- Performance artist Chuma Sopotela's recent work is a commissioned piece for the National Arts Festival.
- She is one of four inventive artists from the continent who have been tasked with responding to a provocation by writer Stacy Hardy, "Dance Dumile Feni".
- Dumile Feni is one of South Africa’s most important artists of the period from 1960 – 1990.
- The title, "Baleli ngangubo-nye" which references people who have died a similar death.
When performance artist, Chuma Sopotela creates, she builds shrines and not sets. Transferring this to stage, her performance becomes a prayer. A ritual with the body in submission to the pressing issues the spirit wants to bring forth. From creation to execution, her art is foremost a spiritual undertaking.
Her new work is a commissioned piece for the Virtual National Arts Festival (vNAF)’s curated programme. Four inventive performance artists: Zimbabwean born and New York based, Nora Chipaumire; British-Rwandan, Dorothée Munyaneza; Ivorian Nadia Beugré and Sopotela are tasked to respond to a provocation by writer and playwright, Stacy Hardy to "Dance Dumile Feni". To mediate on the artist and his work and to delve into aspects of his life that revealed among other themes, the searing paradoxes of exile, a deep love for jazz music and creating art in poverty.
Dumile Feni is one of South Africa’s most important artists of the period from 1960 – 1990. His work centred on the black body and depicted its soul – imprisoned, broken, dignified and loving. Feni exhibited successfully in Johannesburg for a number of years before going into exile in 1968, basing himself in London, Los Angeles and then New York. He died from heart failure in a New York record shop, shortly before his planned return to South Africa in 1991.
Sopotela worked with references that include the Ramadan Suleman documentary, Zwelidumile which traces Feni through the eyes of his daughter, Marriam Diale. With the working title, Baleli ngangubo-nye: Esifuthweni, Sopotela’s first inclination was to build a tomb. “I thought of making a grave out of blankets. This has something to do with our present covid-19 circumstance. There is a lot of death around us and that will be part of it. But this is mainly in response to what Dumile Feni says in the documentary about his name. He says, ‘it means the beginning and the ending.’ He seemed to be someone who was very aware of himself, aware of his position, and what he wanted to do through his work. His awareness of self is something that I got attracted to,” Sopotela says.
The dichotomous connection of life and death extracted from Feni’s statement is also extended in the title of the piece which is in two parts. Baleli ngangubo-nye loosely translates into "they’re sleeping with one blanket" which can indicate an identical death. Esifuthweni brings up an image of a cleansing which can hint at a new start or a rebirth.
In her search she sought to find what Feni heard in the music that moved him to create. This is the first time Sopotela has explored creating with music and she found motivation in Miriam Makeba’s Nongqongqo (To Those We Love) and Feni’s Khoi heritage. “I found sounds in the Khoi healing dance. In the filming I struggled to find the balance between going into a trance and bringing myself back which is an interesting conversation to have,” Sopotela says.The conversations that thread her work together have to do with the plights of womanhood, gendered violence and the framing of women’s sexuality – issues that are as political as they are personal.
In her seminal work, Inkukhu Ibeke Iqanda, showcased at the National Arts Festival’s 20/20 Visions programme in 2014, she tackled sexual education in questioning the social values in the gendered expectations of sexuality, while conveying the kidnapping of the Chibok girls by Boko Haram as a subtext. In that silent and sensorial performance she bathed herself in cow dung, pulled the South African flag from her vagina and confronted the audience in her nakedness, allowing us to tap into our memory to engage with what the content sparked about our inner and outer environments.
She has also gone on to create Those Ghels, a street theatre production with visual and performance artist, Buhlebezwe Siwani which deconstructs the representation of women’s bodies in contemporary music videos and Uyahi: Unqandabalwayo which responds to Pumla Dineo Gqola’s book,Rape: A South African Nightmare.
The rising number of femicide cases also finds meaning in her Dumile Feni provocation piece. “Dance or movement is a struggle in expression. A struggle between me and the work. A struggle between me and the world I live in right now with women being killed. Baleli ngangubo-nye: Esifuthweni is about Dumile Feni’s work and how it was translated into my body. It is about how I am as a woman in this time finding myself in a tomb. Then it is about a ritual of healing.”
The 10 minute performance art film is available on the vNAF website from 5 July 2020. It was conceptualised and created at Sopotela’s home in the Eastern Cape at Kwa-Ntsela Village in Tsomo and filmed at the Guild Theatre in East London.