Audiences entering the Alec Mullin theatre to watch the opening of Standard Bank Young Artist of The Year Themba Mbuli’s dance production are greeted by symbolic suggestions of his interest in geography and memory.
First, a blood-red or Kalahari desert sand coloured banner in the shape of a map of Namibia hangs crucified against the backdrop. On the floor, a heap of sand as white as dry bone forms the shape of the African continent. Then to the right of the backdrop, standing behind a transparent screen, a group of figures gather in a manufactured distance with their silhouettes flaming against the darkness of the spotlit stage. These figures mutter invocations of dead African ancestors whose spirits may not be so restful. Then the dance begins with a lone figure who stumbles along to the centre of the stage. She carried a sack load of skulls to the delicately timed rhythm of music designed by Neo Muyanga.
Unpretentiously titled SOLD!, Mbuli’s work deals with the story of 20 skulls of men and women who died in concentration camps in Namibia around 1904. Before contemporary calls for their repatriation for a dignified burial they had been exploited in eugenics science labs and museums across Europe as examples of African’s racial inferiority and other colonial ideas. Their story forms part of a catastrophe often referred to as the Keizer’s holocaust.
Mbuli, however inserts a lot of contemporary politics to his narrative. There’s a strong vignette of feminist protest of the #RhodesMustFall variety. Rape, economic neediness, and other kinds of related violence are cued in too. This is done through spoken poetry and song. Ideas, like the burden of history, are palpable in every improvised and choreographed movement.
However, Mbuli’s work is in danger of seeming too wordy at times. In fact, it’s too reliant on the shock-laden soliloquies more than movement to deliver its message. This is at once its strength and liability. Consider that the first proposition of dance as an art form is that the moving body is its central textual tool, and its directed gestures locate embodied willed and incidental meaning. To depart from these, hazards a departure towards other art forms like theatre. Hence, without using any spoken dialogue, to watch a legless black male body dragged by its head across a coded stage carries enormously charged meaning. This happens when Mbuli is true to his loftier intentions. SOLD!
By Percy Mabandu
Percy Mabandu is an award winning art journalist and author of the recently published Yakal’ Inkomo -Portrait of a Jazz Classic; a book about the historic South African jazz record by the late Winston Mankunku Ngozi. He has written for publications including City Press, Mail & Guardian, Rolling Stone and many others