Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Beyond the Past: National Arts Festival

A horizontal line drawn across Lindiwe Matshikiza’s naked back extends beyond her body on to a wall she is pressed up against. She won’t stand still, however, so the line doesn’t remain straight. Every time she shifts her shoulders, the line curls and jerks. She is denying the line’s horizontality; she is uncomfortable it ibeing written on her body, though this is what gives her leverage, allowing her to manipulate it. It’s the final scene in Ster City, a filmed insert announcing the end of this absurd drama, which has seen her and Nicholas Welch attempt to act out, describe, the history of SA in the space of an hour. This is the “line” that they have been charting; our history stretching back to the displacement of the Khoisan before the colonials arrived.
This impulse to (re)present SA history is a defining feature at this year’s National Arts Festival. Matshikiza and Welch attempt a linear retelling, but the tale seems jumbled. Mostly, this is because their dialogue moves between French, English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa and Tswana, sometimes coalescing, breaking down into an indecipherable syncretic language, a constantly shifting Fanagalo. At times Welch’s dialogue degenerates into an angry rap, his body jolts as he stutters and spits the words out.
Matshikiza and Welch, who play themselves, are also obviously products of the hybrid society they chart, but want to blur the lines between the separate strands of our past, which are so clearly delineated, ethnically and racially. In other words, they want to overturn the history they are burdened by. Through the fusion of diverse languages they can reknit it. Retelling offers this kind of flexibility, though there are limits, too, because you can’t change what has happened.
This over-layering of historical narratives, embracing the multitude of perspectives that impedes fashioning history into a single line underpins Mikhael Subotzky’s Moses and Griffiths, a filmic work, which showed in the Gallery in the Round. He makes this point by presenting four screens showing footage of interviews with two of Grahamstown’s custodians of history – tour guides. The sound bounces from one screen to another, making it impossible to follow each of the men’s stories of the town that are punctuated with personal anecdotes. It’s not that the truth is unstable: it just doesn’t belong to one voice.
Subotzky wasn’t the only artist interested in probing the psycho-geography of this Eastern Cape hamlet that plays host to this annual festival. Polis, an interdisciplinary series of presentations by Athina Vahla, Ford Evanson, Mark Wilby and Anton Kruger, also attempted to map this territory. Echoes of Grahamstown’s vexed colonial past framed the displays at the Provost, a historical building that once functioned as a jail, where part of Ruth Simbao’s Making Way: Contemporary Art from South Africa & China was on show.

But why talk about history at all? Why not chart an imagined future, or the present? In the case of Ster City, an experimental production originating from France – it is part of the travelling Carnets Sud/Nord festival – perhaps they felt obliged to explain who they are to that audience. But they don’t tell the ‘whole’ story: the apartheid era is conspicuous by its absence, though they draw attention to their omission. There is a sense that they cannot enter this territory. Is it too heavy, too overdone or too close?

In Itsoseng, playwright and performer Omphile Molusi delves into the apartheid era, but he is only interested in isolating the strategies of protest that were employed then, showing how futile and self-destructive they were.
Sitting on his suitcase, ready to leave this dysfunctional township of Itsoseng, he reflects back as a means to understand why it is that his community is grounded by the curse of poverty, a condition “where love is not enough”. Change has never come, asserts Molusi in this powerful one-hander.
Artist Maureen de Jager mines her distant past in the exhibition Maria’s Story, mapping the struggle of tracing and then retracing the steps of her great-grandmother Maria, who suffered in a British-run concentration camp during the Anglo-Boer War. A profound sense of distance marks the series of work.
It is in the process of tracing, reduplicating documents, texts from a journal, photographs, these historical artefacts that De Jager attempts to reconnect with her history, a time before white society is cast as a unified homogeneous entity, when the English and Afrikaner were at war. Through her work, Jager, who is English-speaking, reclaims her Afrikaner heritage, one where the Afrikaner is the victim rather than the oppressor.
Many works, particularly those designed to address European audiences, conform to that popular post-colonial desire to “speak back” to the Empire. Brett Bailey’s Exhibit A ironically had several successful runs around Europe, despite the fact that it catalogues the atrocities those societies have visited upon the African body, since colonial times until the present.

Bailey uses a vehicle Europeans are familiar with; the exhibition – not just the human exhibitions of the 1900s, where Africans were displayed like curious objects, but also the ethnological museum, where African culture was viewed through a quasi-scientific prism. Naturally, he puts a twist on it. In each room of his perverse museum is a live subject or subjects, posing like immovable museum objects, while portraying a historical horror. The acts become more perverse as you progress through the dark leaf-strewn museum; decapitated heads on plinths become animated as they become united in an elegiac chant. It’s like the dead have returned to haunt the living.
The acts are unspeakable, grotesque. In one mise-en-scène, a woman sits on a stage surrounded by glass shards. The text that accompanies this display explains how women used shards to scrape off the flesh from the skulls of Africans set for export to Europe. You can’t scrutinise the scene as you would in a museum because you are being watched by the individual tendered for display. Their eyes meet yours, you look away. The victims seem more real as you encounter present-day abuses; the Congolese refugee and an ageing coloured woman who is seated in front of toilets above which hangs the sign “non-whites”. This theatre of victimhood and abuse is highly emotive stuff – “it’s the show guaranteed to make white women cry”, boasts Bailey when I meet him outside. We argue for a few hours. It’s a problematic work that reaffirms the stereotype of the Africans as victims. Their agency is in the subversion; the fact that the victims are actors; it is the audience that is on display, proposes Bailey. Viewers are meant to confront their own guilt – complicity in the atrocities or even their ignorance of them should induce it. It’s a farce from both sides; a game that exposes a desire to scrutinise others, the thrill of the grotesque, which is masked, erased and forgiven by the subsuming guilt that automatically ensues.
There are problems with the historical line that Bailey constructs in which present-day abuses – refugees who suffocate during their deportation from Europe – are linked to those from colonial times. The slippage between victim and oppressor looms large when you view refugees and think of how they are treated by Africans – the xenophobic attacks of 2008 come to mind. He can’t include this event because it undermines the position of Africans as victims. Is it Africans who refuse to permit themselves to be seen as anything other than victims? What does it mean when a white man attempts to catalogue offences against black bodies? Bailey’s inclusion of an apartheid-era scene might atone for his own complicity in this litany of abuse. But it’s not an authentic platform for redress; he is flogging this theatre of victimhood to the guilty as part of their own false desire to seek temporary redemption through art. It’s a twisted dynamic because guilt can only be appeased through the play of victimhood. And so he must manufacture, conjure them from the past.
Steven Cohen revisits several histories in Cradle of Humankind; not only the very distant past – as the title suggests – but a more recent one, which has complicated his relationship with his fellow performer, Nomsa Dhlamini, a 90-year-old woman who once served as his domestic worker. In other words, their affiliation is not that which is usually shared between performers; it is a loaded one that epitomises not only the unequal power relations between black and whites during the apartheid era, but a twisted dynamic, in which an intimacy is shared. Like many nannies of that past era, Dhlamini would have been counted as a member of the white family she served, though she wasn’t treated like other family members. A situation that fostered a kind of twisted one-way intimacy and then eventual separation from the child in her care as he would become absorbed into white society. Cohen and Dhlamini act out the progression of this relationship; she pulls him out of a small cocoon, birthing him, before we see the two separated because of their racial identity – obviously illustrated when the two stand on lit blocks on which their ID numbers and racial particulars are displayed. He eventually must betray her, placing animal paws on her hands and chaining them.
So how do they transcend this dynamic? In a way the performance is the only tool of transcendence; it is the only place where Cohen – and Dhlamini – can create a context in which they can meet on equal footing, both as performers, both naked. Of course, their nakedness isn’t the great equaliser: Dhalmini’s naked body carries a different history than Cohen’s. This is echoed in moments in which her nudity and primitive costume evokes images of Saartjie Baartman. While many are appalled at the idea of a woman of her age parading her ageing frame, this, ironically, is what compels interest in the show. And as some have cynically observed, this is the “new” shock factor that Cohen is using as leverage, now that his own naked antics have become prosaic.
But it’s not gratuitous nudity; he uses it to challenge the ideal dancer or performer’s body. It also allows him to generate a different kind of intimacy between them – nothing is hidden – though obviously in this stripping down he simply uncovers another set of ingrained social and political histories that are written on to the body. Cohen’s long-standing interest in slowing down its gestures, immobilising them by wearing shoes that impede freedom of movement, can be quite naturally attained through Dhlamini, whose ageing body simply isn’t capable of any fast, or grand, gestures.

Is there a way of rewriting their relationship and the way in which the audience reads them, their naked bodies? The far distant past gleaned at the Cradle of Humankind seems to offer the transcendence he craves; by returning to the beginning of humankind they can retrace their steps. Video footage showing the two wandering around inside caves, gazing at the stalactites and stalagmites protruding from the rock, suggests a return is possible; the history is visible in the dripping rock. It’s a seemingly apolitical period, a sort of prelapsarian state, where Cohen and Dhlamini are cast as Adam and Eve before they have succumbed to evil. To keep the illusion of the transcendence intact they must roam it in costume, as themselves – but not themselves.
In her adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which in its Africanisation becomes Mies Julie, Yael Farber offers a very bleak view of interracial relationships in the post-apartheid era.
Like Cohen, she, too, harnesses the master-servant dynamic to comment on the status quo. Characteristically, Farber’s play starts on a high note; the tension between Julie (Hilda Cronje), the daughter of the farm owner and the domestic worker’s son, John (Bongile Mantsai), are palatable as the heat of the day loosens the cork that has kept emotions and resentments bottled up. There is no reprieve from the tension that simply builds.
As a result, this play only ever hits one note: anxiety, though it intensifies, leading towards a bloody denouement – the only release.
John and Julie are in love, their connection is deep, stretching back to their childhood, though they grew up on different sides of the fence. This strange or unlikely intimacy, which underpins Cohen’s work, is what complicates their relationship, too; it prevents them from despising each other but is, paradoxically, what feeds their hatred – as it disrupts their power games.
This production feels dated, however, its heavy tone evokes theatrical products from the late 1990s and the dynamics of the relationship are far too overstated.
The playing field, has shifted; the flowering of racial relations are not played out between master and servant but in offices, corporate settings, country clubs and parties where a different kind of dance on equal ground has evolved. Cohen and Farber, who have both lived abroad for some time, clearly can only conceive of relations through this dated prism, that previously provided the only point of contact for black and white people.
Farber arrives at a pessimistic conclusion – “love is not possible in this mess”, states John. In this way she suggests that historical baggage or wounds cannot be healed. This echoes Molusi’s observation that love cannot mend the broken society in the township of Itsoseng. For Molusi, who is more tuned in to present conditions, it is not the former “master” who is to blame for this state of paralysis, but the new one that was installed after the 1994 elections.
Another cycle has taken over, and this is the line that he traces, though he, too, in anger, resists it being written on to his body, defining his existence. -published in The Sunday Independent, July 15, 2012.
Pic: Cradle of Humankind taken by John Hogg in Paris

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