Taking cultural symbols out of context: Nirox Sculpture Park

 O n Sunday 6th June I went to the opening of Andrew Lamprecht’s sculpture exhibition at the Nirox Sculpture Foundation out on the Kromdraai Rd in the Cradle. The Nirox grounds are quite beautiful – a magnificent park designed by the well-known landscape architect Patrick Watson whose most famous creation is the Sun City gardens.   This exhibition is open until the 15th August  (Wednesday to Sunday) so don’t miss the opportunity to see the exquisite grounds as well as the very impressive site-specific sculpture on show. Now that the big chill has passed, it’s a wonderful place to take a blanket, a picnic hamper and chill out on a sunny Highveld day.   It can easily be combined with a visit to the Rhino and Lion Park just down the road.
One of the activities at the opening was a performance by Samson Mudzunga, an artist born in Venda in 1938. Venda is the most northern province on South Africa, one of the 11 official languages of South Africa, as well as an ethnic group with very strong cultural traditions. It is these cultural practices that Mudzunga manipulates and works with in his public performances in an art context.  Typically Mudzunga uses a large drum which he has sculpted and which echoes the drums used in various different Venda ritual contexts. In the performance at Nirox, the drum was shaped like a giant oval seed-pod but with its schematic face it seemed to infer a fish.   This symbolism would make sense given the proximity to water of the performance at Nirox, and given the importance of the symbol of Lake Fundudzi in Mudzunga’s work.  Lake Fundudzi, the Lake of Creation and the only natural lake in South Africa, is very significant in Venda mythology.  The performance at Nirox took place on a ‘natural stage’ with a stream flowing in front and the backdrop of a hillock behind the performers. The audience sat on a grassy bank on the other side of the stream.  
Once the large heavy drum had been manouevred and wheeled into place, 15 young girls dressed in skirts of Salempore cloth, danced in a snaking line from the left across the performance area, to the beat of 4 drums and the call of a man blowing a kudu horn. While this was taking place Samson, dressed in T shirt and trousers, climbed into the drum through a small ‘door’ in the side of the drum. In his previous performances, this process has symbolized ‘burial’.      

 

 

 

 

 The girls ended their dance routine to lie in positions of supplication, face down, with arms outstretched and hands folded, palms facing upwards. Heralded by the drummers and the kudu horn, and ushered out by a large woman and a young girl, Samson climbed out of the drum.   

 

 

 

 

Now wearing suit and tie, this part of the performance indicates a moment of transformation or ‘resurrection’.    

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Energetic celebratory dancing now followed from the group of young women and girls with different people taking the lead.   Then the young women took off their T shirts and bare breasted, the performance turned into an imitation of the Domba dance or python dance.         The Domba is the context in which young women of marriageable age are educated about their future roles as wives and mothers. So traditionally the python dance would only be performed in front of initiated men and women. While photographs of the traditional Domba are in circulation in academic books and journals, I felt very uncomfortable for the young, almost certainly urban women, disrobing and performing in front of clearly ‘uninitiated’ men, boys and women in an urban and leisure context.

 My discomfort increased as I watched 2 adolescent boys with cell phone cameras focused continuously on the young bare breasted dancing women.  From a private, controlled and educative initiation ritual, aspects of the Domba had now not only become a public spectacle but a theatrical event which could be spread indiscriminately via social media such as Facebook, Mixit and blog sites. The accompanying photos in this post are but one example of this – albeit that the image posted here of the bare-breasted girls and young women, deliberately does not show their faces. 
So whilst I was pleased to have finally seen one of Madzungu’s performance-events, I remain very ambivalent around the issues of spectacle, voyeurism, and the way in which social media increase indiscriminate spread of, and so access to, information. 

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