Black or white, it’s all dark

Performance art is radical. It has broken away from the formal illusion of theatre to create work which is shockingly real. Artists put their bodies on the line to express deep, complex, issues.

It is often about wounds, and on stage, can be wounding for both the artist and the audience.

In the the current SA context, it’s great.

National Arts Festival-goers who seek that strangely euphoric cleansing of body and soul as they immerse themselves in an ocean of 2500 showings are missing out if they don’t get a ticket for at least one piece of performance art.

Trust me, if there’s one thing you will talk about on the way home, it will be about this stuff, whether you like or loath it.

It is dense, uncomfortable work, explains Rhodes University physical theatre and drama veteran, Juanita Finestone-Praeg, who lectures on performance art. She speaks about the courage of performance artists in the way they use their own bodies at a cost of intense personal vulnerability to express their indepent creativity and tell their story. “They put their bodies on the line,” she said.

I’ve watched some epic performance art pieces while attending 25 festivals, and have often come away feeling these artists make the most searing and profound comments to be found at festival about society, power, prejudice, sexual oppression, authoritarianism, freedom, tolerance, love and art.

Yet, it is not that different from the performance of a Springbok rugby player in a Test match — body on the line, crunching violence, mind fully engaged in creating the play, multi-layered conceptualisation, all done utterly live and before an audience. And yes, the play can be utterly rubbish and filthy dirty too.

It is perhaps ironic, but the deeper layers of performance art do not reveal themselves automatically on stage. A reading of the artists’ notes gives a clue and enhances understanding of the performance.

Khanyisile Mbongwa’s Umnikelo Oshisiwe – Ibandla Lomlindo takes place in a large white room. Everything else on stage is black, framed in freak-out red and yellow lighting.

She is draped in black from a coil on her head, to a beautiful chiseled face, a black line down her chin, and underneath a black shiny dress which flows into a large rectangle of black cloth. Finally, she is clothed only in a see-through charcoal body net, her bits covered only by sequin-dotted, black filigreed undergarment patches. And she stomps around in huge chinking, chiming can-top ankle bracelets.

Her furious and sarcastic mantra is that Jesus Christ died to save us all, and so we must go out an kill our brothers and sisters.

She rages and glares, her fingers wag and point to give maximum offence. This is her ferocious resistance to the double subjugation of the black female body by missionary-driven Christianity, biblically recorded in the story of Cush and 1 Timothy 2, V11-14.

There are 26 battered bibles on the floor. Above each hovers a menacing metre-long black stick, the cudgel hanging over the sinner.

Sacrifice, cleansing and purification is needed, and it comes towards the end when all is revealed and the artist returns to the black African world of mysticism, healing and self.

One of the most touching moments, scathing in intent, is when the artist, with a dish towel draped over her forearm, administers the sacrament of red wine in a goblet to audience members. A communion with hell, seems more apt.

A band plays from behind the white wall, providing a rich musical co-performance to the piece featuring Mandla Mlangeni on keening and howling trumpet.

I would like to have seen the band bend to their labours, but presumably this would have been distracting.

The notes talk about a nuanced and complex relationship between waiting for liberation and lamenting and mourning those who died in exile or disappeared. She may be diminutive physically, but on stage we witness a tower of African power.

Gavin Krastin’s NIL explores what remains after the collapse of privileged white South Africa in a decolonial context. It’s not pretty, but it’s beautifully done. NIL for nihilism expresses the saddest descent into a self-mutilated nothingness. Razor blades attached to garish cone-shaped nipple caps on 3cm slings made from SA flag-decorated material, are swung with such force as they scrape his pale bare chest that one flies right off and lands a few feet away.

Perhaps distinguishing itself from Mbongwa’s work, Krastin, in his lostness and fear of the vacant future, and clad only in a jockstrap, (brace yourself!) actually pees himself while standing in a ridiculous tiny inflatable kiddies pool. It might sound offensive, but in the context of the work, and the wrenching and wringing of his gut, it is heart-breaking.

I walk away from the pieces feeling that in Mbongwa’s enraged solo theatre work there is a hope that strident and militant activism will bring change. It has done so already.

In Krastin’s performance art I am devastated at the personal on-stage introspection of the disassemblage and loss of human rights for all the others, the gays, the not-so-blacks, the independents, the eccentrics.

No South African Springbok would denigrate the SA flag on a public stage, but when you think about the crushing underfoot of the SA kaleidoscope as we hurtle towards a uni-dimensional, oppressive, corrupted nationhood, Krastin’s crass pulling of the SA flag from his backside can feel expressive of the public mood.

Umnikelo Oshisiwe: Studio Gallery, RU Fine Art Department: June 30, July 1 and 2nd all at 4pm. Book here.

NIL: Masonic Front (hall): Friday 30th, Saturday 1st, Sunday 2nd all at 8pm. Book here.



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