SOLD! by Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance, Themba Mbuli.
SOLD! is an intriguing offering from this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance, Themba Mbuli. Mbuli uses the narrative of Namibian colonisation by Germany, and the return of skulls from Germany to Namibia that had been used for experimentation seeking to prove white superiority over black Africans.
Mbuli works this narrative into an intertwined and poetic layering with issues of violence against women. Structurally, seven performers guide us through the work by creating a series of haunting images that centre around oversized misshapen skulls, used by the dancers in various ways. The differently sized skulls point to what the German scientists had wanted to prove – differences between the races.
The opening image is of a woman carrying a large heavy object on her back. She moves back and forth as if being carried by the tide. From this package, the skulls are unpacked onto stage, as the other dancers emerge and together they mourn their losses. The skulls are tenderly passed between them as they begin a careful and gentle group dance. A woman carries a skull on her back, as young children are carried on a mother’s back. Representative of the dead, the carried skulls remind us that history and our ancestors are always with us.
The next scene has a woman teaching another, correcting and guiding her. The role of our mothers, nurturers, carers, is brought to mind here. They dance with two skulls balanced between their heads, learning knowledge from the past.
Later, a bracing solo is performed by Sonia Radebe, who defiantly says “my womb carries life for nine months … so how am I not considered godly if all my body does is give life?” The point is clear here that all humans are born of women, so why all the gendered and sexed rules and roles that mess society up, cause rife sexism, and engender rape culture? At what point in life do women become objects for use and abuse?
Another scene sees the slave trade auctioneering of people, as objects, slaves, lesser beings. The prices were offered in Euros and Dollars though; perhaps a means to bring to light that this callous (evil) act endures in human trafficking today? Or simply that Africa’s resources are still up for sale?
There was one scene that I feel lost the audience. At a point, the stage must be swept up after being filled with flour, meant to be sand (I don’t want to give the striking image away here). The clearing up of the stage becomes tiresome and perhaps requires another solution. Because of the drop in rhythm, albeit it quite a meditative mood, the various solos and duets appear a bit disjointed and unnecessarily long.
A harrowing image is created towards the end as the sand is brought to where skulls have been piled up. The sand is poured over them, burying them as more skulls are added to the pile. It’s saddening and difficult to watch. The sands of time burying history, burying the truth of how many massacres?
The conflation of the themes and stories of colonisation and women’s bodies becomes a larger statement on the colonisation of women’s bodies, and the distance still to go before Africa can be recovered from the legacy of colonisation, and before women across the world are truly liberated.
Mbuli’s SOLD! is well worth the watch; it resists any preachiness or history lesson and instead presents a carefully thought-provoking work of art.
– Sarah Roberson
SOLD! is on today 04 July at 14.00 and tonight at 20.00 at Alec Mullins Hall. For bookings and more info click here.