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Monday, October 24, 2011


Dan Cook – The Durban Years Tribute by Virginia MacKenny

Dan Cook was a prominent figure in Durban art circles in the 80s and 90s before he left for Johannesburg to pursue new challenges. Working for over 20 years at the Durban University of Technology or Technikon Natal, as it was then known, Cook’s specialities were Perceptual Studies and Art History. A painter himself who produced optically nuanced colour abstract work, he was also much in demand for his critical input and opinion in the studios.

Cook was an exemplary teacher. He introduced students in their training to all aspects of aesthetics and perception. His knowledge of art was profound and he had a prodigious memory for facts, but it was his ability to guide and inspire students that probably etched a memory of him into the hearts of many who came under his tutelage. More than a teacher he was a mentor who fostered not only artistic growth, but also personal development. A father/mother-figure rolled into one he was deeply empathetic and his ability to engage a student’s particular needs was profound. Walks in Botanical Gardens with tea and crumpets and ‘the works’ (syrup and cream) were a legendary means to getting to the bottom of a problem. Encouraging students to be their best made him someone that many students turned to in times of crisis, both academic and personal, and he remained friends with many of them long after they had graduated.

Cook’s interest in the emotional and creative interior life was matched by his fascination with the world around him. He frequently brought current affairs into his lectures and at home eschewed fiction for fact in his reading. As a consequence his general knowledge was vast and it was matched by an acute ability to retain detail allowing him to pull the most astonishing range of facts and figures into a conversation. Despite never having left the shores of South Africa, for instance, he was so well-travelled mentally that when a visiting lecturer from the Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed Glasgow School of Art came to the Tech and showed slides, Cook was able to identify where in the building the photographs were taken. The visitor, on asking if he had visited the school, was very much surprised to discover he had never been there.

Larger than life in many senses of the word, Cook had an intelligence and wicked wit that was often pointed and highly irreverent. Challenging and provocative, his energy was often volatile and disruptive of complacency. Touting the adage that “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” when he wanted things to change, he would energetically pursue an issue until it had been dealt with. While many can vouch that he was not always easy to get along with, there are many more who know that a conversation with him could prove life-changing.

As a colleague he was supportive, impassioned, interested and caring. Time was always made for conversation and pedagogical issues were engaged with enthusiasm.

As a writer, Cook had not only a good turn of phrase, but also the ability to pack the meagre space of a review (a 300 word limit) with great density. Often providing a history lesson, pertinent description and a measured critique in its limited span, he was both supportive of artists as well as demanding in his expectations of the work reviewed. During the 80s, a time when the country was in political lock-down, he was not afraid to engage the politics embedded in work and I remember a particularly illuminating review on the colonial agenda of Pierneef’s landscape painting long before it became de rigeur to apply such scrutiny to art critical analysis.

The proscriptions of the apartheid regime constrained not only racial identity, but sexual orientation as well. As a gay man living under the shadow of legal prosecution Cook was sensitised to the prohibitions of his time and context. He had enormous personal courage and was a strong supporter of the underdog in any context. We jokingly, and seriously, granted him an honorary position as a feminist, given his principles of equality for all.

Acknowledging difference as a fundamental right he was idiosyncratic and particular, some might even say eccentric. For many years he avoided owning a telephone, believing that if someone really needed to get hold of him they would find a way. Monkish on some levels while devoted to the aesthetic and the sensuous on another, Cook was a multitude of apparent contradictions. His intense consciousness of design was prevalent in everything he touched and possessed except the car he owned for many years – a battered, yellow Toyota that was instantly recognisable. He could be generous in the extreme and also deeply cutting in his satirical take on the world. He cared deeply for others’ happiness yet often neglected his own wellbeing.

Always willing to go to extraordinary lengths for a friend in need I learnt from him, benefitted from aesthetic eye, his generosity, his compassion, his hospitality and cooking. I loved him dearly and hope he finds peace. – Virginia MacKenny