A Walk in the Night
Photo courtesy Wendel Fernandez
“…Walk Into the Night was inspired by the history of the Cape Town Carnival and was intended to obliquely tell the story of the forced removals in Cape Town. It was billed an “invisible masquerade” – a processional shadow play, with various elements worn or carried by a multitude of participants, casting shadows onto horizontal and vertical planes along the itinerary of the procession, from hand-held white screens, to buildings, the sidewalk and the ground, participants and audience.”
Photo courtesy Wendel Fernandez
I recently caught the train from Johannesburg to Cape Town for the launch of CAPE09, a citywide festival of contemporary art events, which aims to transform Cape Town into an African art hub for almost two months, until 21 June 2009.
This year’s programme looked promising, seeming to have evolved out of an authentic impulse to connect and jump social borders. With art projects ranging from explorations into the late cult pop singer Brenda Fassie’s roots, to interventions on city transport routes, the programmers of CAPE 09 seem genuinely committed to art as a catalyst for social connectivity across class and geography. Far from taking place in the standard white cube gallery venues, events have been planned to open doors into new spaces like the Cape Town Station, the City Library, Langa High School and Lookout Hill in Khayelitsha, a poor township area on the outskirts of Cape Town.
I was impressed by the organisers’ boldness in asking burning questions like: How can we rethink the forms of art and exhibitions, to experiment with new methods and to produce new alliances? This seems like a crucial question in the context of a country, which 15 years after the dawn of democracy, is still plagued by gross inequity, and social and racial dividedness.
I was also excited by the idea of CAPE09 being launched with a one-hour procession curated by Claire Tancons (New Orleans/USA) in collaboration with visual artist Marlon Griffith (Trinidad), and composer Garth Erasmus (Cape Town).
Photo courtesy Mark Wessels
Firstly, I am a devoted fan of carnival culture. During my childhood in Durban, a major port city on the Indian Ocean coastline, my extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins and all – used to venture down to the beach front once a year for a crazy pageant of light and disguise that wound itself along the seafront promenade in the darkness of night. By the time I had grown up, the Durban carnival had mysteriously been written out of the city’s annual calendar and I missed its chaotic, exuberant, public spiritedness.
So, in 1998, I ventured to Luanda, shortly after the ceasefire ended Angola’s bitter civil war, to experience and document the annual Angolan carnival. There I experienced the tense, post-war streets of Launda turn into a sea of utter surrealism. I remember a man running through the crowds with a chimpanzee in a nappy on his back yelling: ‘Paz! Paz!’ (Peace) and another sauntering through the throngs cloaked in a technicolour Elvis bath towel like some postmodern Superman.
And all the time the MC was yelling: ‘Car-r-r-r-na-v-a-al! Ca-a-a-a-r-r-r-na-val!’, as group upon group of revellers in ingenious costumes wound their way along the promenade. There was no autonomy of style. Idiosyncracy ruled the day. Even the police, notorious for their whimsical tyranny, forgot about the guns lodged in their belts. A half-naked man wearing a pink piggie mask drove past on his motorbike and the whole town lost itself in a fiesta of crazed catharsis. What started in the pounding afternoon heat went on and on until the sun turned the rusty Cuca beer sign above Luanda into a dark silhouette against the red sky.
My next encounter with the whimsical spirit of carnival was when Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffith touched down in Johannesburg in 2004 for a three-month residency at the Bag Factory artists’ studios culminating in a carnival street parade. I have been involved with the studios for about a decade and Griffith’s Making Mas carnival intervention stands out as one of the highlight events at the Bag Factory, bringing life, spirit, laughter and craziness to the streets of Fordsburg at night.
‘As a young artist growing up in Trinidad, the carnival or “mas”, as we call it, had a big impression. I have always found it to be a legitimate art form. It is public, participatory and interdisciplinary. This has made me want to continue in this tradition, pushing the art form to a contemporary level,’ said Griffith, who involved a large number of local artists in the event. The community spirit was a tangible force for good that night, everyone pulling together for a celebration and a parade that stood outside of everyday logic and personal ambition. It was a joyous meltdown of the kind that reminds us of our humility and our humanity. So when I heard Griffith was involved in the procession for CAPE 09, I was eager to board that train for Cape Town.
Photo courtesy Mark Wessels
Borrowing its title from the acclaimed novel by Capetonian author Alex La Guma, A Walk Into the Night was inspired by the history of the Cape Town Carnival and was intended to obliquely tell the story of the forced removals in Cape Town. It was billed an “invisible masquerade” – a processional shadow play, with various elements worn or carried by a multitude of participants, casting shadows onto horizontal and vertical planes along the itinerary of the procession, from hand-held white screens, to buildings, the sidewalk and the ground, participants and audience.
Me and my compadrés arrived at the city end of Government Avenue at about 7pm that Saturday night, just as the procession wound its way into Cape Town’s magnificent inner city Gardens. We skidded to a halt, parked the car, and ran across the street to join the parade. And from then on a sweet spell was cast over the night.
The carnival had been brought to life with the help of a hundred local participants, many of them children, who were holding up beautiful cardboard cutout figures, with Victorian-style filigree patterns echoing the colonial history of the Gardens themselves. Others shone torchlights onto the figures projecting their dancing nighttime silhouettes onto shimmery white sheets.
For seconds at a time, images of nubile young maidens, Victorian madams and, more surreally, dinosaurs, would spring to life on the sheets and then disappear into nothingness or a blur of raw fire held aloft in the darkness. An air of whimsy prevailed as this ephemeral dance of light and shadow proceeded beneath the dark canopy of giant trees in the night. Our strange, makeshift procession was dwarfed by the grand white buildings of Parliament, the Iziko South African National Gallery and the Natural History Museum, illuminated in the moonlight – the fragility of the people set in relief by the stately power of these buildings.
Photo courtesy Mark Wessels
And then there were the surreal pling-plong-plucks emanating from two small bands of traveling minstrels in our midst, whose instruments seemed to be based on indigenous Khoisan musical instruments, tapping into the indigenous and European dichotomy that has informed Cape Town’s history since the Dutch East India Company first dropped anchor in 1652.
I was totally taken in by the inventive shadow play of this small once-off community parade and tried not to let the spirit of the occasion be ruined by one or two cynical and critical comments that invariably arose as we made our way through the Gardens. One criticism was that the procession was not sufficiently well conceived – that it lacked cohesion, that the light should have been stronger, the screens of cloth firmer, the images clearer, blah, blah, blah… I disagreed.
I am married to a Brazilian who has become cynical about carnival, having witnessed the appropriation of this community spirited ritual by big business and hungry capital ever eager to squeeze as much cash as possible out of a tourist-worthy extravaganza. These days the carnival in Brazil is so huge, so well organised and so rampantly commercial, he avoids it at all cost.
So let us cherish the old-style carnival. The makeshift element is what makes a carnival so sweet and splendid. It is not an opera. It is a street parade – imperfect and communalistic by its very nature, a small taste of ephemeral magic to change the mood of a night. For me, that was enough. I was uplifted by the experience, which stayed with me for several days. I did not need it to be an epic feat of theatrical choreography. Its transience and its flaws were all part of its unique charm.
Inspired by the traditions of the Cape Town and Trinidad carnivals and West African shadow puppets, this whimsical procession perfectly captured the spirit of CAPE 09, which aims to culturally connect Cape Town, South Africa, Africa and the Diaspora by creating a ground-breaking contemporary African art event, rooted in the local but global in impact.
Alexandra Dodd is an affiliated researcher at the Research Centre, Visual Identities in Art and Design, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg.
***See where all the CAPE 09 exhibitions are happening at www.capeafrica.org