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Performance as a means of play

The Art of Performance is a monthly column written by Dave Mann, an editor and award-winning arts journalist.

‘The longing had always been a place to call my own. Now my problems are with the council, dealing with things like water and electricity and all of those things that make me wish I was five years old again, with no responsibilities and having everyone else doing everything for me.’
     That’s a quote by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo, from an interview conducted with him earlier this year about his studio space – an old synagogue in Johannesburg. The quote was never used in the final article, but in the lead up to June, I found myself thinking about it a lot.

Dave Mann
Anthea Moys vs The City of Grahamstown

     Hlobo’s comment is both funny and relatable. Because who wouldn’t want to be a carefree five-year-old again after facing things like rent, traffic, taxes, and all the other daily horrors that come with being a responsible adult? His thoughts are also interesting when you consider his practice. Conceptually, Hlobo’s work isn’t light-hearted by any means, but the act of sewing, sculpting, and performing, as he’s often required to do for his art, can be inherently youthful, if not playful. 
     Most elements of performance are playful, I think. Dancing, singing, acting, painting, even writing – they’re all things that children tend to engage in as a form of play.
     When I think about performance and play, I often start at the work of Anthea Moys. Moys is a Joburg-based artist and performer who views the act of playing as a tool for learning and believes that, when playing games, things like loss or failure are irrelevant, as you’ve most likely learned something in the process of play. To this end, she’s pulled off a number of public performances, including participating in a bike race using a stationary exercise bicycle, taking on entire sports teams by herself in both Grahamstown and Geneva, and leading a whole parade – music, dancing and all – through the streets of Hillbrow. Her work sees her engaging with children, professional artists, and ordinary citizens, young and old. Beyond Moys’ performances as tools for collaboration and learning, there’s a kind of youthful outlook you gain when you engage with her work – as if the whole city is suddenly your playground.

Dave Mann
Bombshelter Beast

     Theatre is another excellent form of play, and groups like Drama for Life or Ubom! Eastern Cape Drama Company (which is now sadly defunct) have done incredible work through their children’s and community theatre programmes which make use of both storytelling and the element of play. Organisations such as Keleketla! Library also use art and storytelling as a means of education and understanding. Back when they were located at The Drill Hall in downtown Joburg, their after-school programmes made use of visual art, texts, performances, and other expressive tools to engage their pupils. Then you get musical acts like Bombshelter Beast. The 13-member band are known for taking to the stage in bright costumes, waving an array of different instruments around, and rarely failing to get the crowd on their feet, be it on the low-lit stage of The Orbit, or at the Zoo Lake Bowls Club. Seeing an act like Bombshelter Beast performing, you get the sense that, besides making great music that people can enjoy, one of the main reasons they do what they do is because it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
        Read more about Nicholas HloboAnthea Moys and Jessica Doucha and stay ultra-modern by purchasing our exciting latest issue here. We don’t want you to miss out!

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