Opening Night Speech of the 13th JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience by founding artistic director Lliane Loots.
I want to take this opportunity tonight to invoke some of the words and thinking of an African philosopher who has been intimately involved in shaping my own personal and on-going consciousness around being an African and a South African; about being an artist, choreographer and at all times an advocate for Earth justice.
At a time in our political and social history where so much is being forgotten and where memory is an imagined globalised concept of wanting things being sold to us in the guise of freedom, I feel it is time for all of us to begin to recall the bones on which we stand.
As early as 1981 an African theatre writer and activist, Kenya’s Ngûgî Wa Thiong’o wrote about what he called the biggest ‘cultural weapon’ wielded and daily unleashed by imperialism against an artistic collective defiance. This cultural weapon of the imperialist – for want of a better explanation, those who seek to rule by creating dependency - is what he called the “cultural bomb”.
The after effect of this Imperialist “cultural bomb” is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their language, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities, and ultimately in themselves. This cultural bomb, once exploded, makes us see our past as a wasteland of non-achievement and it makes us want to distance ourselves from this history of what seems like nothing – it makes us want to identify with that which is furthest removed from ourselves. So we begin to invest in other people’s languages, other people’s dances, art and film making. What Ngûgî called the “decadent and the reactionary”.
This new imperialism (Ngûgî refers to as the “neo-colonial bourgeoisie of independent Africa”) sells us the idea of ourselves as a wasteland and begins to celebrating what Ngûgî calls “the holiness of theft”.
This “cultural bomb” is not a bomb that goes off so loudly that we all hear and react to it. It does not fall from the sky from a foreign plane; it is more a quiet, silent amorphous bomb that goes off in fits and starts from within until, one day we wake up and find that all our artists have been censored, our dancers are dying in abject poverty and the stories we choose to tell as Africans, are no longer about real memory and history but about the bludgeoned dreams that global capital sell us. We dream of owning and having and no longer do we seek the discipline of being and doing.
Our art simply disappears into commericalised ‘for entertainment purposed only’ as we continue to ape American sit-coms as if they are the key to our imagined future, and we no longer remember that art and culture are our weapons against forgetting.
The greatest theft is the theft of memory; of annihilating a belief in the value of our histories – multiple and difficult as they are – of seeking to endlessly explode what it is our bones and blood know, to sell us the lie of dependency … of creating a need for the false truths being written to support political control.
We sit here tonight while seven young Durban artists face possible jail time and criminal records for graffiti art on a municipal wall, a wall they believed they had permission to paint. The city calls them vandals. We have forgotten the power of tag graffiti during our liberation struggle where slogans and anti-apartheid messages appeared all over our city as a way of speaking resistance. Who can forget the Berea Road tag that read “Apartheid is a class war”? We forget on whose bones we stand as we continue to create shallow graves.
Durban has recently lost two dancers, Hugo le Roux and Eric Shabalala, both of whom died in poverty. We have failed them, and theirs too are shallow graves.
Most significantly too, most of us here participate in the digging of cultural graves. We endlessly expect, ask and accept free tickets to dance, art, theatre, music and films never once imagining that these free tickets are never really free. So while we dine out and feel remorse that one more dance company is shutting down, one more theatre company cannot survive, one more arts education programme cannot run, I remind you that every time you accept free theatre tickets and choose not to pay, you too are participating in cultural death.
OUR ART IS NOT WORTH NOTHING! Ours is a legacy of resistance, struggle and critical engagement. The biggest support any one of us sitting here can offer to the survival of the arts in Africa, is to begin paying for our theatre tickets. This is one way we can guard against forgetting and allowing the arts to flourish in the storytelling and the remembering on whose bones we stand.
But mostly, I speak this all as a way of hoping to bring us all back to the belief in lucid memory, of celebrating dance and choreography that reminds all of us that our art, is first and foremost, this political weapon against forgetting.
And so it is with deep pleasure that I welcome you, on behalf of UKZN’s Centre for Creative Arts, here tonight to the opening of our 13th JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience. For me this is a deeply holy space where we allow critical art to flourish and be supported, where we revel – especially this year – in the act of memory and the intricate and deep connections that our dance art form allows us. This year’s festival is one that fights against the after effects of what Ngûgî refers to as the “cultural bomb”.
There is the remembering in the dance theatre of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Faustin Linyekula who explodes onto an anarchical stage begging for an African future that is more than the shrunken vision of American soap opera. Nigeria’s Adedayo Liadi tackles a future Earth seen in the wake of rape and environmental devastation. These are remembrances of savaged bones that we stand on.
The JOMBA! Women’s Solo Project offers us four proud and defiant images of female identity that ask us to name and shame some of the seemingly heroic bones on which we stand. We welcome Hélène Cathala from France, Durban’s Desire Davids, and Dada Masilo from Johannesburg.
Gregory Maqoma is a fitting end to our festival on the 10th and 11th September as his critically acclaimed solo work performed with live musicians, is a cumulative work that has him feeding off the remembering of legacies of heroic choreographers like Akram Khan, Faustin Linyekula and Vincent Mantsoe.
It has been my joy to once again be afforded the privilege of working with my Nigerian family and to have been reminded that, sometimes along the way, we get to meet our real family – it is my honour and privilege to welcome both Adedayo Liadi and Frank Konwea tonight. Ours has been a six year working relationship that has often found it very difficult to traverse South and West Africa and we all remain deeply indebted to the CCA for making this 2011 FLATFOOT and IJODEE DANCE COMPANY family reunion possible.
And tonight you will see on stage two of the world’s most celebrated Breakdancers; Stylistik and BBoy Junior. Standing on the bones of the hip-hop movement began in New York by a man called Afrika Bambaataa, these two French dancers not only take time to remember their own roots in Africa, but are part of a genre shift that takes a battle dance like breakdance and re-invents it on a theatre stage. We welcome both of them home to soil that we know their dancing feet will remember.
Our Friday night JOMBA! CITY platform allows us to take dance back to the street and so we thank the Muncipality of Ethekwini for realising the cultural worth of imagining our beautiful city for arts and culture. Our thanks to David Gouldie for his inspired direction of the event that has seen him gather together the most amazing group of artists and dancers.
I end by paying my respects to all who have made this festival possible; who have served their community by being the eyes, ears, hands and technical feet of what we do:
Peter Rorvik for his careful and humble leadership of the Centre for Creative Arts
The quite whirlwind presence of Maggie Reddy and the all the extra-ordinary staff of the Centre for Creative Arts whose love for what they do, shines through onto all of us.
The JOMBA! technical crew for being around to hold our dance work so carefully,
The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre,
To Val Adamson for being able to so evocatively capture on film the ephemerality of what we do.
To Sharelene Versfeld for being a dream publicist
I also want to pay homage to Adrienne Sichel, journalist and the collective memory of our national dancing community; it is she who constantly reminds us of the bones on which all of us stand! She joins our JOMBA! team in running the dance writing residency and will conduct our ‘talking dance’ sessions.
Finally a huge but gracious thanks to our funders whose belief in what we do has allowed for so much:Our principle funder the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund
The French Institute of South Africa
City of Durban and Ethekwini Muncipality
And The Goethe Institute
Lliane Loots (founding Artistic Director of the Jomba! Contemporary Dance Experience)
photo by Val Adamson