Arts Festival

A cupboard full of ideology



UNDEFINED by clothing. Themba Mbuli in ‘Manmade’. Photo by Tapiwanashe Mukanganise.

WHAT IS AN item of clothing in this world? A swatch of fabric stitched and cut to fit a body? A thing to simply cover your nakedness? A repository of fashion values? Or a thing to define you in a specific way, fraught with the constraints and expectations of ideology? The messiness of costume comes under the loupe in Themba Mbuli’s short but profound dance work, Manmade, which features on this year’s Jomba Dance Festival, hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Owing to the ongoing pandemic, the festival is in entirety online and Mbuli’s work will be screened on 6 September.

It’s a curious dance work, made for online exposure. Filmed in a tiny room with a built-in cupboard, it’s a compact essay on the power of garment, and not something that you could picture being performed to a live audience. In short, this type of work is completely ideal for the nature of this year’s Jomba. And at just 9 minutes, it’s like a haiku: something you can imbibe quickly, but something that fills you with complicated ideas that will concatenate in your head for some time.

Time and context aside, while the broader premises of the work seem direct and prosaic, Manmade is not an easy or gentle piece on any level. There is violence and complexity in how Mbuli needs to beat pants and shirts into submission, as there is a sense of mortality in the implacable nature of the cupboard itself. Magnificently filmed and relentless in its argument, the work deals with the social imperatives of masculinity and brings associations of those notions of toxicity and of fancy dress in a way that skirts with humour but retains a dense and dark undercurrent.

Like the work of Nicholas Hlobo or that of Simphiwe Ndzube, Manmade gives voice to the relationship between textile, texture and body, offering an ambiguity that is at once resonant with identity struggles as it is poetic; disturbing and beautiful concurrently.

  • Manmade is choreographed and performed by Themba Mbuli. Screening on 6 September 2020 on Jomba Dance Festival’s online programme, it is directed by Lorin Sookool and features creative input by Lorin Sookool (cinematography) and Tapiwanashe Mukanganise (photography).

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