Keeping Hope Alive: Jomba! Opening Night Speech
By Lliane Loots (Artistic Director)
I have been extremely fortunate to have spent the last 3 weeks of my dancing days with UNMUTE DANCE COMPANY from Cape Town. They are guests of the festival and have also been part of a joint collaboration between me and FLATFOOT DANCE COMPANY that will premiere on Thursday the 6th September here at the magnificent Sneddon Theatre. In this time of working with them and getting to know them, I have been reminded of the idea of community and indeed what it takes for borders to be crossed and even broken.
We find ourselves sitting here in a lush theatre on the East Coast of South Africa, in my beautiful home city of Durban. We are gathered tonight at a seismic moment in our planets history. Donald Trump is building walls to keep people out — or in? — Britain is leaving the EU so they too can close down and seal borders.
We sit here tonight on the African continent in spaces where, due to colonisation, not one African defined the borders of the countries we call home. Community has become a word we have forgotten in the pursuit of a greedy consumer driven sense of self.
Loosing community is the death of art, because community requires us to suspend fear and begin to operate in a space of trust and love. These are not words we hear too much anymore; not in politics, not in academia, and not — sadly — in the arts.
African American activist and educator, bell hooks says:
“The feeling of community that reaches beyond boundaries only happens because of the incredible generosity of those who are present. To be present means that you have to be a ‘keeper of hope’.”
So what is this HOPE?
For me, UKZN’s Centre for Creative Arts and this JOMBA! Festival is a space of hope. JOMBA! tonight begins its 20th anniversary festival as a space that has championed our collective deep abiding passion and need for art, for the political and personal right of all of us to access cultural expression as our democratic birth right — be this as artist, as dancer, as journalist, as academic, or as audience, reader or listener.
Being the artistic director of this festival has been for me an act of service — what the Hindu’s called BHAKTI — where I — and the extraordinary team I work with — have had to find courage to be these “keepers of hope”. This is the legacy we hope to continue to build.
Being with UNMUTE DANCE COMPAY has also meant that I have had the privilege of stepping into the love and learning of a faith that is not my own and so I would like, in honour of UNMUTE dancer and choreographer — and friend — Yaseen Manuel, to graciously borrow a term from the faith of Islam.
This term has been bandied about in the media significantly over the past few decades as a way of creating fear, hatred, and prejudice, and I think, has been part of creating cultural weapons against Muslims. However, for me it is a deeply significant term that has shifted my consciousness as both an artist and as someone who refuses to politically “go gently”.
This term is JIHAD — often understood to mean a holy war. If Western media is to be believed the JIHAD is against all who are not of an Islamic faith and that JIHAD is a violent defending of rights and faith.
Maybe this is true for some, but for me the true meaning and lessons of JIHAD as I have been taught by the Sufis (and Yaseen), is the daily war we all face inside ourselves; the questioning, the still and quiet voice inside that is our higher guide. This is the ultimate JIHAD as we, every single day, seek to listen as we do battle against what we construct as right and wrong. This inner battle is the holy war and it is never never easy.
We are faced with a political and cultural landscape here in South Africa where we see good men and women that many of us stood next to in prisons, in rally’s, in exiled training camps, under house arrest, they watched us and we watched them being beaten up, maimed and raped by security police, and we see them now losing their JIHAD, and we mourn as we look on asking in small barely audible voices, “what happened to the principles of our Freedom Charter” — what happened to hope?
We have emerged in a 2018 cultural landscape where our artistic and cultural production is being imaged as “Mzansi’s Golden Economy” and that we should occupy the agenda of national ‘social cohesion’ — what a strangely fascist monolithic concept from a country that could in fact teach the world about the value of difference and diversity.
We are told, as artists that our value is now measured by how much we can assist the GDP of our country. We are asked, should we wish to apply or access state funding for our films, our choreography, our poetry, our music …, how we are contributing to South Africa’s “cultural economy” — another term we are hearing a lot. There is a sudden burgeoning, 23 years into our democracy, of measuring our art and culture along the grid of capital gain.
Is this really what we are and what we do? Cogs in an economic model of production and consumption that I (and hopefully you too) never signed up for?
I am reminded of another type of cultural process where art is used as a weapon of and for education, for development, for learning, for growth, for creating a society whose humanity we explore (not exploit!) as we sing, dance, recite poems, make and watch films, as we shift consciousness and celebrate the revolution of BEAUTY.
This will economically cost a society money; it will not contribute to the GDP or raise cultural export figures on world trade markets. What it will do though, is create a society where we continue to see the value of the arts as our greatest tool towards nurturing and growing a nation of self-realised human beings — art is the ephemeral and transient manifestation of hope.
What higher work could there possibly be for any of us sitting in this theatre? A holy war — a JIHAD — we should all be participating in.
And so it is that I, on behalf of the Centre for Creative Arts, our School of the Arts and our beloved Faculty of Humanities, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, take great pleasure in welcoming all of you to the opening of this year’s 20th LEGACY edition of the JOMBA!Contemporary Dance Experience — a place of hope.
This festival makes a dedicated effort to invite and partner with organisations, artists and dance companies who are using the voice of their physical dance art, to break down stereotypes, to break and re-define borders and boundaries, to address and re-dress embodied histories and memory, artists who physically deconstruct socially and culturally defined ways of being inside one’s skin. Artists, in short, who understand the power of their art form to participate in decolonising — be this minds, bodies, art and even in education.
We open tonight’s festival with a beautiful return of Johannesburg based MOVING INTO DANCE MOPHATONG. This company danced at the very first JOMBA! Festival in 1998 where we played host to them and the then artistic director Sylvia Glaser and her associate director Vincent Mantsoe. Auspiciously MIDM turns 40 years old this year and so we complete a circle by having them back again in 2018 and by celebrating this national community of dancers who have offered us here at JOMBA! a reminder of hope.
I welcome India’s Anita Ratnam whose feminist danced revision of the story of Sita and Ram remains for me, the most hopeful and most profound emergence of resisting cultural voices that remind women that we can make other choices. The honour of hosting a dancer of Anita Ratnam’s gravity and skill speaks to community that transcends borders and history.
We welcome Malagasy dancers Gaby Saranouffie and the Haja Saranouffie Company whose continental voices ring out and extend the sense of our African community. We welcome the Swiss dancers from Ioannis Mandafounis Company who, on their second trip to JOMBA!, wanted to make sure they were here to celebrate our 20th anniversary with us. We welcome Aida Colemenro Diaz whose Spanish and Senegalese roots are sure to teach us about another type of border crossing.
And for 2018, JOMBA! has placed a huge focus on getting Durban to dance — this too we feel is our legacy of community and hope. We host Durban’s Musa Hlatshwayo — the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance. We have supported the premier of new work from JC Zondi, Kristi-Leigh Gresse and, Tshediso Kabulu and Thami Majela.
We celebrate a return to a partnership with the extraordinary Durban Art Gallery where we host, amongst many delights, new commissioned work by Lorin Sookool and Jabu Siphika and Zinhle Nzama. The JOMBA! @ DAG event is hosted on Friday 7 September and is free.
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 throughout eThekwini and that sits alongside the 13 days of performances.
It is also my deep privilege — and in growing the hope of community — to welcome both Julie Ballard and Lauren Warnecke. These two sistahs have travelled — on their own expense — from Chicago in the USA to work behind the scenes here at JOMBA!
Lauren — who is the dance critic for the Chicago Tribune — comes to help Clare Craighead run the JOMBA! graduate dance writing residency.
And Julie Ballard who came to JOMBA! first in 2013 with the American company DEEPLY ROOTED DANCE THEATRE as their lighting designer and technician. She fell in love with us — and we with her — and finally (it has taken her 5 years to get it together!) returns as the festival’s stage manager and guest lighting designer. This too is community.
I welcome Adrienne Sichel who has chosen this JOMBA! platform to launch her much anticipated book called “BODY POLITICS: Fingerprinting South African Contemporary Dance”. Adrienne Sichel opened the first JOMBA! in 1998 and has attended almost every edition as journalist, writer and friend. She constantly reminds me that HOPE is nothing without a fierce activism.
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 publically 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 want to thank my own FLATFOOT DANCE COMPANY for reminding me to have a sense of humour and for teaching me that love is not earned, it is simply given.
I honour our long term and major funding partner in the form of the eThekwini Arts and Living Cultures, Parks, Recreation and Culture Unit — long may it continue!
I honour our UKZN School of the Arts acting Dean. Prof. Nobuhle Hlongwa
I thank PRO HELVETIA — the Swiss Agency for Culture and cooperation for supporting both Ioannis Madafounis and Company Haja Saranouffie from Madagascar.
I thank the Consulate of Spain in Pretoria for supporting Aida Colmenero Diaz coming to JOMBA!
I honour, too,
· Wesley Maherry and the JOMBA! technical crew for being around to hold our dance work so carefully,
· The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre,
· Val Adamson for being our eyes as she takes images of our bodies in motions,
· Sharlene Versveld and Nolwazi Magwaza or being publicists who understand kindness, community and, very significantly, ethics
· The Durban Art Gallery and the venue partnership they have offered us not just for this festival but on-goingly,
· I thank Prof. Ketu Katrak for support towards the JOMBA! Youth Fringe
For me, the 20 year history and legacy of JOMBA! is that I — alongside all of you — have connected to a bigger community of people both locally and globally all of whom share the vision of a body politic to speak truth to power — who understand that we as artists, technicians, journalists and supporters of art, are only able to fight for our survival together and in community as we express the JIHAD of a dissident humanity that continues to challenge, provoke and remind us all to HOPE.
I end by quote one of the guiding lights in my own life, the Brazilian writer Paulo Freire, He says:
It is imperative that we maintain hope even when the harshness of reality may suggest the opposite. We need to always begin anew, to make, to reconstruct, and not to spoil, to refuse to bureaucratise the mind, to understand and to live life as a process — to live to become … to hope.
If you are sitting in the audience tonight you too are a “Keeper of Hope” — as community, we now begin to hold each other accountable for the survival of spaces like JOMBA!
Welcome to the JIHAD, welcome to JOMBA! 2018