It turns out that trying to compile a selective list of arts and entertainment personalities who have passed away over the year is not easy. And it is certainly not enjoyable.
Glancing through Wikipedia’s list of “notable” people who have died in 2011 feels a bit like that awkward moment in the Oscars where they round up Hollywood personalities who have recently passed away — there are many people you recognise, but many more where you just clap politely until the next big name comes up on the list.
And, of course, there is no way to compile a list without it feeling like you are making a huge value judgment about whether or not someone’s life and career is worth noting and remembering.
With that in mind, here are just some of the people who made a mark on the local and international scene, and who took their final curtain call in 2011.
On May 10, and 17 years to the day after he led the musical festivities at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, South African jazz genius Zim Ngqawana passed away. The last years of his life had been far from easy, with personal and professional setbacks sometimes overshadowing his passion for his art. The Mail & Guardian‘s Percy Zvomuya attended his funeral, and wrote a moving, personal response to Ngqwana’s passing.
Distinguished and influential South African poet, essayist, critic and academic Stephen Watson passed away on April 10. In nine volumes of poetry, beginning with Poems 1977-1982, published in 1982, and ending with The Light Echo and Other Poems published in 2007, Watson established himself as one of South Africa’s foremost poets, with his work focussing on the complexity of human relationships and the beauty of the natural world. A professor and long-serving member of the department of English at the University of Cape Town (UCT), he was in recent years also the director of the highly successful Centre for Creative Writing at UCT.
Italian-born South African sculptor Edoardo Villa died on May 4 at the age of 95. Villa came to South Africa during World War II as a prisoner of war after being captured in Egypt with about 63 000 other Italians, and remained in the country after the war. His works featured abstract, geometric and industrial forms, as well as highly stylised representations of the human body, and he represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale five times. He was one of South Africa’s most collectable artists. In 1995, to celebrate the artist’s 80th birthday, the Edoardo Villa Museum was opened at the University of Pretoria.
Artist Leon Botha, one of the world’s longest surviving progeria sufferers, and photographer Gordon Clark embark on a collaborative and artistic adventure, exploring the questions of destiny and immortality to bring us this powerful photo series Who Am I? Transgressions.
South African artist, DJ, and one of the world’s longest surviving progeria sufferers Leon Botha finally succumbed to complications related to his illness on June 5 at the age of 26. He found international recognition after collaborating with Die Antwoord and featuring in the music video for their single Enter the Ninja. In the years before his death, Botha had collaborated with photographer Gordon Clarke on a series of portraits that were collected in the Transcend and Transgress exhibition, a show that was exhibited internationally.
An important chapter of art history closed with the death of Lucien Freud on July 20 at the age of 88, grandson of Sigmund and widely considered to be the greatest modern portrait artist. Freud’s career spanned a tumultuous period of art history. Freud was a contemporary of artists such as David Hockney and Francis Bacon, and was an important figure in the birth of British modernism. The characteristic “fleshiness” of his paintings was achieved with layers and layers heavily of pigmented, chalky paints applied in an impasto style. He avoided depictions of traditional beauty, often depicting characters with emaciated frames or who were obese. He held the record for the highest prices commanded by a living artist.
Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor passed away on March 23 at the age of 79. She was a true icon of the golden age of Hollywood, even in her later years, and despite her struggles with ill health and addiction, her name still conjured up images of old school glamour and grace. She was almost as famous for her tumultuous personal life, marriages and extravagant jewellery collection as she was for her roles in classic films such as National Velvet and Cleopatra. She was also recognised for her support of gay rights in the US and for highlighting issues around HIV and Aids.
In May, American poet and jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron died at the age 62. Perhaps best known for his spoken-word track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, he was considered by many to be the godfather of rap, influencing a whole generation of young black Americans to express themselves and assert their identities through rhymes and rhythms. His career was often disrupted by personal problems and addictions, but he remains one of America’s most rebellious and influential voices.
Twenty-seven-year-old Amy Winehouse was found dead in her London apartment on July 23. The Rehab singer’s struggles with addictions and substance abuse were well-documented, and many assumed that an overdose of illegal drugs was the cause of her death. It was later discovered however that she had died from severe alcohol poisoning. A week after her death, her 2006 album Back to Black topped the charts, and tributes to the singer continue to be held at music award ceremonies in Europe and the US. A posthumous album, Lioness, is due to be released soon.
View more highlights of the year that was in our special report.