Can you ever be at home in this world?

HIDDEN: A foreigner peers through a gap in the fence while angry South Africans protest outside the premises in Johannesburg. Photograph by Alon Skuy. 24 February 2017.

A MAN CRADLES a baby’s head with searing gentleness as he squeezes himself and the child under a barbed wired fence. You don’t know if the child is alive or dead, but can see the wedding ring on his finger and the fear and excruciating pain on his face. And even before you know the context, if you are a human being in this world, you empathise. This could be you, running away with the life of your child in your hand. This exhibition of work by veteran photographers Alon Skuy and James Oatway will burn itself into your mind’s eye as it must: it’s a testimony to the madness of our society in an attempt to breach that ‘never again’ moment.

More than that, this body of over 60 photographs, drawing from the scene of xenophobic catastrophe from 2008 and onwards in various pockets of violent South Africa, is so potent, you can feel the heat of the images as you stand in front of them. You can hear the anger of the approaching mob, and feel the rumble of the context: there’s no place to hide. The collection of photographs on show here is  a profound tribute to the strength of gut, soul and eye of these two men, and all the other intrepid photographers before them and after them who witness horrors happening from behind their lenses and capture them for perpetuity.

And yes, indeed: a whole range of moral fingers get pointed at work of this nature, about the presence of the photographer in the scene. You look at Oatway’s  sequential images which saw Mozambican migrant Emmanuel Sithole being stabbed to death in 2015 and understand the 28 second time lapse between the first and the last. And that all the photographer could do was his job. But it also makes you think about how exposed these photographers are in a context which is not immediately theirs and a sense of violence which can spill without vision or reason into their lives at any moment.

Killing the Other is an essay about xenophobia. It’s a true account of what happened and continues to happen in contexts where people from elsewhere are perceived as a threat to people from here. It’s about how history repeats itself, but it’s also a tiny slice of what makes PTSD happen in the life and sensibility of a media professional. You look at these works and think of what Dean Hutton or the photographers associated with the notorious Bang Bang club in the 1980s – or people in the cut and thrust of any war – weathered by being in the important and terrible thick of things.

The images are not all explicitly violent. Some of them are about people making a life in a new place. They’re about a terror of the unanticipated. And the vulnerability of a person in the eye of a mob maddened by bloodlust. Curated with empathy and wisdom, the experience of the exhibition is focused and direct.

You need to take the time to look at each of these works individually and allow it to reverberate through your sense of self, in this exhibition. It’s not a show that you can glance through flippantly: it’s something that will touch you in your sense of community.

  • Killing the Other by James Oatway and Alon Skuy is at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre in Forest Town, until July 1. Call 011 640 3100.
  • The centre boasts a comfortable, well-designed and immensely pleasant coffee shop called Issy’s, which you can read about here.

Goldendean and the treachery of the pronoun

Bold: Goldendean. Photograph by Delwyn Verasamy
Bold: Goldendean. Photograph by Delwyn Verasamy

Walk into any environment. Engage with strangers. What are the basic signifiers that enable you to do so? For one thing, language. For another, gender. An understanding of whether someone is a girl or a boy fundamentally affects how you respond to them. Call it upbringing. Call it social context. Call it psychology.

But what happens in a situation in which the very pronouns that you have been using all your life, are revealed as tainted? As potentially offensive to one to whom they do not apply. Everything, but everything, gets cast into disarray, and you are threatened with a kind of paralysis in expressing yourself.

Dean Hutton’s debut performance in The Cradle dismantles your sense of comfort in the world in a way that leaves you unsure who you are when you leave the space – and even unsure as to who you had been from the outset.

This is not to say that it messes directly with your own sexuality, but rather, it presents such a rich conundrum of being that it can shake you to your very foundations. On the exhibition’s opening night, an environment, a sense of mystique was created, and as you entered the space, your every sense was subtly seduced with tactile richness that made it difficult to be in the space for a long period of time because it was so intense.

From the fact that you were instructed, at the outset, to either take off your shoes or don plastic shoe-protectors, to the smell and feel of the soil so richly blanketing the space, to the sound of the bell, both in the performance itself, and the videoed performance, a sound which was also punctuated with that of a water fountain in the exhibition space and that of thunder on the sound track, every element played together to embrace you.

People were shy to begin navigating the space. The sacrosanctity of it all was complete. The artist, in golden nakedness, stood amidst the soil, sweeping swaths of it clean: perhaps in the shape of a map of Africa? Either way, Hutton wore a large bell at the waist. It rang and rumbled as Hutton swept, dangling like a metallic scrotum.

There is a sublime subtlety which contains Hutton’s nakedness as it contains the images of Hutton’s dogs, Comet and Luca or the natural environment on film. Audiences do not laugh with characteristic embarrassment that you might anticipate from such a situation. Having conquered their shyness, they move into the space and respectfully interact with the artist, who responds to them, while sweeping and ringing bells.

Hutton’s work on The Cradle begs comparison with that of South African-born performance artist Steven Cohen, who is currently based in Lille, France, given the use of performance, of nakedness, of environment. Hutton’s aesthetic, however, digresses vehemently from the invasiveness of Cohen’s persona. There’s less of a sense of adornment here, and more of a critical self-exploratory nakedness. The work is unsettling in a different way.

A low point in this extraordinary piece, was the positioning of Alberta Whittle in her role as Mummywatter. Playing with the ancient myths surrounding the Mami Wata, which ties the notion of the mermaid with that of fertility, Whittle performed the piece adorned in flowers and an impenetrable blueness. She sat in a plastic bath, making origami of money and distributing pieces of paper which reflected on the sangoma flyers that are handed out sporadically in urban South African traffic. A powerful performance in her own right, embracing enormous mystique, Whittle was positioned against the far wall of the gallery.

You were so swept away by Hutton’s presence and performance that it became easy to overlook what Whittle looked like, or was doing. This element of The Cradle should have been more confrontational, posing different challenges to the visitor.

Hutton’s debut as a performance artist is a gesture that cannot exist without follow up: a new character has emerged into South Africa’s performance art litany. What happens next?

  • The Cradle, an exhibition of new work by Dean Hutton in collaboration with Alberta Whittle and Anna Christina Lorenzen is at GoetheonMain, at Maboneng downtown Johannesburg, until October 25.

On Fire: out of control

Thulani Mgidi in On Fire. Photograph by Manuel Osterholt.
Thulani Mgidi in On Fire. Photograph by Manuel Osterholt.

When you watch a piece as catastrophically chaotic as Constanza Macras’s On Fire choreographed for the gala opening of this year’s Dance Umbrella, you might be tempted to question what exactly a choreographer does. Unlike the previous works we have seen by this choreographer and her company, there is a catch all moment in the work where it seems anything goes and you in the audience are being subject to Macras’s version of pot luck. Did she run out of editing stamina in creating this piece?

Had it been well produced and carefully constructed, you might have been of the opinion that the performers should be allowed to die after the work had been completed: they had done so much with such fervent diversity during the work’s complicated duration. But nay: you cannot say this: there is just simply too much, most of which is crying out for editing snips: The work is too long. The colonialist message is carried across with clarity and even beauty, the first time. But then it is broadcast again and again. And again. With proverbial sledgehammers, considerable narrative sloppiness and extreme loudness. And again some more: to the point where you want to shout ‘enough, already!’

It’s also a misguided message that leaves you, as a South African audience cold: we’ve been through the colonialist discourse a million times. We’ve lived through it. It’s ours. While On Fire has potential and the skill of its cast is simply breath-taking, the work lacks an underbelly of meaningful context and doesn’t give local audiences anything new. Instead, the tired rehashing of apartheid values and a poorly constructed spoof of a soap opera hurts the Dance Umbrella and your personal expectations. It feels arrogant and self indulgent.

They’re words which don’t come lightly. The first half of this work contains heart-stoppingly fine moments which bring the colonial practice of tennis and golf playing and tea drinking onto a strip of veld from which the Hillbrow Tower is visible. In another part, a sheet of paper on the floor and an astonishingly fine dancer convey a sense of not fire, but water, at the work’s outset. The dancers articulate the curious formality of colonialist photography with a wisdom and a level of input that is unique and sophisticated. There’s a give and take with traditional African song that sparkles with engagement.

But then, the work seems to lose its way, and there is too much text and weak story-telling. Too much thrusting about and making horrible noises. Too much time and energy spent in bringing everything from soap opera story lines to Credo Mutwa and Fitzcarraldo’s sound track into the mix. So much so that you could even overlook the collaborative energy that videographer Dean Hutton and photographer Ayana V Jackson have put into the work. Their contribution feels brushed over and disregarded.

Ultimately, you leave with the awareness that this potjie hasn’t been cooked long enough and the disparate parts don’t meld in a way that is convincing. Instead, you might feel a bit insulted by the manner in which these performers who are not from this country mangle and mock us. And above all, disappointed: Macras’s reputation for exceptionally good work just hasn’t been honoured here.

  • On Fire by Constanza Macras | Dorky Park is choreographed and directed by Constanza Macras and features performances by Louis Becker, Emil Bordás, Lucky Kele, Jelena Kujic, Diile Lebeko, Mandla Mathonsi, Thulani Mgidi, Melusi Mkhwanjana, Felix Saalmann, Fana Tshabalal, John Sithole. It is designed by Carmen Mehnert (dramaturge); Ayana Jackon (visual art); Dean Hutton (video); Constanza Macras and Noluthando Lobese (costumes); Jelena Kuljic and Abigail Thatcher (music and sound) and Catalina Fernandez (lighting) and performs at the Dance Factory in Newtown until February 27.