Black Privilege: A gilded cage?

Mamela Nyamza in Black Privilege. Photo by Chris de Beer.

Who doesn’t want to be famous? Not Kardashian famous. Yuck. But famed, or infamous even, a game-changer, a reference point, noted in the history books… a known name.

Aspirations. Dreams.

And why not? Why not want recognition, validation, a little assurance that one’s being here on earth is worthwhile?

Enter the Entertainment Industry. You gotta ‘make it’? Fake it ‘til you make it. Or shake it ‘til you make it. Sex sells.

Enter the Arts Industry. What’s the difference, you ask? Aha! Ask those major media houses whose arts sections read like the text version of E! news live from the red carpet.

Enter Mamela Nyamza. The National Arts Festival Featured Artist 2018. The Big Name. The Big Game. She’s ‘made it’.

Atop a gilded ladder, draped in jewellery made of large coins, Nyamza too is gilded, golden – a golden goose, a golden ticket, a winning act.

And us? We are the spectators surveying the ‘artwork’ behind rope barriers, used in galleries and museums to protect precious art. Are we evaluating the property on display? Will it fit in our collection?

Once that ladder is summitted, does it become a gilded cage? About 280 performing arts productions appear on the fringe alone. That is a lot of people attracted to a career in an industry notoriously difficult to crack into, and even more difficult to sustain.

I have experienced each of Mamela Nyamza’s works this festival (except for i-Dolls as part of the CDC programme). Three entirely different and difficult works.

I’ve been stewing this question for a while (and will for some time to come): once you’ve become familiar with, or studied an artist’s work, can you isolate objectively to reflect on one piece only?

In reading back through what I’ve written over the years on Nyamza’s work, these recurrent words endure: Challenging, Uneasy, Confusing, Stirring, Disturbing.

All apply again, perhaps in larger helpings for her latest work, Black Privilege.

A provocative title. So where does the question of black privilege fit in? Sensitive whites bandy the phrase about with reckless abandon when trying to deny white privilege. Read a bit of twitter’s #blackprivilege. In South Africa? One black person is seen driving a BMW and Roodt, Hofmeyr, and their clan start whining, “See?! They’ve got it good now!”

Here in the arts? Most South African performing artists will confirm it’s a daily hustle to get their art funded or produced or seen. We’re a predominantly pale bunch in the arts criticism world… does this extend into the arts themselves? The NAF programme might look “representative” but the numbers at the end of fest usually tell a different story. Who sells out? Who is buying the tickets?

Questioning the Arts Industry is what Nyamza does. Knowing this, we witness her giving us hubristic nods while the popular party song ‘Memeza’ plays. We witness her forcibly shaken for an excruciating length of time. We witness a descent, a loss of direction, a crawling towards an end destination that can never be reached, never achieved.

And yes, it crossed my mind that Nyamza is testing us too, the Arts Consumers… Do we ‘buy’ this? Are we bidders on the benches, deciding whether or not this art is worthwhile? Is Mamela Nyamza, in this straining work, giving a sardonic, knowing nod at the Industry (and the bodies operating that machine), tauntingly questioning if anyone knows what capital a ‘Art’ is.

Nyamza operates in the realm of some kind of absurdist live art. We are always together in the moment. Our presence is acknowledged. The border between passivity and potential participation is blurred. Our apathy or our fear is revealed.

Do we get up and walk out? Or should we push past the guard in formal academic dress to end the incessant buzz buzz clinkety chink clang bzzzzz inflicting its shuddering torture. The torture is ours too but no one turns off the machine.

Black Privilege is on tonight (07.07) & tomorrow (08.07) at 18.00. Click here for more information & bookings.

Choreography, Direction and Conception: Mamela Nyamza
Body painting and costume: Linda Mandela-Sejosingoe
Dramaturge: Sello Pesa
Set & Lighting Design: Wilhelm Disbergel
Stage Manager: Buntu Thyali


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