‘I thought Yoko Ono did that 50 years ago,” whined a grizzled (white) female voice as people stepped up to undress Spirit Mba in the colonial confines of the Cape Town City Hall.
Yes, Mba’s solo performance called Portrait referenced Ono’s landmark Cut Piece (originating in 1964) in which members of the audience are invited to cut off her clothing with a pair of scissors.
But the Gugulethu artist was standing on a small platform transfixed by the gaze of white male mayors in their gilt frames.
After introducing herself, adding “you can call me an exhibitionist”, the petite dreadlocked performer called women only to “come and strip me of my clothing piece by piece.” Which they (all Caucasian) did voluntarily.
When she walked out of the room (her dignified, unembellished, vulnerable, African form momentarily saluting Sarah Baartman), the (Aldous Huxley) text on the floor read: “There are things known and things unknown and in between there are doors [of perception] … You and I are crossing over.”
Many doors of perception and preconception were breached, and barriers crossed, during the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts’ (Gipca) inaugural Live Art Festival (which ran from November 30 to December 4) held in various City Bowl places and spaces.
Subtitled: Make-Up Your Mind, this perfectly timed Gipca initiative may have had a precursor in Sibikwa’s Breaking New Ground Festival, at Sci- Bono, in Johburg in 2010 and last year, but it certainly has made an impressive entrance as a major player on the national and international calendars.
The curators, Jay Pather, Nadja Daehnke, Nicole Sarmiento and Adrienne van Eeden-Wharton, selected 29 pieces (from hoards of entries) “that we hope talk to each other – there are works that confront history, identity, memory, gender as well as those that explore technology, communication and the digital – all familiar enough themes, but which deconstruct the very essences of the gallery or theatre frame, and even the nature of the audience.
“Featured in one programme, our intention is that the resonances between works will deepen the experience.”
That they certainly did. But, most significantly, the strongest resonance was sparked by South African theatre and dance history itself as the performers (ranging from the iconic Tossie van Tonder and John Nankin to the brightest of younger sparks) and performances generated ganglia reconnecting decades of performance making.
Not all the pieces jelled and sometimes the sites (or self-indulgence) overpowered the content, but when the right elements meshed the results were electrifying.
Capacity audiences (even when Lady Gaga was in town) were treated to provocative insights into the moving, breathing, thinking body reacting to political, intellectual, spatial and often architectural contexts.
Full (male) nudity was ingeniously used in Tebogo Munyai’s Qina ke Qawe, Themba Mbuli’s Dark Cell, Cia Independente’s duet A Nudez (from Maputo) and Pule and Manekehla’s Penis Politics.
There are no short cuts to brutal honesty and experience as proved by the relentlessly creative Van Tonder in Tabula Rasa, a conversation-and-dance-performance on the City Hall stage which launched her self-published Nobonke She of all People.
Her interviewer, Jacques Coetzee, had read her autobiography in Braille. Another revelation was Warona Seane’s shattering monologue Buy This, about racial stereotyping performed as razor wire bit into her flesh.
Equally courageous and intelligent was Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala and Sdu Majola’s savagely satiric Highway to Heaven/Paradise Road which opened the festival at Hiddingh Hall.
In addition to the soloists John Nankin (channelling The Glass Theatre and Possession Arts in the amazing Zinc on Erf 81), Athi-Patra Ruga, Neliswe Xaba, Tebogo Munyai, Themba Mbuli, Thalia Laric, Spirit Mba and the compelling Richard September, exciting collectives and interdisciplinary collaborations are emerging.
Remember the names: Shariffa Ali, Nobhuko Nqaba and Samukelisiwe Mabaso (who made the deliciously inventive Strand); The Poor Artists (Iman Isaacs and Gabriella Pinto) with their scarily surrealistic The Digital Man and Kreative Kontrol (Siya Ngcobo, Llewellyn Mnguni and Art) with their tantalising A Whole New Bible.
They already have a licence to hijack senses and seduce minds.