THE ONE THING I KNOW ABOUT KENYA

I have been thinking about Kenya as I am sure  have you, even though it may have been for just one fleeting moment. Indeed being a journalist the first thought that crossed by mind ( in fact always crosses my mind  when any story breaks ) when I saw the breaking story on the BBC world news headlines early Thursday morning was to rush to the airport  board the next plane to Kenya and start filing stories immediately. Since it was not possible to hop into a plane at that very moment, I started to think deeply about Kenya. I entered a place of meditation. I began to search my soul for the answers. I began to page through my memory book in the hope that I could find some piece of evidence, missing link, a clue, some piece of new or undiscovered information that could make this all fit logically into an equation we could all calculate and arrive  at the same answer. During my internal investigation I was hoping to find a piece of luminosity in this large stew of blood, tears, grief and tragedy. My thoughts first went to the obvious. The Easter weekend; celebrated by both Orthodox Jews and Christians. The Jews call it Passover and it  is a commemoration of a biblical event  when God freed the Jews from their life of slavery in Egypt. He inflicted 10 plagues on Egypt the last one being the slaughter of all of Egypt’s’ first born children. Before doing that the lord instructed  the Israelites/Jews to mark their homes with the blood of a spring lamb so that the Spirit of the lords  would pass over their homes.  Christians also mark the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and his subsequent resurrections during Easter.  While these Judeo-christian holiday celebrations may explain the timing of the attacks,  these parallels however are counter-productive and do not contribute meaningfully to the political stand-off. Religious references in this case will only serve to en-flame an already volatile situation. So I had to look somewhere else. I began yet again to  ask  myself how I  could write differently about a story which is being covered from every possible angle by all the major news networks around the world? What new information could I reveal about the situation in Kenya from my laptop in South Africa? What do I know about Kenyan politics, history and the events and contexts which have brought this and many other terrorists attacks  to the country since the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Nairobi and  Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The reasons for the 1998 attacks and those on the 2nd of April are not very different even though the organizations orchestrating them are. All of the terrorist attacks have been motivated by revenge and are connected by four countries; The United States, Somalia, Sudan and Kenya.  The latter paying the price for it’s  role as a broker and  go-between. But everyone knows about east-African regional politics and the global Jihadist movement. What more can I offer to the general conversation. The more I stayed with the question, the more I delved deeper into my own personal archives in search of something more interesting and relevant, a piece of new information. While in the midst of my thoughts a startling fact revealed itself to me.  At first I could not believe it you see, because the truth is often so unbelievably simple, you often continue to search for the answer even after it has been laid bare  for you. The more I tried to search for what I consider to be an intelligent, erudite and lucid analysis of current events in Kenya, the more it became apparent to me that the story I needed to tell about Kenya was not a political one.   The story I am meant to write has nothing to do with terrorism, death, Al-Qaeda or Al-Shabaab.

The first time I traveled to Kenya was in 2002. It was my maiden trip to a foreign country and my first flight ever. I was glad to be travelling in company with a friend and colleague MG, who made the experience so much more enjoyable.  I was young, fresh and eager to absorb the newness of a new country and city.  We had been invited by the United Nations Development Agency (UNDP) for a  reporting workshop.  But all  I  and our my colleagues wanted was to break out of the conference walls and experience the city and its people who were infinitely more interesting than the workshop.  We did eventually find our way to the market place where MG was forced to literally hold my hand through the human traffic lest I be swept away by  waves of people moving like the sea in all directions.  My head was spinning just as fast. I found everything  interesting, my curiosity was inflamed by the sights,  sounds and smells of the city. It was a new form of  intoxication one that I had never experienced before but I knew for sure I could never get enough of.  It was a drunken rush of  new experiences to my head. I wanted take it all in. Asante Sana. Jambo. Saying Hello and Thank you had never been so exhilarating. I looked forward to any and every opportunity of saying Asante, sana.    I was inspired by the infinite possibilities of learning a new language. I wanted to stay.

It was such a heady experience all I managed to do in lieu of work while there was to take a sound recording of the city in the hope that one day the sounds could take shape and become words which I could one day use to return to that place over and over again.  It was a silent interaction,  where I did the listening.  I never once wrote a story. This is a first.

I fell in love with the African continent in Kenya. I fell in love with life.

My second trip to Kenya was to visit a friend and colleague and pursue what I thought was a promising romantic prospect.   I was not prepared for the loving warm reception I would receive from my friends’s friends.  We danced like crazy, ate and laughed the weekend away. I was cloaked in-love from head to toe. All my frantic search for something new, for new facts and information have led me back to where I started in the first place.

My quest to write something led me to the very same conclusion that I reached the first time I arrived in Kenya. Words were not necessary.

The one thing I know about Kenya is that love lives there.  It is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen. 1917248_720063085777_2353745_n

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ON A DANCE DATE WITH MYSELF…

moving into dance
moving into dance

It’s been a while since I’ve been on a date with anyone including myself.  So Last night was special.  I took myself out on a night out to see a dance performance by Moving into Dance Mophatong Company in Newtown, Johannesburg. It was an auspicious event for the dance company which is celebrating its 35 year anniversary and the retirement of its founder and director Sylvia Glasser who started the company from her garage back in 1978, during Apartheids glory days. The company has since developed into one of South Africa’s premier professional full-time, contemporary dance companies, receiving numerous awards including six Standard Bank Artists of the year awards, more than any other dance company in Johannesburg.

It was  a special night for me too  since, apart from being on a date with me, I got to “meet” the  woman behind the dance company which back in 2007 tossed me lifeline through its after hours open dance classes. It was a dream come true, to learn how to dance, because though I have always loved dance and wished to dance professionally all my life, I had never had the opportunity to, except of course at parties and music venues across Johannesburg. The afternoon classes were vigorous and succeeded in convincing me that I could not dance at all since I seemed to have two left feet.  Instead of one- two- three- four, I would go five- eight- one- two.  I became so frustrated that one day I sat out of class and cried while others danced in harmony to the teacher’s metronomic voice.  I cried because, I sucked at the one thing I loved and thought I could do well.  I wanted so much to dance like the other students and follow the logical one-two-three steps but my feet would not let me.  The experience was rewarding physically even though I quit after a while due to work commitments and a broken heart – after realizing that my heart somehow misled me – in reality I cannot dance.

The Winds of…

The four-day performance titled “ The winds of..” is about change and introspection with the sole purpose of moving forward, looking beyond and  conquering all that lies across the horizon. It speaks of the natural progression that time initiates. It speaks of change and movement, of sunsets and sunrises of plateaus and climbs.   So with such a promising description you can imagine that I was more than ready to be inspired to move forward and a part of me was hoping to still be moved into dance again somehow.

Man-Longing

The opening performance was “Man-longing”, choreographed by Sunnyboy   Mandla Motau. The piece is an exploration into the dark and sinister world of human trafficking.  The five person dance performance piece uses dance and poetry to bring awareness of the dangers and  consequences of being a victim of human trafficking. “Several years ago one of my uncles disappeared. We have never been able to find him. It has been a huge loss for the family. I don’t want the audience to be comfortable; I want to create awareness around this very real and dreadful industry. People disappear without a trace in big cities, families meet dead ends all the time” says Motau. The piece is accompanied by a city soundtrack which has captured sounds of Johannesburg into a grizzly metallic sound scape.  It’s a spirited performance piece, with breathtaking choreography fusing tight balance between violence and sex. One moment it feels like someone is going to get seriously hurt the next it seems the dancers are about to engage in an act public masturbation.  I was definitely not comfortable but I was pleasantly surprised by the piece which was first showcased in September this year. I loved the story line, the theatrical performances, the strong presence of solid female dancers who beguiled me with the way they moved. And yet something was missing….

NATURALLY…

For the first time in my life I didn’t want to jump on to the stage and join the dancers. I have always felt, , believed that dance is meant to be a freeing experience.  Part of my frustration with my dance classes at MID was due in part to the fact that I had to remember movements, repeat them over and over again until my body had programmed them to each and every muscle and they happen automatically. So I become pre-occupied with the algorithms of dance that I actually ended up not dancing at all. Just following the steps. Smile. Breathe. Chin up. Stomach in.  Shoulders straight. Tighten the behind. Act natural.Posture. Don’t miss a step. Smile. Look at your audience. Focus. Don’t forget your step.  And One-two –three-ten! ahhhh Yes to be a professional dancer one needs to be fit, solid and centered.  To create those soft-flowing-seemless – movements one has to be as tough as nails. It seems so utterly contradictory but it’s true.  Dance is ultimately about being in control of yourself, in control of your body and how it moves.  It is highly disciplined art and being fit.

Letting GO…

But nowadays I find that when I watch dance performances in Johannesburg… there’s everything in the performance but dance. There’s drama, costumes, lights, music but no-one is dancing.   I remember one dance performance piece where the dancer, just sat looking at himself in the mirror throughout the entire show, talking to the audience, threatening to move into dance but never did. It was a powerful political statement to make about the art of dancing, especially as it relates to the African experience “all things being equal”.  But I still wanted to see “actual” dancing. I miss dancing. I miss watching people letting go and allowing the music to dictate where their limbs go and how they move. That is  how I have always understood dance to be in my mind.  Music is not just a backdrop to a dance piece, it is what gives dance its power, what propels the dancer forward. At least when I’m dancing it’s the music, the sound, that tells me where to go.

Dancing for me is about letting go of control.  And though I may seem often completely out of control to your my dear reader, I have a hard time letting go of control.  What my “night-club-dancing“ and dance classes have taught me over the years about dancing is you have to release all desire for control, and just allow your body to move naturally – like walking.  When you walk, you don’t analyze it, plan it , you just walk how you walk , dancing for me is just like walking. Allow the music to do the talking through your body.  I could never let go while sober. In the past it became essential to have a drink or two to ge to the point where I can relinquish control – to dance – I would drink and go out dancing, and if I suddenly had an audience I would close my eyes.  Because dancing for me has always been a form of prayer, of communicating with my maker and getting close to a place where I am whole complete, lacking nothing. In the past three years I stopped drinking to dance – so I stopped praying.  Only doing it in the privacy of my home after a shower or bath in front of the mirror or when if music pulls me up.

That said  dance is a sacred act for me yes, but there is also ample room for all kinds of dance expressions in the world. I just miss the kind that is full of love and joy. Dancing that inspires both the dancer and the audience to love… again.

Catch Winds of…. at the dance factory from  the 22 to 24 November at the Dance Factory.

*http://www.midance.co.za/

Oh!Bama… Love is Hard!

With his family by his side, Barack Obama is s...
With his family by his side, Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States by Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts, Jr. in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009. More than 5,000 men and women in uniform are providing military ceremonial support to the presidential inauguration, a tradition dating back to George Washington’s 1789 inauguration. VIRIN: 090120-F-3961R-919 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

29 June 2013.  A year ago, I met a beautiful man. In the midst of violent protests.   In the midst of some kind of a revolution.   We were friends.  United by a common purpose. Like me he is a journalist, a brilliant mind. A walking encyclopedia of  politics.  A gentleman.  A player. A strategist.  I – a maverick in every sense of the word – the passionate go getter,  the analyst who wears her  heart  on her sleeve  most times  and a visionary sometimes.

Our meeting was a challenge.  At the edge of Independence  Square( Place de la Independence). My passion was waning.  He was wearing dark Ray-Ban sun glasses. Unlike his fellow journalists he wasn’t wearing the customary “Press” flat jacket. Actually he looked quite dapper. With just a pen  in his hand.  If he wasn’t the most sensuous hue of dark chocolate, I would have dismissed him for a  pretentious Frenchman. He laughed at me “You are crazy!” The first words he uttered to me, as if we had been hanging out together the night before “You are new here, you can’t speak French and you want to write a story about the elections?” He shook his head. I was beyond irritated. Yes the odds were against me. “Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do” I said like a wounded child. “You don’t know me or where I’ve been, it’s either you want to help me or you don’t” I said moving to other less intimidating male journalists. He shook his head and continued to stare at something in the distance while I asked anyone who would listen questions… “ so when do you expect the march to start” in broken English and French. My frustration was growing, like a gene he rubbed me up the wrong way and smoke was coming out of my every pore.   “Non, no English, French” they each responded to my incoherent list of questions, they were not even trying, but I was relentless.

“What do you want to know?” He eventually turned to me as if to shut me up. “Everything “ I replied  raising my eyebrows. He continued to stare into the distance and told me everything as if he were an insider, a lawyer, a protester, the activist, the public, the politician, the president, a passerby “here’s my number” he said jotting it down on my green notepad as if to a child “call me if there’s anything you don’t understand with your stories, I will help you” he said jumping into a white van which came from no-where and disappeared just as fast.

I resolved not to call him. He had given me more than enough. I can take it from here.

Time passed. Eventually, suddenly we were friends. It was not anyone’s plan.  I was in distress when he called me for the umpteenth time, in a taxi to no particular destination. He was right. I am crazy.

We became friends. Really good friends. We talked all night. He sang with Luciano and I thought how cute.  We shared a vision, a meeting of two minds. One day we discovered that love is infinitely possible and can be found in the simplest of  moments together – sharing milk and honey  – coffee and tea – fish and rice a ride on  his beloved motorbike – a football match – a football game – a basketball game, skipping – working. Listening.  Dancing. “That score was for you baby!” He would say kissing me in celebration.  I would be half reading something, half writing something, crocheting a baby blanket for his sister or mine I hadn’t decided, half marveling on how easily pleased he was by something so well… small. It was just a game. I had no doubt of his love for me and neither did he.  One day as I was basking in a vision of infinite possibilities, he took my hand lovingly and said “ It’s going to be hard,   and you will have to be have to be strong” I smiled his favourite smile. He held my hand even tighter and continued “ I believe in you Jedi, I know you, you are strong”  I believed him. My strength renewed. I thought I was ready. Come what may.

He ,dear reader, is not a  man of a thousand words, so when he spoke I listened and it is hard not to believe what he says.  It became even harder to doubt him when my mother, a woman of even fewer words said to me  “He is a man of his word”.

But I guess I didn’t believe every word he said  after all – because nothing – nothing in the world could have ever prepared me for what would follow.  Nothing could have prepared me for just how hard things would get,  how much I, we were up against. How high the mountain I would have to climb, how many lives would be at stake, hopes, dreams, aspirations would have to die in the process. How many, many very small but heartbreaking decisions I would have to take. How so many would be disappointed, angered, be  betrayed. How much I would have to compromise, overlook, confront. How much opposition would come my way from all sides, every side, everywhere I look.  I guess I didn’t quite comprehend how much hate our love would have to fight..  How much I would have to CHANGE. My mind. I didn’t know how many times I would be ripped to pieces, how much my world would be turned up-side down inside out, scrutinized, analyzed, checked, and surveyed.  I never knew how easily I could be forgotten, left for dead, made irrelevant, of no consequence even to my own blood.

I didn’t know how mad I could get.  How crazy I would become – when Isolated from you. I never knew how lonely and alone I could feel right there in your arms.  I never knew how much self-control I would need  to just keep it all together. For  you. For us.  For me. I never knew how far my heart  would have to stretch to accommodate, each and every bitterly, cold blow.  Actually, I don’t think I knew what it actually meant to be strong. To believe in something,  in someone.  I didn’t know that it would require EVERYTHING!, blood sweat and Oh so many tears. And then  some.  I didn’t know how much I could grow, how- ever soft and tender my heart could get. I didn’t know that I could be capable of greatness even in my weakest of weakest   moments. I didn’t know how much power I had in being vulnerable, how empowering powerlessness could be. I never knew that  I could be this gentle, this patient, this peaceful in the eye of a raging furnace. Yes I never knew I had so much love in me, pulsating from the very core of my being.  I didn’t know that I was love or that love is my essence .  Enfin,  what  I didn’t expect, and this is altogether laughable, I didn’t expect that I would find, in right here in me, my greatest challenger. My greatest fan. My very own  hero. Myself.

Even as I get ready to let go and to hold on, even as I from time to time lose hope, faith; even as I begin to doubt  the vision which was once so clear, so vivid, so ultimately possible . The irony of American President Barack Obama’s African Safari – from Senegal to South Africa – not withstanding – brings it all together,  my past, present and future.  I thought it can’t be true after all.  I never knew love like this before. I pick up a book on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Antjie Krog almost accidentally, briefly, takes me back to Goree Island… where we danced under the moonlight.

“I know it’s hard, harder than you ever imagined, but it’s possible, yes, we can.”  “If you believe, anything is possible” my younger sister gently encourages me every day.   And then I see her ,on her wedding day, So radiant, so beautiful  in her white and pink All Stars… about to walk down the Isle  and  suddenly, poetically her feet give way, to some kind of a dance , a cha-cha-cha,  a folks trot,  running on the spot,  a jog,  shaking it all off,  at the starting line, warming up to a  marathon of a lifetime.  I will never forget that image. I now understand what was unfathomable at the time.  Yes, I cannot say with any certainty that I know what tomorrow holds, or if I will like its presence.  All I have is now, today.  And I am excited. I am happy to be here.  To be Alive.  In  this moment in time.  I am so grateful for the gift of love, in all its shapes and forms, because love never ever fails.

“I never said it would easy, I only said it would be worth it” Mae West.

Love.

.

WARNING: READ AT YOUR OWN RISK

"The Angry Wind"
“The Angry Wind”

BOOK REVIEW: The lost Kingdoms of  Africa by Jeffrey Tayler

Wow. A huge wide smile spread spontaneously across my face when I stumbled on Jeffery Tayler’s travel book “The lost Kingdoms of Africa” – its tagline– “through Muslim Africa by Truck, Bus and Camel” wetted my appetite so much so I immediately started looking for a cozy corner where I could sit and start reading I was so excited. But it was to be the back summary of the book that made me thank the heavens above that I had found another way of travelling back to where I had just come  from, an abrupt return which I am only now beginning to fully accept.

“This is the account of a journey through the realms of Africa so remote, so geographically and culturally isolated that their frontiers have rarely been breached.  The Sahel region of the lower Sahara, whipped by ferocious winds and shrouded in secretes, home to a vast Muslim population is the southernmost outpost of Islam’s dominance in Africa.  Comprising the southern Sahara regions of Chad, Northern Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Senegal, it once witnessed the emergence of Africa’s wealthiest and most exotic Kingdoms and Empires. To this day it produces some of the continent’s leading writers, musicians and artists, perilous and poverty-stricken, it rarely sees travelers  I was already jealous of this guy, Jeffery Tayler, I mean he gets to travel the Sahel by truck, taxi, bus and boat, something I have always wished I could do and he  gets to do  it! Wow.

Tayler –an American travel writer based in Moscow – already sounded amazing to me, with three titles of travel novels under his belt. Moreover he was well prepared for his adventures into Muslim Africa having learnt and being fluent in both Arabic and French.  Wow. Anyway what lay between the pages is the most uncomfortable ride of my life  full with so many sweeping patronizing  derogatory  generalizations and misguided judgments of  Black/African people that  I literally had to force myself to read it through to the very last line, just to be fair.

I,  like him struggled through the Harmattan (from the twi haramatta, a derivation of the Arabic haram, forbidden, evil, cursed) which he describes as a parching easterly wind that originates above the wastes of the Sahara and blows for days over Central and West Africa. The Harmattan is his constant and most loyal companion through out  his travels and is the most visible character in the book apart from himself – the narrator.  He spends so much time describing it that at one point when someone asked me  “how’s the book” my  response was “I feel as if I have grains of sand stuck between my teeth”.  He does have a way with words. Jalil a name which Tayler uses to introduce himself during his travels.

Tayler prides himself (rightfully so) on his purely classical Arab language skills but has almost nothing positive to say about the countries he visits (the African kingdoms he so lustfully desires are lost to him) nor the people who host him along the way.  Perhaps the timing of his travels as an American in “Muslim” Africa was a miscalculation on his part. He travels to the Sahel shortly after the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks in  the US. But the Muslim extremism he tries to excavate from the “Sahelians” seems to only to exist in his head. “how about Bin Laden?, al Qaeda?” he keeps asking as if expecting an  answer more congruent with his perception of Muslim Africa as the breeding ground for  Muslim fundamentalists bent on launching  a full war against the West.

My envy of his travels vanished and was soon replaced with sheer sympathy for him. I had the heavens to thank for that I had  not read the book before traveling to one of the lost kingdoms of Africa  because  the book does an excellent, if not superb  job of discouraging the reader to never dare set foot there.

Page after page is littered with the same monotonous accounts of religious fundamentalism, Christians against Muslims and visa versa, black Africans hating themselves, abusing, enslaving, oppressing and killing and maiming their children mercilessly in the name of culture or  tradition and let’s not forget their collective yet secrete  hatred for all  Arabs, which  is trumped only by their  collective love and admiration of their truest  savior – the white man.  Poverty, corruption, disease, tribalism, hatred, back-ward and uncivilized cultural and traditional practices are highlights of his trip. At some point he admits to recoiling at the mucus ridden dry faces of  black children greeting him and wanting to touch him ” I couldn’t help it” he says. It is ultimately “nature” in the form of the  snake like Niger River and the moon which offer him some solace during the 2500 mile trip.  It’s as if he never moves from one country to next, as if he is constantly and mercilessly trapped in the blinding epicenter of the harmattan orbit   The last three chapters pretty much some up his experience of the Sahel —-Djennes bitter winds (the book was initially published with the title Angry Wind in 2005), Death in the Sun and Misere.

His description of Bamako -Mali in Chapter 19 (Misere) sums up his entire book:

“The chants of the mendicants, the hyena-honks of taxis, the grunts of the women, and the oaths shouted by angry drivers all compose a cacophony of urban distress as grievous as it is in vain. Vain because beyond the Sahel the voices of these people cannot be heard, their stories will never be told. They are born to live poor and die hard, leaving nothing behind: their misery once the subject of ideologies of liberation and revolt now inspires no one. ‘The Wretched on the Earth” Franz Fanon called people like them in another time, but he is dead, and his oeuvre, passé. However, in defiance of intellectual fashion the wretched remain orphaned of Western defenders, ever leaner, ever hungrier, increasingly angry, serving their sentences, awaiting an emancipator, a commander. For now , poverty and despair  banish thoughts of revolution among these masses, but later when a savior appears, he will exploit their suffering to create an army of the enraged that will swamp coalitions of the willing, breach the walls and storm the west”.

It is of course hard to maintain or sustain the self-righteous anger that so easily bubbles up to the surface as I read what  I can only describe as well written yet putrid account the Sahel because that is ultimately his experience, moreover the facts of what he observes; civil wars, disease, hunger, corruption and general lack of progress in many African counties is frustratingly still true today. What is upsetting is he posits all of judgments as truths ‘that will never change.  He is so confident and self assured and  misunderstandings I wished I could talk to him about it. Take his description of a typical greeting:

“How was I she asked, and how was I doing with ‘la journee? Et ta famillle? Et ta sante? Et la fatigue? Et las journee? Et la famille? Et la santé? Et la…. ‘One did not answer each inquiry but responded simultaneously with an echoing litany of languid verbiage, interspersed with “merci, merci, ca va, merci, oiu merci,et vous?”

He concludes that this greeting ritual must have been inherited from North African Arabs whom are the only people he seems to have modicum of respect for throughout the book. Another  misguided  assumption. Despite my efforts to free myself from mental slavery and not reduce Tayler’s’ work to a simplistic black and white racial interpretation of us and them –  I also just couldn’t help it. The book makes it hard for one to go anywhere else.  He does at time try to provide some semblance of objectivity, or balance. In  the final chapter of the book he tries to collect create some context to WHY  Africa is so  “Wretched and miserable”  but his deep seeded Afro-pessimism  prevailed to the very last line:

“Western companies continue to control African export markets, fixing the prices they pay Africans for the commodities they take from their shores. These impersonal facts and figures add up to a bleak but human truth:  Sahelians will suffer in the future more than they do now, and die more than ever. Their imams will tell the survivors whom to blame.”

That’s where the book should have started. But I am grateful to Jeffery Tayler for writing this book – because now I will make it my personal  life’s mission to ensure that there is another account  of Africa, written from a Black African Female perspective….of love, triumph , prosperity and freedom, because there is life in the Sahel – he just didn’t  want to see it

CHINA’S STANDARD BANK: AN ART EXHIBITION

The Black President, Kudzanai Chiurai, 2009, Fromt he Dying to be Men series. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery
The Black President, Kudzanai Chiurai, 2009, From  the Dying to be Men series. Courtesy of Standardbank, the artist and  the Goodman Gallery

Johannesburg, South Africa.  During one  of my many (almost daily) trips to Standard Bank‘s head offices in Johannesburg  hoping to be compensated for the most atrocious customer service I have ever experienced in my life;  I too a brief  break into the bank’s Art gallery to  enjoy some art.   It was in  fact a poster  of a woman, standing in the middle of a dark disused  room littered with bright orange carrots on the floor, that caught my attention.  She, a Yoko Ono look alike, wore a delicate dusty  pink layered skirt, shiny black boots, a denim jacket and a light blue head headscarf.   She stood quietly, effortlessly in the antique room, wearing trendy dark sunglasses, carrying a walking stick in one hand  and a red string / leash on the other tied to a  white  rabbit which was already gnawing at a carrot closest to it.  The image was beautifully haunting and with my interest peaked I decided to step in and see if there were more carrots to be found in the exhibition titled: Making Way – Contemporary Art from South Africa and China (30 January to 28 March 2013)

“One of the most critical geopolitical shifts of the 21st Century has been the rise of China as an economic power, and its venture into the global south – particularly on the African continent.   Too often however, the media sensationalizes China-Africa relations, simplistically framing China as either Africa’s new curse or as the economic savior to the continent.” Read the exhibition statement.

The exhibition was in-fact long overdue in my opinion, and I was glad that the curator(s) were equally aware of this fact. “While revived China-Africa relations have piqued the interests of economists, little meaningful cultural understanding exists and Sinophobia is hot on the heels of Afrophobia” explains the exhibition text.  “Making way addresses the various ways in which humans “make way” globally and locally through broad patterns of movement as well as small, grounded movements of performance” concluded the exhibition mission statement.

China has been making way into Africa and into us all globally in a  number of ways. One of  the more “obvious”  ways in South Africa being  China’s   acquisition in recent years of the Standardbank group  which along with FNB and  NEDBANK claims to be  South Africa’s oldest banking institutions.  It celebrates 150 years this year.  A quick look into the banks’  board of   directors will give you a idea of who is really calling the shots at standard bank and it is most certainly not the banks recently appointed  joint CEO’s Sim Tshabalala and Ben Kruger.

Since the the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC)bought a 20 % stake in the bank in 2007, Standardbank now boasts  the title of being the largest bank in Africa in assets and profits.  In November 2012, ICBC reported that  Standard Bank  Argentina, approved a deal  for ICBC to take control of StandardBank South Africa’s local operations, after concluding a  $ 600 million USD or 5.6 billion rand deal.   Standard Bank established operations in Argentina in 1998 to service corporate clients, following its acquisition of  BankBoston in 2007 .  ICBC  now the  world’s richest bank by market value will take 80 percent of Standarbank Argentina and its two affiliates StandardBank Investment and its commercial service provider Inversora Diaognal.

A quick reminder to those still oblivious to China rapid take over of the worlds asserts :  China  is now second only to the United States of America (USA) on the list of global superpowers and has over  USD 7 Trillion in foreign currency reserves.

Locally  Standardbank is a well-known  as a patron or sponsor of the Arts in South Africa with a strong focus on promoting  Jazz ( Cape Town Jazz Festival, Joy of Jazz) and the visual arts.

Making WAY….

In the first room near the entrance of the gallery is a video installation, by Internationally acclaimed Chinese artist  Chen Quilin.   In the video exhibition titled: Colour Lines,  Quilin plays with the iconic blue and white vinyl material made popular in South Africa (Africa) by street traders, refugees or travelers, and shoppers alike.  The checkered blue, white red and white bags. Dressed in the same material she converts into an angel, a lost child  looking for paradise. She walks slowly, aimlessly following and being followed  long trail of this plastic/vinyl bag material every corner she takes.  Four young boys assist her , they also wear the same material made into sailor like (school ) uniforms.  The material  and  Quilin are the only colour that remained in the grey, deserted and degraded town of Chengdu.  This  according to the artist statement  is  Quilin’s own way of  grappling with the dramatic economic and urban in relation to the development of the Three Gorges Dam.

The Three Gorges Dam is a hydroelectric dam that spans the Yangtze River by the town of Sandouping, located in Yiling District, Yichang, Hubei province, China. The Three Gorges Dam is the world's largest power station in terms of installed capacity (22,500 MW).
The Three Gorges Dam is a hydroelectric dam that spans the Yangtze River by the town of Sandouping, located in Yiling District, Yichang, Hubei province, China. The Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest power station in terms of installed capacity (22,500 MW).

The video art brought to mind works by South African Artist  Tracy Rose (video installations) and works by dance and choreographer Nelisiwe Xaba (Platicizatio; 2007) who makes use of the same material ( China Bag)  her  dance pieces. Both artist were  conspicuously absent for this Exhibition.  Quilin continues to grapple with issues of environmental degradation in a complimentary video installation called the Garden. There  two men each carry a  pot of large flower to a  celebration of sorts or a rich individual.  Again in this piece these are the only bright colours that litter the streets in the grey town.

Upstairs I was pleasantly surprised to see the work of South African performance artist Athi Patra Ruga artist whose rise to fame surprised many insiders to the country’s Art-world.  However, I was a little disappointed to see that he had offered something very similar to a piece he produced  and circa 2007/8.  Then another  man wore high heels black stockings and was dressed in a ball of black hair pieces, the artist also walked around the streets of Johannesburg at night and at galleries back in 2007. This time his work was less dark or morbid.  Ruga  walked down the streets of Grahamstown in pink tights, high-heels and the main piece like in the hair piece of yore, his entire body from the bottom to his head was covered with colorful balloons full of some liquid. Making way.

Neliswe Xaba in Plasticization: 2007
Neliswe Xaba in Plasticization: 2007

Art is art. The “art” was in the public’s reaction to a man wearing high-heels walking around Grahamstown in a cloud of multicoloreda balloons. The Essay explaining the work was not immediately easy for a layman like me to understand  but the gist of it was –  “invited” guests were left waiting at the top of  one building were the show was meant to happen while Ruga walked around the streets forcing invited  guests to strain to see the moving – mobile – organic art piece. Many of them missed it – according to the write up, which is exactly what the “performance art piece was about”.

I was moved by Chinese artist Gin Ga’s 3000 kilometer re-enactment of the March of the Chinese red army. The artists tattooed a map of china on his back and  etched in  all the points at which he stopped in commemoration to the army and artists who had gone before him. A drunken sing-along and dance with a community of a Tibetan community revealed to me a never seen before insight into the daily lives of the community.

Gerald Machona’s work  was conceptually more interesting.  The artist had used de-commissioned ZIM Dollars to create different objects in his work titled Made in China. The piece in my opinion a more real account of what china has come to mean for  Africans and citizens of the world in general. Thenjiwe’s Nkosi’s Boarder Farm, a re-enactment of border crossing by Zimbabwe’s refugees who re-told their story of  “making way” was also  touching.

China has more money than computers have Zero’s so this piece was more interesting conceptually.   The exhibition curated by Dry Ruth Samba – held much promise, a vast selection of interesting works individually but failed to deliver the promised the exhibition’s objective of “an exploration of  local and grounded moments of engagement in the context of broader socio-economic and political changes that currently affect Chinese and South African Societies” collectively.

It seems clear to me that the exhibition  has high and low moments, but overall I got the feeling of a hurried curating process.  The e pieces in and of themselves are important explorations  of   a people” making way” despite harsh and difficult socio-political conditions – but they do not deal effectively with the question of how the rise of China as an economic and cultural super  power means for Africa especially.

The Show’s curator Dr Ruth Simbao says ” the exhibition is not  aimed at either glorifying or demonizing African or Chine Culture. It isn’t about being pro or anti Chinese but about human stories  and shared culture”

The latter is what I found lacking in the exhibition. I was expecting some kind of a  artists’ exchange program to provide artist from both countries with a view into each-other’s worlds and then produce art-work that would at the very least challenge commonly held stereotypes on Africa and China – however  from the South African/African side things I found the exhibition to be  lacking in its interrogation of what China means for Africa and Visa versa.  The work seems a disjointed piece of the puzzle strung together by the clever use of words

Despite the continuous backlash against China ( it’s labour law practices and its larger than like appetite  for natural commodities  which Chen Quilin deals with in a very clever a nuanced way in the colour line and the garden) and now more recently South Africa making International headlines for all the wrong reasons. There’s so much to be said about China’s role in future of our world – the continent as we know it and this exhibitions failed to scrape the surface of what we all already know.  The exhibitions in ts failure to probe in a more nuanced way the sociopolitical and cultural challenges and opportunities China presents to Africa and the world, revealed the huge cultural gaps  that exists between China and the continent.  South Africa (and many other countries in Africa have had a long rarely documented history with mainland china) pre-dating the rise of China as a superpower.  The Chinese community in South Africa enjoys BEE status ( officially Chinese are considered black).For me the  best part of the exhibition was the poster with a blind woman and a  rabbit in a room littered with carrots– because it seems even within the  relatively “free-world” of art – we  are all  still very blindly  following dangling carrots to holes of antiquity. The rabbit had the right idea. East the damn thing.

Making Way- Contemporary Art from South Africa and China is showing at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg until the 28th of March. Catch if you can.