by Storm Janse van Rensburg (November, 2006)
Mlu Zondi creates performance indiscriminately for stage, gallery and public spaces. Reluctant to get caught up in the embedded politics of these charged sites, Zondi nonetheless engages with their respective audiences and publics, calibrating concepts and works for each particular context.
Zondi works under the banner of 'Sololique Projacts' (established in 2000 whilst still a student), a performance company with himself as principal member, incorporating other collaborators such as his partner, Ntando Cele, a poet and actor. Sololique Projacts has established an extensive repertoire of works, and as an ethos incorporates strong characterisation, playing on stereotypes and tensions of 'otherness', whilst developing an idiosyncratic performance language.
Zondi's interest in making work in a visual arts context developed out of a sense that the contemporary dance world does not easily accept his brand of performance, and that in the early stages of his career, positive feedback and encouragement were mostly received from visual artists and practitioners.
My work is a direct result of the frustrations in trying to find creative ways through which to express myself. As a performer with a theatre background I had to find a style that will not only expose itself in one genre but can actually be celebrated on a variety of artistic platforms. The works are my own confrontations with issues that haunt me: identity, relationships and childhood memories. Suppressed emotions emerge during creations and performances, becoming therapeutic.
'Every time I create I try to challenge myself to come up with a new style that will not only challenge my creativity but can also challenge the audiences' engagement. The audience should be able to engage with the work on a variety of levels thus when I create I work in layers. I work in collages where things that don't have a connection and associations get shifted around in the work until there is a connection. My works are organic creations and they never reach a point of completeness. Every day they evolve to take new forms and shapes and every day they grow.
'The objective is also to see how far they can grow and how they will look once they are complete. That challenge keeps me working all the time as there will always be new material to be added to the work and new structures to be included. That means I will never be out of work and will always have a space to crush my demons.'
Earlier this year Zondi won the prestigious MTN New Contemporaries Award 2006, curated by Khwezi Gule at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, with a work entitled Silhouette, produced in collaboration with Ntando Cele. The work incorporates live video and is performed on large swathes of bubble wrap. Playing out as an exaggerated battle of the sexes, it explores representations of sexuality and identity. The work centres around two characters, fatally drawn to each other with an inevitably violent result when they finally connect.
Silhouette was most recently seen in Cape Town at the CAPE Africa Platform, with Thando Mama responsible for the live video images. This follows successful and acclaimed performances of the work at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, the FNB Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg and Jomba Contemporary Dance Festival in Durban.
The outline of a new, unprocessed work entitled Xeyed was presented site-specifically at 'Red Eye Art' at the Durban Art Gallery which can almost be described as an endurance work, with no particular beginning, middle or end, nor with a distinguishable narrative drive. The work, similarly to others conceptualised by Zondi for previous 'Red Eye' events, allows viewers a choice of the duration of their engagement with the performance.
An earlier version of Silhouette premiered at the National Dance Centre in Paris, France in 2005 as a work in progress during a festival of contemporary African dance curated by Fuastin.
In 2004 Zondi participated in the KZNSA Gallery's Young Artists' Project with a work entitled Identikit. The work comprised two components. Inside the gallery Zondi created an installation based on the traditional board game, Mlabalaba, with low suspended lights above the intersection of lines, usually reserved for the stones used in the game. Zondi replaced these stones (also referred to as 'cows') with his own body and during the opening night moved between these lit spaces, slowly illuminating parts of his body in the process. The second component consisted of Zondi setting off into public spaces in a zany costume of colourful rubbish bags and oversized sunglasses. The documentation from these performances was installed in the gallery during the run of the exhibition, steadily growing the body of work on display.
In the same year Zondi created Labyrinthine for Republic, a multimedia collaboration between visual artists, choreographers and performers directed by Jay Pather. Led through an installation, audience members were confronted by an intense duet between Zondi and artist Vaughn Sadie, the latter following Zondi with live camera-feed projected onto a large screen, an uncomfortable and unflinching comment on the power of the gaze.
A standout work presented during 2003 was Fountaincourting - another site-specific 'Red Eye' performance. Zondi installed a working shower head inside a plastic gazebo in the middle of Smith Street outside the Durban Art Gallery (closed off to vehicular traffic for this event). Two performers, in Mandela and Hilary Clinton masks respectively, swathed in rubbish bags, plastic coats and boots, engaged in a slow, continuous pas de deux under the flowing water.
After completion of his Performance Diploma at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) Zondi spent time working in commercial and corporate theatre. A first break occurred when he was invited to a residency in Switzerland in 2002, with an opportunity to perform at the Lausanne International Dance Festival. Early influences include Jay Pather (a lecturer at DUT in 2000) and Boyzie Cekwana, the latter a role model when a teenager.
Zondi describes his early experiences as an orphan growing up with an extended family as instrumental in his drive to perform. Growing up in the 80's and early 90's he was active as a pansula, and felt that performance allowed him to stand out and be special, in a home environment where he never felt he belonged.
He worked for three years as a petrol attendant to save for his studies. This tenacity and endurance is still evident in his practice, in a context where the level of experimentation and risk in performance culture is unfortunately largely absent.
Zondi is looking towards revisiting Sololique Projacts' repertoire, and interrogating earlier works that were performed only once, wanting to develop further, and extract other potential underdeveloped concepts. A tour of three previous works, Silhouette, Incognito and Fontana is coming up at various venues next year, including performances at the FNB Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg and JOMBA Contemporary Dance Festival in Durban.
Born in 1975 in Clermont, Durban. Currently living and working in Durban.
Selected Exhibition and Performance Projects
Silhouette, performance at Cape Africa Platform, Cape Town, Jomba Dance Festival � Durban, Grahamstown National Arts Festival, FNB Dance Umbrella, Johannesburg MTN New Contemporary Awards Exhibition, Johannesburg Art Gallery
Xeyed at 'Red Eye Art', Durban Art Gallery
Silhouette, performance of Centre For National Dance, Paris
Incognito, Red Eye Art, Durban Art Gallery
Identikit, solo performance and installation as part of the Young Artists' Project, KZNSA Gallery, Durban
Amnestyabsence, 'Red Eye Art', Durban Art Gallery
Labyrinthine, performance at Jomba Dance Festival, Artspace Durban
Sololique-Rafiki, performance at FNB Dance Umbrella, Johannesburg
Abel&Kane, Jomba Dance Festival, Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre Durban and Macufe Art Festival, Bloemfontein
Fontana, performance installation at 'Red Eye Art', Durban Art Gallery
Sololique-Rafiki, performance for Lausanne International Dance Festival, Switzerland
Sololique-Tohubohu, Jomba Dance Festival, Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, Durban
MTN New Contemporaries Award
Dance Umbrella Residency, Johannesburg
Theatre Sevelin 36, Lausanne, Switzerland, funded by ProHelvetia
Jomba Choreographers' Grant
FNB Dance Umbrella Grant
KZNSA Gallery Young Artists' Projects Grant
Jomba Young Choreographers' Grant
He is currently a regional coordinator of the Performing Arts Network of South Africa in KwaZulu-Natal (PANSA KZN), and a consultant for Cultural Radius Arts Consultants.
National Diploma, Drama and Performance Studies, Durban University of Technology