Lucian Freud (David Viviers), Picasso (Jemma Kahn) and Francis Bacon (Tony Miyambo) ham it up. Picture: WOORDFEES/RETHA FERGUSON
Lucian Freud (David Viviers), Picasso (Jemma Kahn) and Francis Bacon (Tony Miyambo) ham it up. Picture: WOORDFEES/RETHA FERGUSON

Is Jemma Kahn a vampire artist who sucks the little blood available in the anaemic necks of our arts patronage system to make works only she benefits from? Her latest, The Borrow Pit, alludes to the spot where soil and stones are excavated to be used on the adjacent construction site, to be left to the elements afterwards.

In her own words then, has she merely turned the Young Artist award from Standard Bank into a hollowed pit, in her rendition of the stories of two British artists, with reputations for being spoilt, selfish brats? Or as the PR material put it, is art more important than people?

I saw it some days ago at the Stellenbosch Woordfees, apparently an expanded version of the piece that debuted in Grahamstown in 2018. Judging from comments after the well-attended show, theatregoers were intrigued, but many did not quite get it, and were left unmoved. Should we be sponsoring such apparently irrelevant work? was the unasked question.

I loved it, and to the contrary, I believe it demonstrates precisely why sponsorships should come with maximum freedom and no strings attached.

In interviews Kahn admitted her fears for the piece, after she had foregone the advice to use her stipend to produce something commercially viable. Throwing all caution to the wind she upped the ante with the exotic theatre style she has been experimenting with in SA, the manishabai method from Japan which uses storyboard sketches drawn from boxes to tell a tale to street audiences. Applying the skills obtained through her second degree, in visual arts, she made about 170 paintings (aided by Rebecca Haysom), directed the show and played several parts. She got a lot of help from the cast and from a dramaturge, Jaco van Schalkwyk.

The plot roughly resembles the life stories of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, at the time of Bacon’s relationship with George Dyer, a cockney burglar, who was painted by both the artists in the distorted, “ugly” fashions for which they became notorious in the yellow press. Also dragged in is Lucian Freud’s love interest, the promiscuous aristocrat Caroline Blackwood. Both artists are members of a mysterious Paris club, as are Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Pablo Picasso. Later we discover they are vampires, lustily drawing from their sociopathic capacities for cruelty.​

Dyer, played by an excellent Wilhelm van der Walt, is the odd one out, street smart and tough as nails, but in the end no match for Bacon, who seduces him into his first gay relationship. Bacon wants rough handling, Dyer wants someone to love, and it all ends badly with the latter’s suicide days before a major Bacon exhibition opens in Paris, most of the works portraits of Dyer.

The Borrow Pit features about 170 paintings by Jemma Kahn and Rebecca Haysom. Picture: SUPPLIED
The Borrow Pit features about 170 paintings by Jemma Kahn and Rebecca Haysom. Picture: SUPPLIED

The stage paintings pulled by the actors from the boxes to tell the story, are simulacra of some iconic works in the 20th century modernist canon, often scattered with glitter. It creates a cheap, vaudevillean effect, the stuff of mass entertainment and low-budget marketing, which is so ubiquitous all over the world. Likewise the dialogue is delivered in a lacklustre, amateurish style, with lots of awkward asides to the audience.

When it first gets highlighted, the vampiric theme fills one with dismay, the suspicion that Kahn is self-indulgently overdoing it. But she camps up the vampire element to a C-grade version of what you would find in cinemas today. All of this accumulates into showing that not only does the artist borrow the stories all over again for her own narcissistic purposes, she couldn’t care less for proper production values, the sine qua non of the elitist culture industry.

As a critic with free tickets I was invited to use Kahn’s production as my own borrow pit, and it does fit in perfectly with a current bugbear of the journalism industry: what to do about fake news. The focus of the debate is most often on the contents of fake social media posts, websites, reports and clips, but what must also be doing damage to our sensibilities, is the poor aesthetic quality of the fakery.

Philosopher Jean Baudrillard has theorised the way our contemporary lives are shot through with simulacra, basic images being circulated in layers seven or eight times deep. Simulation and vulgarisation drive whole economies and political systems, especially in the South. Like a borrow pit, in the final analysis, our natural life is the victim, and globalisation spreads it everywhere.

Another bugbear we can suck blood for from Kahn’s production, is transformation quotas. Bacon is amusingly played by Tony Miyambo, whose acting skills are not in doubt, but in this case not much is demanded from him except a monotone delivery. His job is to put some black skin and a boep in the game, the resemblance is the opposite of Bacon, in an extreme of distortion.

There is no hint that Kahn used Miyambo simply to meet equity targets, but the logic of her show stops nobody else from using his presence in the cast in an argument that The Borrow Pit’s message is to show how demeaning, distortive and ultimately politically cheap transformation is.

Far from irrelevant, The Borrow Pit speaks to key aspects of our contemporary crises.