Performance artists put their bodies on the line to express deep, complex issues, often about wounds. On stage, this can be wounding for both the artist and the audience.
And in contemporary South Africa 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 shows are missing out if they don’t get a ticket for at least one show of performance art.
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 independent 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 the festival about society, power, prejudice, sexual oppression, authoritarianism, freedom, tolerance, love and art.
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, which ran over the weekend, takes place in a large white room. Everything else on stage is black, framed in freak-out red and yellow lighting.
She begins her show draped in 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 by sequin-dotted, black filigreed undergarments. And she stomps around in huge chinking, chiming ankle bracelets.
Her furious and sarcastic mantra is that Jesus Christ died to save us all, and so we must go out and 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. Sacrifice, cleansing and purification are 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.
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.
lGavin 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 South African 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 lost state and fear of the vacant future, and clad only in a jockstrap (brace yourself!), actually pees himself while standing, in a ridiculous tiny, inflatable kiddie 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 walked 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 disassembly and loss of human rights for all others, the gays, the not-so-blacks, the independents, the eccentrics. — firstname.lastname@example.org