Black Privilege in the Black Box: Mamela Nyamza’s Choreographic Resistance

Rainy Demerson*

Abstract

This essay examines Mamela Nyamza’s choreography and performance of Black Privilege at the South African National Arts Festival of 2018 in the wake of the #RhodesMustFall decolonial movement. Nyamza is an award-winning independent choreographer, performing and teaching internationally as well as at home. When she uses her own body to enact images and gestures of her own making, she crafts a counter-narrative to the exploited exhibited South African female body theorized by scholars such as Saidiya Hartman. Rather than try to perform a world without Black women’s objectification, Black Privilege makes it hyper-visible. I use Mishuauna Goeman’s theory of (re)mapping to explain how Nyamza carves a space for the recognition of both opulence and objectification simultaneously. Black Privilege exudes power through subtle yet potent poses and movements, re-membering the privilege and burden of Black womanhood as a spectacular non-spectacle. Nyamza’s choreographic and performative strategies induce an active form of witnessing that contributes to her ongoing process of becoming in the witness of others. Undermining tropes around the spectacle of Black flesh through re-membering and (re)mapping, Black Privilege contributes to the decolonization of performance in South Africa and worldwide.
Keywords: Black performance, decolonize, feminist performance, choreography, contemporary dance

A figure dipped in gold enters perched on a scaled pedestal. She wears a short tower of gold rings around her half-mohawk of dreadlocks, and gold bangles and coins adorn her groin and ankles. Her head is tilted upward and to the right, her eyes lowered left towards us. She is rolled in like a queen perched on a ten-foot scaffolding ladder by dramaturge Sello Pesa who is wearing a medieval British cap, black judge’s gown and Zulu blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He pulls her around the black and white checkered floor tile as she looks down on us, eventually smirking with a slight disdain. Her beauty is stunning.

Mamela Nyamza performed Black Privilege for the first time in 2018 at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda, South Africa, where I was able to view it as part of my research into decolonial methods of South African contemporary dance choreographers before touring several European countries. Nyamza is an outspoken amaXhosa artist who continually revisits South African history to piece together her story before audiences around the globe. In 2011, she won the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award, and in 2018, she was the first dance artist to be named Artist of the Year by the National Arts Festival of South Africa.

The title of the piece plays on the term White privilege, used to indicate an attitude, mannerisms and/or actions that result from being raised with inherited wealth on stolen land, and in a country that assumes White worldviews, practices, power, intellect and physiognomy to be correct if not superior. It begs the question: What is Black Privilege? As a biracial American dance artist, I perceive the work as a Black woman’s earned right to reign, to break down, to rest, to get lost and to find her way. I examine Black Privilege in relation to a history of Black women’s bodily exhibitions in exploitation and in resistance, a history of embodied and enacted political consciousness, and as a performance that reverberated the sentiments of the student-led decolonial #Fall movements of 2015–17. I argue that Black Privilege re-members an inheritance of African women’s objectification and opulence, while (re)mapping Black performance beyond its histories of exploitation.

Black Bodies in the Movement

In 1912, the African National Congress (ANC) was born to unite and empower the Indigenous South African population and within a year they were met with the most severe administrative threat to their livelihood. The Native Lands Act of the British colonial administration forbade the sale and purchase of land between people of different races. It established reserves for Indigenous people called Bantustans, based on the notion of a Bantu race considered inferior to the White race. Like Native American reservations, these land plots were largely infertile. Indigenes were only allowed to leave if given permission to work for Whites through a series of pass laws. Land and labor policies worked together to ensure Indigenous people and their cultural practices would effectively hold no power in the formation of the country under British rule. Each new apartheid policy was an attack on ancient epistemologies, a hindrance to innovation, and a threat to the health, safety and sanity of Indigenous people and other people of color. These policies of separation were crystalized in 1948, when the National Party officially established the apartheid regime solidifying a new alliance between the formerly embattled British and Dutch—under the banner of Whiteness (Massey).

In 1912, the African National Congress (ANC) was born to unite and empower the Indigenous South African population. Photo: Web/Wikipedia. Accessed 19 May 2021

Apartheid means apartness in Afrikaans. In policy it merely established a place for each race. In practice it was the cruel and violent dispossession of culture, political power and land from Black people. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela explains: “The often haphazard segregation of the past three hundred years was to be consolidated into a monolithic system that was diabolical in its detail, inescapable in its reach, and overwhelming in its power” (111). For over forty years, as the rest of Africa awakened to its anti-colonial independence, South Africa only became more deeply enshrouded in the nightmare of apartheid. It is important to know that every one of the brutal laws of apartheid was met with resistance in many forms: artistic, dialogic, legal, subtle and violent. Numerous leaders and everyday citizens actively and consistently risked their lives to end apartheid. Although Winnie and Nelson Mandela are now household names in many parts of the world, many other heroes come to mind for South Africans. The legacy of Steve Biko in particular plays an important role in present-day liberation struggles.

“The legacy of Steve Biko in particular plays an important role in present-day liberation struggles.”  (Photo) Steve Biko (1946-1977). Photo: Web/Wikipedia. Accessed 19 May 2021

Biko is considered the father of the Black Consciousness movement, largely credited with forming the socio-cultural ideologies of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Biko was a medical student who co-founded and was the first president of the South African Students’ Organization (SASO). Black Consciousness is an ideology supported by various individuals and grass-roots organizations.

Inspired by African American liberation theorists like Frederick Douglass, Malcom X, Huey Newton, as well as Afro-Caribbeans like Toussaint L’Ouverture and Frantz Fanon, Biko used the term Black to highlight the intrinsic diasporic connections of oppressed members of the African diaspora and as a political consciousness that would include all those forbidden access to White wealth and social power in South Africa including those labeled Indian, Colored, and Native by apartheid protocols.

In the Introduction to I Write What I Like, a collection of selected writings by Biko, scholars/activists Malusi and Thoko Mpumlwana explain that the most significant themes in Biko’s writing include problematizing ethnocentrism and racism, proposing the restoration of African cultures and religions as foundational to national heritage and Black solidarity to ensure economic empowerment for historically disadvantaged communities. Black Consciousness ideology, then, goes beyond the demands to end apartheid and establishes mandates and practices for Black people to take up for themselves in order to heal and thrive after apartheid falls. As a holistic decolonial praxis, Black Consciousness centers Indigenous epistemologies in its approach to visualizing and activating social communication, spiritual and cultural expression, political power and human liberation. 

Conscious Movement    

The transition from the Union of South Africa’s apartheid system administered by the Afrikaner-led National Party to the ANC party’s democratic Republic of South Africa is often described as a non-violent transfer of power. Mandela did not personally use violence to secure his nomination to presidency, but the decades of violence were absolutely catalytic in the country’s transformation. His own prison term of twenty-seven years was not without violence either. The country’s memory is stained with the blood of youth massacred while peacefully protesting and that of countless individuals simply carrying out daily tasks interrupted by racial violence. Many of those assaults never made it to the deeply censored headlines. They are archived in the stories, flesh, and bones of everyday people. The transition to democracy would more aptly be described as a terrorist campaign that incited a civil war with a very uneven distribution of arms (Klopp and Zuern).

Over the next twenty-five years, South Africa experienced all of the predictable growing pains of a reformed country exacerbated by centuries of exploitation and new forms of corruption. By 2015, the debates over apartheid had transitioned into debates over an even older issue—colonization. As various political parties proposed plans to negotiate land claims with or without the cooperation of current settlers, college students rocked the nation to its core by demanding that decolonization begin with education. Artists participated on stages as well as in the student protests that all began with one small act. In April 2015, Chumami Maxwelle threw human feces at a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes that loomed over the University of Cape Town campus. This gesture sparked the #RhodesMustFall (#RMF) movement and inspired the #FeesMustFall (#FMF) movement through 2017, which demanded that universities not raise their fees because it would prevent the majority Black majority poor citizens of the country from attending at all. For several weeks off and on over several months, university campuses across the country shut down and had to reckon with how the living specter of colonialism was eating away at the ideals of Mandela’s rainbow nation (“Race Relations in the ‘rainbow Nation’”). As police responded with violence in the streets, artists responded with careful consideration of how they would re-form themselves through decolonial performance acts. Black Privilege was presented in the wake of the Fall movements and speaks to the heavy specters of colonial and apartheid aggression against Black bodies.

RHODES MUST FALL NOW: University of Cape Town Students, Workers and Staff come together to end institutionalised racism and patriarchy on their campus. Their first demand is to have the Cecil John Rhodes statue removed from campus.Video: Azania Rizing Productions. Accessed 5 June 2021
Black Bodies in Consciousness

Racial inscription becomes relevant in Black Privilege both because of its title and the iconic imagery it conjures. Throughout this article, I refer to Indigenous South Africans as Black, continuing the legacy of the Black Consciousness movement. As the Black Consciousness movement drew from African-American movements during the Civil Rights Era and their languages of identification, it is fitting to consider African-American theories of race that can expand this reading of Black Privilege.

In Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, historian and literary scholar Saidiya Hartman writes:

It is important to remember that blackness is defined here in terms of social relationality rather than identity; thus blackness incorporates subjects normatively defined as black, the relations among blacks, whites, and others, and the practices that produce racial difference. Blackness marks a social relationship of dominance and abjection and potentially one of redress and emancipation; it is a contested figure at the very center of social struggle.

(57)

It is precisely this contested figure of abjection and emancipation as blackness that I wish to engage when considering the multifaceted imagery conveyed in Black Privilege. Taken as a set of contested relations, blackness is not an essence or a DNA profile, but a way of being in the world that accounts for the effects of the ancient past and the infinite potential of futurity through processes of self-formation. Black Privilege is at once a commentary on the ways that so many Black South Africans are denied the privilege of humanity in their own country and the ways that despite the poverty, political corruption, misogyny and homophobia nurtured by centuries of White hetero-patriarchal rule, it is still a privilege to be Black.

Nyamza’s performance at the National Arts Festival in particular speaks to a need for Black South Africans, like herself, to remember and acknowledge Blackness as a complex set of relations in a country that sometimes eschews dialogue on race and gender in favor of promoting the ideals of the “rainbow nation,” rather than addressing the realities of social inequity that live on through the twenty-first century. “To be young, gifted and Black” still does not guarantee any measure of socio-economic success or security, but that does not mean it is without value (Simone).

In South Africa, Black performance is haunted by the mythologies, paranoias, fantasies and violence rooted in White supremacist ideology. Hartman asserts that “. . . the performance of blackness is inseparable from the brute force that brands, rapes, and tears open the flesh in the racial inscription of the body” (58). In other words, the racial construct of Blackness was enforced through and defined by racialized violence. That history and its ensuing violence is always present in Black performance. I would argue, though, that just as Black performance is haunted by a racist gaze, it is enriched by Indigenous wisdom, resilience and creativity. It is precisely this mess of contradictions that Black Privilege articulates so eloquently. I will demonstrate that through a spectacular non-spectacle, Nyamza re-members the socio-political power of her ancestors, as her pained body uses subtle gestures to (re)map the stage as a site for Black liberation from the White gaze. 

The Black Box

Ubuntu is a word from the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which is often translated to mean: I am because we are (Orleyn). In the United States, it is expressed in neo-traditional African dance communities as a reminder that one is not alone in life’s journey and perhaps to suggest inter-diasporic connections through Black dance. In South Africa it is a concept that is difficult to translate but is widely practiced. It is a manner of exchanging energy based on compassion, generosity and interdependence. Ubuntu is a paradigm for understanding how Nyamza choreographs and performs her work to direct interdependent energetic exchanges amongst participants: presenters, choreographers, performers and audiences. Precisely who is present precisely where affects what is being created and how.

Black Privilege; Mamela Nyamza, Cape Town, South Africa; June 2018. Photo: Chris de Beer

Black Privilege seats the audience around the action on three walls and encourages a certain discomfort in the up-close near-nudity and the feeling of being insignificant underneath her figure which literally towers above us on a platform. Nyamza directs the energetic flow of her performance but also of the audience. By acknowledging our presence, and allowing us to see ourselves across the room, we become aware of our complicity, our consumption of the work and our power to evaluate her choices. In these respects, Nyamza’s contemporary concert dance performance suggests elements of African philosophy that are usually documented in ritual and social dance contexts. As scholar of African dance Kariamu Welsh-Asante explains, “[a] dance does not “mean” anything; it provokes meaning, which is an important distinction to make” (118). By provoking meaning, Black Privilege exemplifies dance as a creative act, rather than a representative one. Gestures only contain meaning when read in context and with knowledge. Sitting still and silent, viewers of Black Privilege are implicated in the meaning of the work as it unfolds and disappears from one moment to the next. Veering away from virtuosity, Nyamza moves us towards curiosity—an actively engaged stance to witness, to hold space for and to contribute to the ways that she asserts herself in our shared experience.

A Kwaito song—the sound of urban Black youth breaks the silence. Nyamza starts to nod her head only on intermittent electronic beats. Slowly, her tempo increases, matching every beat but now accenting downward. As her pedestal traverses a circular pattern over and over, Nyamza maintains her comportment, legs not crossed but tightly closed, ankle-to-ankle with her heels lifted off the ground as if she’s wearing high-heels, but her feet are bare. She is almost mocking Western femininity’s icons like Queen Elizabeth or Jacqueline Kennedy—women whose class and race imbues them with a power that must be expressed through a certain posture and subdued energy, and yet you completely believe this is how Nyamza must sit. Her spine is erect and her arms are placed delicately on her lap. The reach of her long neck is interrupted by a tiara that looks like a tiny top hat but is made of a series of gold rings. Pesa brings her a spear and a set of gold scales, icons of war and justice. Slowly, she lifts the scales up with a fisted hand and, for a moment, Lady Justice, Winnie Mandela and the Bronze of Benin are one in my mind.       

Through these symbolic shapes and objects, Nyamza’s pedestaled performance re-members Black South African women’s historic and ongoing socio-political power as artists, innovators, mothers and community leaders, even throughout brutal systems of oppression. By placing herself physically above the audience, we are viscerally underneath her gaze. Holding the spear and the scales, symbols of African and European tools for survival and social organization, her body and gaze wield a particular power that invites a bit of chaos. It is possible to view the spear as a weapon used to fight so much injustice, the scales then being a symbol of hypocrisy—the justice that only applied to White South Africans. It is also possible that by holding one in each hand, she means to imply that women will win the patriarchal war against them, and eventually tip the scales.

In allowing us to see her perched alone and nearly nude, Nyamza marks the space where others are not, but others have been and could be. Performance Studies scholar André Lepecki proposes that the solo performer can still cite those not physically present. After all, “the reader-dancer might be alone in his chamber; but thanks to the choreographic book, he is always ready to invoke and dance with those who are not quite there, those who have already moved on” (33). Sitting in a semi-circle, with long stretches of stillness, the audience is made aware of itself, staring at this glistening woman poised in some moments, crumpled in others. In the still and spacious room, we place ourselves as an integral component to this performance.

Pesa takes Nyamza on a tour of the stage space before stopping in the center. In silence, we sit with Nyamza looking down at us. Her back is strong and she places a minimal amount of weight into her left arm and the left side of her pelvis as she sits with legs folded to the right. For a few minutes, her only movement is a shift of gaze from one audience member to the next. A Black South African woman on a pedestal, exposing her breasts and rear end to a paying audience conjures memories of Sarah Baartman, who was exhibited as a freak of nature and as a typification of Khoi-San ethnicity by William Dunlop and Hendrik Cesars in the early twentieth century (Crais and Scully). But the work does much more than represent one infamous woman. 

In isiXhosa, ninjani asks, “How are you?” in a plural form, but it can also be used to address an individual because a person is always surrounded by izihlwele, the multitudes, or the ancestors. Thus, “How are you?” can ask, “How are your people? How is your universe?” (Orleyn). I suggest that as Nyamza dances alone, she dances with her ancestors and her audiences, her former teachers and her future students. Time and space converge, expand and contract, even as she sits still. The significance of her performance can be read in the interstices of the history of Black women as exploited spectacles and Black women claiming space on their own terms. To understand this solo body, one must situate Nyamza’s performance alongside Baartman’s and alongside all the women who dance in ritual, the female Ngoma competitors and the Toyi-toyi protests of Winnie Mandela.[1] In this more complete context, the female body on display can interact with a history of exploitation without being imprisoned by it.

Rather than try to perform a world without Black women’s objectification, Black Privilege makes it hyper-visible. Nyamza makes herself a gold spectacle to behold in stillness and small repeated movements. As we gaze upon Nyamza’s uncovered breasts, flattened from breastfeeding, and her firm stomach and legs sculpted from a lifetime of athletic dance training, there is no question that her body creates life, soldiers life and beautifies life. Through performance, she enacts a sort of self-formation. On African women’s use of body-based art, art historian Barbara Thompson writes:     

One of the most common ways for African women and men to express ideologies of womanhood historically has been through the inscription of meaning into and upon objects that metaphorically stand in for the female body. For women, however, their own bodies have served as the primary means for self-expression and self-representation. . . . For those who lost the power of self-expression and empowerment during the colonial era, art has become a means of regaining the choice to imagine and represent themselves and others on their own terms.

(44)

I extend Thompson’s observation to explain how contemporary bodily exhibition is in fact a revision of ancient praxis and the creative imagining of enmeshed post-colonial identities. Imaging and representing one’s self through bodily displays and enactments are techniques of self-formation that, in the post-colonial time/space, require a recognition of Indigenous and colonial influences. When Nyamza uses her own body to enact images and gestures of her own making, she crafts a counter-narrative to the exploited exhibited South African female body created by colonial narratives and practices. She does so by suggesting power through subtle yet potent poses and movements. As such, Nyamza re-members the privilege and burden of Black womanhood as a spectacular non-spectacle.

Black Privilege manages to both embrace and criticize the notion of spectacle. In an ethnographic analysis of Egungun masquerades in Yorubaland, West Africa, Margaret Drewal explains John MacAloon’s four characteristics of spectacle wherein “(1) visual sensory and symbolic codes are primary; (2) the event is grand and monumental in stature; (3) it engenders excitement in the audience through the heightened dynamism of the performance; and (4) spectacle institutionalizes separate roles for the audience and the performers and thereby establishes distance from them” (121). She distinguishes egungun improvisatory performances as matching all criteria except the last one because the boundaries between audience and performer are blurred.

With gold body paint and iconic props, Black Privilege does make use of symbolic codes, it could be said to induce excitement albeit subdued, it is monumental in that it is a performance of high stature, and she is on a pedestal, and it does rely on the separation of audience and performer. However, I wish to suggest that what is spectacular here is the proudly exhibitionist quality of the choreography juxtaposed with its symbolic references to exploitative exhibitionism. As an African artist who often tours Europe, many of Nyamza’s works challenge the expectations of “African dance” by employing minimalist vocabulary and extreme variations in dynamics rather than the fast-tempo, high-energy choreographic approach established by many neo-traditional West-African dance companies, or the spectacle of extreme suffering sometimes conveyed by African contemporary dance artists. As such, this work eschews neo-liberal aesthetic demands (Kedhar) for visible virtuosity (Osterweis) by hinting at an inheritance of embodied suffering without replicating it for dramatic effect, as demonstrated by the next segment.

The Kwaito song ends and Nyamza returns her props to her assistant. By remote control, he electrifies her pedestal. It begins to vibrate and without moving, her jiggling flesh contradicts the stoic statue imagery we have witnessed so far. Holding each position for a couple of minutes, she shifts from sitting upright with legs together, to crouched on one knee, to hands and knees, to sitting on the right leg with her right arm propping her up, then sitting with legs dangling off the pedestal and her back softly slouching.

Nyamza does not subscribe to European aesthetic-political demands for her African body to perform as an acrobatic and rhythmic virtuoso (Kringelbach). And though minimalist choreography with long stretches of total stillness has been gaining currency in European contemporary dance over the last ten years, I suggest that Nyamza’s posturing cannot merely be read as the appropriation of European aesthetic trends or the expression of universal ones. Gesturing towards and away from European contemporary dance trends, Nyamza’s work demands its place in the choreographed relations between historically White contemporary dance audiences and Black performers (Krastin). The stillness and simplicity in Black Privilege provokes a particular type of anxiety from audiences groomed for a certain type of Black entertainment.

A seasoned artist, Nyamza is aware of the discomfort her work often evokes. In our 2019 interview, Nyamza relayed a story about how one White audience member at Isingqala actually confronted her, filled with rage that she did not “dance.” This same woman came to a performance three years later and apologized for not having understood the work previously and expressing herself so vehemently (Nyamza). It is almost as if a Black body in stillness threatens its immeasurable potential. The lack of movement can trigger a racist imagination to run wild (Young). But the lack of movement can also encourage an open mind to slow down, look deeper and perhaps appreciate what it is to witness a Black woman at rest. To simply sit . . . to sense and reflect . . . to see and be seen . . . Is this not the privilege Black women are never afforded? Daring to displease, Nyamza invites her audience to feel the passage of time, favoring a spectacular stillness that vibrates . . . just so . . . In operating against physical virtuosity, Black Privilege resonates with Performance Studies scholar Fred Moton’s notion of non-performance as an expression of Blackness that refuses to conform to settler-colonial notions of normality and abnormality where freedom is already couched in capitalism. Here, the imperative to perform Black or African identity, or even to perform at all, is called into question and rebranded a privilege which can be assumed or rejected by the performer.

This hour-long piece requires a certain level of patience from its audience. It is not a passive reception of the work that Nyamza evokes but rather, a disquieted engagement and curiosity. Program notes explain that the work uses themes of patronage and hypocrisy and is informed by notions and experiences of rejection of the Other by mainstream gate-keeping institutions. Dancing back to all those who had rejected her performance proposals, perhaps Nyamza’s minimalistic movement score can be read as an anti-capitalist gesture—a choreographic refusal to produce. 

Lepecki asserts that performance art that veers toward non-doing works against modern capitalism’s obsession with progress, whereas much of contemporary choreography exhausts itself by performing too much. He writes, “choreography, as technology and expression of modernity’s being-toward-movement, participates fully of this exhausting psychological, affective, and energetic project of modern subjectivation . . .” (Lepecki 33). Nyamza’s oeuvre certainly includes highly athletic choreographies, but the subtle and repetitive shapes and movements that comprise the bulk of Black Privilege, alongside its program notes, do suggest that the artist wishes to rebel against the spectator’s desire to be entertained by virtuosity. Sitting between performance art and contemporary dance, perhaps this is not an exhausting project but a generative one. Performing her own choreography, she is only separated from the means of production insofar as she refuses to move or is denied production support. Moving just a little in her debut performance as Artist of the Year, she makes evident a tension between production, exploitation and consumption inherent to performance. Reading this performance as that of an alienated laborer refusing to contribute to capitalist exploitation also necessitates acknowledgement of South African women’s labor conditions over the past four centuries as uniquely alienated and nearly disembodied by the extremity of bodily exploitation as underemployed by apartheid or overworked in hard labor for White profit.

Nyamza starts to switch from active to passive postures, sometimes allowing her back to slouch and legs to fall easily. Whereas during the first section of the piece she sat with her back fully erect and legs strongly poised, in this section she begins to soften her tonus and even lie horizontally. Once on her back, Pesa allows her crown to fall into his hands, and Nyamza places her hands on her ears. She murmurs softly, sounding like a wounded animal. Her assistant has become her bodyguard, looking out beyond and right at us with his hands behind his back, legs spread and head held high. Then, her shape shifting quickens. She doesn’t move quickly, but the intervals between poses become shorter. After an agonizingly long time, she stops the vibrator and sits slumped, holding her knees and breathing audibly.

It is a history of bodily suffering that we watch move in and out of Nyamza, despite her royal position and posture. Again, Hartman provides a useful perspective:

Redressing the pained body encompasses operating in and against the demands of the system, negotiating the disciplinary harnessing of the body, and counterinvesting in the body as a site of possibility. In this instance, pain must be recognized in its historicity and as the articulation of a social condition of brutal constraint, extreme need, and constant violence; in other words, it is the perpetual condition of ravishment.

(51)

There is a subtle agony in Nyamza’s display that recalls Hartman’s “perpetual condition of ravishment.” It is as though being on the pedestal is at once the evidence of her royal stature and the artist’s auction block. The vibrating pedestal imbibing her stillness with perpetual motion echoes both a slave master’s electric prod and a soothing massage chair. In either case, the drone of involuntary motion seems to exhaust her, but she poses and poses on. High upon her pedestal, Nyamza’s body is haunted by Hartman’s “pained body,” her labor already inscribed with the ghosts of violent exploitation.

Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman gravesite vandalized. Eastern Cape. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Accessed 22 May 2021

I propose that twenty-five years into democracy, with Sarah Baartman’s gravesite still being vandalized, it is still impossible to view this particular work outside of the history of Black bodies on display for White consumption, destruction or exploitation (“Sarah Baartman’s Grave Defaced”). In one sense, she is a Baartman-like figure, and yet, with her body both the medium and object of art, the Artist of the Year does little to titillate audience members who might be seeking to exoticize or essentialize her. Instead, she leaves space between moments of expression, allowing the audience to become more and more self-aware, more and more a part of the performance as we glare at her towering above us. In doing less, she allows us to see more. As audience members, we can watch with a physical passivity, but, in the activity of our gaze, we play a role that is both historic and in transformation. In this co-construction of her being, we are forced to redress this historically pained Black female body and the painful demands placed on the professional dancer by witnessing the laborious construction of a new vision for Black womanhood.

Eventually, she lowers herself from the platform, stopping midway as if the journey is strenuous. Suddenly, she begins to remove her bangles, tossing them outward aggressively, nearly hitting spectators in the front row, then gingerly, trying to hit specific boxes in the checkered floor. She falls suddenly to her knees then descends to lay prone on her back. Like a slug, she slithers across the stage without bending her knees or elbows, in what I imagine is a surprisingly difficult task. A loud voice exclaims, “Let’s go!” and I wonder who’s left their cell phone on. The young White female voice carries on, “in 400 meters, continue straight.” The GPS sound score seems to guide Nyamza, only . . . as she circles the checkered stage, struggling, struggling along, it becomes clear that these directions don’t suit this space and won’t get her anywhere. 

To analyze this phrase, I invoke Tria Blue Wakpa’s use of (re)mapping. Wakpa applies Mishuauna Goeman’s writing concept to performance analysis to describe how choreographers Rulan Tangen and Anne Pesata create new narratives and relationships with American land that counter the colonial order of space, time and energy. Describing Basket Weaving Dance, Wakpa writes:

Tangen and Pesata “(re)map” dominant narratives by centering a Native woman in the present whose Indigenous identity is interconnected to her female ancestors, a continuation that challenges settler colonial narratives of Native disappearance. This Indigenous contemporary dance work, like the practice of Native basket weaving, draws on past Indigenous practices, performs an individual artist’s contributions in the present, and imagines new futurities based upon the interrelationship of the individual and community, past and present.

(110)

Though South Africa does not utilize the same narrative of disappearance, many Indigenous philosophies and practices have been lost and are still under threat with the growing urban generations. Like Tangen and Pesata, Nyamza creates a metaphorical map—a set of instructions to guide the viewer to see Blackness as a set of relations and to feel the connection between the display of Black women’s bodies before, during and after colonialism and apartheid.

The GPS sound score juxtaposed with Nyamza’s restrained body suggests that either her Black womanhood disables her mobility and/or that she will nonetheless travel the road less followed, even if it is filled with trepidation and struggle. Her gold body rubs against the floor and grinds against the now jumbled directions of the navigation system. As she writhes beneath us, we might see a woman lost. We might see a woman forging her own path. We might see one of the many South African women being found alongside dirt roads after having been raped and murdered (“SA Man Killed and Burned Ex-Girlfriend”). Confused though we are, we might see Nyamza’s face, looking out at us with the same regal deportment, the same stalwart conviction she had on the pedestal. We might see Blackness itself as a navigation system—offering ancestral wisdom or inscribing racialized roadblocks. We might see a Black woman who remembers her way home.

Nyamza is still slithering when Pesa proclaims, “You can go. It’s over. Yeah you can go!” After a few rounds of cajoling, we start to exit, watching her as she is watching us. “Go home.” As the audience exits the space, awkward giggles crack the silence and Nyamza’s eyes boldly confront us. It is almost as if the audience is now performing—suddenly very aware of how we are walking through the space under her gaze. Should I look back at her or forward towards the door? Is it rude to smile and break the intensity of the moment, or is it insulting to stare back? As she lies on the floor, her gaze almost daring me to abandon the impulse to help her up, I walk away.

Unapologetically carving her way through the politics and pressures of the contemporary dance world, Mamela Nyamza re-members the strength and wisdom of her Black female ancestors and places them on a pedestal. But she breaks from their mold, sculpting and shaking herself into her own vision, shedding layers of colonial restraint as she falls. Memory and imagination, dismemberment and self-formation, tradition and innovation all have their role to play in Nyamza’s story. Through her choreographic choices and the energetic exchange of performance, I was able to witness time oscillate. From one moment to the next, her shifting shape made visible both history and futurity. In her stillness, a memory of violence was present. Yet, her movements were often possessed by contentment. She does not leave the audience with a sense of resolution. We are not led to think that dancing has made her feel good. Rather, by engaging with trauma, exposing a pained body, folding and unfolding time, Nyamza pulls us in to support a moment of transmutation. To witness her process of becoming challenges the audience to see wholeness in the fractured psyche of a woman, a community, and a country.


Endnotes

[1] Toyi-Toyi refers to the high-kneed rhythmic runs that accompanied anti-apartheid songs and dances in mass protests through the 1980s and 1990s. It is said to have been originated by the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, but it is now synonymous with South African liberation movements.


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*Rainy Demerson is a contemporary dance artist and scholar invested in intersectional feminism and global decolonial embodiments. She holds a PhD in Critical Dance Studies, an MFA in Dance and an MA in Dance Education. In addition to extensive studies in New York City, she trained at L’ecole des Sables in Senegal, Teatro Nacional de Cuba, Escola de Dança da FUNCEB in Brazil, and in collaboration with The Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts in Germany. Her research has been published in the Journal of Emerging Dance Studies, Journal of Dance Education and in the collections African Somaesthetics: Cultures, Feminisms, Politics and Play and Democracy: Philosophical Perspectives. She is currently a Lecturer at The University of the West Indies Cave Hill in Barbados.

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