Beneath the skin

2011-12-08 08:38

Performance artist Steven Cohen and his 90-year-old ‘black mother’ Nomsa Dhlamini toured Europe with The Cradle of Humankind. Charl Blignaut went to see it

No one can be sure how old Nomsa Dhlamini is.

She’s probably older than the 90 in her passport, but births weren’t registered in rural Swaziland in 1920. She recalls that “there were no white people, no cars and no money”.

Fate would have it that this strong old woman with round cheeks and thinning grey hair, who spent her life labouring as a domestic worker, is today the toast of Paris; star of The Cradle of Humankind at the prestigious Centre Pompidou. She’s losing the sight in one of her eyes but not the twinkle.

A terribly important writer from Le Monde approaches her after the opening. “Why do you do this?” asks the critic.

“Use your brain, lovey. It’s your job,” says Dhlamini with a smile.

The journalist blusters, but it’s the question on everyone’s minds; the Saartjie Baartman in the room. It’s about how comfortable Dhlamini is to perform in such work and whether Steven Cohen, a white man, has the right to represent her. “The politics of display,” as choreographer Nelisiwe Xaba puts it.

There is a scene in Cradle where Dhlamini stands topless and shackled as the French national anthem is sung, accompanied by video of a singing sphincter. As she shuffles off stage, another video flicks into life with footage of a large ape brutally killing and eating a monkey. It leads to audience
walk-outs every night of the run.

But walk-outs generally please Cohen, an internationally renowned artist and a quiet 49-year-old gay white Jewish man of considered words and whiplash wit. He’s always said he doesn’t want people to love his work. He wants them to be provoked. “They complain here that it’s too brutally done. I tell them, look, we’re South Africans.”

He uses the national anthem of whatever European country Cradle is in, “to remind the audience their ancestors were slave traders. France in particular has a willingness to forget their past.”

But Cradle is more than a piece on slavery, colonialism and apartheid. It’s a brief history of the species. The work draws on South Africa’s hominid finds and led to Cohen and Dhlamini shooting film in Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, sites that provide proof that all humankind emerged from Africa.

Or, as Dhlamini tells the journalist, “Even if you are white you are black.”

In Cradle, with ancient, alien and Afrofuturist imagery, Earth becomes a fleck in space. Dhlamini is a hunter when she meets Cohen, who is a star creature, teeth blackened and face whitened.

He colonises her as a Sotho concertina vocal plays on a gramophone. Choreographed by old age, the performance wanders into a theme of black and white, and then very sharply shows videos of flesh being cut open. Beneath the skin we are all red.

And when Cohen appears in a costume made from a stuffed baboon, he releases themes of inter-species violence and interbreeding into the mix.

Cradle is a ritual display of black exploitation and white guilt – caught between a history of power and personal journeys. There is magic on the stage – fireballs from bare hands, fibre-optic tutus and laser diamond fractals. It is a work of slow beauty and fast violence, but nowhere near as shocking as Maid in South Africa (2007), a video in which Dhlamini strips naked as she cleans Cohen’s mother’s house. In Cradle he celebrates his relationship with her.

They chat to one another throughout with the same bond they have off-stage.

There is, of course, a story behind the story. Cohen met Dhlamini as a child when she became his family’s domestic worker. I ask her about life at the Cohens and she begins with a tale of finding the madam unconscious from an overdose of pills and alcohol one morning.

“Our lives were defined by her alcoholism,” says Cohen of his now recovering alcoholic mother. There were loud and violent fights between his parents.

“I’d be fast asleep and she’d wake me up and kick me out the house. Also, she had a gun, which complicated things.”

He would sleep in the garden or hitch into town. But he spent a lot of time in Dhlamini’s room. “Sometimes Steven was crying,” she says. “I said, don’t cry, my dear. I am here.” Her own children weren’t allowed to visit, but she was mother to a white boy.

“I was born a racist,” Cohen tells me when we meet for lunch. “My grandmother would say that things are getting bad because black people are starting to walk on the pavements instead of in the road. I have enormous guilt for how I acted before I was conscientised by Nomsa.”

I ask him why he has made work around Dhlamini for two decades now. “I think because all I’ve ever had to put on stage is my own personal life.

And Nomsa’s so much part of me. She’s the opposite of me and yet the closest.” In a very real sense she is his muse. “This is a limited run. It’s only going to happen while she takes pleasure from it.”

Xaba says: “It is amazing to see such an old woman’s body on stage, but the representation of her made me uneasy. The important thing is how Nomsa feels.”

It’s something I try my best to find out as I spend time with Dhlamini in Paris. She has no issue with the nudity. “Bums is nothing!” she once shouted at a police officer in Berlin during a public intervention. “My mother walked like this,” she says.

She misses the soccer on TV and Zulu radio and she’s tired, but she tells me she enjoys Cradle. Before a performance one night I tell her it’s sold-out. She smiles and gives a sharp nod. “They come to see me. They love me, lovey. Me.”

What Cradle needs is a South African audience. I’m pleased to hear it’s earmarked for Grahamstown next year. There it will
most likely generate a necessary kind of debate. 

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