A Workshop on Performing Life

By Moses Serubiri

What is performance?
This was a question posed in one of the exercises during the 5-day performance art workshop (21-25 Jan. ’14) with performance artist and curator, Ato’o Malinda at Kuona Trust in Nairobi. To answer this question Ato’o showed evidence in photographs, videos, paintings and artist manifestos, of the human body as a medium for the performance of political satire, postwar trauma or psychoses, historical identity discourse, and futurist discourse on space. The workshop participants were of a visual art background and resident artists at Kuona Trust.

Members like Jacqueline Karuti and Andrew Wambua were asked investigate space, architecture or the environment as a storyteller, symbol or structure. Their instruction stipulated that space is a place for cultural identities illustrated in the early 20th Century quote, “The home, of course, is my body itself.” Thus, performance was viewed as a series of discourses reenacted, activated, or produced through the human body as well as the spaces a body can inhabit.

v Film screenings tried to test the artists’ strength. “AAA AAA” (1978) shows famous performance artists Ule and Marina Abramovich, screaming at each other within very close range continuously until they cannot scream anymore. One visual artist and participant, feeling uneasy, asked, “How much longer is it going to take?” Participants had also been dumbfounded by a video shown earlier in the lecture titled “Shoot” (1973) in which performance artist Chris Burden directs an armed man to shoot him in a gallery space.


Performing the “back of the containers”

During an exercise in the workshop on site specific performance in which a site becomes the storyteller, or where locally based spectators experience an enhanced kind of creative agency in their knowledge of the place—one participant, Jacqueline Karuti, when asked to perform a site within the compound of Kuona Trust, chose the “back of the containers” which are also artist studios. Using leaves as site specific objects, the performer recreated the experience of relaxing behind the artist studios. The spectators were subjected to both the sight and sound of the place: Jacqueline threw leaves into the air in the gallery space whose soft murmur was heard as they landed on the wooden floors.  This, Ato’o said, evoked the silence and serenity of the back of the studios; the literal sight of the leaves taken from the site constructed an imaginary structure of overhead tree shelter, and the clean air atmosphere. Thus, the “back of the containers” was performed using object and movement to paint the image and tell the story of the site.

The audience can kill you

Kampala has been witness to a number of performance art pieces exhibited in both street art and contemporary dance festivals; how does one view these performances through the lens of Ato’o Malinda?  The personal strength Ato’o speaks of involves the artist’s relationship to the audience: a very strong performance artist is willing to put themselves completely in the hands of the audience–in a dangerous situation– recalling Marina Abramovic’s performance piece “Rhythm O” (1974) in which Marina discovered that “the audience can kill you.” Ato’s impressions put upon the performers also recall the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting (1910) stating that “the spectator must live at the center of the painted action” where the painter becomes performer.

At the 2012 LaBa Arts Festival painters Henry Mzili and Daudi Karungi participated in a collaborative installation based performance piece titled ‘Art and Exclusivity’ visually based on Congolese painter Cheri Samba’s painting whose photographic replica the duo installed in the exhibition. The two artists reenacted the composition through the red couch and executive dress. However, contrary to the notion of putting oneself in a dangerous situation, the bodies of the artists were safely protected behind barricades, beyond which the audience couldn’t reach the ‘artwork’. To facilitate this distance, there was a sharply dressed young female bodyguard mimicking Mummar Gaddafi who let the audience in one at a time, during which that spectator was allowed to ask one or two questions before being ushered out of the exhibit. The spectator could not embody the live action because they were held back by this militarised and executive rope barricade. It was obvious that the bodyguard and barricade were placed intentionally to limit the audience rather than ‘free’ them.

So it seems that performance art is a fluid product based on how successfully the artist embodies their central point in the action. This supposes that risk averse performance art misses the mark, leaving the softer performers to feel good as opposed to creating a relationship with the audience.

Serubri Moses is a writer, musician and photographer. He currently works as Associate Editor for Start Journal



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