On a Monday evening in July, audiences in the Rhodes Theatre in Grahamstown slipped into a kind of religious coma. It was nearing eight. Steven Cohen, with Nomsa Dhlamini, the 90-year-old domestic worker who raised this beautifully wayward artist during his mother’s insobriety, were about to première their collaborative dance work, The Cradle of Humankind, at the National Arts Festival.
All the mandarins of local culture were there. Dressed in cold-weather finery, they made a point of being the last to enter the theatre. They smugly waved and hugged and air-kissed and, yes, swooned — because, well, they knew. South Africa’s Protestant culture, freshly reaffirmed by a choreographed outrage over some painterly conjecture about the presidential penis, was about to have a firecracker stuffed up its bum. And what better venue to dispense this therapy — enema by outrage, you might call it — than the gnarled hippy shindig known as “fest”.
Heightening the anticipation was the fact that Cohen, the kaalgat rebel of South African dance, had never appeared at the festival before. His last transactional engagement with audiences in Grahamstown was as a flea-market trader in the 1980s, selling his dada-esque silkscreen designs printed on fabrics and T-shirts.
The lights dimmed. The hushed solemnity grew. It was like being in church. Cohen’s four-part production about evolution, caves and fire, which featured Dhlamini performing in two scenes, took a rheumatoid hour to reach its climax. It felt much longer.
Cohen is an able provocateur and magnificent visual fabulist, but, gosh, his work can be painfully tedious at times. For those who missed his July performance, which received enthusiastic applause, never mind me, the Stevenson gallery in Cape Town is currently hosting a solo exhibition that includes works drawn from his performance.
Included is the taxidermied baboon that Cohen used as a wardrobe piece. Its legs are splayed wide open and when seen in silhouette suggests a tutu. There are also three made-for-the-market colour photographs of a nearly naked Dhlamini enacting moments from the dance production.
In the crepuscular gloom of the Rhodes Theatre, Cohen’s 12-minute film, The Cradle of Humankind, seemed awkwardly sandwiched into live performance and largely contributed to the production’s overlong feeling. Seen as a discrete thing in the gallery, the film comes alive.
Shot in three locations — the Wonder Caves, Swartkrans site and Sterkfontein Caves — it begins with an elfin-eared Cohen in baboon tutu emerging out of the grey highveld brush. Dhlamini is pictured standing immobile — she wears a lunar module as headpiece. Cohen then discovers fire. A quick wardrobe change follows. Cohen, now sporting railroad model trees as horns, affectionately and wondrously interacts with his mother-nanny, Dhlamini, who also wears a costume that radiates a brilliant white fibre-optic light. The end.
Cohen first started drawing Dhlamini into his work in the early 1990s when he included her image in his textile works. In 1998 she started to appear in his intimately scaled dance pieces. A year later, John Hodgkiss, the artist’s long-time collaborator, photographed Cohen with his two mothers. Dhlamini, wearing a light-blue dress that identifies her as a domestic servant, touches up Cohen’s white skin with a make-up brush while the artist’s biological mother, dressed in a navy blue aunty-next-door dress, appraises the firecracker smuggled into his bum, which she has just lit.
Scurrilous, gaudy and camp, this rich seam in Cohen’s production finds its apotheosis in his 2005 film piece, Maid in South Africa. Emerging out of the domestic greenery of the Cohen family garden, Dhlamini slowly shuffles into her place of work. Hodgkiss’s no-fuss camera work briefly frames Dhlamini’s broken shoes. The shot possesses the same terse beauty as Moshekwa Langa’s Home Movies: Where Do We Begin? (2001), a five-minute video showing the feet of passengers boarding a bus in his hometown of Bakenberg.
Solemnity, however, soon gives way to bawdy. Dhlamini strips her traditional clothing, revealing, ultimately, her racy undergarments. Wayne County, of the Electric Chairs, sings “If you don’t wanna fuck me baby/ Baby, fuck off.” For her part, Dhlamini goes about her usual chores, cleaning the uncleanable, as Cohen has put it. In all of this is nested a critique of South Africa’s peculiar brand of modern serfdom, personified in the figure of Dhlamini. It works to the degree that one can accommodate the discomfort of watching an arthritic performer send up her own servitude.
In a 2010 interview, Cohen, discussing Chandelier (2002), his well-known performance work in a Johannesburg slum settlement before it was razed, stated: “You watch people with nothing losing what they don’t have … and I feel white and weird and I feel voyeuristic and I feel I don’t have the right to be there. And at the same time I have to maintain a belief in the project which gives me the right to be there.”
He has extended that right into his alienating family home, a group of caves that possibly birthed modern hominids and even to a crusty town that for far too long held him at a polite distance.
The exhibition at the Stevenson Gallery, 160 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock, is on until November 24