Creating our own wasteland

2011-09-06 00:00

I WANT to invoke some of the words and thinking of an African philosopher who has been intimately involved in shaping my personal and ongoing 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 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 aftereffect 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 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, 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 sells us.

Our art simply disappears into commercialised "for entertainment purposes only" as we continue to ape American sitcoms 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, of seeking to explode endlessly what 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.

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 when 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"?

Durban has recently lost two dancers, Hugo le Roux and Eric Shabalala, both of whom died in poverty. We have failed them.

Significantly too, most of us participate in the digging of cultural graves. We endlessly expect, ask for 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, 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 can offer to the survival of the arts in Africa, is to pay 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 of this as a way of hoping to bring us back to the belief in lucid memory, of celebrating dance and choreo­graphy that reminds all of us that our art, is first and foremost, a political weapon against forgetting.

• This is an edited version of a speech given by Lliane Loots, artistic director of JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience on opening night last week. The festival runs until Sunday, September 11, in Durban.

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