Mamela Nyamza in Hatched. Photo by Jan Potgieter.
A bare back under a spotlight, distanced from us, exposed but strong. Another back to us, this body stands busy at an easel, casually bopping to a beat and softly rapping to himself. Two presences – we know they are linked, they share this space (now shared with us).
But there’s tension: in the clashing music playing simultaneously – classical violin and hiphop drumbeats. Tension in the distance between them. Tension in their isolation, she seated with her back to him, and he tuned out with headphones on.
In this opening imagery, almost still and superbly simple, Mamela Nyamza gives us a mountain load to process.
It is Nyamza’s naked back we see. Her beautifully broad shoulders and muscularly defined back shift slightly as she gently smooths and strokes the white chiffon gathered around her. In the shadows cast by the top light, the polarised is accentuated. Masculinity in her strong back. Femininity in her flowing, ever so slightly undulating movement. Mother. Father. Nyamza plants this imagery so subtly… but it filters in for us to carry through the work.
Hatched is widely known to be autobiographical. Her son, Amkele Mandla is on stage with her. It’s inescapable to read motherhood as the prominent theme.
This is her life.
And it’s her art.
Intertwined and inextricable.
A message of defiance is delivered in her toplessness, whilst donning a romantic ankle-length tutu and pointe shoes. A ballerina without a bodice. Shock, horror. And in this, she sneers at The System that says the bare-breasted African body does not ‘belong’ in the elitist world of western classical ballet. On another level, we see these two parts of her artistic life at the same time contrary and converged: her ballet training history, and her creative form and style rooted in being African.
Art and identity are interwoven. Nyamza is on pointe – but not dancing, no, she’s hanging laundry. Symbols of domesticity feature throughout with an apron coated in pegs affixed to her, and a long washing line hangs overhead. The act of slowly moving sideways on pointe, executing the chore of hanging out washing, whilst balancing a pile of clothes on her head – can only be gruelling work.
This is not easy.
When she is cocooned in maroon material which is pegged to the line, held in place, she attempts to move outwards but is pulled back. She runs forward now – encased in this shiny packaging, feet attempting to run in pointe shoes – but these trappings restrict her. Taking her back to the washing line, the symbol here of domestic responsibility.
Is this a struggle of being tied to a home life, raising a child whilst pursuing a career in arts? Is this the struggle for recognition in a cutthroat and exclusionary performing arts industry? Is this the artist’s internal struggle – whether to make easy entertainment that fills theatres, or to create experimental work and trust her vision? Nyamza gives no obvious answers.
All the while Amkele is present at his easel. His rapping becomes louder at points, or we hear the tinny treble coming from his headphones. He goes to his mother to help with the laundry or take her water when she calls. We get glimpses of him as a child who, perhaps, was wise to difficulties, who silently helps when he recognises she needs him. When Nyamza is battling to move, her arms buckling and shaking under an unseen weight, when she is attempting to stand on pointe but instability causes her to nearly fall, when violently shuddering, the pegs fly off her skirt… without hesitation, Amkele moves to her, picks up the pegs and clips them back on.
Hatched is an evolved version of a work developed in 2007, Hatch, which has morphed year to year. Her son isn’t always present and undoubtedly this was a largely different work when he first performed in it at the age of eight. But if one has not experienced it before (as I have not) we can only see the work for what it is now.
And it’s exceptional. Hatched brims with raw honesty and emotion that radiates throughout the space. It is a challenging experience – it wouldn’t be Nyamza’s work if it wasn’t – but it is also rich, jubilant and enlivening.
Mamela Nyamza is the 2018 National Arts Festival Featured Artist. As of this morning there are tickets available for Hatched tonight (29.06) but tomorrow (30.06) is sold out. Click here to book and for production information.