29 August 2013

Lliane Loots' Opening Night Speech

It is always my great joy and delight to stand before you at the opening of UKZN’s  Centre for Creative Arts’s JOMBA! festival. It is always a personal opportunity for me to be reminded of what my theatre guru Jerzy Grotowski called the ‘great service of theatre’ - of being reminded that as  (what Grotowski called) ‘holy’ theatre makers and theatre practitioners our greatest ‘gift’ is to make our work as if it were a service to our community. 

In my ever painful recognition of a changing political landscape and how I may now be needed to mindfully find ways to serve my community, my nation and my beautiful African continent, I have come to realise that perhaps this is it.
I am learning to abandon the grand narratives of my history; narratives that write us and writes others – often without our permission or indeed truth - to seek a more intimate and personal agency that honours a community of dancers and dance makers, dance writers and journalists, and cultural organisations that are fighting to continue to be the conscience of our nation – no matter what.
I am questioning my own duel role as artist and academic (or intellectual) and am beginning to feel an uneasy forboding as I watch South Africa claim a paradigm of social and political governance that honours more and more formations of regulatory structures that are subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, shutting down dissident voices.
Our current state takes a grim view of censorship as this was a stratagem of the past apartheid government, but we are seeing our Department of Arts and Culture simply not substantially funding critical arts. This is another way of censoring or silencing contemporary art makers. 
In a ploy to fund the preservation of heritage (though in and of itself not a bad thing), contemporary art makers, however, are finding themselves without long term resources to support their work. Universities too are endlessly cutting arts programmes where core funds are denied to support the growth and development of critical questioning arts practitioners and students. Learning has become commodified, and let’s be honest, a commodity is best sold when it is neatly packaged and unquestioningly consumed.
I hear whispers and shouts of outrage all around me, I am part of this, but on another level, I am deeply and deliciously ecstatic because this nation state that is developing a “for us or against us” exclusionary paradigm has profoundly understood the power of art to change lives.
Censorship only happens in situations when wealth, privilege and power is threatened; in short in situations of danger - and I for one have always loved standing on the precipice!
Remembering the lessons from our own liberation history, I am reminded that I personally only got to see a photographic image of Nelson Mandela in 1990. Although I had not seen his face or heard him speak due to banning and censorship (how dangerous did they really think his face was?!), Mandela (and his fellow Robben Island prisoners) were not silent and they were not powerless. 
This is a lesson which keeps me fighting, and so my life as an artist and as an intellectual, is by its very nature that of an activist. 
And what of Africa – what are our daily commitments, as people of the South, and as artists, to this continent? 
In 1961 Frantz Fanon, wrote; 

“In order to achieve real action, you must yourself be a living part of Africa and her thoughts; you must be an element of that popular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing, the progress and the happiness of Africa. There is no place outside the fight for the artist or for the intellectual who is not himself concerned with, and completely one with the people in the great battle of Africa and of suffering humanity”.
Since this is primarily an audience of artists and intellectuals, this call to battle for our integrity and our identity as Africans is not something we can ignore. 
It is up to us to refuse silence and the subtle layers of censorship that are emerging, and to speak oppositional discourse, to challenge and to use our words, our poetry and our choreography, to be the NEVER SILENT conscience of a nation seemingly having lost its way. How will history remember me and you here tonight? 
Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, by the bludgeoned lure of capital and the sedative of wealth, will begin to make it again. Art, like that censored face of Nelson Mandela, can never be silenced because, at every moment, somebody would begin to create again; in song, out of sand and stone, and out of the body. 
Although art and critical artists may be silenced and their work destroyed, the energy that creates is never destroyed. If we say that critical art is no longer relevant to our lives, then we need to ask ourselves not; ‘what has happened to art?’ … but the more profound and difficult question, ‘ What has happened to our lives, to our society and to our continent?’ 
So, I welcome you to the opening of our 15th JOMBA! festival. To a space that seeks to honour critical contemporary art makers all of whom understand the power of their dance work to transgress and transform, to delight and entertain. A festival that understands that the making and preserving of art is academic, is about growing critical intellectual African traditions. 
I take this opportunity to thank UKZN , and in particular the College of Humanities, for having had the vision to start and to maintain the Centre for Creative Arts within its walls, for allowing – in the case of JOMBA! – 16 years of honouring critical dance makers, writers and artists. While the future is uncertain, I also take this opportunity to remind you, the people, that this festival belongs - first and foremost - to you. How will you fight?
I also take this opportunity to graciously thank all the artists who are presenting work at this festival, many of whom have come despite lack of funds and support; artists and dance makers from all over the world, who have humbled me into remembering that friendship and ‘community’ crosses borders and nations. 
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:
·      I honour all the extra-ordinary staff of the Centre for Creative Arts whose love for what they do, shines through onto all of us. (and my personal thanks particularly to Andrea, Steve and Kishore)
·      The JOMBA! technical crew for being around to hold our dance work so carefully,
·      The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre,
·      To Val Adamson for being our eyes as she takes images of our dance work,
·      To Sharelene, Kwazi and Nolwazi for being  publicists who understand kindness and ethics
Finally a huge but gracious thanks to our funders whose belief in what we do has allowed for so much: 
·      The City of Durban and the eThekwini Municipality
·      The National Arts Council of South Africa,
·      Pro Helvetia
·      The South African US Consulate and their incredible arts envoy programme
·      The Portuguese Consulate’s Arts support programme
·      Screen Dance Africa
·      artSPace durban 
I honour the three artists and their crew, who open our festival tonight, Durban’s Desire Davids and France’s Helene Cathala who have soulfully created a work called B.L.E.N.D, and we welcome Portugal’s Francisco Camacho in his politically charged work “Exit the King”. 
But mostly I end by welcoming you all tonight into this place of history, politics and memory called the theatre where we, as audience, intellectual and artist, actively fight the amnesia of a national and global zeitgeist all too eager to render critical thinking and artistic praxis redundant.  
Far from feeling outraged, I am left feeling that this night, this festival and this time, is one where we rise up and show courage against the horror of forgetting!

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Jomba! Contemporary Dance Experience