Union Internationale de la Marionnette

Non-Governmental Organization affiliated to UNESCO


It is with great sadness that the Unima International Research Commission acknowledges the passing of Professor Jane Taylor, a renowned South African writer, playwright, cultural critic and academic widely known for her long career in the field of puppetry and object performance and critique. Jane was a member of the Research Commission until 2022. She passed away peacefully at her home in Simonstown on Wednesday 6th September. We celebrate Jane’s immeasurable contributions to the field of theatre and puppet arts, cultural criticism and academia in South Africa and globally. Jane had returned to South Africa from her role as the Wole Soyinka Chair in Theatre at Leeds University in the UK in 2016, at the bequest of Professor Premesh Lalu, founding director of the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) at the University of the Western Cape. Jane was a member of the Aesthetics and Politics platform convened by Heidi Grunebaum (current director of the CHR) and a senior mentor and convenor of the Laboratory of Kinetic Objects (LoKO) as the Andrew W Mellon Chair of Aesthetic Theory and Material Performance from 2017-2022. During these recent years Jane gave critical mentorship to the Ukwanda Puppet Company (Siphokazi Mpofu, Sipho Ngxola and Luyanda Nogodlwana) and the Ukwanda Puppet Laboratory which is now housed at the new CHR Humanities Research Hub in Woodstock Cape Town. She was also a senior mentor on the Barrydale Giant Puppet Parade, an ongoing landmark puppetry event in the Klein Karoo of South Africa which began as a partnership between The Handspring Puppet Trust (of which Jane was a founding member), The Centre for Humanities Research, Net vir Pret and the Magpie Arts Collective. During this time period Jane was also highly involved with the work of The Centre for The Less Good Idea in Johannesburg , co-founded by Bronwyn Lace and Jane’s long term collaborator William Kentridge. Jane was instrumental in many Season workshops and attended the Season festivals every year and had worked closely with artists such as Phala O. Phala on new works. She was a seminal thinking partner and mentor for the Centre.

Born 19 April 1956, Jane Taylor’s prolific career spanned from the 1980s when she wrote widely on contemporary South African culture, and in 1987 she co-edited From South Africa with David Bunn (University of Chicago Press). The anthology documents the ‘Years of Emergency’ in the last decade of apartheid in South Africa, through new photography, graphics and literature. In 1996 she curated “Fault Lines,” an exhibition on truth and reconciliation, at Cape Town Castle. “Fault Lines” was also, more broadly, a series of cultural responses which she initiated in order to draw artists from the international community into exploring the discourses and practices of truth and reconciliation. In the same period Jane then wrote the world renowned playtext Ubu and the Truth Commission with artist/director William Kentridge and Handspring Puppet Company, which continues to be studied in many cultural, theatre and performance studies courses across the world. In 2001 she wrote the libretto for The Confessions of Zeno for William Kentridge and Handspring Puppet Company. With composer Kevin Volans, Taylor wrote this new piece of music theatre based on the work of Italo Svevo. Directed by the artist William Kentridge, the production was commissioned by DOKUMENTA, 2002. The piece opened at the KunstenFest in Brussels in 2001.

Taylor was a co-editor of Refiguring the Archive, a volume which surveyed the field of archive fever over the last decade (Kluwer Academic Press); and curated the exhibition, “Holdings”, which engaged with the question of value, the archive and memory.

Jane received Fellowships from Mellon and Rockefeller, was a visiting professor at Oxford and Cambridge universities and had for several years been a periodic Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago. From 2000 to 2009, she was the Skye Chair of Dramatic Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand. As part of a group of twelve playwrights commissioned to create a version of Cardenio, a lost play allegedly written by Shakespeare, she devised After Cardenio, which opened in Cape Town in August 2011. A new work of avant-garde puppet theatre, performed with a vellum puppet made by South African sculptor Gavin Younge, it was described as ‘a combination of sculptural puppetry, live performance, sound and visual art. The work was a meditation on the late works of William Shakespeare, and the lost play The History of Cardenio (registered 1653)’. The play was published through the South African Theatre Journal in 2012.

A renowned writer, she received the prestigious Olive Schreiner Prize for new fiction for Of Wild Dogs in 2006 and in 2009 she published The Transplant Men, a novel that examines the life of the South African heart surgeon, Chris Barnard. In 2009 Jane edited Handspring Puppet Company (David Krut Publications), a substantial study of this world-renowned South African performance troupe. In 2015 she wrote an article called ‘Contemporary Collaborators I: Kentridge/Handspring/Taylor’ in Middeke, Schnierer and Homann (2015), an insider’s view based on her work with William Kentridge and the Handspring Puppet Company’. In 2017, she published Being Led By the Nose (University of Chicago), a study of the artist/director William Kentridge’s production of Shostakovitch’s opera for the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Between 2018 and 2020 Jane continued her explorations in kinetic object performance and puppetry, creating a performance/lecture ‘Ne’er So Much the Ape’ [which takes its title from an old English adage, ‘ne’er so much the Ape as when he wears the doctor’s cape’] exploring the articulation of primate research, race theory, AI, and performance theory. Following on from this she wrote and performed the performance lecture PAN which was published alongside an academic essay for the Critical Times in 2019.