/ 12 August 2016

Isabella Motadinyane, the little-documented but beautifully jaded Botsotso Jester

Isabella Motadinyane, The Little Documented But Beautifully Jaded Botsotso Jester

Isabella Motadinyane was a Botsotso Jester. She named them, through a line in her poem One Leg In.

That poem reads like a paean to the feel and the sexiness of being wrapped in stretch denim. It is also about the dangers, pleasures and strangers that denim can bring. The catcalling. The warmth denim locks in and the uninvited it locks out. It is about style and gait. It is playful but not frivolous. The essence of being a Botsotso Jester.

The brief bio at the back of this posthumous collection states that Motadinyane was born in Mofolo Central, Soweto, in 1963 and died in Orange Farm at the age of 40. She not only read and wrote poetry in isicamtho, English and Sesotho, she sang too.

Complete Poems is a reprisal of a previous posthumous anthology titled Bella. In a note explaining the need to republish the work, Deep South’s Robert Berold explains that Bella, published by Botsotso Publishing in 2007, “had a full-page drawing opposite every poem, and I felt the drawings overwhelmed the poems”.

What is clear in the work of Motadinyane, which this anthology lays out squarely, is that she battled against reductive readings. Her words, left to breathe against the emptiness of the page, struggle with the limitations of language and text.

The potency of her words lies in the tension between their deliberate selection and their offhand charm. To read her is to experience empathy free from condescension. She shies away from labouring a point, inviting you to experience it through body movement instead.

Motadinyane’s subjects are restless: go-getters and predators, figureheads who never live up to their might as they walk on the thin ice of history. She sculpts bodies as minds, and minds with bodies of their own. She abstracts not just the mechanics of love but the technology of sex, the hardwired also masculine impulse to dominate meeting its comeuppance through guileful acquiescence.

The works collected here are the permanence of language scoffing at the finality of life. In Beyond the Grave, she writes:

My name lands/ beyond the grave/ stripping down my being/ the cry of my flesh remnants/ gripped by space.

So little is written and documented about Motadinyane. This, added to her early death, lends the work a dark, prophetic tint. It seems she is writing from either side of the grave, from the nightmarish world where pain never ends and from a life of love where pain is never truly felt.

The poems are not annotated with details of their creation, which gives them the quality of enabling travel through time.

They are calligraphic in their mapping of South African life, the brutality of men entitled and upended by greed, the litany of losses, funerals, families exploded.

The book features tributes from fellow Botsotso Jesters Ike Muila and Alan Horwitz as well as Siphiwe ka Ngwenya. Muila’s biographical Stomach Ulcer Complications: Isabella Motdinyane (1963 to 2003) is a heartfelt, narrative glimpse into their ups and downs.

i met Isabella while a stage manager in a workshopped/ play about life in theatre … pimville of the early sixties …/ gangsterism, music, social politics of that time even the/ tsotsitaal lingo used at that particular times under the title/ skom short for skomplaas that is emzini … at home …

Muila’s Tale is racy and tender, a love letter packed with vivid detail that allows you to touch the flame of Motadinyane’s passion and appreciate her compound jeopardies. There was the ancestral calling that beckoned at regular turns. There was the physical complications of being forcibly sterilised as a young schoolgirl. Ultimately, the price of being an artist where people want free entertainment.

The stripped-down presentation of the anthology means the poems draw an added richness from the nakedness. Though we always mark the strength of poets by their brevity of language, Motadinyane also exhibits a guileful dance with emotion. Her words seem carefully tinctured to reveal themselves over time and her imagery is immovable, like a strangely comforting prison.

May she never be forgotten.