Under African Eyes

nelisiwe xaba, fremde tänze @ links hall, 11 october 2017.

Nelisiwe Xaba’s Fremde Tänze (Foreign Dances) might be classified as  postcolonial deadpan. In a solo performance, she casts a cold, satirical eye on European stereotypes of African culture and the exoticizing colonial gaze in general. The absurd humor is not meant to be laugh-out-loud funny, however, except perhaps in a rueful kind of way. Instead it intensifies a powerful, righteous anger, a seething sadness. Fremde Tänze is so dry that it sometimes takes on the air of an academic presentation or lecture demonstration. Working against the German expressive dance tradition that she in part parodies, Xaba creates a piece that is purposely anti-ecstatic. There is a tart bitterness to the strangeness, a bite to the burlesque, as Fremde Tänze alienates familiar forms of foreignness to allow us to investigate their more troubling dimensions.

Nelisiwe Xaba in Fremde Tänze.

We begin before we begin, in the lobby. A scantily clad Xaba promenades through the audience in a blonde wig and stiletto heels, wearing a flat collar of donut figurines portraying various minstrel-like characters. She seemed like a servant, constrained by her collar and dressed up for the viewer’s pleasure, yet also defiantly moving through the entrance space, looking directly back at her audience as she moved past them. The music from a small boom box was “Triumphal March” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, only here in the program placed with a section titled “Triumphal March of the Donuts.”

Inside the theater itself was a sort of bivouac tent. Xaba performed send ups of Black Forest German romanticism, reversing the colonial gaze. Xaba crouched within the tent, in silhouette shadow puppet form we watched her strike various poses, both ridiculous and difficult, such as balancing a beer on her head. On the front of the tent a projector placed classic images of quaint German folk culture: town squares and Bavarian architecture and the like as German accordion music played over the theater’s sound system. Then, in the next section, she turned to Asian traditional dance in a kind of disorientation of Orientalism, eventually unzipping part of the structure and poked her head through to perform a kind of parodic Asiatic dance of the eyes. Following these sequences, commercials of racist imagery from German television were projected across the surface of the tent. Then Xaba emerged in full, wearing a skin-tight body suit, to perform a kind of mock-Grace Jones strut to the music of Nina Hagen. She moves out in front of the tent and opens up a step ladder, climbing up and down in heels. Her movements are half-hearted, emphasizing what seemed to be a disheartened lack of enthusiasm within what is imagined as the ultimate in sexy chic stylish blackness.

Xaba seemed to move back to her native South Africa in the final part of Fremde Tänze. More accurately she evoked Western ethnographic imaginings of traditional African culture. She wore an outfit that referred to traditional Zulu female clothing, except with an Afrofuturist air of astronaut spacesuit. Strands of material hung around her white bodysuit in a shirt and headdress. But when one looked more closely, you realized the hat and skirt were made of strung-together tampons instead of dried grass. Movements again referred to the exorcized Western perceptions of traditional African dance. They were performed at a distance, half-heartedly. Then Xaba sat down in front of her tent, slowly stitching together tampons to add to her outfit, as if she were selling a merchant selling clothes to tourists in a third-world locale or perhaps, more disturbingly, a refugee quietly working away, tableau vivant-style, outside her Red Cross tent. She remained at work as the audience exited, as if to suggest that the work of overcoming the impact of Western colonialism remains profoundly incomplete and unfinished. It’s wounds are not even close to being healed, not by a long shot.

It was a striking piece overall, borrowing its structure from the dance programs of female German Expressionists but taking them in entirely new directions, sometimes even reversing the flow of colonial appropriation. Perhaps the most clever moment in this extraordinarily clever work was when Xaba had historian of dance Susan Manning deliver a brief lecture after the initial “triumphant” donut march, but prior to the rest of the performance. Borrowed from the original version by co-curator Eike Wittrock, Manning’s talk sought to recuperate the exotic creations of female German Expressionist performers who imitated Egyptian and other non-Western dance for their own ends. Standing at a podium next to Xaba’s tent, Manning’s presence on stage as she built an argument about the radical potential of these appropriations did not raise the critic to the role of performer so much as trouble the boundaries between interpreter and interpreted, critic and maker, the scholar and the studied. It was a parody of the Western academic, presenter, or performance curator, although it was a bit unclear if Manning was in on the parody (or if she gave an outstandingly naive performance of the figure of the Western “expert”).

As the piece unfolded, the relationship between these different registers of performance—dance compared to scholarly disquisition on dance, silent dancer compared to speaking scholar, performer compared to receiver and meaning-maker about the performer’s work—remained in play. Who was lecturing whom here? Who was the examiner and who the specimen, exactly? Xaba folded the gazing eye of the scholar into the performance itself to bring an air of ridiculousness to the entire affair while also, intriguingly, letting Manning offer a revisionary interpretation that was not merely absurd. What does it mean to possess expertise, this form of knowledge we value so dearly even as it contributes to constructions of prestige and status we might not always endorse—to colonialist structures and edifices themselves?

Blending many modes—ethnography, dance performance, academic lecture—brought forward their colonial saturations, their shared use of intensive looking for seizing and controlling meaning (and hence power of a sort), their othering and taking ownership of things. Colonialism lives on, ghostly when you do not pay attention to it, yet searingly present if you take the time to follow Xaba’s investigations of it. The world today is a postcolonial place, but that does not mean we are done with the legacy of colonialism. We are post it, not past it. Nobody has fully reckoned with colonialism culturally decades after its official destruction politically.

We gazed at Xaba in Fremde Tänze, but she gazed right back at us, estranged, looking through her tent, climbing on her ladder, sauntering past us while balancing minstrel-stereotype donut figurines around her neck, in her hyper-sexualized super-sleek outfits that turned out, in the end, to be made of mass-produced tampons. Encamped before us in her tent, she did not need a podium to proclaim the pain barely contained by any sort of seal of approval.

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