Sing a song of ghosts in a museum of torment

Workers CHANT-photo Evans Mathibe

LOOK into the light: Feeding bowls double as light in the sequences danced by SA dance group Phuphuma Love Minus. Photograph by Evans Mathibe.

SOMETHING QUITE TERRIFYING happens when you find yourself among people you don’t know, being aggressively instructed in a language you don’t understand: You just obey. You do what other people are doing. You become frightened to step out of line. Frightened that the guards’ attention will become focused on you and you may be singled out from the pack. And what will become of you? Will you be humiliated? Will you be killed? Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s Workers’ Chant plays with power in a way that which might leave you traumatised and emotionally in disarray.

It takes the audience through the passages and interstices of the Workers’ Museum, an eerie odd little place at the best of times, which is part of the Newtown heritage trail and remains a chilling relic of apartheid’s values. Given the anti-immigrant marches that Johannesburg saw this week, it is a scarily prescient work that is as much about mourning and brokenness as it is about singling out people deemed of lesser value than the rest of society.

A little too long by maybe ten minutes, the work hammers home the realities of migrant living conditions in a crudely racist regime, as it glances head on at everything from the children of migrant labourers who cannot be read to at night, to the way in which everything from piss, shit and vomit, to food and sleep are – or were – regulated in this compound. Under threat of punishment.

There’s a loose narrative conflating the two women (Siphumeze Khundayi and Liyabuya Gongo) and weaving a history of aggression with one of tears and loss. Not always completely legible in terms of its structure, the work is achingly haunting, as it brings the song and dance work of miners associated with Phuphuma Love Minus in a way that evokes the ghosts of the men who were hard done by in this dire little compound complex and others similar to it.

It’s a work of insecurity but certainty – you know it’s an artwork and the ramifications of the instructions hurled at you cannot really touch you, but you’re still touched, anyway. It’s also a work of chilling beauty and forcefulness, which resonates with the values cast by Xoli Norman and Sue Pam Grant in the 2009 piece Guard on Shift staged at Dance Factory or Jay Pather’s Qaphela Caesar at the building formerly the site of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 2012.

Workers’ Chant is riddled with contradictions that give it toughness: it’s a celebration of lives in a context of horror and pain, a reflection of the iconic  photographs by Ernest Cole of deprivation and uniformity and a piece capable of creating shriekingly powerful images and contexts, as it is capable of creating a situation which rapidly becomes nightmarish with the screams of a woman in a closely confined space.

You’re not warned of the physical challenges this work brings, as you trundle through the dark and stony surfaces of this museum, but it is the eerie togetherness and spooky site-specificity, wrapped as it is with the traditional songs of the miners that will echo in your head with the whispers of cruel injustices and the dignity with which the men thus inflicted carried it all, sometimes right to their ignominious deaths.

  • Workers’ Chant is choreographed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu in collaboration with Siphumeze Khundayi and Liyabuya Gongo. It features design by Nhlanhla Mahlangu (costumes) and Mandla Mtshali (lighting and video) and is performed by Liyabuya Gongo, Siphumeze Khundayi and Phuphuma Love Minus, at the Workers’ Museum in Newtown, on February 23 and 24 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709.
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