Donna Kukama: Life is a laughing matter

Donna Kukama: 'Brenda Fassie was a great performance artisit except that she could sing.' (Supplied)

Donna Kukama: 'Brenda Fassie was a great performance artisit except that she could sing.' (Supplied)

The winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for performance art is a whacky talent, an artist who places herself in real-life situations, doing almost ordinary things. Viewing her work, one wonders: Is this performance or is this just an act of living?

A multimedia artist, Donna Kukama completed her postgraduate studies at the Ecole Cantonale d'Art du Valais in Sierre, Switzerland, and her work has been seen at the Joburg Art Fair, Art Miami, ARCO Madrid and Focus11 in Basel.

At home she is cofounder of the Johannesburg-based Non-Non Collective and a contributor to the artists' collective called the Centre for Historical Re-enactment.

The evocative award citation tells us that Kukama "introduces fragile and brief moments of 'strangeness' within sociopolitical settings – gestures of poetry with political intent, intended to destabilise existing perspectives of reality".

Your work is often based in real spaces and involves real people.
Half of the time.

So what, for you, are real spaces and what are unreal spaces?
I work in real spaces that kind of border between fiction and reality. That's why half the time it'sreal spaces and real people and the other half it's like kind of imagined somewhere in the past or the future.

You said in the video insert that played before you received the award that you are disillusioned with formal spaces where art is presented or performance is presented.
I'm disillusioned by the format of the spaces. But I do work in all of these spaces. I have presented performances in galleries and museums but it is more what is being shown – or what those spaces limit people to – that throws me out of the equation and then I find ways of entry. And I find ways of existing in those spaces.

How do you find those ways, practically speaking?
By being fucking real about those spaces. Like, okay, so you get to the gallery and there are openings or walkabouts or speeches. All sorts of rituals take place in those spaces, and that's where I would focus as opposed to trying to create an image that's going to hang on a wall.

Explain to me what happened when you broke your leg while you were doing a performance on a swing hanging from a highway bridge.
It was a work I did in 2009. There was this event called the Spring Art Tours. I was invited to this but I was not happy with how it was going to happen because it was based at Ma- boneng [a gentrified shopping district in the city centre] and this excludes the very close reality of the surroundings. So I suspended myself nearby and threw down R10 notes [to passers-by below]. And as I was swinging this thing broke.

By winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award you have been offered an opportunity to make new work that is funded. Do you know where this is going to take you?
It is going to be specific to getting the prize, specific to the fact that the prize is coming from Standard Bank, and that it's rooted in the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. So it kind of begins there. I'm really interested in breaking the typical art audience. So it's something that, hopefully, will spread out into other parts of the country – and where it will become more useful outside of this prestigious group where one has to be able to afford Grahamstown in order to travel to Grahamstown to [attend] the arts festival.

What do you enjoy doing culturally?
I enjoy laughing. I work all the time and, if I'm not working, I'm having a good laugh with friends, having food. I enjoy reading. I enjoy philosophy. I enjoy Slavoj Zizek, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault.

What do you have beside your bed? What are you reading before lights out?
Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Deleuze, a really beautiful title.

And, in contemporary art and performance, who inspires you?
Tracy Rose, Steven Cohen – although I know they function completely differently from how I do. Samson Mudzunga as well. Brenda Fassie was a great performance artist except that she could sing, so she was known for her singing.

Have you got a favourite restaurant?
I like the pizza at Ant in Melville. And the Troyeville Hotel because I live next door.


The winners of the 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist Awards are: Jahmil XT Qubeka for film, Nicola Elliott for dance, Kyle Shepherd for jazz, Hasan and Husain Essop for visual art, Njabulo Madlala for music, Donna Kukama for performance art and Greg Homann for theatre

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse


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