Friday, June 27, 2008
South African Art Critic Walks Free
CAPE TOWN—On June 9, the case against Ivor Powell, perhaps South Africa’s finest art critic of the past two decades, was struck from the register of Cape Town Magistrates’ Court, with the local directorate for public prosecutions undecided whether to prosecute him.
The dismissal marked the end of a saga that began on January 22, when Powell, at this point a senior investigator with South Africa’s crime-busting Scorpions unit, was arrested on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol and resisting arrest after he sped away from police attempting to arrest Igshaan Davids, leader of the infamous Americans street gang, then wanted for car theft.
The story of how Powell ever got to that point is the stuff of fiction, a post-apartheid novel by J.M. Coetzee perhaps. A prominent South African art critic, disillusioned with the scope of his profession in a place quite remote from global arts capitals, switches from criticism to investigative journalism. He excels in his new role, so much so that he lands a plum job as an investigator with a new FBI-style criminal investigation unit established by presidential decree. In between drawing up reports on corrupt public officials, shady arms deals, and drug syndicates, he continues writing the odd review and catalog essay, even winning a prestigious national award for criticism. Then the agency starts investigating the deputy president and eventually raids his home. The deputy president is soon charged with corruption, and the newspapers are full of stories about factionalism within the ruling party, with allies of the former deputy president arguing that the criminal investigation unit is being used to neutralize political rivals.
At some point in this conflict, on a windy summer evening in January, with one or two essays due to editors, the 52-year-old “retired” critic goes drinking with the leader of Cape Town’s most notorious street gang. The choice of venue is a hotel in Woodstock, a seedy Cape Town neighborhood rapidly taking on a new face as galleries and advertising agencies colonize the area. It is when he leaves the bar that things unravel, completely.
Powell’s arrest that evening made national headlines, even claiming a slot during prime time evening news. Notably, the reporting around his arrest was sensational (“Top Scorpion arrested for drunk driving,” read one headline, another offering, “Media throng for Scorpions court case”) and showed little of the good humor that has characterized Powell’s writing over the years.
A former art history lecturer who turned full-time critic when he joined the Weekly Mail, a left-leaning weekly newspaper, in the late 1980s, Powell learnt his first beat while a member of Possession Arts, a pioneering neo-Dada artist group active during the early 1980s. Unlike the careers of many of his contemporaries, including Jane Alexander, whom he championed early on, Powell never achieved the success his abilities as a critic and polemicist deserved. After the failure of Ventilator, a short-lived post-apartheid art magazine launched in September 1994 and edited by Powell, he started concentrating on investigative journalism, which eventually led to his appointment with the Scorpions.
Powell’s arrest happened during a period of intense debate about the role and purpose of the Scorpions, with the country’s ruling ANC party having recently voted that the agency’s activities be reigned in and integrated into the South African Police Service. To some commentators, the critic was merely a fall guy in a complicated game of political chess. In any event, nearly six months following his arrest, Powell walked out of the courthouse a free man.
Fittingly, during the media squall surrounding his arrest, when rumors of Powell’s precarious mental state abounded, he authored a critical essay for his longtime friend, painter Ricky Burnett. A literate defense of neo-expressionist painting, Powell’s catalog essay also read like a Dostoevsky-style “prison diary.”
Although unreachable for comment by phone, Powell was recently spotted in Woodstock again, albeit at a posh gallery opening.
Photo courtesy of Essa Alexander and the "Times".
Story by Sean O'Toole.