Sitting on a circular mound in The Nunnery at the University of the Witwatersrand’s (Wits) Theatre Complex is Kieron Jina, one of the country’s most exciting, courageous and controversial multi-disciplinary artists. There’s a certain giddiness permeating the room, an excitement to witness the new work of the Durban-born, Johannesburg-based performer at the 29th edition of Dance Umbrella, South Africa’s foremost dance festival.
The room turns a sudden dark, accompanied by an uncomfortable silence. Suddenly, all the lights come on and the audience is confronted with the naked, intertwined bodies of Jina and collaborator Marc Philipp Gabriel. From this moment, we are taken on a complex, intergalactic journey through space and time called Down to Earth.
The work is a dance duet supported by the Goethe-Institut, exploring themes around the construction of the self and the ability to formulate, navigate and break out of the complex constellations that form our identities.
It’s the kind of art that values being confrontational, brave and vulnerable. The kind of art with which Jina’s name is often associated — challenging norms in a way that treats audiences with empathy and intelligence, demanding more from society and relaying human stories in a compelling way that stays with you long after you’ve witnessed the end of the performance.
When we meet to discuss their work in a near-empty cafe in Parktown North, Jina’s tall and mesmerising limbs seem to carry a story with every animated flick of the wrist or extension of their arm. Jina is gender nonconforming and uses the pronouns they and them.
They have just completed a new video and speak passionately and effortlessly about it during our conversation.
Jina is particularly interested in the challenges and complexities of the transitional millennial generation — a generation that experienced the end and fall of apartheid only to be flung into a country still grappling with its own trauma and healing. Jina explores this dynamic particularly in their exploration of the shifting identities of queer people of colour, a group that features centrally in their work.
After obtaining a master’s in dramatic arts with a focus on film and dance at Wits, and attending classes with dance greats such as Gregory Maqoma, Dada Masilo and Vincent Mantsoe, Jina now works on performance art that interrogates and communicates issues that affect us on a daily basis.
“Using visuals as a [form of] agency to activate conversations within the people who observe [my work], and creating dialogue among them, I want people in the shows to look at the work and say, ‘I feel quite violated and quite provoked and I need to have a conversation with you afterwards!’ ”
Jina wants their art to stimulate conversations that allow people to confront their own prejudices and hold each other accountable.
In a sense, this is the remarkable power behind Jina’s work: its ability to unashamedly question closely held beliefs while taking nothing for granted. It disrupts traditional understandings of sexuality, gender, race, age and ability while stimulating conversation through a multidimensional lens.
It is for this reason that Jina also works as an educator and an activist.
Teaching at various higher learning institutions in Gauteng, their classroom is always a nonhierarchical co-learning, co-teaching collaborative space that encourages learners to bring their experiences, languages and backgrounds into the room and seeks to translate what they learn in a way that promotes accessibility and transformation. Jina aims to create a decolonised classroom, free of convention and even free of colonial gendered binaries, where calling an educator “sir” or “madam” is the norm.
In our conversation, Jina flags collaboration as a key principle in the formation and articulation of their work. “It is about meeting each other halfway and allowing each other into our respective worlds,” Jina says. This can be seen in the many collaborations in which the artist has worked, including the experimental music group The Brother Moves On and also as one half of the collective Stash-the-Suitcase.
As Jina garners more international recognition, and their stature and work grow locally and internationally, they express that they’ve become more aware of the complexity of collaborating across multiple disciplines and with different individuals.
They stress the importance of mutual respect in all projects, insisting that, “before you’re an artist, you’re a human being. The moment you let go and realise that those ideas are not your own alone and that someone else can flesh out those ideas, that’s when true collaboration happens.”
Feeling that it was particularly important to create safe spaces for queer artists, Jina was inspired to form Queer Art Night at Industry in Johannesburg — a platform that “aims to foster a community invested in the values of mindfulness, curiosity, justice, compassion and playfulness”.
The platform has attracted global interest, most recently featuring the trans South Asian writer, performance artist and activist Alok Vaid-Menon.
Jina’s process of collaboration has also led to the formation of #FemmeinPublic, a project that features gender-defying artists such as Mx Blouse and Umlilo.
Interrogating the representation of queer bodies and articulations of femme identities in public while addressing transphobia and homophobia, #FemmeinPublic has grown from a public intervention to a network of support that celebrates difference.
It’s certainly clear that Jina is an artist who is unapologetic about being who they are. They remains one of the most intriguing and increasingly prolific artists I’ve ever met, ending off our interview with this defiant declaration: “I’m here, I’m going to show you what I’m here to do, I’m looking at this as a system of enhancing myself and pushing people that look like me to a higher place … finding that sense of peace.”
Down to Earth will travel to Germany to be performed at the Berliner Festspiele: Theatertreffen 2017