Thursday, May 25, 2017

Faki Day 2 - Blackism (GER) and Sifiso Seleme (RSA)

I'm just going to be honest: having arrived at midnight and madly scrambled to finish of my remaining deadlines, Day 2 of Faki (my first day) was one where I chased my own tail and tried desperately to make up for lost time. Such is the nature of this year's festival - normally precarious, this year it's built around a set of circumstances of eviction and withdrawal that are not necessarily conducive to art - which sometimes functions better in conditions which are less improvised.

Inevitably, the art and artists shone through anyway, and if there's any pressure, it didn't show in the performances. The day began with Blackism Collective's Back To, partly coming out of a residency at the festival, moved on to Sifiso Seleme's Extra Ordinary, and finished with a forum, led (a bit shoddily) by myself, regarding the responses to the call out from the festival. More on the latter later.

Back to

New Berlin-based collective Blackism –consisting of performance artist Nasheeka Nedsreal and actress Adrian Blount and dedicated to ‘decolonizing our entirety and centering blackness’ - bring us Back To, the result of development at Faki festival, following months of research.

The performance sees the duo slide through various ‘modes’, proceeding through some key texts regarding black identity. Poet Langston Hughes’ Notes on a Commercial Theatre appears, as does rapper Wale’s Black is Beautiful and sections from playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, as well as intersectional feminist and social activist bell hooks. Two white masks are employed by the performers, probably a representation of the white identity forced upon people of colour. This is reinforced with a clever reversal of the household phrase “do unto others as you would unto yourself”, spoken like a prayer by Blount behind the white mask, before its sudden removal and twisting of the phrase into an accusation on the repetition. It points at a particular truth – that, in the reality of race politics, 'do unto other' means something quite other to its literal interpretation.

The choice of dance shows a fascination with various styles – from schoolyard ‘clap games’ to ballet. Moving through the transitions leads the performers into fairly impossible singing positions, although I’m sure people in opera would be squirming in their seats. They carry it off incredibly, and I don’t think I’ve seen a note maintained quite so well while the torso is twisted at 90˚.

The textual and choreographic discourses mingle together like guests at a dinner party, talking to each other in a movement through time and space. The audiences is invited to watch, but it is clear this is a conversation between the artists on stage, which they control and the terms of which they define. In this sense, the stage becomes a source of power for the performers, who demand the audience’s consideration without becoming a dictatorial force. The unity between the two stage figures remains virtually unbroken throughout the show, finishing with a ritual of comfort and protection.

It’s a gesture of refusal that points at potential for change, a great beginning from the development of a first performance, and warmly received by a receptive Faki audience.

Sifiso Seleme – Extra Ordinary

Extra Ordinary is a performance in which the meaning is at once very clear, and yet rich with possibilities.

Beginning in an elongated darkness with distorted chimes, the performer appears as a sort of marionette puppet, standing on a table covered in fake grass. The image extends through multiple adjustments as Seleme moves through different contortions. Dressed in an all-white dress and with hair arranged in a doll-like perm, Seleme reacts to his entanglement with a kind of feigned surprise or extended realisation, gently and slowly attempting to escape. Having finally done so, not without near-strangulation via the strings attaching him to the ceiling, he slowly approaches the cupboard to change into a cleaner's uniform, and mops the front of the stage, occasionally spitting into the bucket and washing his face.

The initial image of control sits directly within the Faki festival theme, a reference to postcolonial violence. The design is reminiscent of Yinka Shonibare’s use of dandyism, remixing anachronistic colonial items – the performer’s hair is molded into an excessive French-style peruke, a meat-hook that could be a ship’s anchor runs through it to connect it to the ceiling, his location on the table renders the situation immediately one of punishment somehow, as though it may be kicked away at any moment and leave the performer dangling by his fingertips. In a lonely performance, Seleme is accompanied only by the bells on his feet, jingling pathetically, as though forbidding him a natural silence. Even the cupboard, nominally a banal item (in certain contexts at least), looks foreign in this environment.

The ending’s connection with contemporary labour of servitude or slavery is unavoidable, and makes the contention of the show inescapable to today’s audience, inevitably implicated in capitalism and its inherent racial categorizations. But the details are crucial here: Seleme does not simply mop the stage, he pauses occasionally and hocks a lugi into the bucket, before wiping his face with it to remove the white face-paint, and then continuing to mop the stage. The tactile nature of this action makes it a materially complex – the body of the artist literally combining with the dirt of the floor (and from the shoes of the audience). The action also contains dissent -  I thought of the classic ‘spit on the burger’ trick that’s a mainstay of hospitality industry’s revenge on a bad customer.

It’s undeniably a fantasy image, as implied by the title. Time plays an important role in this, and the performer freely extends and contracts time - it’s a performance that feels like it stretches into eternity, yet ends suddenly. But the fantasy shouldn’t be confused with an un-truth: rather, it mirrors a holistic reality. Though wearing women’s clothing, the performer seems somehow gender-less, instead operating as an avatar for enslavement. But despite the presumed negativity of such a representation, there is no malice in the performance. An implicit humanity pervades its observations about the world – and Seleme’s gentle, mourning offers give a tone to the gesture that is one of commonality and universality among tragic conditions.

It’s a fantastic performance, and unfolds monumentally, leaving leaves the audience to reflect on their complicity with systems of oppression.

Faki Festival continues until  May 28th.
Image Credit: Josip Visković

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