Moving art makes city’s spine tingle

On an Alexandra pavement a man lay motionless, a pool of pink wax pouring from his head, eggs scattered around him. Children gathered around the figure, taxis and cars stopped in the street to take a look and a concerned woman stopped to check the man’s pulse.

This was not a crime scene or a car accident, but an intervention staged by the duo Common Sense — Dutch installation artist Stan Wannet and South Africa’s Leila Anderson. It formed part of last week’s Spines performance festival, which was sponsored by the Goethe-Institut.

Local resident Michael Mathebula watched the scene from across the road. “It creates a lot of assumptions,” he said, “for instance, that a white man was killed on the street.”

For Mathebula the piece recalled the violence in the township of the 1980s. He said of the artists: “We welcome them to be free. There are just going to be surprises.”

It was this element of uncertainty and surprise that characterised the three-day festival, a sprawling exploration of the city through public art focused on public transport routes connecting Johannesburg’s inner city with its townships and suburbs.

The festival comprised two parts. The first was the In House Project, which changed each day, organised by the Ntsoana Contemporary Dance Theatre including Sello Pesa, Humphrey Maleka and Brian Mtembu.

Pesa explained the project: “We were talking about the two extremes — being in the townships and the suburbs — and also for the artists to be in backgrounds they were not used to. That was where we started.”

The second component was United African Utopias, organised by musicians João Orecchia, Hans Narva and Mpumi Mcata and performance ­artist Tanja Krone. This project developed out of a series of anthems composed by the musicians for imagined Utopias. “We started with the theme of the Utopias we choose in our everyday lives and realities,” said Orecchia. “The fantastical elements were informed by this.”

The Utopias tour, which proceeded on foot, by minibus and the Gautrain, started from the dust-clouded Rent-a-Wreck car rental in Doornfontein and proceeded through Jo’burg’s inner city.

Discordance and noise
The audience held radios that broadcast Utopian fairy-tale fantasies of the city: an African dress store became a temple, a run-down building decorated in stars of peeling green paint became a cosmic city and a candle-lit and robed figure awaited the audience in the desolate and abandoned ice rink of the Carlton Centre. The catchy United Utopias anthem animated the trip with its refrain that “reality is not more than an agreement between seven billion people”.

The tour played with the ideas of competing Utopian imaginations in religion, art and politics and the ways in which these visions run aground on the shores of the city. It descended at times, as Utopias do, into discordance and noise.

It ended on the banks of the Jukskei River in Alexandra, where the masked artists sat around a table with crystal glasses and silver plates filled with old bags — an image of a collapsed Utopia.

Spines as a whole was inventive, often beautiful and unsettling, although at times it became stuck in the traffic of its many ideas.

Cameroonian artist Raphaël Christian Etongo’s performance in an empty Observatory swimming pool — where he wrestled with a tyre in stagnant water to the lament of vuvuzelas — created a powerful sense of struggle and discord within the languid suburban garden and linked well to the festival’s themes of mobility and immobility.

However, another piece by Etongo, performed on another day, was heavy-handed and unnecessarily cruel. In old Chinatown in the inner city, he asked a live chicken and a bloodied doll what they thought of contemporary art before placing the chicken’s head in his own mouth.

For me, the most effective moment was the collaboration between Boemo babo ntate Bothata singers and dancers, who work as recyclers in the inner city, and German performance artist Johannes Paul Raether.

 The recyclers, on the roof of the Fox Street depot where they live and work, sang Sesotho songs of war and games. Their movements among sacks of reclaimed waste were slow and precise, their voices resonant, defying a downpour of rain.

Raether cast a fragile figure on his red high heels, his face painted blue, with butterfly lashes and his teeth blackened. He mirrored the movements of the dancers, softening their warlike gestures.

Raether’s own costume — a bricolage of old sportswear — resonated with the homes and workplace of the recyclers. Together, the performers cast two very different figures of exclusion who had found a transient intimacy and strength with one another through song and ­movement.

It was a startling and poignant encounter that displaced, recycled and renewed the maps of the city along which the festival ran.

Watch the Spines festival video here:

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Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon
Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand and a research associate of the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa.

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