It begins in a room. It begins with a story . ‘It begins with a ghost’, says Nondumiso in the rehearsal room. The Johannesburg-based performing artist and provocateur, Nondumiso Lwazi Msimanga, is a body that often plays within the constructs of the paradoxical as she challenges the artistic meanings of relationships. Her work has always been about connection in one way or another, she explains to two new members of her Beloved Collective. ‘The Beloveds’, she says, ‘Are named after Toni Morrison’s fictional character in the novel Beloved, where the ghost-child of a slave woman haunts them and basically demands a ritual to be seen as a part of her family. I named the collective the Beloved Collective because this history of slavery in South Africa feels like one we need to also acknowledge, so we can know how beloved we are to our ancient ancestors. I was also curious to imagine myself as someone with a tombstone that says uBeloved Nondumiso rests here, and she is an ancestor that we know personally.’ This, I believe, is what contributes to Nondumiso orchestrating a space that is unapologetic in doctoring the wounds of the black body and delevoping healthier relationships and conversations regarding it.
Amongst many of her creative explorations, exists a space where she tackles with the worlds of curator versus creator, through hosting an event on 26 October 2023 called The Market Laboratory’s Theatre Think Tank- a platform for artists to engage in conversation around the practices and processes of contemporary art in South Africa. At the Theatre Think Tank we experience the centre of an artists’ inspiration, and witness how their ideas and hopes are imagined. Contrary to the conventions of theatre, the Theatre Think Tank steers away from presenting a final production (or show) but rather, leans into the idea of thinking through performance, and the practice thereof, and further allowing this act of thinking-through to manifest into important dialogue between the maker and receiver.
My privilege lies in having had the opportunity to sit inside the initial rehearsals of this intended exploration and experiencing first hand, the gentle yet grounded landing of Nondumiso and her Beloved Collective. This is a community of artists from different performance backgrounds who come together to pursue the possibilities that may brew when their respective disciplines meet. As a point of entry to this process, Nondumiso shares with us the story of a brief yet vital encounter with a spirit from an age long gone, but far from forgotten. ‘They called her Sara Baartman, but I call her Sehura’, Nondumiso explains. ‘I was in Norway when I had a rememory experience. In Oslo, on a cold night, I walked along a street that I now believe she must have been on in her short life because I looked up her documented history when I got back to SA, and there was a gap between the anti-slavery trial in London and her appearance in posters in Paris. Then I found out Norway also had a history of freak shows. So, I could believe my spiritual encounter.’ What seemed to be a simple passing moment in time; a mere freeze frame of the extraordinary- became the driving force to the blossoming of her recent experimental reflection ‘Simapunapuna’, which beckons us to strip our many layers and return to ourselves. Here, we are asked to revisit the nakedness of our truths; of our fears and failures. This is where we dare to uncover who we truly can become. ‘I believe she wants us to address our lack of artistic freedom, to look at our limited view of ourselves and how far back and how interconnected our histories are. I believe she came to me because I needed her and she needed me too,’ Nondumiso says.
She gathers the community of fellow artists, ‘The Beloveds’, in a space that urges the body of the creative to interrogate itself in ways that awaken the spirit of vulnerability. While the tales of our history mark the milestones of our inhabited bodies, I do feel that there is an abundance of knowledge in that we are continuously becoming and that honing into this knowledge is what this desired vulnerability is steeped in. Once owning up to and giving into this fragility, how do we use it to live and to heal: ‘ukuphila nokuphilisa?’, Nondumiso asks the collective. I found myself quite intrigued by this and wondered where and how these parallels of ukuphila nokuphilisa would meet, in order to better ourselves and the way we relate to others. This, for me, plays a critical part in shifting my comprehension of my own living experience. ‘If Ssehura is an ancestor that is asking us to collectively free our artistic practices, imagine the intergenerational healing that opens up, imagine the artistic ancestors from her time and beyond, abangaqaqeka to have a relationship with you in this time and beyond. I always remember a woman, umZion, who spoke before my aunt’s funeral, ethi, “fanele nitshonthse izibusiso kogogo,” and I think it had a profound impact. Sometimes I see my artistic practice as a way to gain izibusiso koogogo nookhokho noomkhulu.’ I feel that this is where an organic exchange exists; a negotiation between who I am and all the previous versions of myself that assist in discovering who I am meant to be.
In the practice of being bare, I believe we are brought to learn to understand what it means to prepare as opposed to rehearse; this is to say that we draw from our past experiences to make way for intention and presence in the now. The preparatory space is where we discover how we negotiate between the parts of ourselves that we must lose and who we desire to become. Amidst this process of finding our truest potential, an interesting analysis has been brought to my attention. Nondumiso says she does rituals and that ‘ritual is a very playful practice. Simapunapuna is ritual to awaken our artistic blessings because we all know there’s more than what we let the world make us believe, nathi nje sazivalela ngaphandle.’ I found myself considering what kinds of relationships we can grow with ourselves when we allow ourselves to play in places that restrict us. Places being physical, mental and spiritual spaces. I felt a great sense of urgency to reshape the patterns I’ve fallen into and reimagine the possibilities of my existence. Although it occurred to me that this may require time and some working through, I found solace in knowing that the acknowledgment thereof is enough; that moulding myself is endless but grounds me in ways that matter in the present.
Theatre Think Tank: Simapunapuna, Market Laboratory on Thursday at 19:00.
Free tickets but booking essential on Webtickets.