A YOUNG SOUTH African man will reveal his soul at the National Gallery of Namibia, on August 5. He will be armed with a heavy industrial chain, a broken telephone, an old-fashioned scale, and woman’s stocking, amongst other things. He will also be armed with the fire of self-belief. Meet 23-year-old Oupa Sibeko who spoke to My View just before flying to Namibia.
“The only library I need for my work comes from my roots,” he says. Sibeko was orphaned as a baby. “I come from a lack of family. I have always yearned to have a family. But then I had to learn to appreciate the fact that the absence of family can actually make me strong. Rather than to derail me, it can help to make me a better person in life,” he speaks strongly of the need to not be a victim.
Sibeko was raised by his grandmother, on a farm west of Johannesburg. She was a hardworking and strong woman and she died when Sibeko was just eight. “Since then I was raised by my uncle, who is there when he’s drunk. But when he’s sober, we cannot find a point of communication.”
It was the fire in the sensibilities of that eight-year-old, that held tight to not only his dreams but also the money he inherited from his grandmother, and that brought him to university, years later. That eight-year-old was also a repository for images. He speaks of his gran doing laundry, kneading bread and of the day she died. He speaks of an ability to draw from these memories to create work.
Instinctively he found comfort in performing. The enactment of a nightmare he’d experienced, in a first year class by Joni Barnard made him realise he was on the right track. “I found myself just moving. Was I dancing? Was I walking? I don’t know. But I found myself just doing it. I didn’t have to explain it to myself or to anyone else. It felt right,” he adds that Wits gave him the safe space he needed to play.
After graduating in 2015, Sibeko won a residency in Iceland. Not only had he never flown in an aeroplane, he’d also never slept in a double bed before, but rather than project parochial naiveté, he quickly learnt to roll with the punches. Even when curious Icelandic teenagers flocked to touch him, because of the novelty of black skin for them, he reeled with trauma, but braved it.
“I wanted to be something better in life. Education was so important to me. I came with nothing. I only had my gran’s savings. I didn’t even know its worth. As soon as I had an opportunity to apply to Wits, I did. I used all of that money to register for the degree. For me this money was like her ashes. Was I going to put them in a river and let them go? Was I going to go to a hill and just throw it in the air? Or was I going to make something of my life. Wits was where I put it.”
At university, Sibeko rapidly learnt to make sacrifices of his creature comforts and he often slept all night on campus, like a stowaway. His commute between university and home was almost two hours, involving – often not reliable – public transport. “What was important was this degree. I needed this cultural knowledge. That was all.” He describes the multitude of accents he encountered at Wits and the bamboozling array of values university life tossed his way.
Unequivocally, he describes his lecturers, Gerard Bester and Toni Morkel as the people who touched his sensibilities the deepest, who pushed him further than he thought he could go. “These are the big guns,” he glories in Bester and Morkel’s association with choreographer Robyn Orlin and their work with the Hillbrow theatre. “I also look at Steven Cohen for his bravery in taking chances that are designed to spark controversy. And at how performance artist Albert Khoza, presents himself. It is fantastic.”
The work he performs in Namibia is called Black Dog. “I try to understand my masculinity in this work. It is not about an initiation where a young man is sent to a mountain to be circumcised. It is about self-initiation: I had to clean myself up, sort myself out and decide what kind of a man I would be.
“When I was a child, there were three characters in my life besides me: my gran, my uncle and a black dog. This dog wasn’t a pet: like the rest of us, it had to forage and hunt for itself. And this work is a reflection on myself as a black dog of sorts.
“How should I perceive men? Not all men are drunk and neglectful like my uncle. And women? I only knew my gran until I was eight. I do not know how to respond to her memory as an adult.
“In the work, I play with tangible things. I weigh myself on a scale … but it is doing more than just weighing my body mass, it is weighing my life, it is weighing where I come from, it is weighing how far I can go. For me, with all these pokes and needles in life, the bottles which are broken which I had to go through, I had to put myself through this journey on my own.
“Part of me is not scared to perform this work in a context which may be sensitive. I choose to be naked. The vulnerability is important. I know it is a conservative audience, but it is important that they are challenged to address what I am doing.” The exhibition in which Sibeko is taking part is called Conversations. “I’m not having a conversation with anyone. I am the subject and the object. I’m having a conversation with myself, but provoking conversation, among others. This is how it goes forward,” he adds.