The Interview – Nelisiwe Xaba: Virgin territory

Joint winner of SA’s richest art prize, Nelisiwe Xaba takes on the reed dance in her latest work. Percy Mabandu finally catches up with her

As cars stream over Joburg’s Nelson Mandela Bridge like letters of the alphabet lining themselves up into a performance of sentences, my cellphone glows with messages from Nelisiwe Xaba.

The genre-bending choreographer keeps tweaking the details of our interview arrangement.

What started out as a lunch-hour appointment is now set to be a late afternoon coffee affair. The venue, too, has been renegotiated from our original choice to Kaldi’s Coffee in Newtown.

It has become clear that when dealing with this dancer-cum-performance artist, every decision is always under review like a constant search for a better gesture.

But in the end we settle into a graceful exchange.

The first thing I notice is that Xaba has an awkward way of occupying a couch. She perches on the edge with her legs crossed and her right elbow resting on her left knee. It’s as if at any moment she’ll jut her body out, stand and demonstrate a croisé.

She speaks with her hands and refers to the body as a “communicative instrument”.

She insists there’s meaning in how, as an individual, you use your body. “It’s not like all the jazz musicians play the same instrument in the same way. It’s how you touch that instrument that gives it your best sound,” she says.

Now Xaba has used her body to jointly win the FNB Art Prize, announced at the launch of this year’s Joburg Art Fair, which closed on Sunday. The award came with a R100 000 cash prize and a booth to display her work at the fair.

It was given to her for the video installation co-created with Mocke J van Veuren titled Uncles & Angels. The work is an aesthetic contemplation on the reed dance and its aspects of chastity, virginity, power relations and tradition.

Its intricate social critique encompasses the Venda Domba dance, drum majorettes, little girls playing outdoors – and, by implication, the men who objectify and feed on these displays of culture.

Something like a second wind comes over Xaba when asked about the meaning of this latest success. She’s appreciative of the award.

“It means a lot to me. It’s a big plus to be given an award from the visual art scene. It does not come from dance. There’s more money. There’s more respect when you are in the visual art world than when you are dancing. Anyone can be a dancer, you know, our president can dance,” she says with her tongue in her cheek.

She is, of course, fully aware of how hard-working and disciplined dancers need to be.

Still, Xaba reckons that the little respect dance gets in the world is partly the fault of the dance industry itself.

As a child, she started out doing drama sketches and aerobics at the YWCA in Soweto during the heyday of township community art projects.

But it was only later, when she was 17, that Xaba enrolled to train as a dancer at the defunct Johannesburg Dance Foundation.

This set her on a journey that in 1996 saw her win a scholarship to study at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in London.

Two years ago she joined the Goodman Gallery’s list of artists it represents.

Asked whether her crisscrossing of disciplines affects how she’s received by dance purists, she doesn’t mince her words: “I don’t worry about that. Actually, I try to get away from dance. If there were other platforms I’d probably not use dance spaces at all,” she says.

She hates that “there’s no curatorship in dance”.

Dance people, she says, sometimes struggle with her work. “You know dancers are obsessed with wanting to dance. Sometimes they say my work is not dancing. People who go to watch ballet have certain expectations. Since usually the story is there and everybody knows it already, they’re looking at technique.

“Like how many turns or jumps can you do and not how is a person using the body to speak to you.”

In Europe, says Xaba, she’s often asked why her work – and that of her South African contemporaries – is political.

“They ask, ‘Why don’t you just do Swan Lake or some beautiful work?’”.

But, she argues, “there’s beauty in my work but not the kind of beauty you find in glossy magazines”.

Xaba offers that the work is aimed at sparking a conversation in order to conscientise her audience. “There’s no way I can create work where we are just being beautiful, dancing and just gyrating,” she says.

Xaba’s refusal to simply gyrate has earned her high regard. The current award arrives just as she returns from the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, where she was invited by artist and author Sue Williamson, the curator of a project involving a group of international artists who have just launched their careers.

Apart from giving some workshops, Xaba performed her pieces Sarkozy Says No to the Venus along with They Look at Me and That’s All They Think.

The visit aptly locates Xaba in a global league of visual art practitioners.

All of this is welcomed except for one weird idea that involves her work becoming “an object of trade”.

As we prepare to part, an ironic smile crosses her lips and she says: “I still can’t get used to the idea of someone buying a video of my performance to put it on some shelf.”

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