ART News
RAINBOW NATIONS: PERFORMANCE ART IN SOUTH AFRICA

12th January 2022 | Guest Writer: Margherita Nussio
On 26th of December 2021 Desmond Tutu (Nobel Peace Price, 1984), father of today’s South Africa, died at 90 years old. To celebrate his life, I dedicate to him this month’s article referring to Sethembile Msezane as an example of a South African artist who uses her body to convey messages, in an extraordinary healing process for her country.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 2021, The forgiveness Project. Credit: Brian Moody
Performance art is particularly interesting in South Africa because the starting date of it is way earlier than in Europe and is anchored in the history of the country and of the African continent. The notion of using the body to transmit a specific signal, and the use of the body in rituals, has for centuries been a part of African culture in general, and South African in particular. The cultural practices of healing, shamanism, mourning, initiation and celebration were a part of some local groups long before the colonial and de-colonial era.

I am interested in performance art and in its dualistic concept of body-space as the space, which in South Africa is highly connoted by the question of the race. The space is characterised by social and racial groups and, even if in theory the space is open and penetrable, it remains inaccessible in practice. The space shapes the experiences of people leading them to live in their sphere that becomes their reality. As the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy observes in 1992, “Bodies are places of existence and there is no existence without a place, without there without here”[1]. The landscape and the space are in deep relationship with the body, one helps to understand the other.

Sethembile Msezane, Excerpts from the Past, 2017. Photo Credit: The Artist

Art, especially performance art that use the body as a core focus, could help us to give a new meaning to a specific place and could add multiple layers to our reality, giving us the chance to understand it better.

Sethembile Msezane situates herself in the gap created by the absence of women’s voice in the discourses of post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa. She uses her body to embrace the identity of every forgotten South African woman. “In most of my work, my identity (and) my face is concealed,” she explains, “and that’s particularly because, when I am performing, or when I’m making work about another woman, I am in essence taking on their persona. I am connecting with them spiritually." [2]

Sethembile Msezane, "Public Holidays", 2013-2014

In her series “Public Holidays” (2013-2014), Msezane placed her body in dialogue with time and space. The first piece was performed on National Heritage Day, the 24th of September 2013. She decided to pose on a white cube, dressing up in the celebratory garb and adornments of uMemulo (the “coming of age” ceremony for Zulu women) near Cape Town’s Houses of Parliament. The use of Zulu costumes is interesting because she is from the KwaZulu Natal province, an area where the Zulu population is high. Msezane becomes a living monument, reflecting the urgent need to create awareness of the lack of representation of the female body in public spaces as well as of the lack of monuments glorifying and commemorating black people. Furthermore, holding the performance on National Heritage Day is meaningful as well: for this is the day that celebrates the union and the diversity of the country, where everyone is encouraged to embrace and glorify their respective traditions.

Sethembile Msezane, Heritage Day (The Holiday Series), 2013. Photo Credit: The Artist
Sethembile Msezane, "Youth Day", 2014

Another interesting work that explores the relationship between the body of the artists, space and identify is called “Youth Day”, performed in 2014 in Walter Sisulu Square, Soweto. She chose the location carefully: South Africa’s Youth Day is held on the 16th of June to commemorate the Soweto Uprising, and she performed it not only in the same area that was the site of the riots, but also in the square where the Freedom Charter was signed in 1955. One of the point of the Freedom Charter is “The law shall guarantee to all their right to speak, to organise, to meet together, to publish, to preach, to worship and to educate their children” [3].

The artist, dressed up in her school uniform, balancing books on her head, was questioning the fact that education was a guaranteed right for all, highlighting the flaws of the education system. Indeed, in 2015 the South African Child Gauge revealed that 58% of children in grade 4 could not read fluently, and that only the 5% of non-white South African completed the education path [4].

Sethembile Msezane, Youth Day (The Holiday Series), 2014. Photo Credit: The Artist
Sethembile Msezane, "Chapungu, The Day Rhodes Fell", 2015

Possibly the most famous work by the artists was performed in the context of the #RhodesMustFall movement. Cecil Rhodes was not only a British imperialist, but is considered to be the grandfather of apartheid, as he created policies of exclusion of the black population of Africa. His figure is still predominant in Cape Town because he devoted a large sum of money to ensure his legacy and to consolidate his ideals both in England and in Africa. The presence of his statue at the University of Cape Town, and the controversy of its removal, can be linked to the scholarship established after his death, in 1902, by the Rhodes Trust, with the purpose of creating and educating the next generations of imperialists.

On the 9th of April 2015 the statue was removed, following weeks of protests and she decided to perform a piece to honour people of South Africa. She was wearing a pair of wings made with the feathers of the Chapungu (a bird originally from Zimbabwe) and her Zulu regalia. She remained in the same position for hours, fighting against the heat, the pain and the fatigue. When the statue was removed, she outstretched her arms, and the wings, in a magnificent act of freedom of African people against the colonial rules. She was not facing the statue; she saw its removal reflected in the sunglasses of the gathered crowd. She was a part of the removal, not just a spectator. The performance situated itself in a context of contrast: a living body versus a bronze statue, a young black women versus an old white man, freedom versus colonialism, black pride versus white dominance.

The statue has a memory because it is a symbol of colonialism; her body has a memory because it is the symbol of the new South Africa. She was acting statuesque, but her body remain visible and alive, and is characterised by the movement of the winds that, along with the heels that elevate the artists from the heaviness of the world, are a metaphor of the strength of the new generation.
Sethembile Msezane, Chapungu, The Day Rhodes Fell, 2015. Photo Credit: The Artist
References

[1] Mirzoeff, N. (2002) Bodyscape. London: Routledge, p19

[2] Gallery MOMO: Sethembile Msezane. Creative FeelGallery MOMO https://creativefeel.co.za/2017/02/gallery-momo-sethembile-msezane/

[3] "The Freedom Charter" in Walter Sisulu Square https://www.waltersisulusquare.co.za/the_charter.html

[4] Nonjinge Gugu “Education For Black People In SA Is In A Terrible State” in Huffington Post https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/gugu-nonjinge/the-real-state-of-south-africa-s-education- system_a_23373107/

About the Writer
Margherita Nussio was born and raised in Udine, a small town in the northeast of Italy, where the proximity of Austria and Slovenia creates an interesting middle-European mix.

She studied Art History at La Sapienza University of Rome and life brought her to London, to undertake a Master's degree at SOAS, University of London, in Contemporary Art of Asia and Africa. She is curious, passionate and always wandering around, trying to discover new things about London and the world.

@margheran