National Arts Festival, Makhanda
08.07 - 31.07.2021
We are greeted by darkness upon entering the space. A few minutes in, the space begins to light up, gradually as the music starts playing in the background, picking tempo. We see signs of movement. The synchronized motions of two figures, with the shadow projected onto the mutton cloth more conspicuous than the figure behind it. By following the motion of the shadow, we can trace the figure running around in the space. To the rhythm of the first song, the figure’s finger simulates writing on the makeshift wall, almost protruding through the cloth. We can tell the figure inside is communicating something through this seemingly confrontational gesture. The second song starts, and the figure moves boxes in the space, and again oscillates from end to end, shifting some of the boxes. The motions change again with the third song, with the shadow minimised as the figure lies on the ground. In all phases the shadow communicated louder than the figure we barely can see. Could this be what Teju Cole meant when he said the shadow and substance have played around each other a long time?1Teju Cole. Shadow Cabinet. Available: https://www.davidzwirner.com/news/2020/shadow-cabinet-by-teju-cole
A chance casual conversation with Wezile Mgibe soon after his performance reveals how much our reading of the movements surprised him. The live performance did not have three segments dictated by the tempo of the beat. That the artist’s motions shifted with the change of song was purely coincidental. However, viewers watching the edited video on the National Arts Festival website will not have the raw experience we had. The beauty of witnessing the live performance!
The work presented at the National Arts Festival is in three parts; the installation of a 10 square meter hand sewn mutton cloth material, the twin-channel video work strategically placed in an alcove in a corner as to appear that the figure in the video is trying to break out of the unpainted wall and the live performance. The video work of Umdiyadiya made its premier at Spier Wine Farm in Stellenbosch as part of the Spier Live Art Festival 2021.
“The work is inspired by collective memories and seeks to track historical events in the black household during South Africa’s turbulent recent past.”2Wezile Mgibe Umdiyadiya. Available: https://nationalartsfestival.co.za/show/umdiyadiya-2/
Umdiyadiya is a Xhosa word to describe the installed cloth as a space demarcation to create more rooms and a bit of privacy. During a research residency in Harare, Zimbabwe, Mgibe saw the same way of demarcation in some houses in the neighbourhood of Mbare, the city’s oldest high-density suburb. This veil/curtain/demarcation is a common feature in low-income neighbourhoods like the townships of South Africa and the ghettos of many African cities, the favelas of Brazil, and in immigrant communities like the Romani societies in Europe and many other groups across the world. Outsiders see it as a sign of poverty or overcrowding and indicates notions of difference and social boundary. They comment on ‘symptoms of degeneration’ like children perhaps witnessing or listening to sounds coming out of their parents’ bedroom that reminds one of one such scene in Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, without any understanding of what lies beneath. No one bothers to find out the good that exists or lies behind the curtain.
The artist remembers with nostalgia time spent in welcoming and unwelcome spaces, reflecting on experiences with family and friends. When the artist encounters kindness and softness within rough and uncomfortable spaces and situations, he also suggests that there can be love in a space you might consider ‘broken’ – and that, in some instances, beautiful memories were made there and deserve to be remembered. Our definition of brokenness is a matter of perspective. As a child visiting his grandmother who lived in a similar space, Mgibe had a happy childhood playing with friends and cousins. They would hear elders conversing in the next room of course. For children whose fathers went to work before dawn and came back very late at night, the shadows worked like alarm systems alerting the kids of their presence. The artist’s re-enactment of the scene is a subversion of the outside gaze and impression by outsiders feeling pity for people living ‘crammed’ in such ‘deplorable’ conditions.
The installation is visually stark. Mutton cloth hangs from steel rods, and light shines from the top and the bottom. There are boxes arranged strategically but can only be seen in shadow. The mutton cloth material is hand sewn on site. Mutton cloth usually comes in 12 inch wide rolls. The semi-transparent makeshift perimeter walls left enough space from which the audience could have packed the space to view the show from all sides. What stood out in the process of installing the work is how the artist manually stitched the pieces of cloth together, a laborious process that requires patience. The sheer effort to make the installation and size points to the labour and labouring that builds walls no matter how flimsy they look.
To be seen by everyone else not present as a recording and hence devoid of the energy of being there, the live performance is an interrogation of the kinetics of place, site and culture. That the performance is in the Gallery in the Round, the expansive rotunda shaped space at the base of the imposing 1820 Settlers National Monument, a place devoid of warmth and artifice, is perhaps worth noting. There is no joy to be found in watching a performance that is behind a veil; expressive movement in performance promises discovery, not a trivial observation. The veil, which reveals and obscures, provides a veneer of privacy and modesty, and we are invited to witness Mgibe’s vulnerability but feel like voyeurs.
But no matter how uncomfortable you feel, each jab of the finger reminiscent of The Interrogator3Wezile Mugibe. The Portfolio. Available:https://mg.co.za/friday/2021-02-13-the-portfolio-wezile-mgibe/ or grotesque shadow reminds you to be present. Mgibe’s seminal performance Collecting Bodies4Collecting Bodies. Available: https://latitudes.artfundi.com/artworks/collecting-bodies-1 and its frenetic movement has led us here. What we see is, of course, staged, and we bring our baggage to the experience. We think of the secret language of experience and the beautiful things that cannot be seen or even touched that lie beyond the veil and can only be felt within the heart. Placing his nebulous self behind a veil, the artist points to the inherent continuity within stories which builds on the theoretical framework on the multi-layered relationship between the image/performance and the viewer – the meaning can change all of the time in the mind of the viewer.
Mgibe’s training as a dancer is quite evident in the dance focussed movements. Specific registers and modes of articulation are needed to work in this territory. How do performers and witnesses work with these moving experiences? How can means of speaking from and with these experiences be practical?
We often see ‘veils’ incongruously and accidentally embedded in our everyday surroundings. To want to explore or reveal what lies behind the curtain is remarkable enough. More remarkable is that this exploration or revelation is not merely recognised but imbued with hidden depths of personality and emotion. It is, of course, easy to imagine that movements, whether natural, accidental, or artfully created by a performer, allow glimpses into an inner mental world: the world of the soul, spirit, or thought itself. But, on reflection, in Umdiyadiya, this is undoubtedly an illusion. The imagined and ambiguous depths are an act of creative interpretation by the viewer. Our sense of depth and richness depends on the open, ambiguous nature of artistic creations.