While festival-goers shuffled from one venue to another, bitching about the cold through multiple layers of polar fleece, semi-naked actors delivered lines through chattering teeth without a murmur of complaint. They really do deserve every hand-stinging clap that you award them. Most of the time.
I reminded Michael of this when he wondered why he was watching a man roll himself up in a giant piece of paper (like one of those raggedy joints we used to make), instead of the European Cup Final. (I can’t see why watching people chase a small rotund object around a field for two hours is any more compelling, but that is where we have learnt to differ.) Rolling yourself in paper without tearing it is extremely challenging, and the man had doubtless spent many hours perfecting it. The least we could do was watch and applaud.
But we both agreed that watching almost anything would have been preferable to sitting through Steven Cohen’s performance art piece, “The Cradle of human kind”. Cohen doubtlessly endured a lot of physical hardship in creating this – wearing that illuminated corset and strapping himself to a dead baboon did not look comfortable – but he seemed so determined that the audience should share his misery, that it was hard to be magnanimous. I tried to escape when he started brandishing his dead baboon in front of a screening of screeching chimps dismembering monkeys, but I couldn’t find the exit. So I ended up in a dark corner of auditorium under a chair with my fingers in my ears, and admired the foresight of Elizabethan audiences, who came to plays armed with rotten turnips.
Like several other shows we saw, Cohen’s work explored the origins of humans, the relations between the tribes, and the grotesque 19th century European habit of “displaying” black people from the colonies as natural history curiosities in public showings. To help him explore this complex topic, Cohen enlisted the aid of his 90 year old ex-nanny, Nomsa Dhlamini.
Had she been a completely equal partner, he might just have avoided being offensively patronising. But I saw nothing to suggest this. I did not see her quoted in any interviews or articles on the work – Cohen spoke for her. On stage, she drifted around wearing only a kind of furry G-string; being either marched and manacled, or graciously led about by Cohen depending on which phase of tribal relations he was portraying. But at no stage did it feel as if she was in charge. To me it just felt like a re-enactment of the gender/race power relations he was supposed to be parodying. As a paying spectator, this made me feel uncomfortably like one of those Colonial gawkers. Putting his audience in this invidious position was manipulative, and disrespectful to both Nomsa Dhlamini and those who came to watch.
In stark contrast was Brett Bailey’s Exhibit A, who tackled this theme through a series of museum style exhibits of live humans portrayed by actors. All care was taken to shift the power relations between the viewer and the viewed. It was a small, intimate show. Members of the audience were each given a number, and taken into a room. We were instructed politely but authoritatively by a (black) actor to stop talking, and to leave the room one by one when our number was called. Thus, before we saw the first exhibit, we had been stripped of authority and control, and encouraged to adopt a mood of solemn contemplation, which prepared us for the horror of what were about to witness.
The exhibit itself was a series of vignettes, detailing and illustrating some of the atrocities committed by European powers in the past and present (the exhibit included contemporary acts against refugees). The subjects watched us intently as we read the plaques describing these, so that we became the observed rather than the observers. Bailey’s work is often confrontational and dark. But this was an extraordinarily moving and haunting piece, deeply disquieting in all the ways that art should be, and profoundly transformative both for the viewers and the viewed. I believe it should be compulsory viewing for all, but especially for any Westerner who still contends that European civilisation was any more ‘civil’ than the societies it so viciously subjugated.
Less confrontational but equally transformative was !Aïa, a dance/physical theatre piece directed by Philippe Pelen Baldini and Thierry Moucazambo. Described as a “transversal work between art, culture, science and traditional wisdom”, it transported me to an ethereal space where humans, animals, the cosmos, memory and history were woven together in a complex and subtle dance. Inserted into this was a jarring parody of the “human display” phenomenon, which, in the context of the rest, sharply highlighted how anti-human, anti-spirit, and anti-life such practices were.
Kennedy thinks we deserved to sit through Cohen’s performance, because we left him at home when we travelled to the festival. I explained that he should count himself lucky, firstly because the Boerbul at the guest house we were staying at (aptly named “Tank”) would have eaten him without even noticing; and secondly, because Cohen might have decided that a stuffed Chihuahua was a more compelling stage prop than a stuffed baboon. But Kennedy was not convinced. Besides, watching him do “Roll over” and “Paw” should be enough entertainment for anyone, in his opinion.
There was much more besides. It is lovely, every now and then, to immerse yourself in the creative journeys of other people, and give your brain a whole new marching band of things to think about, and new ways to think about them. However impressively your Chihuahua performs