Performa is back, and during the month of November its inimitable curatorial program presents The South African Pavilion Without Walls, a series of commissioned performances in New York City, featuring some of the most important South African artists working today. This year, the ‘historical anchor’ to the biennale’s diverse program is the legacy of Dada, a theme which provides for interesting parallels between the political repression in pre-war Europe and Apartheid-era South Africa.
Founder and director RoseLee Goldberg has curated an astonishing series of performances that reaffirms the institute’s continued support of South African art. Within the appropriately absurd political climate of today, Goldberg states that these artists ‘express complex political, social and aesthetic developments…where community, ceremony, ritual, and politics are communicated through live performance.’ This complexity is apparent in the manner in which the featured artists present their diverse modes of practice and allows for a reexamination of South African performance today.
During Apartheid performance played a small part in South African art and was mainly informed by resistance culture and contemporary Western performance art in the decades preceding democracy. It would only be in the post-Apartheid era that long marginalized black artists’ use of local ritual, ceremony, and dance to inform their practices started to get the attention it deserved. William Kentridge, whose work spans both periods, embraced this year’s Dada theme through an amusing reimagining of Kurt Schwitters’s seminal 1932 sound poem Ursonate. With multiple performances presented in the neo-gothic Harlem Parish, the ‘sonata in primordial sounds’ that reverberated from Kentridge’s theatre trained voice was buoyed by his signature animated charcoal sketches on printed text flashing on the roughly fashioned screen behind him. The projection tied the work to its Dada origins by capturing the disillusionment and irrationality of the time, while also referencing South Africa’s moment of Dadaist absurdism. Kendell Geers presented two works: One a spoken word performance where he is (still) fixated on Marcel Duchamp, the other a restaging of his work RitualResist which stood out for its surprising simplicity and intimacy. In an empty space in the Lower East Side a naked man and a woman held a double-sided mirror between them by using their body weight and pressure to keep it from falling. There struggle seems particularly fraught with significance.
A more tangible performance came from Nicholas Hlobo, expanding on an earlier performative installation, first seen in his solo exhibition ’Sewing Saw’ at Stevenson. The work UmBhovuzo: The Parable of the Sower, still forms the nexus of the performance by utilizing the biblical parable as a device for Hlobo’s use of domestic objects of historical importance as a reflection on destruction and renewal.
It was a welcome comeback to New York for Tracey Rose, as part of the Afroglossia platform curated by Adrienne Edwards to illuminate the complexity of the innumerable voices from Africa. Distinct in scope from the South African Pavilion, most of the artists in this multidisciplinary platform were born in the 1970s, which was a period of independence in much of Africa while Apartheid still continued. This delayed liberation from colonial powers might be one reason that a new generation of South African artist have emerged today, using performance as an engine for social activism.
Zanele Muholi has lead the way, traveling with her 23-member strong Sisonke Collective. Together they have taken on NYC in a fierce manner by staging multiple performances, talks on visual activism, and live musical acts across the five boroughs. Muholi has embraced the role of LGBTQI activist beyond her role as a photographer and artist. At the Stonewall Inn, site of the historic 1969 Stonewall Riots which lead to the global LGBT movement, Muholi’s ensemble brought a joyous performance that celebrated the space while also challenging the often-unspoken whiteness inherent in it. These events, with an incredible presence which drew the audience in at every performance, and positions Muholi as arguably the most important South African artist today.
In a tête-à-tête with Muholi, Kemang Wa Lehulere continues to excavate South African history in the quietly profound I cut my skin to liberate the splinter, performed at the intimate Connelly Theater. Wa Lehulere draws the audience into a chronicle of the concrete and abstract through a series of actions resulting from quotes read by one of his ensemble. Utilizing his sculptural works, here modified into ‘instruments’, Wa Lehulere’s performance was greatly complimented by his six-person ensemble which included recent Standard Bank Young Artist winner Chuma Sopotela. Sopotela stalked the stage with a formidable presence, encasing herself in Wa Lehulere’s bird cages or spreading crutches like the wings of an eagle. Inspired no doubt by the Maya Angelou autobiography ‘I know why the caged bird sings,’ this was one of many literary and political references Wa Lehulere uses to engage in actions ranging from blowing bubbles with an accordion in a zinc tub to the futile attempts of stuffing sand from a suitcase into his pockets. Evoking a very personal story of frustration, forced removals, migration and ideas of home and exile, Wa Lehulere uses our collective history and myth-making to deftly balance on what he calls a ‘slippery slope,’ leaving us to question everything we think we may know about history.
Mohau Modisakeng’s performance Zion boldly follows on his work Passage, a video first exhibited at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Aware of the recent resurgence of populist and right-wing movements in the U.S. and Europe, Modisakeng choreographs a street procession of twenty dancers, clad in costumes reminiscent of slavery in the American South. Each performer is seen carrying luggage and furniture while walking, jumping, falling and sitting. The performance began in Harlem and proceeded to through various sites of importance to African-American history, finally ending up in the American monument to consumption, Times Square. Modisakeng poignant march displays how both the legacies of the struggle against Apartheid and African-American slavery still affect the present. In a similar manner to Wa Lehulere, Modiskeng provides a heart-wrenching reflection on the past and present considering forced movement, subjugation and violence against a people while also nodding to the endurance of the human spirit.
The works by Muholi, Wa Lehulere and Modisakeng at Performa 2017 demonstrate that these artists have taken up the baton of South African performance art. With their ensembles of South African talent, reflecting on their own history and identity one could not help but feel that these artists are part of a larger movement reclaiming performance as one of the most significant mediums for activism today, presenting us a respite in a world that still doesn’t make any sense.