“The costumes, designed using 2D paper, were cleverly positioned on her body to create a paper-doll-like effect” (Photography by Val Adamson)

Paper Dolls, Colonial Hangovers and Institutional (Dis)embodiments

By Kristi-Leigh Gresse


As one steps into the foyer of the Howard Collage Dome, located at the prestigious University of KwaZulu-Natal, a distinct fragrance of Imphepo permeates the air. This spiritual herb holds significance to many South Africans as it is used to cleanse and spiritually prepare a space before evoking their ancestors.

At the far end of the room, there stands a podium, upon which rests a small briefcase. This overlooks the elevated platform that serves as the stage for Lorin Sookool’s latest provocation, “Woza Wenties!”. The work was initially curated for and performed at the 2023 Liverpool Biennial Festival in Liverpool, UK and this is its South African premiere.

The anticipation in the air is palpable as the audience sits on either side of the stage, eagerly awaiting the commencement of the performance. Suddenly, a rustling sound emanates from the balcony overlooking the foyer, and Sookool appears, pacing steadily around the entire circumference of the room before settling in front of the colossal painting of King George V that hangs on the interior wall.

As the performance begins, Sookool takes a direct approach by plainly conversing with the audience. With piercing eyes and a towering painting representing memories of our country’s colonial histories, behind her, she provides a brief introduction to the context of the work. She emphasises that the piece was initially crafted for a European festival rather than for a European audience. By doing so, Sookool highlights a prevalent issue in the South African performing arts industries where artists are often forced to create work outside of their home country (for non-(South)-African audiences) despite the work’s relevance to the socio-political landscape of South Africa. This moment serves as a poignant reflection on the challenges faced by artists in our industries.

“Woza Wenties!” is a profoundly personal and semi-autobiographical performance that delves into the fractured relationship between the performer and her dancing body. It also scrutinises the impact of previously colonised education spaces characterised by institutional regulations, systematic power structures, and infrastructure models. These were created and enforced by both the British Monarch and the apartheid government.

Sookool’s performance is characterised by her fearless approach as she dives feet-first into deconstructing colonial residues deeply embedded in current educational structures. Covered head to toe in Imbola, a red/orange clay mainly used by Xhosa people for both inanimate ceremonies and as a natural sunscreen. Sookool uses her hands and arms, which are dressed in school shoes and socks, to emulate a specific ballet repertoire commonly used in developing technique.

Her movements are perfect and precise, with a level of technical mastery that is second-to-none until they are briefly interrupted by more popularised movements commonly found in social spaces like taverns and night clubs. This destabilising moment a necessary departure from classical ballet’s rigidity, highlighting its inflexibility. The persistent state of her physique as it executes the inflexible maneuvers embodies the impact that the fragmented system inflicts upon the human body. Through her performance, Sookool manages to curate a powerful exploration of how colonialism has impacted the current educational system and the way it is experienced by those who are part of it.

Sookool has taken it upon herself to engage in a personal inquiry and introspection, which she shares with us, as a way of decolonising not only her own body but also the educational system and its institutions that have shaped both her mind and physique. She does not shy away from highlighting the ongoing struggles individuals of color face due to systemic cracks in the system and institutionalised racism — a hangover from histories of colonialism and the legacies of apartheid in South Africa.

Sookool, a contemporary dance artist of Colored ethnicity hailing from Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, embarks on a journey through her work to reach a profound understanding of what home means to her and how her identity fits within the larger narrative that has long dominated the histories and lives of people of color. The colonial monarchs have distorted, forgotten, or erased these very histories, but Sookool does not aim to rewrite them. Instead, she presents a profoundly spiritual and poignant performance that serves as a means of making sense of her own lineage.

Lesiba Mabitsela, a talented South African designer, was the creator responsible for the spectacular costumes worn by Sookool. The costumes, designed using 2D paper, were cleverly positioned on her body to create a paper-doll-like effect. This unique approach was intended to draw attention to the systematic structure that enforces the wearing of dresses, particularly white ones, by female students in South African institutions (educational, religious and cultural). This structure further reinforces the existing gender narratives that dictate how bodies ought to dress and conduct themselves within an educational environment. It’s a sad reality that these bodies are labelled and gendered right from birth, and the codes of conduct established by each school only serve to cement these gendered identities. This hegemonic mess serves to reinforce the social-political power structures that exist within our nations.

In the concluding scene, Sookool is seen adorned in a paper skirt that takes on the design of a caged crinoline skirt. The skirt drapes over the side of her body, emphasizing her side profile and creating the illusion of a larger hip structure. A blue khanga is also worn by Sookool, which is typically associated with traditional healers and is wrapped around her head. The blue color of the Khanga holds significant spiritual symbolism for Sookool as it represents the element of water, which holds a deep connection to her own spiritual beliefs. The final moments of the performance are marked by jarring, heavy movements that eventually lead to Sookool’s body lying prone to the audiences gazes for an extended period before the piece concludes. The gravity of these final moments brings to mind the image of Sarah Baartman, also known as Saartjie Baartman, during the last stages of her life. The female body has been subject to theft, control, and violation for the sole purpose of providing entertainment and fascination to the (European) male gaze. This is a disturbingly similar situation to how the African-Black female body is still perceived in contemporary times. Sadly, popular culture often glorifies and appropriates Black bodies for commercial purposes, while simultaneously casting a negative light on the curvaceous form of a woman as being hypersexualized.

Sookool’s impact is felt far beyond just her performances on stage. “Woza Wenties!” invites us to delve into a truly immersive experience. Through this journey, we are encouraged to not only witness Sookool’s personal journey but to also reflect on our own understandings of the world. It is a powerful reminder that our own lineages are complex, multiple and often intangibly intertwined.

Sookool has one last performance of her “Woza Wenties!” at 6pm tonight (Saturday 9 September) at UKZN’s Howard College building. Seating is limited and tickets may be booked through Computicket.



JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience

25th annual JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience 29 August – 10 September 2023