Wednesday, September 5, 2012

We can all be messiah individually if we give up our self-preserving sense

Kelly Gillespie introduces Neo Muyanga
Johannesburg is a city that still produces messiahs at high frequency. Preachers of gospels both spiritual and secular saturate the air with their messages, promising salvation and liberation from all possible imaginable oppressions. Money, power, sex, love, life, death – the holy people of Jozi can tell you all about it. Academic travellers most likely meet those belonging to the genres of cab drivers and drunkards in bars on 7th Street in Melville. Stories shared during coffee breaks revealed that JWTC participants were no strangers to these phenomena. But this blog does not dawdle with peripheral prophets. Hadn’t we members of academia come to Johannesburg secretly expecting to meet a real contemporary messiah, if not a club of messiahs? Was the purpose of our congregation not sharing bits and pieces of the messianic curricula that guide our own professional practices? After all, we had gathered in Johannesburg to raise the question of the futures of nature. The devils of oil capitalism, climate change politics and racist nature conservation discourses hunt us day and night.
After a week of pondering the futures of nature, the 2012 JWTC was ready for a serious messiah. The messiah we encountered on the evening of the seventh workshop day was Addis Shembe. We met her at the Dance Factory in Newtown. Addis is the main figure in Neo Muyanga’s brilliant operetta “The Flower of Shembe” (http://neomuyanga.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/the-flower-of-shembe-run-in-joburg/). The play narrates the story of a girl born as “a new-messiah-in-the-making”, the trials and tribulations she encounters and how she comes to terms with her own destiny. After having resolved seven trials and returned home to participate as a war general in the liberation of her people from the rule of a cruel dictator, Addis speaks:
“contrary to popular belief
the problem is not
but our immutable instinct
for self-preservation
the very fact, our glory,
makes it impossible for us to love”
(From the libretto of “The Flower of Shembe)

Neo Muyanga and members of his NeoSong Company had introduced “The Flower of Shembe” to us in a JWTC session moderated by Liz Gunner before we went to see the show. According to the composer, the operetta is a story about hope, joy and love. It is also a story that engages with spirituality, politics, youth and leadership. Asked by Liz Gunner whether there was a need for a new messiah today, Neo Muyanga answered that we live in cynical times and offered the following proposal: “we can all be messiah individually if we give up our self-preserving sense.”
Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks that “[a] man who possesses a language possesses as an indirect consequence the world expressed and implied by this language.” At the JWTC we discussed the epistemologies needed for practicing theory and criticism from the South. How does it come about that many academics these days take to writing about art? Are artists our new messiahs? Or is writing about art our way to be messiah individually? “The Flower of Shembe” is a story told in many languages that are brought together most eloquently. There are languages of the body, languages of movement, languages of music and languages of the visual. “The Flower of Shembe” is told in Sesotho, Maskanda, fashion design, Zulu, painting, English, dance, flowers, Opera, sculpture, animation short film (select listing with no particular order).
Being a historian of flowers and rather illiterate in matters of music and dance, I will end this blog with few sentences about the language of flowers used in the operetta and offer my own comment in the language of flowers. Flowers are present in the play in various forms. “Addis” means “flower” in Amharic. The stage setting contains beautiful huge metal flowers. The poster and libretto for “The Flower of Shembe” feature a painting of Addis with a protea on her forehead (http://neomuyanga.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/image.jpg). The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named the protea after the Greek god Proteus, the sea-god who changes his appearance constantly as to remain unseen by those who would approach him to use his gift of future telling. Linnaeus chose the name due to the many different forms in which the flower appeared. The plant also symbolically lives up to its name, as numerous meanings were attached to it, shifting according to time and space. Dictionaries of the “Language of Flowers” that fascinated 19th century Europe associate the protea with the meaning “courage”. The protea was prominently adopted by white settlers as a symbol of their South Africa and in 1976 the Protea cynaroides was officially declared the national flower. The new democratic South Africa holds on to it as a truly protean symbol. Due to their longevity, proteas and other fynbos plants have for long been popular as grave decoration. But the protea also has a history that reaches back before the flower represented death or nationalism. As Frieda Shenton’s mother in Zoë Wicomb’s short story “A Trip to the Gifberge” says: “Only fools and cowards would hand them over to the Boers. Those who put their stamp on things may see in it their own histories and hopes. But a bush is a bush; it doesn’t become what people think they turn it into. We know who lived in these mountains when the Europeans were still shivering in their own country. What they think of the veld and its flowers is of no interest to me.” (Zoë Wicomb, You can’t get lost in Cape Town (Roggebaai: Umuzi, 2008), 189)
In the Language of flowers my blog about “The Flower of Shembe” looks like this:

(Concept: Melanie Boehi, Flower arrangement: Karin Bachmann, Photographer: Jayne Batzofin)
Translation drawn together from numerous Language of flowers’ dictionaries:

arum lilies   magnificence
blue iris       faith, hope, wisdom, eloquence
protea         courage, diversity
red rose      love
strelitzia      faithfulness, joyfulness, paradise

Melanie Boehi
University of Basel