Archive: Issue No. 87, November 2004

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NYC images

Fragments from a remembered diary: my stay in New York City for the 'Personal Affects' exhibition, September 2004
By Jay Pather

It is September 7, 2004 and I arrive in New York City for the second time this year; now to install two performance works for the exhibition 'Personal Affects' produced in the main by Richard Enthoven of Spier ArtsTrust and curated by a range of South African and New York curators. The first trip this year was a recce and it was a flying visit that went past in a blur of meetings, tours, talks and subway rides in wrong directions. Moreover, I left New York with an uncomfortable feeling of being watched and followed: looking (very) vaguely middle Eastern put me in a space diametrically opposite to the one I was in exactly 20 years ago when, as a Fulbright scholar, New York was home.

Reading for an MA at New York University, my thesis was on developing multi-media political theatre models for South Africa. This was 1982, the height of South Africa's second State of Emergency. New York was refuge, a space for the heady mix of politics and play. My final thesis performance, a collaboration with the late sculptor, Ashley Ward, and a range of 16mm filmmakers and photographers, culminated in an emotive moment with Americans and exiled South African singing Nkosi Sikelele i' Afrika after a three hour installation/performance on Apartheid and Black women in South Africa.

I returned to South Africa straight after, but was unable to work as a professional artist in the country. In the subsequent years of teaching and sporadic bursts of performance art work from Zululand to Cape Town, New York remained an oasis where the incongruous was made as natural as cappuccino-sipping activists in suits and tennis shoes; politics made sexy and palpable through art, an era when a social conscience was as de riguer as good lines and surprising perspectives.

Twenty years later, New York appears to me confused, I feel like an expelled son. I sulk and scheme that maybe it's just a commensurate change in the paradise quotient as has happened in South Africa. New Yorkers appear closed, suspicious, vague, evasive, framed by winter skies that would not yield.

Not surprisingly, I proposed for 'Personal Affects' work from my 'Home' series. Because, I figure, these pendulum identities and confounding paradoxes are best evoked inside the literal and metaphoric 'home', life as a series of nurturing spaces and surprising rejections, catching and falling, holding on and letting go, home as a space we yearn for and hate, desire and desire to flee from when the boundaries of civility and accommodation are replaced by doubt and discomfort.

Almost like a complete diagrammatic turnaround, the second visit when the works are meant to be finally installed is different, spectacularly so. Yes, I do take shoes and socks off at every security checkpoint and the equivalent US 'Home Affairs' hold onto the artwork forever, but NY seems to bounce back with as much charm and humanity as I remember. Maybe it's me, maybe I am more prepared.

But I arrive three days before the third anniversary of September 11. Maybe in the remembering and the reopening of a wound, revisiting hard spaces and realising it to be healing, that that reflection makes us not just react, but dig deeper for solutions that want us never to let something like this ever happen again. That make us search more deeply for those uncomfortable but enduring solutions, not just the reactionary ones, lashing out at whoever is in our way. Again maybe it's just me but I witness an amazing amount of deeply felt anti-Bush sentiment, a great deal of talking about 9/11 as part of a larger discourse, not so focused, not so specific, not so turned in on itself. I celebrate the perverse pride New Yorkers show in being different from the rest of America.

And so I prepare to make work in this ebbing tide of suspicion, which leaves behind naked and vulnerable ground but which does swell with a sense of a New York I remembered too well. I prepare to make work which I think makes me re-find 'Home' as a space that is fragile and tender, with individuals negotiating spaces over which they often have no control, but exercise great resilience in how they deal with it.

Hotel, one of the works I was installing, was first conceived for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, a hotel room lost in the cavernous Cathedral, two individuals having to make sense of identities that don't cohere and that belie and confound their essential, instinctive connection. But installing the work in the Cathedral was logistically difficult so it was recommended that we do it at the Museum for African Art. It was not really a compromise since Queens, and the surrounding industrial environment clearly visible through the open windows that formed part of the performance space, give it its central Durban texture.

The work From Before was installed on the stairs in front of the Cathedral and this was terrific to do. In public installations there are no rehearsals, all is performance, but I was still surprised when as I tried to rehearse and wield 24 dancers in front of 5pm New York traffic, supposedly jaded New Yorkers stopped their cars and even buses, parked off and watched. Traditional Shembe dancers, Indian Bharatha Natyam dancers, Classical Ballet dancers in romantic tutus and Ntombi Gasa, the magnificent Siwela Sonke dancer face-painted with ibomvu (traditional red powder) lifting dancer-on-a-skateboard, Denton Douglas, all cut a South African frame in all its idiosyncratic glory. Individuals rising not necessarily above but with the imposing architecture of the Cathedral in the background.

If this piece of writing was meant to be a diary of my stay in New York then I hope that it is more a demonstration of how that stay defied narrative or chronological logic. Squeezed into two weeks was a hasty compression of finding dancers (I worked with 20 performers from New York along with the four South Africans), auditioning, watching a range of classes throughout the city, scouring the city for skullcaps for people with dark skins, looking for the equivalent of um'cako, finding rehearsal space, looking for second hand furniture for Hotel which was rich since furniture even in the so-called thrift shops was far too posh for a Hotel room from the peripheries of Durban or Hillbrow.

I worked well with this kind of adrenalin-charged rush and realised that frisson in New York is only caused if you move slower, not faster than the teeming mass of people trying to survive on the little island of Manhattan. And space, of course, was an issue. Having two weeks to rehearse the 20 minute work with 20 new NY dancers was short enough, but I cut down rehearsals even more when I calculated studio rentals for rehearsals: space as well as time is at a premium.

Which seems to make each moment precious. But then the NY dancers know this, all consummate professionals (well, who else would be prepared to stand frozen in arabesque for twenty five minutes before the dance actually begins, painted white with your dreads in a skull cap?). These dancers know about 'getting the job done' and so the work goes fast and efficiently.

And so, in this fast forward, my reflections cannot follow logic any more than being able to set up the installation amongst a all kinds of visual and aural noise, inside and outside traffic, pumped up with adrenalin. The surprise deal around the corner, or the sight of the sun disappearing over a building when you have just missed a bus, helpful and concerned pedestrians even if in a major hurry, rudely prompting me to cut the etiquette and get to the question, all formed part of an illogical wonderland, as jangling on the nerves but doggedly efficient as the D train.

When there are moments of stillness and silence they are overwhelming. Looking out of the window of my Hotel room that overlooked Times Square at 5am one morning when waves of adrenalin kept me from sleeping, the sight of massive illuminated walls spitting out digital images to a few pedestrians and the omnipresent yellow cabs, evoked a silence of great magnitude.

In proportion to the days and evenings teeming with crowds and pace, this morning was still and the roar of the days before receded if only for a few precious moments, and the contrast made the early morning so overwhelming and precious and moving. And also incongruous, with all that lighting up an already lit day, giving it an unearthly glow with natural and man made light. And it made me reflect on the greatness of the city and indeed all cities, and the magnificent individuals that live and work in these cities.

And so interspersed with the jangling adrenalin rush of NY there were many such still moments that may not have been the absolute quiet of The Valley of a Thousand Hills, but were as deafening in their sharp relief to all that energy, moments that made me catch my breath - like entering a hushed Cathedral on the opening night of Season South Africa and viewing the brilliant works of Clive van den Berg, Thando Mama, Jane Alexander and Wim Botha sit with a quietly imposing - what I can only call - South African dignity within the interiors of the magnificent mansions of the Cathedral; the pauses in Barbara Masekela's historic and moving speech at the opening; the silence just before Steven Cohen descended from the heavens (literally); the silence around the abandoned furniture in Robin Rhode's slides at the Museum; the moments before recognition when I saw people I remembered from 20 years ago; the moments and furtive glances before the anticipated opening of subway doors; the silences between the names of the dead that were called out at the memorial service at Ground Zero, and that moment when finally the plane takes off from JFK, gathers altitude and you glide over a fractured New York skyline.

I realise in these silences that our growth as South Africans is marked simply by our increasing ability to make the world as much as the land demarcated by our borders, our Home, in all its ability to contain and expel.

Jay Pather is a Durban-based choreographer. He won one of the sectional prizes at this year's Brett Kebble Art Awards