I’M NOT going to forget this scene. It’s raining and Donna Kukama is on the ground digging a hole with a pair of scissors. The hole or quasi-grave will be the final resting place for a vial of Kukama’s blood that I have titled Escape – it’s a personal monument of sorts that represents a landmark journey I made to London in 2011 and the outcome of Kukama’s work The Museum of Non-Permanence, which she debuted at this year’s National Arts Festival as part of her Standard Bank Young Artist Award.
For egotistical and artistic reasons I like the fact that her “big moment” on this annual arts platform will forever be tied to this invisible monument to my own history. This audience-centred work of hers is in such stark contrast to the majority of work at the festival, which seems to entail sitting in the dark and appreciating the artistic personas who step into the light, so to speak. But there is still the expectation for her to “perform” her role, I discover.
I have chosen for my mini-monument to be placed under a tree near the entrance to Settlers Monument, a monument to colonial and apartheid eras and now to severe ’70s architecture and the locus for cultural expression, given its centrality to this festival.
In response to a town populated by monuments Kukama set out to establish invisible ones that escape notice, she explains to me, while her efforts at digging seem to have not got anywhere. A spade would have helped. She isn’t quite prepared in more ways than one. In her handbag she has all the paraphernalia for this burial – there is an array of fabrics and candles from which I can choose, which suggests she has thought through these rituals. Yet she appears unprepared for the psychic weight it might have for her participants. Like a funeral director, this personalised service of hers feels strangely impersonal.
I am her first appointment for the day, yet she seems to be going through the motions. As a result I don’t believe that she believes in what she is doing, that is beyond its function as an appropriate performance artwork. Can she?
If it is to have some kind of “significance” as an “artwork” and experience, doesn’t there have to be some authenticity to this process? At what point does memorialising become too contrived to be real?
Authenticity is a slippery and perhaps unachievable element that haunts performance art. It is something Kukama attempts at every turn to establish, as if to shore-up her motives and perhaps even convince herself that what she is doing has “real” significance. Whatever that might mean in an art or life context, the two become blurred in this work.