newspaper. In particular I juxtapose these “pop” images with critical text to make clear the subversive messages they present and the behaviours they re-enforce.


  1. Can you tell me a bit more about your work in terms of the mediums you use?

As the title of the exhibition alludes to, my chief medium has been embroidery thread. I am a conceptual artist so I tend to choose my medium based on what my theme or concept is. Performance (my body) and embroidery (thread and stitch) appear in a lot of my exhibitions because my work often deals with gender issues. I challenge the traditional decorative connotations of embroidery deliberately going against the assumed decorativeness of needle and thread. There is a sense of brutal force applied to fabric that often feels like a violation, an attack. The viewer is made aware of the piercing of, the sheer trauma of the process. I achieve this by layering stitches over stitches and juxtapose this with areas where I purposefully leave them out so the fabric shows through, wound-like. I will provide you with examples to illustrate what I mean: my self-portrait work consists of 1200000 stitches (over 1 million), each of my “Playboy” works contains at least 60000 stitches. The sheer volume of stitches adds a weight and presence that the viewer is subconsciously, uncomfortably aware of, like a predator in long grass, sensed but not seen.



  1. In terms of your creative process, where do you get your ideas from?

I am a pro-feminist man so my ideas/concepts are generally generated by this. I have an intense interest in how we construct gender identities in our societies and how inequalities and subjugation are enforced with, ironically, very little force. We play the roles that society dictates to us. I focus this interest with an immense amount of research. I consider myself an academic conceptual artist therefore research is as important as making. Thus my creative process can almost be considered practise-based research. I am at present busy with my masters in visual arts which will be concerned with these societal constructs so the “Prick!” exhibition can almost be considered a forerunner or a practise run of the exhibition I have to present for that degree. So to get back to the question: the idea is sparked by gender issues and my awareness of them, informed and underpinned by the research I carry out to fully understand them, and then the visual is created through a rigorous making ritual and presented to the viewer in an effort to deconstruct and disrupt perceptions.



  1. What can audiences expect from attending the exhibition and viewing your work?

I quote Mariska Karasz’s, Adventure in Stitches (1949):  “Free yourself of any traditional concept of what embroidery should be …”


IMG_3454 (Small)



So what do you take from this? Well, when I look at my responses retrospectively I get to see kind of where I am in my career as an artist and that is kind of cool. This is why I enjoy speaking about my work (and yes, it is also narcissistic to a certain extent). Speaking about your work requires you to think critically about it, to review it and to provide your own response to it. This is the gift that the student and the journalist afforded me and this is why I am humbled and grateful when people have the interest and take the time to ask me questions about something I have created. So I always relish the challenge of questions asked about my work. Ask away, dear  viewer, ask away!