“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” begins Charles Dickens’ epic A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens goes on to describe the novel’s period, set against the French Revolution, as an age of “wisdom” and “foolishness.” The context may have changed since those words were written, but the sentiment remains true. Here we are in 2017, arguably more conscious than ever to the plights of the dispossessed, yet somehow still stuck in the mires of narrow mindedness. Why do we seem doomed to repeat the errors of our ways? How can we better draw on lessons from history? In November, at New York’s Performa Biennial, these were questions at the heart of at least two South African artists’ commissioned performances.
Curious objects lay scattered around the Connelly Theatre in the East Village. On the actual stage, music stands stood at attention beside ceramic dogs and hands cast in a various sign language poses (reading, “please remember on my behalf.”) In the area typically reserved for the audience, space had been cleared to form a sort of theatre-in-the-round. Wooden bird houses featured prominently there, dispersed betwixt and between a modified school desk, several metal pipe-studded tyres, and taking up the largest space on the ground, a wooden structure that might best be described as a pyramidal aqueduct. While those familiar with the artist Kemang Wa Lehulere would have likely recognized the work, this would be the first time anyone would see these sculptures come to life for his performance, I cut my skin to liberate the splinter.
Silence filled the space as the performers including Lehulere casually took their places. The true nature of the objects was soon revealed as sounds began to emanate from the objects courtesy of the performers: one playing percussion on the bird houses, another bowing a large electric harp-like construction, and a third, seated at the mutated desk, plucking away on an mbira. An orator sat perched atop the pyramid, awaiting verbal cues delivered in a most entertaining fashion courtesy of little messages in bottles buoyed up to her via the water-filled clear plastic aqueduct. The performance would later take top honors at the biennial, winning the Malcolm McLaren award.
In a post-performance interview, Lehulere cited a 2003 documentary called “Cosmic Africa” as partial inspiration for the piece. The film follows African astrophysicist Thebe Medupe’s search for further understanding of the cosmos through his investigations into ancestral knowledge. Incidentally, as Medupe would come to discover, much of this ancient wisdom came to be communicated across the continent through artwork, a tradition upon which I cut my skin to liberate the splinter might best be viewed.
“I wanted to create a performance that could encapsulate the entire body of work I had produced over the last ten years, but not in a didactic manner,” said Lehulere, explaining in the most direct way possible what the piece was about. As a young black South African artist, much of Lehulere’s work confronts the hangover of post-Apartheid. Salvaged school desks serve as the raw material for most of the sculptures—“a vehicle,” said Lehulere, “to teach myself a lot of the things I was denied.”
So what did Lehulere teach himself, and perhaps those who experienced the performance? Theatre director Chuma Sopotela, who co-conceived the piece, identified in Lehulere’s sculptures a sense of mobility never quite realized by their static nature. As the pair began to create choreography and later sound using the objects, the inherent underlying messages of the sculptures began to rise more evocatively to the surface.
The bird houses, for example, beaten with increasing intensity evoke frustrations around forced removals and migration. To describe these problems though is to state the obvious and in fact often serves to reduce their sheer emotional turmoil into words. Which is precisely why the vehicle of sound and metaphor is better served to deliver the work’s powerful and universal themes.
“I search for a slippery slope,” Lehulere said of his desire to maintain a level of opacity in his work. He attributes this inclination to suspicions of belief systems, politics and politicians, and in particular memory, “the personal and collective and the tensions around that.”
Uptown in Harlem, fellow South African Nicholas Hlobo was confronting a similar set of considerations in his own, very unique way. Singer sewing machines hoisted way up on stilts commanded a presence in the lofted vault of the Harlem Parish. Between intervals, long-legged chairs placed beside the machines would be occupied by performers clad in all-white and shrouded in veils. Soon thereafter, the unmistakable whir of machines would fill the room and voice would too, creating a dirge with no discernible beginning or end.
The title of the performance, umBhovuzo: The Parable of the Sower, readily invites interpretation. Traditionally parables are meant to be obscure, left up to members of a congregation to understand what message lies in the tale. Umbhovuzo, Hlobo explained to me, is the word used to refer to an old custom of his native Xhosa culture. “It was a swing party,” he said, “when people got to go through the liberating experience of letting their hair down and indulge in their physical lusts.” For Hlobo, the practice represented a form of liberation that faded from view with the arrival of missionaries. Through the use of sewing as an activity to evoke this cultural memory, Hlobo added, the work “is there to speak about building things anew.”
Hlobo’s gesture, which reconciles the past with the present, speaks to a growing desire amongst artists such as himself and Lehulere to reconsider the stories we’ve inherited.
“The hope is to make an honest reflection of where we are as the people of South Africa,” Hlobo said, reflecting on this sentiment in his work.“ The culture is going through a process of rebuilding itself. It’s a machine and it’s in the process of working out where it is going. We had a troubled past, and some parts of our cultural machine got to be maimed and injured in our history and now that machine is trying to repair itself and I ought to lend a hand with that and bring it to a place that is slightly better and improved.”
A New York-based South African writer, Robin Scher is also a graduate of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU.