Fun with kids: Scenes from Indlulamthi, a performance art work by Young Artist Award winner Chuma Sopotela. The award was made for performance art only four times before. Picture: JAN POTGIETER
Fun with kids: Scenes from Indlulamthi, a performance art work by Young Artist Award winner Chuma Sopotela. The award was made for performance art only four times before. Picture: JAN POTGIETER

Performance art is a relatively new category in the Young Artist Awards and has been awarded for only the fifth time.

I remember people saying in 2013, when it was first awarded, it seemed like an old-fashioned genre, associating it with happenings in the 1960s and stunts like Chris Burden nailing himself to a VW Beetle in the 70s.

They said it should perhaps be called "live art" instead, though this seems to be a category more in use in the UK and perhaps a little bit looser than "performance art".

In some ways the genre was finally granted official sanction when Marina Abramovic (the grandmother of performance art) was given a retrospective in 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Performance art has always been interested in the possibilities of the body, often involving feats of enormous endurance. Many of Abramovic’s works are intense durational achievements stretching the limits of her body. There is, however, another kind of performance art that looks to the world itself, at the collective social body of beings, not only at the individual personal body.

For example, in 2013, the first year that the award was granted, Anthea Moys challenged the Makana (then Grahamstown) community to 10 feats of skill involving performance: ballroom dancing, chess, football and so forth.

Gunfire Hill: Indlulamthi is a technical achievement as the entire hillside up to Fort Selwyn was rigged for the show. Picture: JAN POTGIETER
Gunfire Hill: Indlulamthi is a technical achievement as the entire hillside up to Fort Selwyn was rigged for the show. Picture: JAN POTGIETER

In this she recognised that performance is part of everyday life — not an esoteric, incomprehensible intellectual idea, but something lived and experienced in all our interactions. Richard Schechner famously created the field of performance studies, which looks not only to grand public rituals but also to the everyday way in which we are continually performing ourselves. It seems likely that performance has primacy over language and that we were communicating with gestures long before developing a linguistic vocabulary.

Indlulamthi was the work created by Young Artist winner Chuma Sopotela.

The isiXhosa title means "giraffe", but directly translated refers to "the ones who are taller than the trees".

She wanted to create a world reflected "from a child’s perspective" and her initial idea was to work with street children, particularly the ones seen wearing white makeup while facing the bitter cold to perform living statues for small change on the streets of the festival. Gathering the 100 children needed in advance of the project proved extremely difficult.

Since her main focus was on children, she ended up working with existing groups: the choir from Ntsika High School and groups from Fort Hare and Vukani High School.

For Sopotela, making art is not just about the final product but also the process of creating work. She told me that "what happened in the three weeks of rehearsal has been really amazing, seeing them speaking and singing and dancing and making friends. At first some of them were rivals, now they love each other."

As part of their process, she and Ahmed Tobasi created workshops for the children, teaching them theatre arts skills they’d be able to use after the festival, so that they could continue making their own work.

In Indlulamthi, Sopotela makes use of a wide expanse of space — the entire hillside of Gunfire Hill on which the monument stands, ending up overlooking the bowl of Makana.

There’s something familiar about seeing groups of children in the pockets of scrub, some playing games, others chanting prayers; and yet there’s also something unfamiliar about seeing them in this context. A figure appears in the distance in what appears to be a wild wedding dress; but when we hear the voice soaring through the twilight we realise it’s the bass tones of a man. A sweet schoolgirl approaches and only when she’s up close do we see her tiger’s mask.

Sopotela made good use of collective and individual figures: here gleeful schoolchildren dance together, there a group of initiates; but then we also meet two diminutive figures immersed in oversized headphones, dancing to their own private soundscape. At the top of the hill a solitary figure etched in bright red against the landscape evokes a brooding curiosity as he echoes a haunting owl’s hoot over the city.

When we reached Fort Selwyn at the top of the hill, suddenly things changed. Tobasi (from Jenine refugee camp on the West Bank) began to insult and rail against us, saying that we were only enjoying the show because it had singing and dancing children in it, but that we shouldn’t be blind to what was going on in the world.

He recited a poem by Mahmoud Darvish, the Palestinian national poet, O Those who Pass Between Fleeting Words, and then he had the school children line up to throw rocks at graffiti he had written on the wall of the fort, reading "God Hates Capitalism". This section did feel kind of jarring after what had gone before, like an insert not necessarily entirely in synch with the rest.

Sopotela told me that she "would like to talk about what is happening in Palestine", which is why she asked Tobasi to join her. She has worked with him before in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Slovenia and Palestine, and I saw this more as an instance of her allowing him a platform to raise awareness of the ongoing Israeli occupation rather than an integral part of the show.

But there were so many other exquisite scenes in the work: a warm bed with bedside lamp incongruously located in the middle of the bush, two figures chanting sacred songs, groups of schoolchildren bowing to "the fountain of knowledge" and many more.

The last setting of the show was a large screen where we saw projected messages that the children wanted to share with us, ranging from "wash your hands" to "stop child abuse".

I got the sense from Sopotela that she’s not content to operate as an artist outside of community. Her show was also an incredible technical achievement and she thanked National Arts Festival technical director Nicci Spalding and her crew for their incredible job in rigging the hillside, saying that "nothing seemed too difficult for them" and that they were also a vital part of the production.

Then Chuma Sopotela had to go off to feed all the children in her beautiful show.

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