The arts festival Infecting the City may be the best way I have ever seen art being brought to “the public”. For the duration of one week city life was shook up by artists. They performed all over Cape Town’s public spaces like the station, shopping mall, in the park and on squares. It was free for all, so many city dwellers came to check out the commotion in their regular hang out spot. It was the power of this festival: attracting truly mixed audiences in terms of colour, class and age – a rarity in Cape Town.
The performance Mari and Kana I saw on Friday night in the Company’s Garden deservedly got a huge response from the audience. The few instances of speech were done in English and Xhosa, the latter language eliciting loud cheers and applause from the front lines of the audience. Since these young adults had waited a good forty-five minutes for the show to start I imagined they must have deliberately come to see the show. Why, and what was it that moved them, I wondered. For me it was the grief and love portrayed by the two women and men, their extraordinary movement and the beautiful live music. The men and women gravitated towards each other trying to comfort, but then resorted to violence or succumbed to sadness. By the end I had gathered that the performance was about injustice, mine workers, widows, and young men.
When I asked a few of the young audience members what the piece had meant to them, they explained that it related the story of the Marikana massacre. Last year when thousands of miners had been on strike about a wage dispute, thirty-four were shot dead after the miners refused to follow police’s orders to disperse. The performance had portrayed the desperation of the women losing their husband, and the anger of the sons losing their father. What had made the audience clap and cheer were the powerful things the actors had said about the value of life and death. I was impressed that so many young people had cared to come to this politically charged performance, and impressed with the theatre company for addressing such recent events.
Friday and Saturday I saw several contemporary dance pieces. I don’t know why it happens every time, but within minutes after the first movement tears rolled down my cheeks. The strength of dancers, their glistening sweat-covered muscles, how they fly through the air and roll over the floor creating beauty with their bodies – it never fails to affect my tear-ducts.
Contemporary dance is often felt to be too abstract to interpret. But six men dancing gracefully in dress-like costumes are bound to elicit opinions or ideas about masculinity. After twirling their skirts in pirouettes for a while, the dancers subtly transformed to more masculine types by pulling off the skirt, dancing on in pants – flexing muscles to warrior-style music. They truly brought home the masculinity-gender theme when they stripped some more to dance sexy in nothing but white underwear, showing of some good old Chippendale moves. Loud squeals of delight from the women. Fun fact: this performance was in the middle of a huge shopping mall. Men, women, teenagers, kids: they all stopped in amazement at this unlikely encounter during their shopping-Saturday. Undoubtedly there were some fathers and sons raising their eyebrows at these dancing men. Who knows, they may have even had a conversation about it on their way home..
It is hardly a new idea: that art can make you uncomfortable is a good thing. It makes you think, coaxes you (or shoves you) out of your comfort zone. Reawakens you to different truths. I like to think that the first performance I saw in the festival (called City Desired Tour) had some of that power. At the big square in front of the train station we, audience, were taken on a “city tour” to uncover the “parallel realities” of people inhabiting the city. We started by wooden crosses in a patch of grass, where a veiled lady told us the ghosts of VOC’s (Dutch East India Company) slaves still inhabit the Cape. She impressed upon us that our blood lines have all crossed at some point in history, so why do we try to shut the other out? We moved on to a young white woman and young black man who spoke of the things they can and cannot say in this city. Of how the black man often went unseen, or how his tax forms would not be processed because of an unpronounceable surname. At this point a black girl in the audience cried out and raised her hand in recognition: her experience of the performance enhanced mine.
If the message was not yet clear to the audience, the next stop made sure to bring it home. Three black people acted out being forced to show their dompas (“dumb pass”) and being arrested upon not having it. During apartheid black men (and later women) had to carry these passes with them at all times by decree of the pass-laws designed to segregate and oppress the non-white population. This historic scene was forcefully pulled into the present by the actor who stated the uncomfortable truth that this city still has many areas where black people are not seen. How for young black kids a trip into town is anything but fun, because to them the city centre is a hostile environment, due to the colour of their skin. In the past three months I have collected many accounts of racism in Cape Town, stories that baffle me every time. Hail to the actors who raised their voice on that square, in anger and with fists in the air. The city needs to hear it.
This festival reinforced my beliefs about art: that it can create dialogue, offer a language to facilitate it, bring things past back into the present to prevent it rotting and pestering under the surface. To try at least. If nothing else, art allows its audience to ventilate, to laugh (and cry) in recognition, to shout out in agreement. To boo a president during political satire, to applaud a speech about life and death, and to feel uneasy about how differently you and your neighbour may respond to the story of the city’s racial inequality. The festival left me with a deep appreciation for the arts.