Writing Art History Since 2002

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Robyn Sassen on the National Arts Festival

The black passage, James Web (2006-2007). Photo: Bianca BaldiSince 1974, the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown has been a yardstick for issues central to South Africa’s identity. It has shifted, often uncomfortably, in bringing cutting edge activism to our stages and audiences. At 33, it is the country’s oldest festival but remains rich with a diversity of art made with conviction, sensitivity and exploration. This year’s festival saw several important gestures in the name of site-specificity and performance art. James Webb presented Beau Diable, a mini round up of favourite works that included his sound recordings of bird calls, There’s No Place Called Home, installed in various unadvertised outdoor, site-specific venues. His Gallery in the Round work was audible long before you arrived at it. The space is in total darkness; all you hear is the unrelenting sound of the empty elevator cage descending and ascending the world’s deepest twin shaft goldmine. As you blindly walk around his installation, The Black Passage, the sound seems to change. At times it resonates and contradicts the rhythm of your heartbeat. You feel it in your teeth, your shoes, your gut. The experience shatters your emotional equilibrium, and offers a potent representation of the injustice of mine labour. Webb refers to the mythic underworld as well as an ironic extrapolation on elevator music in explaining this piece, but its deafening power brings your sense of humanity to bear.Brett Bailey’s Orfeus was another important festival landmark. Based on the Greek myth, Bailey’s Orfeus takes shape around a HIV/Aids narrative and was performed in a quarry behind Rhodes University’s campus. The visual impact of the piece is breathtaking in its complexity and simplicity. Bailey constructs a fantasy landscape within a real one; the audience is led through it, in the dark, by a messenger from hell (Andile Bonde). Red, white and black predominate in the harsh natural setting, brought to surreal life with masks and fire, metaphor and historical allusion. Haunting songs are composed and performed by Congolese musician and actor, Bebe Lueki, in the title role – he has to go into the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice, stolen from him on their wedding night by a snake.Peter van Heerden’s performance piece, Six Minutes, was staged near Grahamstown’s Dog Dam. The audience had to drive along a dirt road in the dark for several hundred metres to get to the Boer-evocative site, complete with a couple of kids keeping a fire going. A jagged narrative of baby rape and child battery, Van Heerden’s work engages with the cycle of violence that informs our society – statistics reveal that every six minutes a woman or child is brutalised sexually. It begins with the staged rape of Leila Anderson, in the light of a car’s headlights. The rapist (Van Heerden) runs away, into the campsite, where he is born from a plastic bag filled with blood and animal entrails. The birthing process is as cathartic and troubling as the work of Hermann Nitsch. Six Minutes.Leila Anderson was selected by Jay Pather to perform on Fresh, a new platform for young artists “prepared to take risks outside what would be acceptable to an established public”, according to Pather. Anderson’s work lacks explanatory text and contains a powerful emotional framework: the European Holocaust, evoked in the title, Schlof Shoyn Mein Kind, Yiddish for “sleep well my child”. Its tone is set by a table installation, which speaks eloquently of people being violently removed from their domestic environment, probably to be killed. The installation is strongly reminiscent of Karl Biedermann and Eva Butzmann’s Overturned Chair (1996) in Koppenplatz Park, Berlin. Anderson’s table contains a kitka, a ritually plaited bread eaten by Jews on the Sabbath, as well as red wine and lit candles. It is disrupted – cleanly, quietly, irrevocably. Beyond this installation, in the courtyard of the venue, Anderson (in collaboration with Chuma Sopotela) engages with the irretrievably broken connection brought by genocide. The work involves suitcases of wigs and shoes and duffle coats on a line. Anderson’s young voice engages potently without cliché with three generations’ old litany of Holocaust tradition.Touching the confrontational and socially upsetting gestures of performance art, made relevant by both ancient African tradition and activist work from the 1950s in the west, these artists sit on the cutting edge of our contemporary heritage. Their depictions are relevant to our society; their aesthetic is harsh but beautiful in its lack of compromise or cliché.Robyn Sassen

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