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Grahamstown - It is customary, based on merit, for spectators to observe that a performer has “given of themselves” during a performance.
Grahamstown’s daily Cue newspaper – a constant, though unreliable monitor of work at the National Arts Festival – has been full of stories detailing these moments.
Donna Kukama, a performance artist and winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in this category, took this aspect of performance quite seriously by creating a work in which she truly “gives” of herself: in the form of vials of blood that are given to each audience member brave enough to enter her makeshift consultation room.
Friday was the first day her booth inside the Settler’s Monument was open and word had yet to get around that Kukama would be so generously “giving of herself”. Or perhaps festivalgoers are not a bloodthirsty crowd?
The modest queue outside Kukama’s Museum of Non-Permanence moved at a snail’s pace. Fortunately, the setting is geared for a long wait.
There is a row of chairs bathed in the red light that delineates the area surrounding this strange makeshift “museum”. It is like a doctor’s waiting room in the red light district. The patients-cum-audience members are predictably apprehensive as it is immediately clear that they will face a one-on-one encounter with Kukama.
This means they will also have to give of themselves rather than settling comfortably into the safety of a darkened theatre.
Audience members disappear inside the dark booth, with one-way windows, for almost an hour at a time. When they reappear they look slightly bemused and one is seen emerging clutching a vial of blood, which she says belongs to Kukama.
Undoubtedly, the programme for this annual festival usually presents an offbeat statement of sorts and more recently it does seem to hail from the performance art one. Last year Yann Marussich turned his body blue (by injecting a liquid into his body) and stepped out of a bath filled with glass.
Kukama’s performance work will probably be the one that will be this year’s talking point as it is unusual in almost every conceivable manner.
For starters, the experience of her work begins in the queue. It’s where your anxiety and curiosity builds, forming the glue that bonds everyone. It’s like being trapped in queue at a government institution where you eventually surrender to the idea that waiting is an inevitable part of the experience.
The government institution is further evoked when you enter the booth and face Kukama, who is sitting on the other side of a glass cubicle. Behind her is the nurse, who will later draw her blood. Kukama operates like an official; she is detached and asks questions about your history, before suggesting what kind of “monument” you wish to donate to the museum.
Kukama isn’t collecting conventional monuments, but a part of your body – hair, nails, tears. You are obliged to leave something of yourself behind. It’s a kind of creepy voodoo-esque scenario but, with the solid if logical assurance of a bureaucratic process supporting it, it is affirmed via all the paperwork that needs to be filled out.
This is all done under a torchlight manipulated by Kukama.
She rolls up her sleeve and the nurse, patiently and silently in attendance, draws blood, which is collected in a test-tube. Kukama attaches a label to the vial and writes on it the name of your “monument”, which you will bury in a place of your choosing in Grahamstown.
Only you will know about it and the secret of its personal connection will only be shared with Kukama.
She may give away her blood but very little else about herself.
Perhaps this is what all the performers in Grahamstown are doing; appearing to give of themselves while only flattering us into believing that is what has occurred.