The award-winning South African performance artist and choreographer Mamela Nyamza is the solo dancer in Hatched 2015, a three-screen film installation that she co-directs with the video artist and painter Robyn Denny. The piece is on display at Madrid’s SlowTrack Gallery (9th June to 15th July) in an exhibition curated by Beathur Mgoza Baker, that also shows 8 of Denny’s paintings. The opening on the 9th features a live performance by Nyamza (8pm).
Hatched 2015 is an emotionally charged cinematic triptych, a condensed and transformed abbreviation of Nyamza’s acclaimed dance piece from 2008. It draws on her experiences as a black female ballet dancer living and working in an environment of profound social, racial and economic inequality, yet in its new guise as a collaborative art-film project it speaks as much about the forming and development of relationships across gender and cultural boundaries.
I spoke to the artists in Barcelona where their piece was being shown at Loop Art Fair 2016 with the Cape Town gallery Momo.
Bloodlines and New Beginnings
Robyn Denny: Nearly two years ago I came across a clip of Mamela dancing in a contemporary piece, about an hour long, that she’d choreographed in 2008. I was in Sydney, had been working on an Aboriginal series of paintings in a red and black palette (and) I was just spellbound by the red and black in Mamela’s performance. I produced a painting from this tiny screen image and sent it to her, and we created a conversation…
Mamela Nyamza: I remember from the first time I performed Hatched on the stage people had said to me: ‘wow! It’s like a painting!’ So when I saw the way Robyn had painted me, I got goose bumps… The original piece began its journey with a dream of red: that vivid red, which is also a very Spanish colour, to me represents love, danger, but also my own ‘blooded’ relationship with things. In 2007 I made a choreography called Hatch which then became Hatched in 2008, and more of a ‘birth’; so in the piece, I’m going back to my own childhood, I think about the struggles of my mother, of my grandmother, of my own struggles as a South African woman and a mother … I am tangled up in that. My mother had been through so much and it was as if I’d painted her into the picture on the stage. When Robyn contacted me, I felt my mother’s presence, as if she were saying: there is a connection here, you must collaborate.
Context as Costume
The piece that Denny and Nyamza have created is a journey across screens through a process of “birth, agitation and catharsis”, says Denny. It begins in white light and deep shadow, in a textured exploration of the skin over bone and muscle on Nyamza’s back with a high-resolution Red Epic 5K camera (the camera work of Ebrahim Hajee). The scene then opens out into a stylised setting that draws on the stage and costume design that Nyamza created for her original piece. The choreographer describes some of the imagery she uses as both personally and politically resonant:
MN: Here is an African woman, topless, in ballet shoes, struggling to get up off the floor, to walk on pointe. Western and traditional culture come together; the coloniser’s shoes, the tutu, the clothes pegs attached to it … different cultures and issues are layered in the costume itself.
I come from a background of ballet that does not accept me as a black dancer. In the discipline of dance itself, dancers are always put down, and I have fought that throughout my career. So I’m talking about ballet in my own voice as an African woman, and yet I’m transforming from this vulnerable woman. The red jacket symbolises power, but could represent men too – as something hard to get out of; in my case as a woman who was married, divorced and is now with a woman – but I did not want to be too literal about (my) issues: the piece tells its own story…
In South Africa inequality is stitched into the fabric of history and modern society, and collaborations of this type raise issues. As Nyamza says, “(Even) now to collaborate with a white woman – some of my friends are questioning me … not out loud, but I feel it”.
RD: South Africa is a hotbed of racial tension and real inequity; when white artists, mixed heritage artists, black artists come together it is an issue, and we can’t brush that aside – we need to look at it, be transparent. In this collaboration we had to continually question ourselves and make sure the relationship was empowering to everyone.
MN: I knew I could not be directed (by another) … I needed to meet there on an equal level.
RD: It is very much a co-directed project, and we work with incredible sound, with incredible camera – and we educated each other in our different strengths: so in this fusion of film, dance, performance, painting, music … we are asking too, what is the new conversation we are having? What are we now ‘birthing’ together…?
The Making Of …
RD: Before we filmed in the studio I had cut out three particular images of Mamela, one was the naked back as ‘birthing’ (screen 1), then the beating of the hands as agitation (screen 2), the third was her face covered in sweat, as catharsis (screen 3). So that for me was the narrative arc.
MN: But when I perform, I don’t act on stage, I bring my real emotions to it; each single moment and movement is enthused with real emotion. So when we were shooting it, I could not shoot it a bit at a time. I had to do it all, flat out, and then the moments were chosen as I go through it.
RD: After filming, I paper edited it second by second – taking down the time codes to cut down the work to just 9 minutes. That process took three months. Then, working with an editor, I graded it. We did a lot of post-production sound work with the musician and composer Jeremy de Tolly who brought in the drumming of Kesivan Naidoo; he watched Mamela’s performance on film just three times and then drummed exactly in time to her movement! He (Jeremy) also recorded ululating, that powerful pan-African sound. As Mamela’s travelling schedule was hectic, I did the breath work, my breath to Mamela’s movement.
Watcher and the Watched
Hatched 2015 has had a profound effect on female viewers, allowing the piece to live on as it lives through the experiences of others. “The piece is deep on so many levels that many people come up to Mamela and tell her that it has triggered something in them”, says Denny. Yet while it does move many women, says Nyamza, Hatched goes beyond simple gender divisions. Hajee’s camera work suggests a shifting male / female gaze, and each screen becomes still at the point when the observed becomes an observer, a circle completed by the viewer:
MN: Sometimes when I perform the piece they think I’m a man, especially in the early part of the work! Once I heard a little boy in the audience suddenly say, quite loudly: “Oh! It’s a woman!” So, there’s this androgynous element coming out, too.
RD: For me, there’s so much grit and strength in Mamela’s beauty. In that scene with Mamela’s back when she’s drawing her shoulder blades together, that triangular, diamond shape… that for me is the potent feminine.
And the positive experience of Hatched 2015 has led to the early formation of new collaborative work, that this time began in a verbal exchange:
RD: Mamela and I have started a new piece together! And we’re working again with Jeremy de Tolly and Ebrahim Hajee. It began with a conversation around the colour indigo, which, in cloth form (dye), was traded for slaves by the Dutch. Our new piece was conceived through Hatched, and it develops further our relationship of equality and empowerment.
9th June – 12th July
Opening 9th June, 8pm with a live performance by Mamela Nyamza