Artists, especially those working in the less lucrative areas of dance and performance, are accustomed to drumming up support, funding to produce work, whether from the state or international cultural organisations or institutions. The latter tend to come to the rescue the most often and as such European, Western conceptions of what African performance and dance should look like, who best represents it is determined by the culture of their patronage.
William Kentridge’s Centre for the Less Good Idea at Arts on Main Maboneng offers an alternative space in Joburg, South Africa, maybe the continent (though so far the programme appears dominated by South African artists) to stage live work with some (albeit limited) funding to do so. Perhaps this makes it the ideal setting for the renowned choreographer and performer, Nelisiwe Xaba to present a new work centered on the politics and machinations of “assistance” or help.
Surely, it is no coincidence that its quirky title, Bang-Bang-Wo, Mandarin for help/aid, sounds like an exotic dish, for belying this performance/lecture Xaba forces us to think about the motives behind this ingrained desire for former colonial powers to offer assistance to Africans and how this might simply maintain unequal power relations. For performers this might mean delivering on ‘exoticism’. Having spent much of her career performing outside of South Africa in Western art centres, Xaba is only too familiar with stereotypical expectations and has cunningly turned this into the basis for works such as They Look at Me and Sakhozi Says ‘Non' To The Venus, which saw her crawling on the stage in a corset with a bone in her mouth, to the more recent work Fremde Tanza (Foreign Dances), where she presented reinterpretations of African dances originally performed by German dancers in the early 1900s.
In Bang-Bang-Wo, however, she isn’t simply serving up European fascination for Africans back to them, though she first debuted the piece in Austria and Germany earlier this year and is likely to tour it internationally. In this piece Xaba digs into South African culture, from the brand names of kitchen utensils, to the familiar overstated performances by beggars at Joburg’s traffic lights.
Helpers and the culture of servitude, one of the cornerstones of apartheid and its legacy, is of course, the elephant in the room. Xaba doesn’t allow the performance/lecture to settle on one interpretation of historical patterns of ‘help’. Instead, in a fairly relaxed and entertaining manner she talks her audience through diverse instances of charity, help or benevolence, which are universally known. What happens when you consistently help a family member and they develop and unhealthy dependence? This is one of the questions she raises. She does this while occupying herself with building a lectern from bags of seeds – no doubt referring to the most basic form of assistance – food for the impoverished.
This is a text-based performance, in line with the “lecture” designation and is new territory for Xaba. It is always a treat to see such an established artist take risks and stretch herself. She navigates this heavy loaded topic with her characteristic humour, lightness and charm. So while this may be a spoken performance, she dances through the material, never settling, ideologically speaking. In this way while Xaba is presenting a lecture on patronage, benevolence, charity and perhaps even how religion has shaped these concepts, she doesn’t preach to us.