Loren Kruger*

In 2006, years before South African critic Brent Meersman lamented in this journal (2013) that theatre had been crushed between state indifference and crass commercialism, Malcolm Purkey, then artistic director of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, remarked ironically that theatre could disappear from South Africa and no one would notice.[1] Eleven years later, theatre has not disappeared, but it may have lost its way. While students, workers and the many people who have no prospect of work protest the broken promises of the self-described liberation government and the reality of inequality that has worsened since apartheid ended, the theatre has only rarely addressed the new reality. For most of the year, commercial venues attempt to make money off comedy or imported shows, while subsidized houses target school audiences with anti-apartheid plays turned classroom set-books, such as Woza Albert (1981), or Africanized adaptations of classics like Shakespeare or Sophocles. Although festivals, especially the National Arts Festival that takes over the small university city of Grahamstown every July, include good new work, it can be hard to find a program not dominated by comedy and revivals.[2]

If many theatre institutions seem stuck in recycle mode, other formal and informal spaces have hosted performances that escape the conventional stage and shed light, obliquely or otherwise, on the state of the nation. Text-based drama driven by character and dialogue is still mostly performed in English, which is not a majority language even if it has aspirational appeal for students and their parents. Performance, on the other hand, mixes voice with movement, images with sound, multiple languages and multi-tasking people who often work in more than one medium. In monumental sites or in small-scale venues, such as galleries or even private rooms, these performers work with smaller budgets and more flexible networks than the big houses. Following their lead, this article discusses work that dances on the edge between performance and visual art, or between artistic practice and every-day interaction. For some drama die-hards, this kind of work may not be theatre but it has more potential to revivify performance than the recycled product on formal stages.

Johannesburg is not the only South African city to host performances in streets and other urban sites, but the radical alteration of structures and even street arrangements in the city, especially since 1990, has provoked collaborations between urban planners, on the one hand, and artists, on the other. Despite challenging circumstances that require negotiating with informal but sometimes aggressive stakeholders, Johannesburg pioneered performance on the edge between art and urban renewal a decade or so earlier than similar projects in other cities, such as Cape Town.

While the city government typically boosts Johannesburg as “Africa’s world class city,” artists have also used performance to reanimate hidden histories in urban places both visible and obscure, and thus shed light, even if obliquely, on struggles for rights of citizens and others to inhabit the city. The material traces of these projects may fade, but their creators attempt to reanimate both central locations and forgotten corners of the city. My book, Imagining the Edgy City (2013), highlights collaborations that attempt to use imaginative performance and public art to reanimate ordinary urban spatial practices, from civic engagement to daily greetings on the street, as well as to renovate the built environment and to imagine ways of bridging the gap between aspiration and actuality; this article provides a capsule account of twenty-first-century performance drawn from that book as well as more recent visits.[3]

The slogan “Africa’s world-class city” dates from 2002, the year that the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) began to direct public/private partnerships in inner-city renovation, but artistic experimentation on the edge between performance and everyday spatial practices began earlier, even if promoters of recent urban performance often forget to mention those who went before. Two partnerships especially deserve attention for setting the terms for the intersection of performance, public art and urban renewal: Trinity Session and Joubert Park Projects.

In 2000, an important conference on Urban Futures was accompanied by a series of exhibitions and explorations called Tour Guides of the Inner City. Curated by Stephen Hobbs, then at the Market Theatre Gallery and now principle of Trinity Session, Tour Guides worked with the premise that the city had become alien even for locals, so that returning to it invited a kind of performance of exploration. A painted bus took visitors on a tour, on which a projector was set up at empty walls along the route to screen artists’ films, culminating, at Top Star Drive-in, a ruin on top of one of Johannesburg’s mine dumps, where participants walked over the site and watched world-famous artist William Kentridge’s animated films inspired by the city’s mining history.


On Johannesburg: Excerpt from Art 21 lecture: William Kentridge: Anything is possible (2010). For more click here

Other works demanded more interaction: Under Heaven (Alien/ Native): postcards alternating with the words “alien” and “native” by Marlaine Tosomi were dropped by plane, supposedly on to the Electric Workshop, the conference venue in Newtown, but they landed instead near South African Breweries and reached the delegates by way of enterprising street children trying to sell them back.

As Trinity Session, since 2002, Hobbs and partner Marcus Neustetter have become the most active curators of projects linking urban renovation and public art. Some of these mix performance with images: Hillbrow/Dakar/Hillbrow (2007) juxtaposed Senegalese in Hillbrow and South Africans in Dakar, including gallery images and installations, as well as a guided walk from the University of Johannesburg to Hillbrow, conversations with migrants and improvised exchanges with people on the street, who reacted to this group of evidently non-local visitors with varieties of performance. Their most ubiquitous traces to date are the designs commissioned for Bus Rapid Transit stops, where etchings on glass screens at the ticket offices fuse graceful images with practical security but, since these current projects lack the performative elements of their earlier work, I will bracket them off here.[4]

Also in 2000, Joubert Park Projects began to animate events in Joubert Park, the inner city park that by the turn of this century was used primarily by blacks who paid little attention to the monumental building on its edge: the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), which opened in 1915 under the patronage of Lady Florence Philips, supported by her mining magnate husband and his associates, but which was, by 2000, surrounded by taxi stands and other informal trading activities that made access to the museum a challenging exercise. JPP members Terry Kurgan and Jo Ractcliffe brought together art photographers and students with entrepreneur-photographers who take wedding pictures and such in the park. Projects included building portable studios to enable portraitists to frame their subjects with theatrical backdrops and exotic props like palm trees and faux marble. These theatrical studios had historical roots not mentioned by JPP: they reflected a century-long tradition in which urban African photographers and subjects collaborated in staging social aspirations that were captured in the photograph but not realized in actuality.

JPP’s subsequent work in Joubert Park and the historic site of Drill Hall nearby included more ambitious combinations of performance and social work. Formerly the barracks of the Rand Light Infantry (1904ff), and later the site of the preliminary hearings before the Treason Trials (1956) against Mandela and others, Drill Hall had been occupied by squatters and gutted by fire in 2002. After major renovations, JPP became the primary tenant in 2004 and shared the complex with Johannesburg Child Welfare and the Keleketla Library, which took over the lease from 2010 to 2015.

Among many projects, KinBeJozi (2006-7), curated by Dorothea Kreutzfeldt, brought together artists in Kinshasa, Bern and Johannesburg. In Boxing Games, white South African Anthea Moys trained in a predominantly black boxing club in inner-city Hillbrow, north of Joubert Park, culminating in a display of skill on a rooftop visible to local residents as well as invited spectators. In Living/Waiting Room, Congolese Pathy Chindele built a temporary structure that served by day as a shelter for waiting passengers at the Noord Street taxi rank, and by night as a dwelling for the artist so he could interact with passers-by over twenty-four hours; this piece required intensive negotiations with taxi owners and drivers, who were reluctant to yield any space that might be used by taxis at this overcrowded hub.[5]

This imaginative engagement with traffic rhythms and the conflicting claims of walkers and drivers in Chindele’s piece, and with the tension between inner city violence and community in Moys’s, heralded JPP’s most ambitious combination of performance, exhibition and urban engagement. JPP collaborated with the Dutch organization Cascoland, led by Fiona de Bell and Roel Schoenmakers, to combine art, work and social intervention in the environment around Drill Hall. Although the formal festival took place over ten days in March 2007, research began a year earlier with SharpCity, the architects who had restored the complex. The team replaced the forbidding wall around the complex with an iron fence that maintained security while showing off the renovated building and, in the shape of work surfaces built into the fence, integrated the informal labor of mechanics and hawkers on the pavement outside. Work continued with a laboratory phase, including research on the neighborhood by urban consultant Joseph Gaylard with urban field guide Ismael Farouk, and workshops with schools and youth groups.

The Cascoland festival included performances inside the Drill Hall, as well as public art and other playful activities outside, which were free. From the outset, this interaction mediated work and play, informal activity and purposeful acts.[6] Like Chindele’s appropriation of taxi space, Maja Marx’s “pedestrian poetry” challenged taxi drivers’ impunity on the streets by painting eccentric zebra crossings for pedestrians. Marx and her collaborators, who included the Mozambican mechanics, worked from 1-5 am, the only time when no taxis were running. They painted lines and script that, at a distance, looked like standard crossings but, on closer approach, revealed a series of slogans, such as: I walk in two worlds marking the crossing between Joubert Park and the JAG, which occupy contiguous but radically separate worlds, and the formerly gracious but now dilapidated art deco apartments on the other side. These crossings served not only as pedestrian walkways but also as a stage for improvised but serious interaction between pedestrians trying to cross and taxi drivers bent on running them off the street. While the taxi drivers’ aggression signaled that they did not think they were players in this drama, the attempt to change their behavior for the pedestrians’ benefit suggests the potential for productive negotiation and its pitfalls. The traces of this project are long gone and, plagued by scavengers stripping metal plaques and other marketable materials at Drill Hall, Keleketla moved to the inner suburb of Troyeville in 2015.

Cracks in the links between art and urban renewal have also surfaced in another much promoted cultural precinct, Maboneng (Place of Light), on the southeastern edge of the inner city. Developers tout its urban aspirations under the address of Main Street, but most entrances open on Fox, a block south, between the refurbished industrial compound of Arts on Main (2009) and the expanded structure of Main Street Life (2011), a boutique hotel on top of apartments two blocks west. Although its gentrified portion extends only a few blocks, Maboneng claims on the dedicated website to be an “integrated urban neighborhood” for cultural producers and consumers. While the hotel and other businesses employ people who live in nearby informally re-purposed structures, neither the management nor the developer address the claims of these employees and others to tenancy or other rights.

In order to place performance on the strange island that is Maboneng, we should look at the unrenovated areas beyond. One project that linked Maboneng to its neighbors, Doornfontein to the east with Marshalltown to the west, in 2010, still resonates today. In August 2010, after the FIFA World Cup hoopla had come and gone, the short-lived, if grandly named, Centre for Historical Reenactment (2010-2012), resident in August House, owned until 2014 by former JPP principal Bie Venter in Doornfontein, created Pass-ages in the former Pass Office on Albert Street, the building where black South Africans were formerly compelled to submit their passbooks to scrutiny by white officials.

Intent on reactivating the building’s history, which had been obscured by neglect since its metal sign had been stripped in 1990, CHR curator Gabi Ngcobo did not attempt to restage drama of the sort exemplified by Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972), the world-renowned play that drew in part on Athol Fugard’s work as a clerk in this office and the direct experiences of the pass laws by his black collaborators, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, but was also inspired by an anonymous photograph of a smiling black man, which Kani and Ntshona read at the time as a portrait of a man with his pass in order. Instead, she drew viewers to the apparently abandoned building with visual and aural responses to another apartheid-era image, “Young Boy Stopped for His Pass as White Plainclothes Policeman Looks On” by Ernest Cole, one of many black photographers working for Drum, the white-owned but black-staffed iconic magazine of the 1950s. The picture may seem to have nothing to do with performance, but the title highlights the white man’s practiced humiliation of the black boy and of the third figure in the photograph; the black policeman is absent from the title but still has to perform the white man’s dirty work.

Cole himself enacted a lifelong performance that was hidden under apartheid; although born African and baptized Ernest Levi Tsoalane Kole, he applied to be “reclassified” Coloured in 1966, which freed him from the pass laws restricting the movement and employment of Africans, but without however escaping daily racial discrimination. Pass-ages featured responses to his photograph, which appeared in multiple iterations on the walls, including a video loop by Kemang wa Lehulere, who reenacted the “pencil test” that was supposed to distinguish African from Coloured; a white bureaucrat would place a pencil in the subject’s hair; if it fell out, the subject was pronounced Coloured, if not, “Bantu.” Apartheid bureaucrats used this term as a racial label, though it literally means “people” and has been used internationally to refer to the broad group of African languages, including the native language—Tswana—of both Kole and Lehulere.

This exhibition deserves notice not only for the images displayed inside the former pass office, but also for drawing attention to the history of this inner city street whose built environment reflects the uneven development of post-apartheid Johannesburg. In contrast with the reanimation of Cole’s self-performance in the former pass office, the Albert Street School until recently taught the children of refugees fleeing not only the state-sponsored chaos of Zimbabwe but xenophobic violence at the hands of South Africans. In the spirit of the historical Albert Street School, which offered black students a liberal education in defiance of the apartheid government that shut it down in 1958, the newer school housed in the Central Methodist Church a few blocks from Albert Street challenged the present government’s neglect of education. In May 2010, the school showcased students’ art and performance documenting their journeys; five years later, in May 2015, the city evicted the refugees and closed the church, citing health and safety concerns, but the traces of its performance remain for those who wish to find them.[7]

In contrast to this interaction of performance and social work, the events in Maboneng may appear more narrowly artistic. Nonetheless, some attempt to illuminate the shadows behind the “place of light.” In Stumbling Block (2011), sponsored by the Goethe Institute, Gabrielle Goliath, wrapped up in a blanket so she was unidentifiable, lay across the threshold of the gallery, requiring patrons to step over or around her. This act invited guests to acknowledge the presence of others who might seek informal shelter in the surrounding area but the silent wrapped figure risked reducing local inhabitants (some who work in nearby businesses) to silent props.[8]

In Ulterior Motors (2011), also sponsored by the Goethe Institute but taking place beyond the well-appointed gallery GoetheonMain, former JPP curator Kreutzfeldt staged a performance/discussion in an empty shop across the road, about the discrepancy between the arts precinct and the surrounding buildings used in many cases for auto body work.[9] This performance piece and a more recent video installation, “End of August” (2016), which pays homage to the end of August House, formerly the home of the Center for Historical Reenactment and other artists’ ventures, now yet another art space lost to uncertain gentrification, draw on the work of Kreutzfeldt and other artists who have animated derelict buildings with performance and other art forms, while also providing labor for others, only to move on when this work makes the building attractive to real-estate speculators.

This tangle of art and work animates other recent performance pieces. The Last Supper (2015) by Gina Kraft employed some of the people living precariously in empty buildings on the edges of the “place of light” to lay bricks for the simulacrum of Leonardo’s famous painting, and hosted suppers along with performance to feed both workers and visitors.[10] In February 2016, during my most recent visit, #workerschant by performance art students took place in the century-old building in Newtown that once served as a workers’ compound but that now houses the Workers Museum. Rather than choosing the main building, which has been renovated with a glass roof to let in natural light to show off archival images of the compound and new colour photographs of some who used to live there, the performers used candles in brown paper bags to lead the audience at dusk into the unrenovated latrine building. The smell that must have filled the space is gone, but the dark space recalled the historic exploitation of workers and, without any explicit reference, also allowed those with long memories to contrast this constraint with the dubious entertainment provided by mine workers in Sunday performances during the apartheid era and reproduced today for tourists at the Gold Reef theme park, while the hashtag title echoed current protests by students under the banner #feesmustfall.

These small pieces may be modest, but they illuminate the frayed reality of Johannesburg’s ever-changing urban fabric better than the grandiose projects that have been typical of Johannesburg boosterism from the colonial days, when “Lady” Florence Philips styled herself patroness of the arts and founder of the JAG to the current claims for the “world class African city.” As the closure of the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra, the suspension of public exhibition at the Museum Africa and the reflections on the threat of closure in the recently ended centenary exhibition at the JAG invite questions about the durability of public institutions, performances that revivify dark corners behind grand edifices may speak more modestly about the state of the city and the nation, even in a whisper.

Lest readers think that everything about performance in South Africa is doomed to vanish, I would like to end this article with a brief note about an emerging project to archive the ephemeral. Although the link to http://www.theartchive.co.za/ at present leads only to a “site under construction,” the team, associated with the Wits University School of the Arts (WSOA), has initiated collaborations between performance artists and digital technology, in part to develop new ways of recording and archiving performance, and in part to experiment with applications that allow audience-players to shape the movements of performers whose head and body gear receives aural and tactile prompts from these players who were thus able to influence both solo dance and the duet, which shifted from intimate pas de deux to combat according to prompts.[11]

Although neither digitally enhanced performance nor digital experiments with archiving movement are new or unique to South Africa,[12] this experiment creates both visceral and virtual networks to develop these practices. This single experiment will not change the structural problems besetting performance in South Africa, but combining the resources of a weighty public institution, the university and changing sets of collaborators in art and technology offers a way forward into terrain that may be murky but that merits further exploration.


[1] Brent Meersman, “Theatre in Recession” Critical Stages vol. 8 (2013), accessed March 31, 2016: see here; “Market Forces”: Malcolm Purkey interviewed by Kruger Theater vol. 38, no. 2 (2008), 19-29.
[2] For the good and the not so good in Grahamstown, see Kruger, “The National Arts Festival at Forty,” Theater vol. 45, no. 2 (2015), 148-58.
[3] Kruger, Imagining the Edgy City: Writing, Performing and Building Johannesburg (Oxford University Press, 2013), especially chapter 5.
[4] For Trinity Session’s portfolio, see their website, accessed March 31, 2016: see here; for analysis, Kruger, Imagining the Edgy City, 196-221.
[5] For Moys’s work at George Khosi’s club and her other performance projects, see her website, accessed March 31, 2016: see here; for Chindele, see Kreutzfeldt and Joseph Gaylard, Joubert Park Project Documents  (Johannesburg: JPP, 2008); JPP’s website ceased operation when the project ended in 2010.
[6] See De Bell and Schoenmakers, ed. Cascoland: Intervention in Public Space: Drill Hall, Johannesburg (Rotterdam: Episode Publishers 2008).
[7] Coloured (SA spelling) designates mixed ethnicity and is therefore not synonymous with Colored (US), which is an archaic word for black. For Pass-ages, see Kruger, Imagining the Edgy City, 224-25, and Louise Bethlehem, ‘By/way of passage’, Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism, vol. 2 (2010), accessed March 31, 2016; see here. On the church’s mission, see Christa Kuljian, Sanctuary (Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2013), and, for the aftermath of its closure, Richard Poplak, “Clean up the rubbish,” The Daily Maverick, May 12, 2015, accessed March 31, 2016; see here.
[8] On Maboneng’s art performance, see Kruger, Imagining the Edgy City, 224-29; Kreutzfeldt and Bettina Malcomess, Ulterior Motors, and Goliath, Stumbling Block in Claudia Stemberger, ed. Performing Performance Art in South Africa  (Johannesburg: Goethe Institut, 2012), 36-37; 38-39. Neither (German) curator nor (South African) artist mentions Marina Abramović, but Goliath’s piece recalls Abramović’s 1970s piece in which she stood naked in a narrow portal that forced entrants to brush past her, or, more likely, the replication at her retrospective The Artist is Present (2010)—albeit by a younger woman whose stance in a wide space between galleries in the New York Museum of Modern Art replaced the intimate discomfort provoked by Abramović with an aestheticized display of a nude.
[9] Although “At the End of August” was a video installation, not a live performance, it was complemented by a guided walk through Doornfontein and clearly continues Kreutzfeldt’s corporeal as well as conceptual exploration of the ephemeral character of supposedly stable structures in Johannesburg
[10] Images of the installation building and performance of The Last Supper accessed March 31, 2016: see here.
[11] Portal (March 2016) paired performers Athena Mazarakis and Craig Morris in Johannesburg, with “players” in Johannesburg and Glasgow; audience members armed with play-station consoles were able to prompt the dancers whether they were directly in front of them in Johannesburg or from the remote site in Glasgow. The production was directed by Jessica Denyschen of WSOA with engineering by Bushveld Labs. For images (last accessed April 1 2016), see here. For fuller documentation of a “prequel” with one performer in Johannesburg in September 2015; see here.
[12] See, for example, the performance and scholarship documented by Sarah Bay-Cheng, “Virtual realisms: dramatic forays into the future,” Theatre Journal 67: 4 (2015): 687-98; and Debra Kaplan, “Notes from the Frontier: Digital Scholarship and the Future of Theatre Studies,” Theatre Journal 67: 2 (2015): 347-59.

*Loren Kruger has published several books, including the award-winning Post-Imperial Brecht (Cambridge University Press), and many articles in international periodicals from Africa e Mediterraneo (Italy), through Critical Arts (South Africa) and Frakcija (Croatia), to Theatre Research International (UK). She is a graduate of the University of Cape Town and of Cornell University, a former editor of Theatre Journal and, currently, Professor of Comparative and English Literature, and Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago.

Copyright © 2017 Loren Kruger
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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South Africa—Theatre Lost, Performance Found?
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