Text: Andisiwe Nakani
The captivating images, imagery, colours, sound and textures in the opening of Deluge in Swarga set Wazi Kunene apart and certainly compel one to calm down, shut down, listen up and be completely present.
The haunting and potent performance is a remarkable portrayal of artistry. She brings her entire self to the stage and still leaves room for the audience. She takes you on a journey and leaves you to float between knowing and having absolutely no idea of anything besides the well of emotion and forgotten remembrance that her colourful and powerful vocabulary evokes.
Carrying the performance ever so effortlessly Kunene, ‘the chameleon’ as she has been called by others, gently oscillates between pieces like Baptism Water, Holocaust, Shrouds and Elusive. The poems sound like an embroidery of story stitched together by themes of poverty, love, pain, religion, death, blackness and a fierce will to live out loud.
Between the flimsy swirling and twirling of stage smoke, her words and her voice seem to seduce your imagination with their almost lazy rhythm drawing from a depth of an ‘insatiable blaze’just to borrow some of her words. With words like ‘furnace’, ‘inferno’, ‘blaze’ and ‘smouldering’ she paints wild and vivid images that resonate with the audience. One almost feels like they are privy to some sacred ritual that is at once extremely personal and a shared experience.
Deluge in Swarga is not simply poetry or spoken word, it is an entire theatrical performance weaving story-telling, poetry and music into a moving ensemble. It is a reflection and a tale of grave and brave lived realities that are the golden thread to the shared experiences of blackness. It is a beckoning to interrogate the identities and behaviours we assume and justify.
Embedded in rich textures and emotions some of the most poignant pieces have to be “Holocaust” and “Baptism Water” delivered in that eerie and ‘other worldly’ fashion that has come to characterize Kunene’s work.
“When did you learn to hide the ashes of a holocaust in your hair?
A shadow of a blaze clings onto your curls.
You have made too many friends now.
You have called the wind on yourself.
Everybody will see the roaring smoke now.
Where did you learn to soak in the echoes with your eyes?
Having seen the fierce chance of a fire storm stifle the air.
You did not survive that day.
Your grandmother thinks the three of you survived that day.
The inferno does not forget.
You cannot outlive your roast…
The holocaust cannot survive itself either
Where did you learn to eat yourself?
-excerpt from “Holocaust”
With her bold and beautiful voice, she chants right through the performance weaving the gentle and gruesome with the skill of a wordsmith and brilliant story teller.
Beyond being quite magical the treasure in Kunene’s words and expression is how real it is. It’s not fictional, the imagery is striking and colourful with truths that moved some audience members to tears with pieces like “Baptism Water”:
Memory. Poverty has returned to stretch its arms on your night.
It says you have never seen me yawn now you will know that I have no flaw.
Feel your every bone turn to ash, first your knees. I do not fear prayer. Remember crumbling…
You will remember children you have killed,
stuffing scripture in their noses.
They are trees now. “
-excerpt from “Baptism Water”
Kunene’s poetry and stage presence is enchanting and absolutely unforgettable. The depth of her expression and play between the gentle and brutal beckons one to not only listen but meditate on the stories she tells.