On paper, she is an award-winning and internationally acclaimed choreographer and arts activist. In motion, she is an arts rebel and revolutionary, committed to making dance a vehicle for conveying body politics on all social issues, rather than a simple means of entertainment. Mamela’s ultimate goal is to reach the most remote of South Africa’s areas, unearthing young, raw talent in the art of dance and other performing arts.
Mamela’s awards have included being chosen as the Featured Artist of the National Arts Festival, Makhanda for 2018 (the first of its kind for the dance art genre); receiving the FNB Dance Indaba Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer in Contemporary Style (for ‘The Dying Swan’ in 2000); being chosen in 2011 as the Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance; featuring as one of O Magazine’s Women of the Year in 2013, and being awarded the Imbokodo Award for Dance in 2016. Recently, she once again headlined on the Main Programme of the inaugural Virtual National Arts Festival. Now that the VNAF has wrapped, we grabbed the opportunity for a catch-up with this phenomenal female talent.
Q: The themes of your work read like a laundry list of social ills and injustices. Do you feel that as long as these persist in our society, art cannot provide a means of escape, but should rather hold us all to account, and compel action through the inequity presented in your performances (and indeed that of other protest art)?
A: Ever since my natural body structure was rebuked and rejected by many of my ballet teachers at tertiary level, I knew then that I would be inevitably drawn to the politics of the body. The discrimination I got there encouraged me to not only base my creation on my life experiences. I also ensured that, the experience I got at this tertiary institution will encourage me to think out of the box, and never to be confined to the knowledge that I had acquired in that institution. With this experience and background, I was also bound to be inspired by phenomenal artists, like Allen Kaprow and Martha Graham, who had this to say about the role of arts:
“The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible” (AllenKaprow)
“Dance is the hidden language of the soul” (Martha Graham)
Therefore, indeed, arts can neither be regarded as a means to escape challenges, nor can be it taken as a commodity for entertainment. Art is a direct weapon to challenge and fight against accepted anomalies, shifting the world from its normative look. Just like we can’t live without water; our society simply cannot live without art.
Q: Your latest piece, Pest Control , focuses specifically on self- serving arts industry ‘pests’, and your personal experience with these, set against the bureaucratic drudgery and frustration of a disciplinary hearing. Do you feel part of the reason these ‘pests’ create such turmoil in the industry is because they insist on forcing inappropriate administrative processes in a space that is by its nature in complete contradiction to them? In other words, the system ’s failure is inevitable because it is a case of insisting on protocols unsuited to the arts sector?
A: Without fear or favour, even before I joined and then summarily dismissed from a certain art public institution, I have always been vocal about public art institutions that are besotted with patronage instead of possibilities for all artists. Gatekeeping, patronage, corruption, allegiance and nepotism in these public art institutions are inhibiting equal access to the creation and practice of one’s art in South Africa. It is very obvious that those tasked with the management, operations and functionality of these public art institutions are not living up to these institutions as public spaces/platforms for innovation, transformation and equity. We need managers of the public art institutions who see these art platforms as not buildings or institutions, but who solely see these public spaces as embodiment of art of all genres, for all artists regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity or creed. Art spaces must be enablers of cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary art focus, forever introducing new ways of thinking, talking, and embodying the destruction of the norm. Art, after all, is meant to make us cherish, intuitive, uncertainty, and to always search for new ideas. We desperately and urgently need visionary and progressive managers of these public art institutions to shout against a theatre of patriarchy, patronage, nepotism and corruption, and to seek for a theatre that benefits all artists, especially the young, up-and-coming and women artists, for their creativity growth, and related sustainable economic growth spin-off.
Q: From a recent interview you gave regarding Pest Control , you made it clear the work is not in stasis. Because of its autobiographical nature, you intend adapting it with the relevant denouement when your legal case is finalised. When revisiting a previous piece, do you find the process of shifting its tone (whether positive or negative) an organic one, or does it require a conscious determination to alter its form? With it being so personal in its subject matter, would collaboration with another artist bring you relief, or would you find such input intrusive? Give us a little context of your process during such a post- piece adaptation?
A: During any creation of my work, I always set out my goals and priorities, but these goals are never fixed, but are always focused, as I regard goals as useful roadmaps, but they must always remain flexible for innovation. So, PEST CONTROL is no different. For instance, during the creation of this work, I initially thought that I was going to be alone in the internal set stage “the Boardroom”, but by the time my creation/choreography was done, I had roped in a featured musician for a live sound and as part of the performance. My goal might have shifted, but my theme and concept and priority were focused. This means, I grow into my role as everyday pass of preparation, and the goals will then move with that growth. This means, I select my concept/theme that will always best demonstrate that I am a capable flexible choreographer and performer, who will change her goals not due to plans, but due to innovation, but will continue to stick to her prioritised theme/concept. That is why I respect critiques who not only interpret my work, but who also interact with it, for a better understanding.
Q: Your commitment to youth upliftment is clear, and must be applauded. What do you envision as your role? Are you a progenitor, with a simple mandate to lay the foundation for new avenues of exploration and creation? Or, is it far more practical, with fundraising initiatives, intended to supplement poor and limited resources for artistic outreach programmes in remote areas? Is one or the other effort sufficient? Are both still not enough, if only a handful of arts industry stalwarts are heeding the call to assist and empower the artists of the future? How much do you consider enough?
A: We must all acknowledge that the youth in South Africa, and perhaps, in our entire African continent as well, is facing the worst economic outlook for a generation with more than 24% of 18-35 year olds out of work, making the youth unemployment in South Africa reaching a catastrophic 40% for the current year. From this premise, it is very clear that all the public arts institutions must place the youth artists at the heart of every programme and project they do. Our young people are not just our next generation of audiences, but also our future creative industry leaders as well. Therefore, capable, expert and experienced artists like myself, always yearn to be called and share with the young artists, our gained experience, expertise and knowledge of the arts and its industry. Role models alone will not help though. Art needs financial support to keep its relevance as the he (ART) beat of the nation. The Art must have financial support to give artists’ creativity focus, endurance, relevance, innovation and passion. But, my advice to our young artists would be that, they need to push themselves out of their comfort zone of entitlement, blame-game, and low-self esteem, and to start in earnest to let their creation be based on uniqueness, risk, bravery and evolution. My free lock-down E-Master Classes “UNDER MY DOEK”, are a start to empower our young artists to this path of bravery.