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ICA Live Art Festival 2018 - "Defying Boundaries, Excavating Histories, Revisiting Trauma"

8 Oct 2018 - 13:45

Defying Boundaries, Excavating Histories, Revisiting Trauma

ICA Live Art Festival, 1–16 September 2018, Cape Town

Professor Ketu H. Katrak

University of California, Irvine

Bodies embodying fragments of narration, rage, memory in movement, sounds, metallic and human shaking us to our core, bodies dancing rituals invoking past and future, ghosts remembered, even if nameless, white work-shirts hanging on a clothes line at the Castle of Good Hope, a paper dress, a nude body, vulnerable and majestic, Futurism with echoes of Afro-pessimism, and through it all, creative assertions of hope and the indomitable human spirit.

Live art delights in breaking artistic boundaries, in defying logic and inspiring spectators to remain open to receiving works that express personal, political, social dis-eases, past outrages and present inequities in our divided world. Curator Jay Pather (supported by Nomusa Makhubu, Nkule Mabaso and James Macdonald) guided the Festival in its multifarious details--from selecting artists, to finding appropriate sites for their works, to publicity and audience outreach. Spectators like myself discovered unusual creative works with excitement and great humility for artists who put personal and historical material before us. The program embodied the continuity of particular themes such as history, legacy and loss, the body as a site for subversion, disease and healing, ritual and ancestry, the colonial archive and decolonizing projects, ecology and art, bloodlines of identities (personal, gender-based, political) and redemption even with the cognizance of trauma.

A rich variety of artistic forms expressed these creative concerns--live art performances, installations, films, talks, tactile experiences of handling flowers, tasting preserved food—and were augmented by the particular sites in which they unfolded. These included the Company’s Garden, the Iziko National Galleries, the University of Cape Town’s Little Theatre Complex, the Cape Town Station, the Zeitz MOCAA, and the Maitland Institute among others. Pather’s imaginative arrangement of the works from one day to the next offered a feast of over 40 events over 16 days, free of charge to the people of Cape Town and others like myself, who had travelled from the US to be part of this incredible Live Art Festival.

Pather’s useful remarks in his Introduction to the Festival illuminate the context and goals of Live Art in South African society:

Live Art has its roots in activism and politics, and the dark, there is no doubt about that, no apology no soft serve . . . We are probably getting closer and closer to admitting the darkness that does exist and needs attention . . . Beyond all the ravages and more subtle trips of capitalism as it sits in our society, beyond all the heroic counter oppositions . . . through class and student struggles, there is also the psychic darkness. And this is what live artists do. . . We need the[ir] work that confronts us with uncomfortable truths.

A common assumption is that live art originated in the West when artists took on repressive regimes, rejected commercialism and embraced creating edgy, anarchic and risky work. This year’s Festival, in the first of its four “platforms” called “Trajectories/Histories/Legacy”, presented artists who found integral connections between what we call live art today and classical African traditions, claiming that although the term “Live Art may have originated in the west, it has always had a presence on the continent.” This was showcased in the Festival’s opening work, And so you see … our honourable blue sky and ever enduring sun…can only be consumed slice by slice, by Albert “Ibokwe” Khoza, “whose ground-breaking contemporary work,” comments Pather, “is directly connected to ritual and classical African traditions, [and who] teams up with one of the enduring names in performance art, the internationally acclaimed Robyn Orlin.” Khoza and Orlin’s work probes post-apartheid disillusionments, in particular, “a restless quest for freedom . . . a yearning for a redemptive kind of politics after so many years of all that is contrary” (Program Notes).

In this report of the Live Art Festival 2018, let me begin at the end with Donna Kukama’s performance-installation We the Not-Not People!-Things Done, not told. Inscribed, not written that showcased a profound historical excavation of the hundred million lives lost during nearly 400 years of enslaving black people, using repetition and sound as uncannily effective tropes--repeating numbers, metallic sounds, crumpling blank paper as if seeking lost records, a white paper dress that Kukama wears initially, that starts ripping half-way through, is removed, revealing her dressed underneath in black leather.

Since 2016, Kukama’s work has explored the presentation of history and memory via performance, text, as well as drawings and installations. The Program notes state that Kukama’s work “questions the way in which histories are narrated and value systems are constructed. Her performances manifest through the unscripted participation of others, and often resist established ‘ways of doing.’” In We the Not-Not People, Kukama gave new meaning to recreating history via the power of numbers, the jarring soundscape of metallic objects, chains, the darkness of profit-mongering capitalists who dislocated, dispossessed, and tried to erase black people from history.

As we enter a large, warehouse type room at the Maitland Institute, we see a small-framed black woman in a long white dress, appearing to be made of muslin. She is crumpling off-white colored paper as if looking for information but not finding it, or destroying records. We take in the carefully marked sites in the room with different objects--a long chain hanging from the ceiling, a small foot-stool ladder, as if used for surveillance, covered in silver foil. She sits next to an easel and turns the pages as she starts to recite in an even tone, almost softly: “We the Not-Not people, the women people.” The rhythm is marked by repetition of the phrase “We the Not-Not people” that then lists diverse groups, each punctuated by the sound of crumpling paper: “the brown people, the black people, the gender queer, transgender, intersex, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, Muslim, feminist, sex workers, migrant people, landless, raped people, forgotten, hundred million people that don’t count.” These marginalized communities are the “not-not people.”

As Kukama walks diagonally across the room, she picks up metal objects, one at a time, and drops them to the floor with a loud, startling sound. She crouches in a far corner of the room and intones, “Listen to our presence.” As she shakes the black window shade, her full body vibrates to indicate presences around and inside her. Audible sounds of breathing and walking slowly, then gasping for breath. “These are our marks”, she says, shining a torch on the window shade, making marks. “Recording the unrecorded.” As she breathes loudly, she says, “Our memories… [long pause] and the memories of our memories” as she shines a bright light on blank spaces, as if excavating from “our memories of our memories of our memories of our memories.”

Kukama moves to another site and puts on a light around her forehead, the kind used by miners or construction workers, as if searching for something or someone in the dark. Her words, “And the memories that we will never forget” are followed by a meditative recitation of numbers, evoking a reality that is so stark, and definitive (as numbers are), that it bears calculating the hundred million lost without trace. She begins with “12,000 times 1, 500 times 2” and then 12,500 times 3 followed sequentially, repeating “12,500 times” until she reaches 34. The numbers sweep over our consciousness and conscience as we stay with her voice, and grasp the fact of solid numbers, and that each one represents a human being. 

As Kukama recreates the sounds, the palpable pain conveyed via wails and groans of the enslaved and their living memories as ghosts, the words of African-American scholar Saidiya Hartman come to mind:

How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it? Is it possible . . . to resurrect lives from the ruins? Or, is narration its own gift and its own end, that is, all that is realizable when overcoming the past and redeeming the dead are not? And what do stories afford anyway? A way of living in the world in the aftermath of catastrophe and devastation? A home in the world for the mutilated and violated self? For whom--for us or for them?

Kukama “narrates/performs” black history as recreated in fragments of words and objects, “for us [and] for them.” Her characteristically pithy words convey complex stories within stories, almost epic-like: “A couple of bodies erased and ½ million rand saved.”

Throughout, the soundscape assumes the reality of a character. Sound feels embodied as when the groans, disjointed voices, wails, ghost-like shadows on the walls, picking up and dropping an interlinked metal chain, showing its shadow on the wall, sprinkling sand as if giving burial to those lost without one.

A theatrical moment follows as the white dress tears and we realize that it is made of paper. The rhythm changes as she whistles and starts climbing the small ladder step-stool like a guard on duty. In this authority role, her costume changes as she tears the paper dress audibly, then backs the audience and gently steps out of the dress to reveal her leather trousers and leather top. The white paper dress is placed carefully on a hanger, then hung on the long chain from the ceiling. The dress sways, like a lynched body.

Kukama creatively balanced the dark and the light in her performance as she came to “A Litany for Survival” that listed names of courageous people, each one noted with the phrase, “A luta continua”, beginning with Winnie Mandela, then Serena Williams, Steve Biko, Martin Luther King, Patrice Lumumba, Audre Lorde, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and others. This list brought the performance full circle to the opening list of the many marginalized “not-not-people”. As she recites the names, the collapsible metal door (as in warehouses) starts to open from below letting in the light. The machinery is handled by a white male, placed in a corner with his back to the audience the entire time; his sole job is to open the metal door at this point and not be otherwise involved in the performance. Kukama reverses the white male for a job that would be performed by a black man. As the door opens some more, Kukama starts to move outside in the light, still reciting the names. The door is then shut, leaving the audience in silence until we clap. Audience members walked around the installation, marveling at this performed revelation of history that reached our guts. I felt numb and dumbfounded as I tasted sand in my mouth, the dust of lost bodies, lost names, lost memories, never to be retrieved. Kukama’s words that black people “were never meant to survive” echo, and yet, as Kukama herself emerged from the dark into the light, so do the fearless ones who fight on.

Kukama’s work reminded me of African American novelist and Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison who also digs into black history, but when it is impossible to retrieve, she uses her imagination to fabricate one. This is similar to Kukama’s use of performance to rediscover the undiscoverable. She asserts blackness in the most affirmative and hopeful way where her sole voice is only one in a litany of fighters, including those who were killed and those who survived.

A very different kind of performance, Athi-Patra Ruga’s Things We Lost in the Rainbow, presented a stunning work at night. The Program Notes state that “Ruga has assumed avatars as a means of speaking directly to power and our personal and collective traumas. In this expansive processional performance across the city, he looks back on his legacy through numerous avatars and video projections, from Miss Congo (2007) and Beiruth (2008) to his current work.” Like Kukama, Ruga works with memory via textiles and printmaking as he “explores the body in relation to sensuality, culture and ideology.”

Kukama’s invocation of the slave trade and the huge loss of human lives was portrayed also, though differently, in Sue Williamson’s site-installation at the Cape Town Castle entitled One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale that took us back to the 17th century to the places (in this case, many from the Malabar coast of Kerala, India) from which slaves were captured (some as young as 10) by the Dutch East India Company and brought to this slave Castle. Williamson used cloth to great effect in her excavation of this brutal history.

Before witnessing Williamson’s installation, I went inside the Castle building itself with opulent rooms furnished in the 17th and then 18th century style furniture, crockery, and paintings. It is difficult to imagine the impunity with which wealthy white people lived in luxury in these rooms while keeping slaves in dungeons close by.

Williamson worked with 119 of over 500 deeds of sale in the Cape Town Deeds Office. The only information recorded included the first name (given by the slave master), sex, where they were from, the date they were brought to Cape Town, and their age. Williamson’s installation had “lengths of cloth sent from India” that were made into work-shirts “in a recreation of the original journey.” The shirts were dipped into muddy water taken from the Castle moat and hung up as on a clothesline to dry. The minimal information about each slave was inscribed in black ink on the shirts. The men, women and children were brought on Dutch East India ships as slaves, many used as laborers in South Africa, others sold in slave markets for the New world. Williamson noted that the Dutch East India Company was the first multinational corporation that owned thousands of ships and kept meticulous records of their human trade.

Williamson’s verbal remarks were interrupted/punctuated, as resonantly choreographed, by a young woman reading out the meagre information about the human slaves inscribed on the shirts—Name, age, place, sex. With the first settlement in South Africa in 1652, there was a need for slaves who were “cheaper”, since the only cost was their travel, than local workers. In 1657, slaves were brought from India and modern-day Jakarta. In 1658, the Cape Colony became a slave trading center. People ordered slaves for their own use. In a listing of profitable goods for trade such as linen, plates, tea and coffee beans, slave boys are mentioned as commodities.

In a fascinating route, as if returning the only information of the many slaves from the Malabar coast and Cochin (today called Kochi), the work shirts made from cloth that came from there will be sent back to India, to be shown at the Kochi Biennale in December 2018. The trading routes continue today not with humans but with cloth on which their meagre details are inscribed.

Williamson ended her remarks by quoting the African-American scholar Saidiya Hartman whose books have uncovered slave history expressed in her poetic voice. In her essay “Listen to the Unsaid”, she asks a profound question as to how we can “recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features?” These humans were reduced to numbers in “invoices”, to “units of value” without faces, personalities, or personal stories. Hartman asks poignantly, “how does one write the chronicle of a death foretold and anticipated, as a collective biography of dead subjects, as a counter-history of the human, as the practice of freedom? How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know?”

In recreating trade routes as Williamson does, Meghna Singh’s The Rusting Diamond is “an immersive documentary” that excavates a decaying “diamond-mining vessel at the edge of the port of Cape Town.” Ironically, this once wealth-generating vessel with its cargo of diamonds is now used by a few Ghanaian immigrants who shelter there, nervous about entering the city and possibly facing xenophobic attacks. Singh’s work is concerned with “the circulation of human lives and things at sea within the framework of historical and contemporary trade routes and economies of exchanges from East Africa to Brazil and Portugal” (Program Notes).

Several unique live performances put the body on the line as an object of subversion and sexuality, or a site of disease and healing, evoking ancestry and the archive. Gavin Krastin’s performance entitled Yet to be Determined invited the audience to sit around the stage close to the nude performer whose body with its curves and angles was on display though his face was covered in a black sack. In silence, we notice parts of his body such as the spinal column, ribcage, stomach caving in, slouching forward, taking striking poses resembling the sculpture of David, or Venus de Milo. A “headless” body makes gentle 360 degree turns as the audience watches intently.

Next, the audience is invited by Krastin’s assistant to participate in a ritualistic intimate application of honey (using a glove) on the nude body as he keeps turning very slowly. Time passes during this participatory ritual. A woman puts gloves on both her hands and gently anoints each of the performer’s hands with honey in a gesture that seems loving and healing. Another woman, as if impatient for the show to move on, grabs two jars and pours the contents on the performer’s body; the honey slides to the ground, making the linoleum surface extremely slippery.

At the end of the honey ritual, the assistant brought a tray full of sparkly firecrackers that released a violent sound, like a gunshot, making the performer shake for an instant. The first time that the cracker burst out multi-colored sparkles that stuck to the nude body was an amazingly startling and beautiful theatrical moment. More audience members tried their hand at the tube-like contraption until sparkles adorned almost the entire body. The performer took this further as he lay down, rolling from his stomach to his back until his flesh was barely visible, covered as if by a shiny speckled cloth. The performer rose from the ground, threw off the black hood, and started moving, shaking his entire body, his arms, really dancing to the song, “I love to dance on my own.”

The music stopped, cut short willfully to move into a realm of pain and violence as if to convey that all this beauty, outside the intact body, can go wrong in an instant. In the silence, he touched his forehead and removed one needle, then another and a third one. The blood oozed out, streaking the performer’s face. The sight of blood evoking pain exposed his body differently than his earlier nude, statuesque poses of sheer beauty. The gap between beauty and pain is so narrow that one can glide from one to the other in the blink of an eye. He smiled, made eye contact with the audience, as he turned in place as at the beginning of the performance, now revealing not only his external nude body but showing the inside of his body with the blood that trickled into his mouth. He tasted blood, smiled gently as the audience sat in a stunned silence, as if in a trance. An incredibly powerful performance where Krastin pushes the boundaries of what a body feels, when it is adored as beautiful and also when it endures pain and elicits empathy from the audience.

Alan Parker and Gerard Bester’s Sometimes I have to lean in…  was a deeply moving and sophisticated work in which the skilled choreography and story-telling were interspersed with impeccably chosen songs, and popular and classical music. The soundscape became a third presence along with the two men. Throughout, the sight of two men, slightly out of shape, with expressive faces, bare feet, came across as vulnerable, reaching spectators with humor and compassion. The conceptual grounding of the piece on the verb, “to lean” is expressed in multiple ways—imaginatively through movement, via the two bodies leaning into one another, away from one another, moving diagonally, and pausing, breathing heavily, making no effort to disguise how much of an effort it was for these bodies to move. These seemingly deconstructed movements, far from professional blithe dancers made the two men incredibly endearing. We’re informed that “the lean” came into its own in 1980 with Michael Jackson who could lean forward in gravity defying movement that Parker proceeds to demonstrate, evoking much laughter at many different attempts even with his partner holding on to his ankles, then his legs.

Each artist travels back in time with personal memories such as “I was happy to do this dance with a little less audience, 30 years ago, in Hiddingh Hall, in London, Paris, to a much smaller audience” eliciting laughter from the packed house. The use of humor was so intelligent and skilled that it added to the pleasure of watching, such as standing on a chair and indicating the past by leaning slightly backward and the future as “terrifying because it is a mystery” by leaning slightly forward. They initiate each other’s gestures of leaning into and away from one another.

The conceptual and the emotional dovetail in sophisticated harmony not leaving out the edgy feeling of discovery left for the audience. The light and dark are with us in this troubled world as indicated by lines such as “How much plastic is in the sea? We are on the verge of a race war. Men are never going to change.” Then, incredulously, the two bodies startled us by moving to the deeply evocative Saint-Saëns music of The Dying Swan as the two men stood close together, their middles touching, leaning towards one another with hands folded, at other times, putting their hand in their pockets. Their eyes met, they performed backbends and side bends.

Museum of Lungs, a collaboration between Director Laila Soliman, Stacy Hardy, Neo Muyanga and Nancy Mounir brought together narrative, music, creative lighting, and an imaginative linking of story-teller Hardy to her life-like, wooden puppet doppelganger whose limbs came apart, and who appeared to come alive in segments, when the live and wooden body seemed to merge. The stories of oppressions perpetrated by Hardy’s white ancestors haunt her, eat away at her body as she testifies that “there are so many holes in my body.” Where, in one’s body, she asks, does one store knowledge?”

Hardy’s white upbringing was marked by fear of contamination. Nevertheless, she is diagnosed with tuberculosis, a puzzling paradox to the doctors since she is “too white” to get this disease, unless she had been visiting the townships. She considers “illness as a form of protest, and patients as outlaws; indeed, illness is the only form of protest against capitalism.” The story is “left incomplete, like freedom.” Then in an ironic twist, she says, “the sickness begs me not to kill it. What will you be without me?” She links this to the body accumulating knowledge of the painful past, and how to heal from that. Who is guilty and who is responsible for the many wrongs of history? Who is accountable for the (Black) “miners who breathe death? When does grief become an offense? What if death becomes profitable?” as happened during apartheid, when black workers infected with TB were given money to return “home” to the homelands—this cost the white owners much less than offering treatment, knowing that the infected person would hardly survive the journey home. As Hardy separates the puppet’s body parts, much like hers and others with diseases, noting that “there is no way to forget”, the lights fade leaving a spot light on the rib-cage that physically though not physiologically protects our lungs.

The verbal story was accompanied with resonant music by Muyanga and Mounir on a variety of musical instruments – a guitar, drums, a wooden circular instrument with a handle that when turned made a creaking sound, replicating the diseased body, creaking joints and also as the puppet’s limbs came apart. Director Soliman “creates a multi-vocal performance of love, loneliness, fragility, and death, addressing the fundamentally impossible bravery of being alive and being human today.”

I’d like to end with a deeply tactile, emotionally engrossing morning event, like a hope-inspiring morning raga, at the Adderley Flower Market on Adderley Street. 10 to 12 of us were given historical information of the biodiversity of the region in and around Cape Town, as well as the legacy of flower-sellers in the 1930s and 1940s whose plants were taken by Europeans and “given names” as well as their botanical genealogy. Indigenous names known to the locals were erased. Karin and her sister, flower-sellers for over thirty years, continuing the trade from their mother and grandmother, taught us how to make a flower arrangement after we selected flowers that evoked stories and memories. Other flower-sellers who had been at this job also for several decades had created beautiful floral arrangements and also displayed photos of their younger selves.

We spread the flowers we had selected on a flat surface. We were given a green plastic container with green foam soaked in water. Our teacher had us cover all the foam sides with green, then we had to take our largest flower and place it in the middle. Others had to be placed lower than the main flower, and then we decorated the whole with greens, ferns to make our individual arrangement. The entire task put us in a trance outside time and place, as we were absorbed in the energy of the flowers, the greens, and in creating our individual artistic decoration. This magical moment of beauty, nurturing our spirits, was as resonant as the darker representations of black history recognizing loss and trauma though looking ahead to continuing struggles for a just society for all South Africans.

Ketu H. Katrak is Professor of Drama at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

Photographs by Xolani Tulumani.