Exploring identity: Musa Hlatshwayo in Udodana reveals his relationship with his father and portrays the gentler side of Zulu maleness. Picture: NATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL
Exploring identity: Musa Hlatshwayo in Udodana reveals his relationship with his father and portrays the gentler side of Zulu maleness. Picture: NATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL

What are "men" like? Can one even begin to come up with normative definitions that don’t give themselves away as projections of the person creating the categories?

For example, were one to ask what typifies male behaviour, one person might say that being "a real man" involves being responsible, courageous, loyal, strong and so forth. On the other hand, somebody else might say that men are characterised by exactly the opposite; that they are irresponsible and reckless and lack the strength to face their own emotions.

Still, I’m pretty sure that most people would agree that the violence that many men exercise over women and each other is shocking. There are many different statistics, but it’s indisputable that prisons and psychiatric wards the world over are awash with men. Men are far more likely to become addicts or to commit suicide, and they die sooner than women in every country in the world. So there does seem to be something about "being a man" that’s outright dangerous and damaging.

Fall from grace: Dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza is presented as a gold goddess in Black Privilege. The piece raises questions on the empowerment of black women and the harsh realities that they have to face. Picture: CHRIS DE BEER
Fall from grace: Dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza is presented as a gold goddess in Black Privilege. The piece raises questions on the empowerment of black women and the harsh realities that they have to face. Picture: CHRIS DE BEER

No show at the National Arts Festival lashes out more at the negative side of masculine behaviour than Sara Matchett’s Walk in which the audience bears witness to scene after scene of women violated by male aggression, bigotry and condescension. Some women are able to liberate themselves, to break free from confining roles prescribed by patriarchal religions, to overcome the horror of "corrective rape," to undo the corset of colonial decorum enforcing roles onto them and to fight back against the intellectual violence of academics and authors constraining women to male fantasy.

And yet, although some of the women portrayed do escape their entrapment and liberate themselves, the most powerful response to persistent abuse comes at the end of the piece in the scream of pure rage by Matchett herself, hunkered down in a pink nightgown, trapped behind a Trellidor.

In Elegy (discussed in a story a few days ago) the response to gender-based violence is a mournful lament, a single note sustained by seven women over the space of an hour. Matchett’s scream and Goliath’s drone provide responses to the incomprehensible violence endured by women.

The festival’s featured artist, Mamela Nyamza, approaches the intersectional experience of black woman in her piece Black Privilege. The show begins with her presented as a copper gold goddess, standing tall, high up on a lifesaver’s staircase, resplendent in bangles, crown and coins for accoutrement. Looking both Afro-futurist and ancient, Nyamza gazes haughtily down at us as she’s slowly wheeled around by a black man in full doctoral regalia, his medieval academic garb offset by a African blanket. He places a spear in one of her hands and the scales of justice in the other.

I took this parading of Nyamza to depict the ways in which black women are today praised and lauded by universities and the government, which offer many opportunities and scholarships valorising discourses around the subject of empowering black women, who are the least represented group in academia.

Another work dealing with black womanhood was a Rhodes University student production Seeing Red, which dealt with the stigma of menstruation, exploding some of the religious and social myths driving perceptions of the monthly cycle as something secretive and shameful.

But then the shaking starts. With the help of a gold-painted vibrating weight-loss machine, Nyamza’s body is subjected to round after round of stress and strain as she takes different positions on the machine up on the podium: standing, kneeling, bending in every conceivable way. Her crown and jewels begin to drop. Finally, coming down from the podium she sadly discards her bangles.

Now she looks less like a queen and more like Salome, a courtesan coming down to ground. By the end, she’s absolutely flat on the floor, writhing and floundering as she laboriously moves the massive structure that once held her up. She’s lost and confused by instructions from Google Maps giving contradictory advice. The piece clearly demonstrated the jarring juxtaposition of the image of black women presented by media and academia and the lived reality.

Another work dealing with black womanhood was a Rhodes University student production Seeing Red, which dealt with the stigma of menstruation, exploding some of the religious and social myths driving perceptions of the monthly cycle as something secretive and shameful. Using a workshopped ensemble cast, Keleabetswe (Tumi) Motsisi used strong images to celebrate and overcome associations of indignity with this very ordinary taboo.

I was also interested in looking at ways in which masculinity was represented at the festival. In the encore-winning Choir Boy — a South Africanisation of a script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the writer of the Oscar-winning Moonlight — a group of blerds (black nerds) deal with the conflicts inherent between coming out and being Christian at an elite school.

There was also an exhibition in the Monument called Still Figuring Out What It Means To Be a Man by Giovanna del Sarto and Antonia Michaela Porter.

With intimate audio interviews this exhibition explores "issues such as love, sexuality and sexual conditioning".

Another show that explored the potential strength of alternative masculinities was Udodana (The Son) by the winner of the Young Artist for Dance award, Musa Hlatshwayo.

This was a complex piece about Hlatshwayo’s relationship with his father, who believed that his son was a reincarnation of his own father. It showed a gentler side to Zulu maleness in his father’s request for white canna lilies to bring peace to their home. When his father died, Hlatshwayo gathered 100 white canna lilies as a way to help his transitioning.

Hlatshwayo’s dancers were burdened by half a chair on their backs weighing them down with wine and fruit throughout the vigorous routines combining displays of Zulu high kicks with more tender moments.

A screen behind showed trees first being praised and ritually worshipped (symbols of the father?) before they came crashing down at the end. The strongest images in the show were the lilies all around the stage and reference to the dung placed on stick-fighting wounds to help healing.

Hlatshwayo says in his piece he doesn’t want to be "a stereotyped Zulu young man" and is in search of other ways to be.

One definition of strength is immovability, firmness, resolve. However, there is also another definition of strength that lies in flexibility, in being adaptable to change. This seems to be a better model for improving the condition of both women and men and beginning to stem the violence perpetuated by men on the world.


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