Nelisiwe Xaba

Nelisiwe Xaba
Nelisiwe Xaba performing “Plasticization” at SUD 2013, part of doual’art in Douala, Cameroon.
Visiting an exhibition of documentary photographs of the 1976 Soweto uprisings and the 1960 Sharpeville massacre

We are lucky if in the course of our everyday lives we come across images as inspiring as those of the work of Nelisiwe Xaba. While looking for journals about nomads in the periodicals room of the reference library, I came across Art South Africa magazine, which featured an article about Xaba, a dancer and performance artist in Soweto. I recently traveled to South Africa for the first time. Never in my life have I been more aware of my race than while walking the streets of Johannesburg, even more so than when, in Taiwan, I was the only white person in sight. (The most unnerving thing about Taiwan, and the rest of Asia, is not being able to read the signs.) South Africa is unique. It may surprise you to learn that it’s the most racially diverse nation on earth, with thriving Indian and Malay populations mixed among native Africans and whites. In that way it is not unlike Brazil. Yet while vacationing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2002, I was the least aware of my race as I’ve ever been, so profoundly comfortable did everyone seem together on the beach. (My Brazilian friend Flavia, who was also my guide, told me that in other parts of the city, however, it’s not the same.) In such moments—on the beach in Brail, on the street in Johannesburg or even Cape Town—the unspoken rules governing space and the separation between groups within one’s own culture (for me, the United States) are revealed for the obtuse, falsely constructed monsters that they are. I came home from South Africa sad at our lack of progress regarding integration and equality since Reconstruction. South Africa, of course, is on a whole other level. Xaba has something to say about it.

Q: You are very interested in the politics of the body.

XABA: Yes, of the female black body. The Black Consciousness movement existed because there was racism. So if I didn’t perform a lot in Europe, and only in Soweto, it wouldn’t be a question… If your work mainly gets seen in Europe it is important to acknowledge that consciously. Who is consuming what you are doing?

Art South Africa, December 2009, v8.2

The Black Consciousness movement began in the 1970’s, based on the writings of Steve Biko. (Denzel Washington played Biko in the movie Cry Freedom.) I bought a small compilation of Biko’s essays in Cape Town called, No Fear Expressed. (ISBN No: 0-9802591-2-6) The title is a phrase he used in an interview which encapsulates much of his message. The complete sentence is, “To understand me correctly you have to say that there were no fears expressed.” As someone for whom fear has often been an obstacle, Biko’s words spoke to me: “We must remove from our vocabulary completely the concept of fear.”[1] “Is it this fear that erodes the soul of black people in South Africa…How can people be prepared to put up a resistance against their overall oppression if in their individual situations, they cannot insist on the observance of their manhood?”[2] Biko was tortured and killed by the government for violating his house arrest. I have since thought of this great intellectual as one of my personal heros.

Biko and Xaba both politicize the body as a landscape of struggle. They remind us that it is important always to be aware of the nature of one’s own identity as consumed by others. The final image in the triptych above is a photograph taken in Regina Mundi church in Soweto. In the summer of 1976, police fired on unarmed, retreating students during protests in the townships. The bullet holes in the church’s ceiling remain as irrefutable evidence that the bullets themselves were not made of rubber, as the police later testified, but were decidedly lethal. The church balcony now displays a collection of photographs marking the events of that summer. You can see my reflection in the glass of this particular photo depicting one of the many horrors which occurred as the apartheid system fell apart. We cannot escape ourselves, and so must instead recognize our own identity as perceived by others. Xaba’s work reminds us to consider this key part of the creative process.

[1] Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity,” 1973.
[2] I Write What I Like, Frank Talk. “Fear — An Important Determinant in South African Politics.” 1971.