Some of the more cutting-edge work at this year’s National Arts Festival has been in the category of performance art, so it is surprising that this is the first year the category has been officially included on the festival’s main programme.
As Jay Pather, the chairman of the festival’s artistic committee notes, there is nothing new about performance art. It has been explored in South Africa for years and the genre itself has been around for the past century. However, it is not without its problems and audiences in South Africa might still be confused about what exactly performance art is and how it differs from traditional theatre.
Certainly, some of the heavyweight names on the programme this year have brought attention to the field. Artist Steven Cohen’s work Cradle of Humankind is an interdisciplinary piece interrogating slavery and colonisation. Performance artist Athi Patha Ruga collaborates with visual art Young Artist Award winner Mikhael Subotzky in Performance Obscura, and Discharge, presented by the First Physical Theatre Company, unfolds in a military base.
Brett Bailey’s provocative work Exhibit A, which looks at the colonisation of Africa, has had audiences leaving in tears and French production Afternoon of a Foehn, which combines the use of plastic bags and fans to ignite an imaginary world, has been this year’s festival favourite.
The works challenge the audience in new ways and rethink notions of space. They move it beyond traditional theatre settings and often ask the audience to rise to the challenge of interaction. Almost always, they function on an inter-disciplinary, multimedia level.
Bailey has always been interested in performance art. “Performance art doesn’t specify location, it specifies an approach,” he said, offering up the following definition: “It seldom revolves around a narrative. There’s no plot, generally. Or much emphasis put on character. There tends to be an exploration of a theme, rather than an anecdote, which is more in the line of drama.”
Pather, who is also director of the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts in Cape Town, said the decision to include performance art in the festival’s main programme had evolved over years.
“The main reason is that it is an important category in the world and it is growing in South Africa. It started a while ago and it has been bubbling. I believe the innovative experiment of whether it is performance or public art is the most vital for any festival. Something is happening, but you’re not sure what it is. Later, you realise what it is.”
In Pather’s opinion: “Performance art is about installation work that has a live and time-based policy which makes theatre artists and choreographers think a little more visually about their work.
“Over the past few years, the Gordon Institute has tried to develop discourse around these topics,” Pather said.
In October, the institute will host Thinking the City, a conference discussing public art. In November, there will be a Live Art Festival, closely linked to elements included in performance art.
The number of works shown at this year’s festival is evidence that performance art is expanding in South Africa and that there is burgeoning demand for more.
Said Pather: “I think our audiences are waiting to be challenged.”