Xaba packs, and unpacks, help
There are terms and conditions, restrictions and tricky power dynamics to the concept of help. Help is not unconditional.
As the recipient of a scholarship to study at the Johannesburg Dance Foundation and then at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in London, and having exhibited in a number of group and solo performances, Nelisiwe Xaba is no stranger to the concept of help.
Last month her performance lecture, Bang Bang Wo, was hosted at the Centre for the Less Good Idea in Johannesburg.
Bang Bang Wo, as a direct translation from Mandarin, means help, and her performance explored the politics and monkey business that comes with help.
It’s Saturday night. I enter the outdoor space of Arts on Main in search of the centre. Once in the yard, I walk into a building, down a dimly lit and lonely hallway and turn left to reach my destination.
The silence is replaced with soft chatter coming from the scattered crowd, sitting on barrels around the wooden tables placed outside the centre.
It looks like an Instagram post, made by an influencer, at a night market where all the cool kids go to unwind on a Thursday night. The setting is just right for a mix of South Africa’s middle and upper classes, the help givers, who make up Xaba’s audience.
I make my way across the space to the corner of the courtyard where most of the crowd is congregating and settle about two metres away from the A4 page-size sign, The Centre for the Less Good Idea.
I pick a barrel to sit on and scan the crowd. There are couples, groups of friends and the occasional loners, whose lack of a companion makes them as impatient as I am for the show to start. We still have 15 minutes before we are let into the space.
At exactly 8pm, doors are opened and we line up to be greeted by Xaba. She hands each of us small parcels that contain seeds and a mini Marie biscuit.
A repetitive audio of a voice chanting in Mandarin admits us into the space. Apart from the repetition of the term “bang bang wo”, the meaning is incomprehensible for those unfamiliar with Mandarin.
White walls and a high ceiling enclose us as we find our seats in the well-lit room. The space is intimate but generous in the sense that the small stage takes up a third of the room but there is enough room for the audience of about 60 people to sit comfortably.
I wonder how coincidental the venue choice was, seeing that William Kentridge established it for creatives’ ideas to flourish without the confines imposed by funders.
Xaba’s look is minimalistic. Her hair is a neat German cut and she wears a short white frock and white sneakers. With the exception of an apron-like addition to the dress, which covers her left leg when she stands still, the costume bares the length of her legs when she moves. Her face is sincerely serious.
To open the performance, Xaba recalls her early interpretation of help. “When I was a little girl my mother taught me it was good to help. She encouraged me to help her in the kitchen. On Saturday evenings, we would prepare for the seven colours Sunday lunch.”
Her personal narrative then sprouts into one that examines power.
I have never asked myself why former colonial powers have this strong urge to provide assistance to the marginalised. It always seemed like something they should do because they were directly involved in creating the setback. But Xaba’s piece flipped the coin by unpacking help.
On this newly found side of the coin, help may be an act to maintain inequalities by encouraging dependency. Here in Maboneng, at the Centre for the Less Good Idea, Xaba paints help as a tool that encourages those on the receiving end to strive for likability and conformity to favour the provider’s expectations.
Throughout the performance, she switches between two roles, the marginalised and the privileged. In her subservient state, she uses a dancer’s movement to demean herself, by literally bending over backwards and shrinking her statuesque presence into a ball.
In contrast to this, the privileged character makes her presence known through speech. “In a South African context where the unemployment rate is currently at 28% ... The unemployment rate is the highest it has been since 2003. I feel privileged to create employment. So I get help. I get Help,” she boasts with pride in a satirical “madam” accent.
While she takes on these different roles, Xaba slowly builds a wall by stacking, one by one, bags of sorghum, mealies, sugar beans, sunflower and other seeds, that stretches to the exact length of her prostrate body.
She carefully explains to us during her performance: “I was measuring precisely. Thumb. Index. Thumb, index. Thumb, index, thumb, index. Plus one elbow. One plus one forearms. So it’s two. Another elbow. They’re not the same size but it keeps the circle nca! And one, two, three and a half foot. Siiiiigh! All of this is equal to my height … for now the height is equal to one thigh and a hip.”
While explaining the wall she is building, Xaba touches on a strand of help that involves the role Zulu women play when Zulu men drink umqombothi (which she explains is made from the very sorghum in her hands). The men sit in a traditional semicircle while they sip from a calabash and pass, sip and pass.
She squats, motions her hands as if to sip from a calabash, stands and repeats. She repeats this act for the length of the wall. The women serve them umqombothi by “boooooowing” all the way “dooooown” on their knees, a reference to the submissive role of help.
The wall stands as a symbol to the precariousness of help. Although Xaba is thorough with measurements as she builds the wall, it is not secure. Just like the United Nations food aid referenced in the sonic element of the performance, the help is not secure.
Although the overarching subject matter is help, the performance lecture is not designed for its viewers to interpret it using a single lens.
Xaba’s comprehensive movement, chatty monologues, her use of humour and voice touch on various understandings of help in South African culture with a look at domestic work, kitchen utensils, black tax, beggars at traffic lights and the applause that comes with sedentary help.
“Don’t click on Facebook, really be active. Facebook is not toyi-toying. That toyi-toying is just a click button. It’s lazy, if you ask me.”
Xaba is not preachy. She discusses all these difficult but familiar layers of help with a humour that some may use as a bandage for the way her sharp wit cuts through our comfortable idea of help.
The piece does two things for its viewers. It begs the audience to stop patting themselves on the back for being helpful and it urges those who need help to stray from dependence. It discourages the passivity that comes with being privileged and marginalised.
There is one other thing, though. The performance ending felt abrupt, creating a space for viewers to feel unsatisfied. I for one wanted more. It was as if plates were snatched from the audience just before they took the last bite of a hearty meal.
That said, the fundamental nature of the space created by Kentridge’s centre is to house ideas that are still in progress so artists do not necessarily have to have concluded their concepts. And the performance lecture is still in its premiering state and perhaps this allows room for revision.