The cast of Aba(ka)ntu
Photos: Val Adamson
Finding our own voices
By: Thobe Molefe
Aba(ka)ntu is deeply rooted in finding one’s identity. The stage is set up to symbolise a very sacred space as Musa Hlatshwayo carefully, cautiously enters it.
Two videos play simultaneously, projected on two sides of the space onto vertical, transparent cloths and then onto the wall behind. The images show a chicken and hands stirring a pot over the fire and there is the sound of birdsong.
More performers begin to enter the space, wearing costumes made of leather and fabric with gladiator-like anklets and arm decorations. There are greetings and welcoming into the space.
The quiet traditional scene is broken by the sound of horses’ hooves signifying the onslaught of colonisation. Hlatshwayo depicts the gradual breakdown of traditional African practices and values through an intriguing, prolonged sequence of the dancers taking on Western clothing, their bodies straighter, less drawn to the ground, symbolising the adoption of a foreign value system.
A shrouded figure hovers behind one of the cloths and appears with a body covered in a cow-skin, flicking a cattle switch. The cow transforms into the imbongi or praise-singer who chastises the dancers for wearing Western clothes, for forgetting their ancestors. The dancers cower and cover themselves in clothing.
One of the most powerful moments is the image of Hlatshwayo being unable to say his praise names when confronted by the imbongi. The jacket he wears restricts and confounds his voice, beautifully depicted by Hlatshwayo’s brittle, jarring movements of struggle, his voice rendered useless through the loss of his identity. The music in turn overpowers his feeble sounds.
Video footage includes a scene of Chief Qwabe from Maphumulo in KZN (where Hlatshwayo comes from). He explains that people may be isiZulu, isiXhosa or SeSotho but they are all of Nguni origins. Nguni is the highest form of identity that an African can strive for. The work focusses on the lost communal identity of tribes that were separated through wars over land, cattle and succession rivalries.
The work is steeped in Nguni history and this could make the work inaccessible to many people who cannot decode the language or understand the symbols but its value lies in the extensive personal research undertaken by Hlatshwayo and his cast in an attempt to excavate a lost identity.
Imbongi James Mbhele and Musa Hlatshwayo
Cast of Aba(ka)ntu