The pieces Brett talked about stem from the angry gut of the black African/South African/African diasporic experience, drawing on the voice and imagery of the volk: Big Dada (2001) showcases the horrors of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s regime, expulsion of Indians and feeding enemies to crocodiles and hobnobbing with the Queen and rumoured cannibalism and all: “beauty, cruelty, horror, violence, glamour”, says the press. (Pretty much all the performers seem to be black men, often in race/gender drag.)
Brett: These little puppets are singing a song about how they were killed in a church… Here you see him eating the narrator of the drama.
Brett: The next day the police called everyone in for questioning. And I jumped on an aeroplane and got the hell out of there.
And then his performance installations. The Sea of Longing (2009), where visitors are invited to eat of a lavish Christmas dinner while Kenyan refugee Dorcas Moraas and her infant son Emmanuel sit in a cage, cut off from the riches, an accusatory mother and child. And his ongoing human zoo series, in which African Europeans revisit the history of black bodies being exhibited as scientific artefacts by posing frozen in museums, sometimes in historical dress, sometimes as refugees, stock-still except for their eyes, which gaze into the eyes of the mostly white visitors…
What’s troubling is, of course, Brett’s race – as a white South African artist, traditionally an oppressor, can he speak for black people? Anomaa and Rachael also speak for the oppressed in their countries, but they speak as outsiders, gingerly, testing boundaries, but Brett doesn’t talk about having such qualms, is unapologetic. (How much has it to do with white South Africans being a minority, not a majority? And why should it matters who says, as long as someone is saying?)
Brett: I'm aware of the problematics of being a white guy directing black casts. But it's there. It's what I do.
And it turns out he does take care. The folks in Harare are okay, and every time he advertises for collaborators for those shows, he lets them know from the beginning what the work is about: are they willing to go through with this?
Brett: They really walk into it with an awareness of what they’re putting themselves through. And there’s been no repercussions for any of them. Except for the ones we buried in the garden.
Always a joker, he. Except when he’s actually briefing his actors, it seems. In Sea of Longing, Dorcas was a co-creator of the art work, and he worked with a therapist to ensure she was fine with going on show. He also hired the same therapist for his European human zoos – only works with performers for that one, auditioning maybe 40 people, then sitting down with the top eight and explaining to them the history behind European racial classifications.
Brett: And I say, who wants to be a part of this? And some people feel very strongly that they do want to be a part of it. And some people don’t want to be a part of it. And in the rehearsal process for Exhibit B, I assign them each a character and they each take on a role: a way of sitting or standing, and I work with them on a back story, a characterisation, the same as they were working on Macbeth or Medea. And they’re often very dark, painful stories obviously.
So the first rehearsal is very painful, until the body finally finds its shape. Then it’s a reverse – it starts to become everybody in the audience is actually performing the role, and the actors are the audience.
And I work on an exercise, so that if you’re looking at me , wherever your eyes fall, it really empowers that part of the body. And there’s a group debriefing after the performance – what has come up for them. It’s not easy if you’re a black person having 200 white people look at you every evening.
But it becomes a healing process for many of them. They really speak about how, they’re able to deal with issues around their bodies and also racial incidents that have happened in the past. Somehow it’s become a really empowering performance.
Brett: When African people are sad, they dance and sing. When people are happy, they dance and sing. It’s not a stereotype. It’s just the way we are. Or they are.
Africa rocks, guys. Africa doesn’t know when to stop.