21st JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience (hosted by University of KwaZulu-Natal (College of Humanities) and Centre for Creative Arts)

Opening night speech given by Artistic Director for JOMBA! – Lliane Loots

at Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre on 27 August 2019.

Like many South African’s, at least somewhere in my home and my work office, I have a picture/photograph of Nelson Mandela. The photograph (our photographs of Madiba) are becoming less and less about the man himself, and more of a somewhat nostalgic reminder of a moment of hope. It is, what I would like to say, a reminder of an ‘imagined country’.

I am, like many South Africans at this moment, faced with the problem of history: what to keep, what to throw away, what to remember, and what to hold on to despite the prevailing politics of forgetting. Our drunk gods of leadership – endlessly recycling themselves in their own image – have taken hold of memory to the effect that the past has become like a foreign country.

Politicians and artists are natural rivals – both try to make the world in their own images and imaginings. Both try to fight for territory. For an artist, this ‘territory’ is for the imagination; for a way of denying the official political state versions of the truth. As Milan Kundera once put it, “the struggle of humanity against power, is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.

The past is our ‘imagined country’ as we journey into this endlessly repeated present. I feel like I am coming unstuck from my home – this is a condition that makes me a migrant. When whole nations come unstuck, we call it secession – a formal (often violent) withdrawal from a political partnership. As migrants and as a seceded nation, we as South African artists, continue to explore this condition of ‘unstuck-ness’ – of being exiles in our own homelands. We are left with the impossible – and dangerous task – of conjuring the imagined countries of potential futures that have been bludgeoned out of us as we are endlessly expected to honour the rock stars of our political arena.

It is no wonder that there is less and less funding for artists, that our spaces for art are diminishing (and even worse, negligently administered), that audiences have become scarce (and even worse, callously lazy). Why watch art that may provoke you into thinking and reacting, when you can sit and watch neatly packaged TV dance shows that offer 2 minute dance routines of contorted bodies that neither challenge the status quo or require of you to question the physical commodification of our gendered and racially charged bodies.

The author Salman Rushdie argues that all exiled, migrant and succeeded people are haunted by a sense of loss. We want to look back to the image of Mandela, of the ‘imagined homeland of our past’. We try to find some comfort while in this dis-embodied state of expulsion and displacement from our homeland. The luggage that we carry – those few items of meaning drenched memorabilia – begin to fade. The suitcases we carry now are empty. Not just the physical cases, but the internal ones – we have come unstuck from the land. To lose your land is to lose your history, and it is, significantly, to lose memory.

Land is more than just earth and space on a geographical map, land is also the city of the interior; cities that do not always lie on a map. This charting of the interior is the treacherous domain of the artist – the dangerous and increasingly unfunded critical work that re-imagines past, presents and futures in political arenas where these things are no longer possible for us. Art works against the bedtime stories of struggle and of nostalgia, to root out the temporal and metaphysical truth of another kind of ‘home’. A home in which we are all beginning to feel like exiles. Mexican artist Frieda Kahlo, said “to live in memory is to live in death”.

While our Minister of Arts and Culture, Mr. Nathi Mthethwe, gave away 100 million Rands of arts funding for the 2018/2019 cycle without following any procedure at all – a scandal that broke in July 2019 – I continue to watch Durban dance companies fold because they cannot pay dancers anymore. I watch the Centre for Creative Arts beg and plead for funding. I watch skilled artists and dancers prostitute themselves for an endless parade of corporate gigs because they cannot get work as serious artists.

So in the expressed determinations to claim back ancestral land, to live amongst the waking, to fight forgetting, to speak truth to power, to embrace the revolution of beauty, I dedicate, this 21-year journey of JOMBA! that has gotten us to tonight, to all my fellow South African and African artistic migrants and exiles who – despite so much- continue to make dangerous living art.

In an increasingly violent land war for dance, this festival is a beacon of communal commons – of the shared potential for artists, arts administrators, arts technicians and funding bodies – to find an ‘imagined community’ for these two weeks.

And so it is that I, on behalf of the Centre for Creative Arts, our School of the Arts and our Faculty of Humanities, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, take great pleasure in welcoming all of you to the opening of this year’s 21st edition of the JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience.

This festival makes a dedicated effort to invite and partner with organisation, artist and dance companies who are using the voice of their physical dance art, to break down stereotypes, to address embodied histories and memory, who physically deconstruct socially and culturally defined ways of being inside one’s skin. There are no ‘clean slates’ in contemporary dance, only the fascination of the historically layered stratification of body politics – of migrants and exiles learning to live without suitcases.

We open tonight’s festival with the long-overdue visit of Cape Town’s JAZZART DANCE COMPANY – the oldest contemporary dance company in South Africa. Under the current artist direction of Durban born Sifiso Kweyama, this company continues to forge pathways of truth and integrity. It is our honour to have them in Durban with us to open our 21st birthday celebrations.

We also welcome to the festival, one of Durban’s most critical dance maker Boyzie Cekwana in a collaborating with and artist from Leban – Danya Hammoud. Lebanon carries its own land war with its Israeli and Syrian occupation only ending in 2005. The meeting of these two artistic migrants offers an intimate and vulnerable look at the state of art through the lens of a difficult meeting of two dancing bodies.

South Africa’s newest rising star, Lulu Mlangeni join us from Johannesburg to share her unique gender revision of spirituality. Vincent Mantsoe also revises African spirituality as he joins JOMBA! to offer the world premiere of his new solo “SoloiiDad”. Vincent opened the very first JOMBA! Festival in 1998 and so it is an act of synchronicity that we can have him back on this auspicious 21st edition.

UKZN’s School of the Arts has partnered with the Andrew Mellon Foundations to host a programme called the “UKZN Artist in Residency” and for 2019, we are hosting Standard Bank Young Artist winner and notable choreographer, Fana Tshabalala. Fana is spending 3 months at UKZN and is feeding into the teaching programme in Drama and Performance Studies. For JOMBA! he will perform his acclaimed interactive solo “MAN” and will premiere his newest collaboration with Durban’s FLATFOOT DANCE COMPANY. It is a real honour to have him with us.

For 2019 we have partnered with the US Consulate to host the Washington based Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company. This extraordinary dance company, understanding the nature of migrations and the politics of the Diaspora, join JOMBA! to celebrate the very interesting meeting of ancient Indian dance traditions with contemporary sensibilities. Over and above the performance work being offered, they will be spending a week in Durban teaching at various community-based dance programmes to offering classes and workshops in what we know will be a communal space of sharing.

2019 also sees JOMBA! partner again with the Durban Art Gallery to bring the JOMBA! @ DAG programme. Inhabiting the beautiful open gallery spaces of DAG, JOMBA! presents “DANCE ON SCREEN” – a selection of short films curated by Argentinian Sofia Castro. Sofia and the Argentina filmmakers have offed their films to JOMBA! free of charge in a political and artistic sharing of the South- South space – and in respect to this moment of a shared imagined community.

Also featured at DAG, is BODYART – a New Orleans based dance company run by choreographer Leslie Scott. They have funded themselves to come to JOMBA! and offer what I feel might be the biggest talking point for this year’s festival. Their site-responsive work asks us to step into the imagined world of the Wizard of Oz and to look at the journey of Dorothy to find Oz as a metaphor for all the worlds migrants and immigrants searching for a new home; and how germane to the zeitgeist of this edition of JOMBA!

One of JOMBA!’s key mandates is to continually support and nurture young KZN and Durban based talent and this year we have awarded two Durban born young choreographers with grants (and cognate technical support) to realise and present new work. We look forward to the JOMBA! ON THE EDGE platform and the work of Sizwe Hlophe and Thulisile Binda.

We have our usual JOMBA! FRINGE and YOUTH FRINGE platforms, both of which continue to grow new generations of rebellious art-making dancing bodies.

All visiting dancers, companies and choreographers participate in our extensive JOMBA! workshop and dance dialogue programme that sees free workshops on offer and various community classes and programmes being run through-out eThekwini and that sits alongside the 12 days of performances.

I stand here tonight also on behalf of a whole team of amazing individuals from UKZN’s Centre for Creative Arts. I acknowledge you all for the grace of hours of work done to make space for artists to show their work at this festival. We have gone through a few tough times together but I wanted to publicly express my deep love and admiration for you all – there is no higher work than offering service to support the dancing memory holders that are the artists at this festival.

I honour our major funding partner in the form of the eThekwini Metro Parks, Recreation and Culture.

I honour and welcome UKZN School of the Arts Dean, Prof. Nobuhle Hlongwa

I thank US Consulate here in Durban for their ongoing and generous support of JOMBA! (and – in fact – of all the work of the Centre for Creative Arts) and particularly welcome the United States Consul General in Durban, Sherry Sykes.

I thank the National Arts Council of South Africa for project funding for this edition of JOMBA!

I thank UKZN’s College of Humanities – there are people I have gotten to know really well this past year – from finance to administration, from legals to facilities management – thank you for the open doors and for helping when I really needed help.

I honour, too, Wesley Maherry and the JOMBA! technical crew for being around to hold our dance work so carefully, The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, photographer Val Adamson for being our eyes as she takes images of our bodies in motions, Sharlene Versfeld for being a publicist who understand kindness and ethics – and who has, on many occasions, been my metaphoric ‘home’, the Durban Art Gallery and the venue partnership they have offered us not just for this festival but on-going. I thank Clare Craighead for running our JOMBA! UKZN graduate dance writing residency and for producing our JOMBA! Khuluma digital newspaper.

I end by quoting the French existential author (and one of my favourite writers) Albert Camus, who, in his novel THE REBEL, said the following;

“Beauty, no doubt, does not make revolutions.

But a day will come when revolutions will have need of beauty.”

Welcome to JOMBA! 2019