- Performance and the Afterlives of Injustice: Dance and Live Art in Contemporary South Africa and Beyond by Catherine M. Cole
How do we contend with the longue durée of colonialism? How can performance make visible legacies of colonial injustice that so often hide themselves from view? What strategies do artists use to decolonize performance practice? These are some of the driving questions for Catherine Cole and the artists she writes about in Performance and the Afterlives of Injustice. The book is composed of performance analyses of seven African dance-makers who, for the most part, have received little scholarly attention. In this text, Cole eloquently weaves together scholarship from across performance and theatre studies, critical race theory, and postcolonial studies to analyze a representative sample of the artists’ work. These artists, Cole argues, offer theoretically generative work that intervenes in colonial histories with “clear-eyed awareness of the corrosive and toxic forces the afterlives of injustice can unleash” (218).
The book reflects Cole’s expertise in performance studies and African studies. While dance is a new area of analysis for her, her ability to integrate sociohistorical forces with rich performance analyses carries over from her previous work on the South African Truth Commission and Ghanaian concert party theatre. In this book, Cole combines in-depth analyses of the performances themselves with a deep understanding of the political, historical, and social contexts that inform them. The result is a study that combines aesthetic criteria with political argument and weaves together postcolonial theory and live performance.
The book is divided into four chapters, each of which stands on its own as an investigation of a set of questions or a theoretical device. Unlike the rest of the text, which focuses on dance, the first chapter examines a play, Statements After an Arrest (1972), written by famed South African playwright Athol Fugard. Cole uses her analysis of the play, one of Fugard’s lesser-known works, to set up the larger context in which the dance artists she writes about draw on, work in, and live. Statements After an Arrest, she argues, contains within it a curated framework to understand the stakes of bodily autonomy and subjectivity during apartheid and in its wake (a formulation that invokes Christina Sharpe’s notion of wake work). The play and the politics of its production during the politically turbulent 1970s explains the colonial racialization of bodies as well as performance’s place in the resistance to apartheid logic and policy.
Chapter 2 examines the work of South African dance-makers Jay Pather, Mamela Nyamza, and Sello Pesa. These artists challenge the prevailing idea that South Africa has moved past apartheid and reveal the continued presence of colonial ideology in everyday life. In order to do this, they use what Cole calls strategies of “delamination,” a form of deconstruction that breaks apart “the substance of ‘ordinary’ life” to reveal the toxic layers of assumptions, ideologies, and patterned behavior that are too often taken as normal in contemporary South African life (68).
All three artists deploy long periods of stagnation contrasted with active struggle. These juxtapositions, Cole argues, disrupt linear notions of time and force audiences to sit with the remains of the moment (what Cole names the afterlives of injustice). Pather creatively dodges cohesive narrative meaning in his works, instead presenting the audience with a series of unresolved encounters between individuals, ideas, and movement styles. In Pesa’s work, Bag Beatings, performers violently destroy a boxing bag for no explicit reason. Pesa, Cole argues, pushes audiences to contend with violent struggle on a highly abstract level and acknowledge their own role in such a spectacle. Nyamza’s work, which often draws on her own biography, also weaves together numerous aesthetic legacies to fasten a mode of being onstage that foregrounds her own [End Page 592] agency. She “wields the toxic remains of colonialism and apartheid but does not succumb to their corrosiveness” (101–2). Pather, Pesa, and Nymaza...