Papyllon: My journey in South Africa

This year I had the incredible experience of travelling for my first time to Africa. I was awarded an Artist International Development (also my first time to receive the award) to work with acclaimed international poet Toni Stuart in Capetown. Just reflecting back on this experience I am filled with every emotion from warmth at the wonderful people I met, saudade (at missing them like mad) and then at the same time a combination of confusion, and anger at some of the other things I saw and experienced in South Africa.

We explored the complexities, nuances and discomfort around identity and ethnicity as people of heritage who often pass for white, exploring what privileges and what guilt that brings us, and how it affects how we view ourselves, can we view ourselves as women of colour? South Africa, with such a complex history of racism where it was actually illegal to be mixed heritage was a powerful place to locate the creation of this work. In the first week, before we began rehearsals, we attended the Cape History Tour with the incredibly inspiring Lucille Campbell, learning many untold tories of South African people of colour historically. I also visited the apartheid museum in Johannesburg and went to Robben Island: all of which were incredibly harrowing and important reminders of the history of this complex country and of how fear can lead to such atrocities in the world.

I found myself thinking a lot about privilege over the weeks I was in South Africa: around slavery and the lack of reparations or redistributing of wealth after apartheid, at the privileges I have experienced in life and at being able to be there on this incredible journey, at the opportunity to have had an education and at being able to create work which I truly love, at the very obvious divides in wealth in the city: for example the gates locking people in to their houses to protect their wealth. Then the bigger signs of privilege, for example on the day of our second performance I saw police moving homeless people sleeping rough in the centre out to other areas: which reminded me of many things that happened during apartheid with re-housing, or of stories I had read in Trevor Noah’s ‘Born a crime’.

Papyllon was a deeply personal piece for both Toni Stuart and I to create, and took the form of the heroine’s journey to speak about our mixed heritages; what we, as women, learn and un-learn from our mothers; and how we step into our own lives. Papyllon was also inspired by the four stages of transformation in the lifecycle of the butterfly and alchemy or transformation in the form of healing and stepping into our best selves.

There is a strong tradition of ancestor worship in South Africa: making offerings to, honouring and respecting our ancestors, and a belief that our ancestors maintain a spiritual connection with their living relatives. Doing some of this work myself I was struck to see this drawing below of us with the long line of our ancestors behind us (the women to the left, the men to the right) and how much it resembles a butterfly or bird. I wanted to work with the butterfly in Papyllon because it is reborn during its lifetime on earth, and I wanted to allow this experience to be a cleansing and a rebirth for us and our ancestors.

Via Dancing Words collaborations: I have interpreted the poetry of Warsan Shire, Karen McCarthy Wolf and Mona Arshi, but this would be my first time to creating work as a true collaboration with a poet and sharing the spcae. I learnt a lot stepping into the poetry world about the power of language and communication: especially in a country where there are 12 national languages. I found myself thinking a lot about how language can be a powerful tool to oppress and to empower. Poetry being one very empowering tool: just like song, to allow people to have a voice. There is a deep healing that can happen in a poem, and as I got to know the community further during the Open Book Festival, I was struck by the truth in poet Phelisa Sekwata’s words: ‘Poetry is a healing.’

Whilst I was in Cape Town, it was experiencing its worst drought in over a century. The campaign was city wide, asking us to limit our showers to under 90 seconds, to avoid bathing, to put a bucket in our showers and sinks to collect water and use the run-off to flush toilets or water plants and to avoid flushing (if it’s yellow let it mellow). I found this made me think very differently and deepened my respect for water and its scarcity and also mother nature. The city is just beautiful, almost entirely surrounded by mountains and on the coast, it is hard not to feel deeply connected to nature here. As our piece is water based, we found ourselves talking often of the drought. As is customary in South Africa, we often associated Sacred Earth Mother as a living being- a spiritual Mother with the life-giving, nurturing qualities of our mothers. I wondered: if we humans were to treat mother earth with the respect, kindness and care we do for our human mothers, if we would still be facing droughts and other environmental crisis across the world?

Over the two weeks, we truly dived in and created a beautiful working environment: we ate together, stayed together, walked along the beach at sunset, we warmed up and meditated. We discovered three main themes in our work: Mothers, womb and water. The piece became about our mothers: a celebration of them, a celebration of our families and our ancestry. We began to dig deeper in this second week… to look further at the elephants in the room (this is how I make work), and to think about what is missing and what is too much. I believe each piece has its own personality, and it is about listening to and letting that persona be revealed.

Toni and I spent 2 weeks rehearsing in Stellenbosch in a circus, followed by a week of performances: one at the Institute for Contemporary Arts’ Live Art Festival and two performances at the Open Book Festival. We created a short projection of our families, in particular our mothers, to project onto the silks for our second performance where we knew we could not put weight on the silks.

It was a beautiful show. I have gained so much in this experience: in creating this show and in bringing it to life in such a short space of time, and in understanding a little deeper myself and how our stories can help and heal. There were so many beautiful responses and tears to this show, and I would now love to see how it is received in the rest of the world, or as we began to imagine, as collaborations on different artists of mixed heritage across the world. In addition to the performance, we took part in a post show talk at the Open Book Festival, and a panel discussion, both of which continued to reveal lots to us and audience members around this dialogue about being of mixed heritage.
We also collaborated to run a workshop at Toni Stuart’s Athlone Young Poets in a local secondary school, which was a most beautiful experience: seeing and imagining how wonderful it must be to have teachers who look like you growing up, seeing how talented all the young poets were, and seeing them bringing their poetry to life using movement. I look forward to seeing some of them in the UK in December where they will be performing their work (more details coming soon).

It was truly an unforgettable experience this summer. Art is a powerful tool to raise awareness of inequalities and transform trauma through expression and creativity, and this is a perfect example of that experience. I was delighted to be able to finalise the work as a duet, and I love how the work has developed. This experience allowed me to dig deeper in terms of my performance states, and over the rehearsal period I have further understood my process and how I love to invest from a deeply personal place for the true deep healing of telling personal stories to happen. I recognised in South Africa how important this work was for my own mental wellbeing: I felt emboldened to share my own story working with Toni: I learnt that stories are therapeutic, and that the healing experience of bringing these issues out into the open was freeing.

I was able to connect to this continent where I have a lineage and ancestry, and to learn about the history hands on through experiences such as Lucille Campbells transcending history healing tour and work into my ancestry. Being in South Africa there was a different learning around my own identity as a person of mixed heritage, a stepping into who I am and a positive impact being in a country where people are willing to talk about racism in a more open way. There was also a standing my ground in terms of realising who I was and was not prepared to spend time with in a country so divided on race issues, and in learning and understanding how I can work with mother nature and how I can contribute to or have a positive impact for change in the world. Art is a healing tool, an opportunity to tell herstory, to pave the way with positive heroines of different heritages, body types, experiences and empower and embolden future generations to create an even better world in the future.

Being around poets was truly a wonderful experience, and I am sure that this importance of language positively affected me and my experience making my next piece of work Foreign Bodies (for which I recently wrote an entire script). Working with Toni, I was able to learn a lot about myself and my practise, and to delve deeper into how to stand fully in and hold that with a new found confidence. I learnt to go slow: the importance of and the opportunity to reflect on my practise: I have decided this year to take a kind of sabbatical to look at my practise and the future of Ella Mesma Company: thank you Toni Stuart for this revealing!

Thank you to the Artist International Development Fund supported by Arts Council of England and British Council for this opportunity, and to the beautiful heart that is Toni Stuart. Thank you also to all the wonderful humans I met and South Africa: you are forever in my heart.
Thank you for your follow