Thursday, July 2, 2015

On Roberta Estrela D’Alva’s Performance at the Wits Medical School by Ananya Kabir

She [Roberta] wove in and out of us assembled there, in the shadow of the Health Sciences building of the Wits University Campus, and the deeper shadow of the Adler Medical Museum with its cabinets of quaint yet instantly recognisable bottles, philtres, jars, ancient stethoscopes, and other bric-a-brac of colonial medicine. Here, in the square outside, there were trees, sunlight, and the scent of smouldering salvia leaves that she bore in a small vessel. The fumes permeated us, an olfactory medium in which we became suspended. She chanted, punctuating the air with a seed-filled rattle. In white and black, heavy braids, and beads of element red, black and brown proclaiming affiliations Amazonian, transatlantic, and planetary. She was the shaman, the master of ceremonies. The microphone picking up her every word and gesture was the sacred fire. The ceremony was our defumigação. I can best translate this word as ‘purification by smoking out unwanted stuff.’ We were asked to embrace the salvia fumes to cleanse ourselves of whatever we needed to get out of our systems. Defuma, Defumador esta casa de nosso Senhor Leva pras ondas do mar O mal que aqui possa estar Smoke out, O smoker-out, this house of our Lord Carry out towards the waves of the sea The evil that may rest here Ceremony satisfactorily begun, we were drawn into a meditation/ oration/ confession/ proclamation which invoked Chango, Eshu, and the consciousness-expanding herbs of Amazonia to repudiate the very might of colonial knowledge that towered over us all. She made herself vulnerable for us by returning to the moment of losing her sister when both were but teenagers, and opened up the channels of empathy that the salvia had prepared the ground for. Inviting us to embrace intuitive wisdom and reject the need for control, Roberta performed a mestizaje of knowledge, a caboclisation of the world. Against the White Father represented by Heinemann (father of homeopathy) emerged the Preto Velho, the Old Black Man, Obatala of the orishas maybe, as the instigator of the simple question: ‘why does the European thinker have to validate my experience?’ Roberta’s evening performance with Neo Muyanga and the Wits Choir in their offering to us, Tabello: A Longing Expectaion, provided the perfect resolution of some of the processes we were invited into during the afternoon. Opening with a playful rehearsal of the choir, which deliberately blurred the edges between process and product, journey and end, Neo, Roberta, and the Choir continued with a stunning transoceanic repertoire of spoken word, blues, funk, hymns, and protest songs in English, Xhosa, and Portuguese. Ending on the memory of Zumbi of Palmares, the iconic maroon king of Brazil, the cry of ‘freedom’ resounding from the voices and bodies of the young people of the choir carried forward the rhyme of liberdade/ felicidade (freedom/ happiness) with which Roberta had closed the afternoon’s ceremony. The soaring notes of the choir’s voices and the young dancing bodies fused with the lament that the lyrics voiced, confirming their assertion of the co-existence of alegria and pena (joy and sorrow). The best kind of learning is that which compels on us a gnosis of the body! Ananya Jahanara Kabir King's College London

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