Oh, for more meat on these bones

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: A MONOLOGUE IN TWO VOICES by Sandra Saayman (Fourthwall books)

A celebration of anti-apartheid activist, author, poet and artist Breyten Breytenbach, who set pages of text alight with his fresh and angry metaphors and bold descriptions of police brutality – and who made drawings and paintings that highlighted the indignities of imprisonment with a fierce and unique alphabet of anguish, wit and the unexpected – is always something to look forward to.

But the value of Sandra Saayman’s study has been depleted because of its lack of context and the obvious absence of comfortable funding.

A great sense of poetry, as well as nostalgia for formal analysis in both literature and visual art, is evoked in this small, humble book, which takes an incisive scalpel to some of the written and visual work of the one-time political prisoner.

Containing his voice as much it contains that of the author and critic, the book promises to lead us into the work, but doesn’t follow through convincingly on all its promises.


According to Wikipedia, Breytenbach, a fine art graduate from the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, was born in 1939. A committed opponent of apartheid, he angered the verkrampte Afrikaner establishment with his outspoken views and writings, and left South Africa for Paris in the early 1960s. His marriage to Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien, a woman of Vietnamese ancestry, made it difficult for him to return to the country of his birth because of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act.

Betrayued by the ANC
Mistrusted and subsequently betrayed by the ANC – for reasons not explained in the Wikipedia stub – Breytenbach was arrested in 1975 while on an illegal trip to South Africa. He was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for high treason, and was subsequently accused of terrorism while in jail.

Most of the charges were eventually dropped due to a lack of evidence – he was only found guilty of having smuggled letters and poems out of prison – and he was released in 1982, whereupon he returned to Paris.

Today, he is an honoured academic, creative writer and artist who is recognised the world over.

Sadly, none of this biographical information is present in Saayman’s book. Indeed, the word “apartheid” only appears once – in the last few pages of the text. In her focus on the minutiae of some of Breytenbach’s drawings, down to things such as the size of images reproduced in other monographs on Breytenbach or, for that matter, the rust stains left from a paperclip on some drawings illegally smuggled out of the jail in which he was held at the time, the relevance of the man himself becomes subsumed and ignored. And it’s an awful pity.

Breytenbach during the 1960s and beyond was a tremendously prolific poet, writer and artist, in Afrikaans, French and English, with a reach of immense wisdom and subversiveness in his work.

He was one of the voices the apartheid government, try as it might, was not capable of shutting up, but he’s also someone who has slipped into critical obscurity because of the passage of time. Devastatingly, this book doesn’t really serve to eliminate that problem.

A Monologue in Two Voices begins with the premise that, in the case of an artist who writes, or a writer who paints, either the visual or the literary will take pre-cedence and define the oeuvre.

Saayman suggests that the veins running through Breytenbach’s paintings and drawings and his written work lie close to one another, and the life flowing through them is identically quirky and brilliant.

Unequivocal aplomb
She justifies this position with unequivocal aplomb by means of critical writing that feels redolent of an earlier timeframe, when analysis of artwork was taken seriously and commanded a satisfying quantity of column space.

A senior lecturer in South African literature and culture studies at the University of Réunion, with research credentials at the University of Johannesburg and the University of Poitiers in France, Saayman writes with academic attention to detail. The book is replete with footnotes and references to artworks, which make it a study in itself, compelling you to flip backward and forward in your perusal of Saayman’s claims.

The size of the publication is the project’s biggest anachronism, but perhaps the one most revealing given the contemporary squeeze affecting the print industry. This book is the skeletal version of a serious visual study. With the same content and better-quality reproductions of the visual works, it could easily have been stretched into a folio-sized hardcover book, held a different level of authority and fitted into the art-historical litany with ease.

As it stands, in soft covers between a deep purple dust cover and in 84 tightly designed pages, it feels sadly flimsy and lacking in the credibility it warrants.

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Robyn Sassen
Robyn Sassen
A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and artslink.co.za and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

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