AiW note: We are particularly grateful for permission from Wits University Press to publish on Africa in Words, alongside this review of the volume, two excerpts from Acts of Transgression: Contemporary Live Art in South Africa (2019), edited by Jay Pather and Catherine Boulle. See the links embedded in the review below to preview these extracts from the chapters ‘Upsurge’ by Sarah Nuttall, and Mwenya Kabwe’s ‘Astronautus Afrikanus: Performing African Futurism’.
South African writers are no strangers to the task of navigating political change and, therefore, debating how best to write their country’s new future. The two most important examples are perhaps Njabulo Ndebele’s “Rediscovery of the Ordinary” – an intervention that marked the transition between apartheid and post-apartheid era literature – or, more recently, J. M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace, that vividly demonstrated how the early optimism of the Rainbow Nation and its spirit of celebration and reconciliation were perhaps beginning to wear a little thin. Given this history, it should not surprise us that, as we approach nearly thirty years since the end of apartheid and over twenty since Coetzee wrote what is arguably the first post-transitional novel, questions are again being asked about the future direction of South Africa and its literature.
The 2012 Marikana Massacre, the Nkandla scandal, and ongoing exposés of systemic corruption and state capture have marked a growing cynicism with, and distrust of, South African politics and the country’s ongoing nation-building priorities. In addition, the ‘Fallism’ of 2015-2016 has revealed the continuing deep-rooted prejudice on which the political, social, and educational foundations of the newly democratic state were built. Together these events force us all to consider if South Africa is on the cusp of another new future where the certainties and master-narratives of the post-apartheid system are open to renewed questioning. It is in the midst of these questions that Acts of Transgression, edited by Jay Pather and Catherine Boulle, intervenes.
A series of fifteen essays about contemporary live art in South Africa, Acts of Transgression explores how performance artists in the country are coming to understand the position of their art form and culture more generally within this new climate of political urgency and crisis. Though in a radical departure from the previous interventions I mention, the overarching argument made by Pather and Boulle is that South Africa now requires more than a new literature. Fundamentally a new language, a “corporeal vocabulary of seepage and excess” is essential to protest against the “overwhelming onslaught on the black body by continued economic and physic oppression” (1). Central to the book is the contention that the political questions now being asked in South Africa demand we step away from the neutrality of compromise and the “rationalist imperative to ‘put into words’” (2) that has so far held sway in the post-apartheid settlement. Instead, the answers lie in radical action; not in literature but in the extremes of live performance art. Real change remains elusive. Talking (and writing) can only go so far.
This argument is made in four parts: Part One explores the very nature of these contemporary complexities and live art’s position within them (see this extract from Sarah Nuttall’s chapter “Upsurge”); Part Two exposes the black female body as a unique site of trauma and resistance; Part Three questions the role of the archive and curation; Part Four considers how performance draws upon the past and conceptualizes the present in ways that yield hope for a revitalized future (read this extract on critiques and possibilities of ‘Afrofutures’ from Mwenya Kabwe’s ‘Astronautus Afrikanus: Performing African Futurism’). These chapter groupings provide a solid framework for these key themes, yet they also run intertwined throughout. Each is examined through detailed and thoughtful readings of the performances of over twenty-five artists. While some examples are used multiple times, readers do not feel an overt sense of familiarity with them. Indeed, as with live art itself which – though planned for months – is always uniquely subject to the unpredictability of the performance moment, each reading has a sense of ‘newness’ and suggests yet another myriad of possibilities. Moreover, my biggest concern when beginning the collection – how do you accurately portray in textual form performances that represent “an overflow of emotion that is in excess of language” (Pather and Boulle 14)? – does not appear a problem. Yes, sometimes I felt the art itself was lost (during Part One primarily), but on the whole the frequent use of photography and detailed descriptions do provide a sense of performance-on-the-page.
We begin in Cape Town. Amongst others, Nomusa Makhubu reflects on Sethembile Msezane’s 2017 performance Excerpts from the Past and Buhlebezwe Siwani’s and Chuma Sopotela’s performance of Those Ghels that took place in the same year. What Makhubu reveals is a city of many different privatised publics where the vast majority of black citizens are made to feel uniquely un-homed and out of place. And it is this city of “displacement and impoverishment” (29) that provides the backdrop for many of the following performances encountered in the collection. This is perhaps to be expected given the prominence of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student movements, which centred largely on the city’s university campus. Acts of Transgression pushes our understanding of these protests beyond the news coverage of the protests themselves and the subsequent academic analysis that looked to explain their cause. Instead the book highlights these events as sites of knowledge production where the question of how these protests were performed is key. By revealing the visual discourse of protest and the new grammars articulated by them, each of the live art events discussed showcase the effects of systemic racism and the imprint of white authoritarianism on the bodies of black students. Particularly evocative is Same Mdluli’s essay which explores black visuality within the protests, discussing the performance of three female students who paint their bodies in white powder and show their audience the “violent erasure of black identity” (185). Similarly, the actors’ white nakedness showcases the acute vulnerability of black women in South Africa viewed, as Kieketso Dee Mohto-Wa Thaluki puts it earlier in the collection, as objects to be “scrutinised and degraded” (113). Yet, dedicated to understanding each performance individually, Acts of Transgression succeeds in shifting our attention onto the artists themselves, their unique subjectivities and perspectives. These are crucial depictions of female trauma where the performance itself is an act in which the black female body exploits its own agency as a tool of resistance.
Fallism also offers a way into exploring the relationship between live art and technology. For example, Dean Hutton’s #fuckwhitepeople is discussed throughout the volume (see the contributions by Makhubu and Pather). With previous performances seeing Hutton verbally abused and subject to death threats, he chose to not appear in person at his scheduled performance in the 2017 Live Art Festival. Instead, he performed remotely and projected his performance onto the colonial statue in the public square where he was due to perform. In discussing Hutton’s crossing of physical space in these multiple moments of performance, what we encounter in these chapters is the trace of live art as the most malleable creative form. Acts of Transgression demonstrates how technology helps artists endlessly meet and create new publics. In a similar vein, Katlego Disemelo analyses the Instagram account of the artists Ibokwe, Umlilo and FAKA. This fascinating study reveals social media as a new site of “genderfuckery” (220), an online space where artists can perform the undoing and queering of gender.
Technology symbolises a recent trend in performance art. Throughout the 2000s, there has been a gradual shift in the performance space. Not only from the physical to the virtual but, as Acts of Transgression makes clear, from sites of protest to the traditional art gallery space. In 2016, Wandile Kasibe’s exhibition of photos from #FeesMustFall was shut down by the Trans Collective, a group prioritizing the rights of inter-sex and non-confirming students at the University of Cape Town. They were protesting against their lack of representation in the wider protests and, subsequently, announced the emergence of disruption as “a particular performative form and, increasingly, as an extension of the kind of language missing from sanctified curatorial spaces” (94). And Pather’s suggestion here leads me on to perhaps the most interesting of topics raised in Acts of Transgression: curation.
Throughout the collection the topic of curation is dealt with in multiple and complex ways. Uniting these responses is an idea that brings me back to the relationship between politics and art with which I began this review. Today is an age of political crisis where post-truth discourse prevails and our faith in facts and the historical objects that represent them – statues, monuments, archives – has declined. In response we have had to turn to our emotions to tell our histories and explain our world. But how do we curate and maintain an archive of feelings? How do we curate the performance of these feelings? Indeed, curation is often understood as being about imposing boundaries and recognisable thematic groupings through which to link works. In Acts of Transgression we see how this is not possible for live art. Every performance we encounter in the book represents a breaking down of what is known, the unravelling of forms, and the letting loose of new possibilities. Therefore, “perhaps the term ‘curation’, or the act of curation itself, has run its course” (Pather 93)?
Ultimately, Acts of Transgression is right: South Africa needs a new way of being. The country continues to be a place of contestation. That which was fixed is no longer suitable. The change required is so radical that what is known must be torn away. It is a situation that struggles to be written. A new language must be formed that allows those silenced for so long by physical, ontological or structural violence to be the ones who provide new names. And it is live art, the ultimate expression of movement and unpredictability, that can best reveal this reality. It is performance, a form without bounds and which steps constantly into the unknown, that will be vital to a South Africa that does more than merely dream of a fair, equal society.
Coetzee, J. M. 1999. Disgrace. London: Vintage.
Ndebele, Njabulo. 1986. “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary”. Journal of Southern African Studies, 12, 2: 143-157.
Tom Penfold is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Birmingham. His research centres on contemporary South African literature, with a specific focus on poetry and performance culture. He is the author of Black Consciousness and South Africa’s National Literature (Palgrave 2017) and numerous other journal articles. Tom is one of AiW current Reviews Editors.
Acts of Transgression: Contemporary Live Art in South Africa is edited by Jay Pather and Catherine Boulle and published by Wits University Press. It is available for purchase here.
An extract from Sarah Nuttall’s chapter from the volume ‘Upsurge’ is available here, and Mwenya Kabwe’s ‘Astronautus Afrikanus: Performing African Futurism’ here, excerpted and published on AiW alongside this review, with the kind permission of the publisher. Our thanks once again to Wits UP.