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?