I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa on Friday morning after a 14 hour non-stop flight. Having cleared customs, I was happy to see Lawrence — our wonderful driver — holding up a sign with my name on it as I emerged from the baggage claim area. I haven’t been to Johannesburg since 2004 but everything feels familiar– not because I’ve been here before but familiar as in connected in some way to my life in the States. The feeling is shared by some of my American colleagues who are here with me as part of The Africa Contemporary Arts Consortium. Over the next days, we remark how we see and feel our culture here — and for once it’s a good thing.
The drive from the airport to my guest house in Melville is about an hour and I query Lawrence about his life in Johannesburg. Has it improved since I was here last? Because the first impressions I have is that this city is alive, and I don’t feel the same tension in the air that I remembered during my last visit. He tells me that things are much improved for him. He says the government is beginning to take better care of its people. They are giving out more loans so people can get apartments or homes facilities for the elderly are being provided; and people are also getting better healthcare. Lawrence tells me that there are many, many new roads and stadiums which were built for the Olympics and that there remains a great sense of pride that Johannesburg was able to host the Olympics and to do so successfully.
Of course there are still many, many problems and in the ensuing days, we see performances that articulate some of them: the reclaiming of a personal history long suppressed is the subject of Gregory Maqoma’s Exit/Exist; the struggles women and girls face related to reproductive health are the grist in Neli Xaba’s deceptively cunning performance and video installation Uncles & Angels; and corruption, power and greed and the resultant collapse that follows in Jay Pather’s massive work, Beware Caesar, set in the bowels of the Stock Exchange.
Of course we are managing to eat very well and testing South Africa’s great wines in Melville’s many varied and low key restaurants. Today being Sunday, it’s market day and I managed to get some beautiful woven tapestries and other items at the African Craft Market.
Over the next four days we’ll see more work, attend a star-studded fundraiser at the Dance Umbrella Festival, and meet with theater and dance artists at a breakfast hosted by the Market Theatre. Our Consortium will conduct two planning meetings with South African artists and colleagues to share ideas and future projects and to devise a system of artist to artist exchange between our two continents. Stay tuned…
And! Consortium colleague Laura Faure is blogging as well. For her perspective check out The Bates Dance Festival blog!