The Art of the public performance

18 Mar 2016 - 13:15

Sethembile Msezane is not afraid of attention. She is daring, talented and, extraordinary as a consequence. The Cape Town based Msezane has been conducting provocative performance art since 2013. Standing on a white plinth, she uses her body to facilitate conversation and deeper reflection on some of the issues that impact society today. Her particular concern: the absence of the black female body from South African public spaces. Humanities News spoke to this creative dynamo about her work and her views as an artist on what is currently happening in South African society.

HN: For the uninitiated, what is Performance Art and how does one pursue this discipline?
SM: In my practice, I understand Performance Art as vehicle of expression that uses elements such as the body, time and space to highlight, investigate or question a particular issue. These elements such as the body include identity, race, gender etc. Space can be physical or metaphorical and time can be durational or momentarily. Performance Art can be self-initiated, I started off with very little understanding of it and am still navigating what it means for me in relation to my work.  However, there are workshops and courses of study that one can take to learn about it in a more structured environment such as the MA and PhD Study in Live Art, Interdisciplinary and Public Art through the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA) located on UCT Hiddingh Campus.

HN: Have you always been artistic? What is your earliest memory related to your artistic expression?
SM: My initial encounter with creative expression (as with most children) was through drawing. In primary school I was challenged by a peer who claimed girls can’t draw. I went home and pulled out my Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers puzzle and drew the best picture (in my earliest memory of my childhood). I suppose this is very telling in the kind of work I produce now.

HN: After obtaining your Bachelors Degree in Fine Art in 2012 (and being on the Dean's Merit List), you returned to pursue an MFA in 2015. What were you working on in-between?
SM: From 2013- 2014 I was practicing part time as an artist and worked administratively full time. I began interning at Stevenson Gallery and, soon after that I worked as an Assistant Project Manager at Cape Town Art Fair. After the second edition of the fair in 2014, I left to persue a full time career as an Artist. I also assisted students as an Academic Mentor part-time.

HN: So, where does your inspiration and motivation come from?
SM: I am inspired by a range influences from socially relevant issues, social media, books, music videos, series and the women in my life and beyond.

HN: Your work deals with cultural symbolism, identity and the female body. How much of this was shaped by the current race and transformation discourse in South Africa? Or, are these issues that have always concerned you?
SM: As a millennial what concerns me is how we are often told we are the ‘born free’ generation where as in reality this is a ‘dream deferred’. The work I create grapples with this, It came from a place of discomfort and dislocation with the systematic failures of the New South Africa but particularly in my experience of living in Cape Town. I have  located the discomfort and dislocation as being partly due to the markers in the landscape that subliminally echoe a class and racial divide that still pervades our society. Whilst emphasis has been placed on the rhetoric of transformation there is also a need to have a conversation about decolonising these structures - which current student Fallists movements are acting on. 

HN: There is an image of you (on UCT steps) depicting the Zimbabwe Bird on the day the Rhodes statue fell. The photo made local and international headlines. Tell us about that performance and, what it meant to be there on that day? 
SM: Since 2013 I have been engaged with addressing the hyper masculine presence of white colonial and apartheid statues that commemorate these figures through a singular narrative. It became imperative to challenge these histories through performance while addressing the absence of the black female body in memorialised public spaces.
With regards to Chapungu- The Day Rhodes Fell (2015), I have my interpretations of the work which is layered in meaning. The work is partly informed by Zimbabwean and South African history, but more then anything I’ve enjoyed hearing how other people read it in relation to the event, the symbols and their own understanding. Performing that day, I realised that this work was more than my initial idea, it was an instrument of unconsciously beginning to re-imagine the black body in a city that prides itself in Eurocentric ideals that historically for me are a celebration of the pillaging of Africa. The question I am left with now, is how can we re-imagine these structures and spaces?

HN: What do you enjoy most about your current studies (MFA) at Michaelis?
SM: My engaging conversations with Art Historian Dr Nomusa Makhubu as well as access to the technical staff and mechanical equipment for the production of my work. 

HN: In your opinion, what is the value or role of art in society?
SM: I think the value of art is that it acts as a vehicle to communicate that which is difficult to express or articulate in words. It makes us feel a range of emotions and brings about important dialogue about how we experience and navigate the world around us. Over and above dialogue, it can be a reactionary tool, it has the potential to make people act on their concerns and question societal norms.

Sethembile obtained her Bachelors Degree in Fine Art from the University of Cape Town in 2012 and is currently pursuing a Masters in Fine Art from the Michaelis School of Fine Art. Watch out this space for her next public performance as well as her MFA exhibition which is sure to be visually exciting. In the mean time, connect with her on Twitter @sthemse and on her website.