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‘There Will Always Be A Need For Live Art’

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South African dancer Mamela Nyamza revived a 30-year-old dance festival to help local artists connect with the rest of the world.


An eight-year-old graces the pulpit of her hometown church capturing the attention of the congregants with her nimble dance moves. Little do they know she would go on to dazzle audiences on some of the world’s most prolific stages.

As the deputy artistic director of the South African State Theatre, it all still feels like a dream for the award-winning contemporary dancer who never imagined her passion for dance would lead her here.

Mamela Nyamza owes it all to her childhood.

Your upbringing will always find a way back to your artistic life.

From running in the rain to dance classes, with a leotard packed into a plastic bag, to curating one of the biggest dance festivals in South Africa, Nyamza is hoping to transform the art form in Africa.

Sitting in her office in South Africa’s capital Pretoria, she understands the responsibility of her position.  

“I know how important it is for people to come and showcase their work in this theater because I came from a space where doors were not opened for me. The space I come from has taught me a lot as an artist and it has actually made me the artist I am today because everything I do will always reflect  that life,” she says.

She hopes to merge the line between art and life by curating the Dance Umbrella Africa Festival.

The festival, formally known as Dance Umbrella Johannesburg, which downed its curtains in 2018 due to lack of funding, has been revived by Nyamza to incorporate a continental approach towards contemporary dancers.

She took it upon herself to revive the program that gave her an opportunity at the start of her career.

“I cannot sit back and watch a festival that groomed many artists in this country close in front of me while I am watching. If it was not for Dance Umbrella, I would have never performed internationally,” she says.

For Nyamza, the festival brought programs to South Africa which opened a gateway for artists to connect with the rest of the world, allowing them to showcase their body of work on international stages.

Institutions that support the dance community are needed to assist both aspiring and established dancers, she says.

Do I Look Pretty by Chandré Bo, a dance theatre production that explore the notion of ‘pretty’. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

“You cannot do it alone; you need these structures to help you help others. Our role here is to serve the patron, the audience, the artists and everybody.”

The position seemed daunting to her, at first, but she soon realized it was time for change in the industry.

An office job has not tethered the artist’s free spirit.

 “I was not going to leave the industry; it is all about leading the industry. I still go out there and work, I still practice my art and I feel, as an artist, I have done Mamela a lot. So why am I still holding on to me? It is time to give back. Right now, being here, I feel like there is a reason for being here. I feel like this is a calling.”

Heeding the call to make a difference, Nyamza, who is dressed in African print, recollects the challenges she faced when she turned her hobby into a profession.

As a black woman, taking it on as a career was the hardest part, thus turning a love into a strange relationship.

Being the only black woman in her dance classes made her feel like “the other” at all times.

“It [ballet] was not accepting me as a black woman. It made me  interrogate [ballet] as an artist. Hence, most of my work will always go back to ballet,” she says.

“I was deconstructing something that I know. I was not just talking about ballet, I was deconstructing something that did not accept me as a black woman or did not accept my body.”

This interrogation is reflected in most of her work.

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Surprised by the high number of artists in their early 20s who showcase their work at the State Theatre, Nyamza applauds the transformation that has made these spaces accessible since her early 20s.

A kind of access she had to fight for. 

“Right now, my son does not know that we used to walk while it was raining to go to ballet classes. We were not dropped off in cars. It was not easy, it was something you did for love and that is when passion is created. Because of the different times that we come from, it took me years to even put my work at the Artscape [Theatre Centre in Cape Town]. You always look at these differences and not that you are against them, you always just say ‘wow, this is great’.” 

As much as there has been the incorporation of digital innovation to ease access to dance and performance, the need for live theater will always be imperative for her.

“There will always be a need for live art because it touches different parts [of us]. When something is live, you remember the liveness of it, the body of it. With technology, you can see it [a performance] there and also have it here, it is easy access but a live body is not easy access and that is what people forget. You have to go out there, pay money, support and watch it live because that live memory stays with you,” she says.

“As artists, it is hard for us to say, ‘here’s my DVD’ and as artists who perform outside of the country, people ask ‘can you show me something online?’. I tell them that they can see me online but it is not the same. It is never the same. It is all about liveness and experiencing it live.”

The upside is that it opens the window of opportunity for African artists on international stages, which, at times, may pose cultural barriers.

“By being a solo artist, it has been easy for international people to get the whole history of South Africa from one artist and you don’t have to bring the whole [cast of] 80 people to talk about the story. It is easy because you are in South Africa, you are South African. Your work is South African. How you do it is up to you because you are an artist and as an artist, you can interpret your work in any way.

“When showing your work, there is already the assumption that you are from Africa and you need to do celebratory work or ceremonial work and if you don’t do that, there is a question of, ‘I did not accept that from an African woman’. There are so many ways people engage with us as artists coming from Africa,” Nyamza says.

At times, it was easier for men to succeed in the industry, she says.

“When we came as women, we didn’t entertain too much. There was an element of [not all men, some], ‘we are men showing six packs and the body’ and actually giving exactly what the other wants to see. With women, we came with issues that needed to be interrogated and debated. We provoked things and sparked some conversations that will stay with people. We were talking about things that are happening in our country and became the window to our country.”

Do I Look Pretty by Chandré Bo at the State Theatre. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

But back home, the locals are still grappling to understand the art industry, leaving artists like Nyamza with a greater popularity beyond African shores. Locally, she feels the audiences are not as supportive and open to attending live shows.

“At home we don’t have that culture of knowing what is good and understanding our own artists. It is not something our people have grown up with. Much like me studying dance was questioned as ‘what else do you do?’ Nobody will know that I am an international artist. They know us internationally but at home they will ask ‘who is Mamela?’ Not that I want them to know. I am an artist, I just do my work and it speaks for itself.” 

Looking at the growing interest for ballet-dancing among black people in South Africa, Nyamza argues that ballet is moving away from the traditional format of only wearing pink tutus and has become more accessible, thus allowing locals to make their own interpretations of the artform. However, the lack of continuity concerns her.

“I always see young black kids doing ballet and then later on there are none. Where are they? What happened to them? But then again, I think this situation is because we don’t have many black female dance teachers who these kids can relate to and aspire to be.” It is a fact most artists and art managers agree on.

The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative managing and artistic director PJ Sabbagha says the arts are socially marginalized but it is the artist’s responsibility to change the way it is viewed. Through exposure in his community-based work in Mpumalanga, Sabbagha has realized that an appreciation for the arts is increasing.

6×7 Feet Dimension, named after Nelson Mandela’s prison and the size of the bedroom in Winnie Mandela’s house, is a play about the love letter they wrote to each other. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

“The art is very alive in communities and so is dance, in various forms. We still live in a world where people don’t view the arts as being real. They view it as a hobby or part-time activity. It partly has to do with the way art has positioned itself and also the way society views the arts, it has, basically, never really been seen as a real economic driver with potential for social change.

“The older generation doesn’t see how people’s lives are impacted through the arts. They can earn an income and that it can be a meaningful career or that it can benefit society. Although, things have changed, the economy in the country does not help; there is less investment in the arts because we need to save failing infrastructure,” Sabbagha says.

These are nagging concerns to answer. Because the work of many unknown artists is based on personal impact and interpretation, it becomes challenging to assess what art in small pockets of the world mean to those viewing it. Perhaps, the greater question is, what can be done to get people interested enough to attend an art show? Should it all lay at the feet of artists or should people be more proactive about who and what they view?

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The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria

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Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.

There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens. 

Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.

Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.

“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.

Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.

“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”

Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.

Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.

“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”

Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.

“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”

This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.

“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”

She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.

As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.

“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.

And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.

One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.

“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”

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Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown

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Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.

During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.

“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.

He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.

He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.

“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”

Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.

“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.

During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.

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‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’

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A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.

Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).

In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.

Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”

How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?

“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”

A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.

“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.

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