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The Umbrella: A South African cultural weapon?

Robyn Sassen

During apartheid, if a controversial South African artist went out of the country and 'made it' by gaining acknowledgement from 'real' galleries Out There before returning, suddenly the former pariah would magically become prodigal son and worthy citizen.

South Africa, for close to 50 years, existed under the extraordinarily bad rubric, "apartheid". Culturally, this was like purgatory. The pariah of the whole world, our regime effectively prevented anything "real" that was happening in the rest of the world from getting any kind of airing of or exercising any kind of influence over South Africans. And vica-versa.

Parallel to this closedness there is another infuriating South Africa mindset. It's the hypocriscy that allows a formerly deeply felt bias toward an artist's work to suddenly pale in the light of Overseas Opinion. During apartheid, if a controversial South African artist went out of the country and "made it" by gaining acknowledgement from "real" galleries Out There before returning, suddenly the former pariah would magically become prodigal son and worthy citizen. Unfortunately this small perspective still holds true for much of mainstream arts appreciation, even now.

This is a story about a committed and spirited performance artist called Steven Cohen. He's South African, he's white, he's gay, he's Jewish. He makes work that touches base on each of these defining terms of his identity. Some months ago, Cohen and his life partner, internationally recognized dancer and choreographer, Elu, were invited to showcase their work in La Rochelle, France. There, they would work with Ballet Atlantique under world-renowned French choreographer, Regine Chopinot for a period of six months. In this capacity, they have been commissioned to perform already created work, as well as new work.

But the gutsy, untraditional African approach Cohen and Elu use has attracted other interests, as well. In particular that of Singaporean Ong Keng Sen, curator of "In Transit", a Berlin based cultural festival under the steerage of House of World Cultures, a project focusing on diverse international culture from the southern hemisphere. "In Transit" describes itself as not a presentation of art but of the process, the creative act itself. The "In Transit" Festival sees itself as an on-going laboratory rather than an event. The audience becomes witness, part of the process. The stage belongs to the laboratory, the club transmutes to stage, and the street becomes an intimate space for art. Cohen and Elu have been commissioned to create public interventions and stage performances in Berlin during June. They plan to do so, individually, collectively, and in collaboration with 80-year-old Nomsa Dlamini, formerly a domestic worker in South Africa.

But while the preparations are furiously in place for something dramatic to happen of a South African nature in Germany, let us cast a glance at the history behind this little story, and consequently, of a possible future for its unfolding.

During the apartheid years, the whole country suffered from sanctions, disinformation, cultural embargoes and a general sense of misguidedness, but the dance industry was one in particular that got left behind. Performance art as a cultural genre and (rather than as showbiz) never really got beyond skimming the surface on South African platforms, whereas during the 1960s and 19702, it was "hot" in the West.

Then in the 1990s, things began to happen, not only in the post-everything world, but in performance art, and in South Africa. For one thing, Cohen became vociferous on the dance platform. Trained informally as a silkscreen printer, he moved quickly from applied visual art to performed conceptual art and established a reputation for making explicit use of the scopophilic and the religiously inflammable by way of his images. By doing so, he developed not only a following of fans, but also of enemies who were deeply incensed by his explicit sexual references and his use of religious symbology in a context that, to say the least, was unexpected.

But the rub lay in his rich sense of controversy: Cohen was articulating what many of his generation had been afraid to say. During the late 1980s, Cohen was subject to compulsory army training under apartheid, because of his youth, his skin colour and his gender. The experience had been cathartic for him and had brought out his sexual identity and his creative and political voice. He formed a personal and professional association with Elu and in spite of the local platform for performance being horribly narrow, Cohen brought his works to South African performance art.

The FNB Vita Dance Umbrella showcases performance work in South Africa. This is an annual festival that happens within the first quarter of the year. The festival is performed in Johannesburg, but is promoted within the entire country and it has sister spin-off festivals in the other provinces with a similar outreach. Year after year, these offshoots brought concoctions of creative sensibilities mixed with a touch of camp, a hint of drag, and a hefty dollop of controversy to stages countrywide.

The Umbrella has been a festival that uses the concept, "democracy in art" and that well-used phrase "freedom of statement" in its front page blurb. So the use of shit-eating as a backdrop video to a Cohen/Elu dance piece, enacted on a trapeze with the "Tradition" chorus of Fiddler on the Roof as background and thematic song, should have fit in with the festival's concept when it was performed a couple of years ago.

Instead, that performance put the organizers into a tight spot. Audiences were shocked, horrified, and outraged. Such a reaction was a tad inevitable: South Africa had been culturally repressed for so many years that "gay" still meant "happy" for many dance patrons, never mind the more challenging aspects of the performance. But surely it should have been an absolute delight for performance organizers that in the name of democracy, Cohen and Elu was a team of performers who tested the boundaries of all the old and ostensibly noble concepts surrounding dance.

Clearly, Cohen and Elu's work is not about sidestepping issues, but the civic role, which the FNB Vita has undertaken, is a politic one. So the organizers of the festival shimmied. They pussyfooted. They sidestepped. They maneuvered in all possible ways they could to try and encourage Cohen and Elu not to submit their work.

Which brings us to 2002. Eight years into our new democracy, this country is still very much a work in progress. I say this advisedly, but not without empathy. Not only are the patrons of performance art still appallingly conservative, but another component of the cultural spectrum, "forced removals", are sadly as much on the civic agenda as they used to be. Forced removals are streamlined affairs that effectively remove the makeshift homes of the homeless because they're not very beautiful or comfortable for those in more fortunate positions to have to behold on a regular basis.

But I digress. A little.

Cohen and Elu spent the past eighteen months or so working on a new piece. It's a piece created less for the FNB Vita Dance Umbrella in particular than for their work and their repertoire in general. The work, called "Chandelier", is about the rich distinction that continues to exist between black and white individuals of South Africa and remains, more or less, centered in a colonialist paradigm.

The plan for the performance was simple, yet costly. Cohen and Elu removed the French inspired chandelier from the ceiling of the home they were renting, and reconstructed it so that Cohen could wear it. In order to be functional, each crystal drop was lit with a photon microlight operated with a replaceable lithium battery and the whole thing was painstakingly sewn to a corset. The ensemble was completed with extraordinarily high shoes and body make-up that has more or less become Cohen's signature: no visible genitals. No explicit sexual evocations. Just a chandelier.

Choreography for the work was complicated by the areas where would perform "Chandelier". This included Cohen being a celebrant at Johannesburg Jewry's Chanukah party. And as a visitor to the homeless in Newtown, located slightly south of Johannesburg's city center. Newtown is a foreboding space where many who have nothing better lay their heads down at night. In real terms, these places are not more than twenty kilometers apart from one another, but in societal terms, they are light years away.

On the day Cohen visited the squatters, the red ants were there too. "Red ants" are black municipal workers who are trained to perform the disturbing task of removing and destroying the unsightly homes of the poor. Red ants are very efficient at their work, but they are protected from interference by another body of workers. Familiarly known as "black ants", these "protectors", dressed in black, are trained to prevent the hapless homeless from venting their outrage and sadness on being relocated and thrown away´┐Ż

So on one occasion, all the different organizational squadrons were in place, with Cohen having a makeshift theatre complete with seats. That is, until the seats were taken away and rubbished. Cohen commented that it is rather commonplace, during his performances of "Chandelier", that the presence of a filming camera has spared the disruption of his performance. Indeed, watching the footage of "Chandelier" and studying the variety of reactions to this "French Chandelier" appearing amidst the ceilingless morass of homeless homes, the violence is that is commonplace during forced removals, where Cohen appears, tends to be kerbed.

But the violence is not directed toward this tingling, jingling, white painted creature. A religious respect is one of the most poignant and dominant reactions to his presence amidst their destruction. A homeless woman, with a skin-lightening mask on her face, commented, "You are like Jesus". But she also said, "I just want to look and see everything". Even in her uneducated homeless state, there is an implicit understanding that this chandelier is art. This is something that must be looked at.

For the video of "Chandelier", Cohen and Elu decided to use Kaddish, the Jewish prayer recited in memory of the dead (but is actually life affirming in its literal meaning), as background sound. Characteristically, this decision seems to be teetering on the blasphemous. But watching the piece in conjunction with the music, it feels that there's something much deeper than the work of an angry young man, thumbing his nose at Jewish convention and its sense of sacredness. This is an angry young man who's not all that angry any more, nor all that young. Rather, he questions his own sense of manliness in explicit ways, while pondering the contradictions inherent in a South African identity. The work becomes one of conceptual beauty.

And so, after much outlay, thought and soul searching, "Chandelier" became the FNB Vita Dance Umbrella submission from the studio of Steven Cohen and Elu. And it was spontaneously sidelined. The programme contained rather hysterical warnings to the public that bums and other bits might be on view. The theatre space was loudly posted with shrill warnings that this work might not necessarily be appropriate for the young or the otherwise easily offended. Resting on the reputation that Cohen and Elu had thus far earned themselves, the Dance Umbrella made a bit of a faux pas in trying to subvert the power of this work.

Hours before its first performance, Cohen and Elu were advised that the work would not be performed in the central theatre, with the rest of the submissions for the evening, but rather in a more marginalized space. Theatre patrons would be expected to physically move. The logistics were migraine inducing. Irate at this obviously hysterical gesture, Cohen and Elu withdrew their work. The withdrawal was implemented on the festival's website and the only tears shed seemed to be those of bitterness and frustration, shed only by Cohen and Elu.

No official statement was made about the withdrawal of "Chandelier". Tickets had already been sold, and whether the Umbrella liked it or not, Cohen was a drawcard. Works that he submitted on the same platform might have offended some, but it certainly set a fire of curiosity burning in the expectations of paying audience members. As the time drew closer to the still-scheduled curtain rising on "Chandelier", Cohen and Elu reconsidered. The integrity of the work and the need for it to be premiered locally won over bruised egos. Miraculously perhaps, when I got to see it, the performance was in the main theatre, shown to unbelievably powerful advantage. The fight, the recalcitrance, the ugliness, was, it seemed, much ado about nothing. Or was it?

The implications of such fear to experiment in art, or to open up an audience's perceptions to something that explicitly challenges the medium, is a problem in South Africa. Endemic perhaps to a South African mindset, it should be interesting to see what kind of a response Cohen and Elu get on their return to this funny old continent, after performances in France and Germany. For now, in post-Apartheid south Africa, when an artist's reputation becomes coloured by international feedback, the country alters its critical standpoint. Just a tad. It could, indeed, only happen in Africa.

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