Observations by an un-abstract soul

I had the pleasure of attending an arts exhibition held by a collective group of artists known as Afropolitan Explosiv. This was held at the Gallery MOMO in Parktown North, on 7th ave.

As someone who is not that involved in the arts, but however interested in poetry, I did not know what to expect. I am not as “artsy” as many are in South Africa—those who yearn for the “heart-beat” of Africa. So my appraisal of the work on show would be very limited and naïve. However there were some interesting pieces there.

Various selections of refreshments from strawberry and orange juices were on offer for the guests.

The place was abuzz with chatter and conversation around the art pieces as attendees admired and commented on the efforts. The hosts were very welcoming and would greet attendees with warm smiles, comforting touch and take part in any conversations that they could partake in without intruding.

Thokozani Mhlambi, the host emerged with a flask that he tapped on in tune, slowing down in order to garner attention from the attendees. He welcomed all of us. The venue was a bit small to cater for the overwhelming response that surprised the organisers as well. So we had to be split for initial presentation.

As part of the second group, I could hear the “sounds” of the presentation from outside. I must admit I felt a bit uncomfortable. The sound of a woman suffering, moans and grunts could be heard from outside. I was curious to see what type of show it was and some minutes later, I was allowed in to see this rendition.

The presentation was the work of the artist Nobuntu Mqulwana. She is definitely talented, in expression and in voice control. However I struggled to understand the emotions, feelings or reality that she was conveying. She started from the top of a staircase, wailing and crying, moans and groans and other inaudible sounds. Her body movements and expressions were similar to one possessed during a ritual, without the epilepsy. However, she moved in a calm and graceful manner, continuing with her rendition. Stopping to pause, and then descending further down the staircase to release emotion. Background music was then provided by unrecognisable sounds that swept through the gallery. Originating from a sound system located at the top of the staircase [done by Samora Ntsebeza]. I couldn’t make out the sounds, but they seemed to be inaudible conversation between nocturnal beings over radio interference.

This was unsettling; however the songstress would then break into African harmonious song. She would sing briefly, a single tone at a time. And then return to the suffering.

Thokozani took to the keyboard and began strumming monotonous tones. The keys were in tune with Nobuntu’s audio rendition, and seemed to set the scene. The whole auditory experience was provocative and quite like any other. The sounds felt like, like white chalk caricature running in a black backdrop, then suddenly getting lost on a white page.

I did not understand the performance.

The rest of the audience seemed equally as puzzled; though there were some in the crowd who seemed to be extracting the true meaning of the performance. I asked myself – “am I too un-abstract that I do not understand?”

However, after some time, it began to provoke sadness in me. Were these sounds childbirth, was it suffering of a tormented soul? What was it? The calmer serenade from the keyboard seemed to be a light of hope amidst the darkness. The sequel after the “dark night of the soul.” The peace after the storm. This sound emerged from the opposite end of the gallery, and the songstress navigated towards the area while in song. She had a red art book with peculiar pieces. She would glance at the images, and then shut the book hastily, while staring straight ahead. Then step forward, and repeat. She eventually ended near Thokozani, and then returned to the centre of the room.

The performance eventually ended, to hesitant applause from the audience. Myself, I felt that I was not ready for the performance. I felt that a lot was conveyed but the shock of it lead to me not receiving the message. But that might have been the plan from the start. The whole shock of it, collective amongst the audience portrayed the kind of surprise when one attends a charismatic church and people begin chanting in tongues. Obscure, but belief to respect.

Nobuntu is a songstress, and this was a song. But I guess it’s like calling people mad when they dance, but you, the audience, can’t hear the music they are moving to. The one thing it left me with was curiosity. Can African music be mixed with western instruments? What is music without audible words but sounds? Grunts, moans, groans, to a soundtrack. Can this be called music?

Anyhow, the after some time, chairs were brought in and we then swung into debate and discussion around “Creativity as a way of building growth” [facilitated by Thuso Mhlambi]. Robert “Bobby” Godsell from the National Planning Commission (NPC) was present. He was part of the panel for the discussion, along with some of the artists and other members of the arts, the industry, the commentary bodies, journalists and all those with an interest in the South African “pulse”.

The argument of the arts versus capitalism was asked, do we make art to sell it, or do we make art, and some of it will sell? Bobby commented that he felt the arts industry needed, “new stories”, that South African art was too steeped in the desire for equality, the pains and old hurts; Apartheid. He felt that new visions and new themes needed to emerge in order to be relevant.

He had a point. Though the “new stories” might need to be defined, as well, some of the “old stories” are the stories of South Africa.

The discussion also covered what part the government should play in South African art. Why are artists unable to live on the “artist income” from their work? Should the government step in and provide sustenance? How can the government incite growth, or subsidise? What role does the national broadcasting corporation, SABC, the body that has the necessary resources and support to be non-commercial in its selection of media while pushing education, how can they support? The SABC has an agenda to satisfy western television interests, while finding the government an audience. But should not one of their mandates be to represent a lot more local talent and ensure SA artists are represented? More to discuss.

Afrikaner art was highlighted as a thriving industry that did not need to fall on external support. It has grown over the years and has a good artist and consumer base, from artwork, music to literature. I smirked when Nobuntu cynically remarked that Africans were fighting for something else while Afrikaner art was setting its foundations.

After much discussion, the debate had to come to an end due to time constraints. Though an hour had passed, it felt like mere minutes due to the richness of debate and discussion. At closing, the attendees engaged in short conversation before departing.

It was an interesting experience; however I was disappointed that we could not have more of the debate and discussion. I look forward to the next invite, where we can one again be spirited away from the troubles of Johannesburg, and be treated to the arts. My hope is for verbal poetry to be present, and more time for debate. Maybe there will be violins and cello to accompany Nobuntu’s provocative performances.

I look forward.

By Takunda Kadungure

 

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