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2. Interviews with African artists who performed at the Festival de Marseille (2014-2019)

Brett Bailey: Ritualizing creative energy

Interview by Fanny Robles (AMU)

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  • 1 On the French reception, see Fanny Robles,“From Reverse Ethnography to Cultural Performance: Reenac (...)

1Brett Bailey is probably one of the most celebrated contemporary South African theatre artists, as well as one of the most controversial, as the heated European reception of EXHIBIT B in 2012-14 strikingly showed1. The visual artist and director is an habitué of the Festival de Marseille, where he came in 2014 to present MACBETH; Jan Goossens’s arrival in 2016 led to close and regular collaboration. For the Festival’s 2017 edition, Bailey’s tableau vivant SANCTUARY was staged on the lowest floor of the Friche La Belle de Mai, a former tobacco factory converted into one of Marseille’s prominent cultural hubs in the 1990s – a hidden space below ground to tell the stories of refugees stuck in the labyrinth of European oppression. In 2018, Bailey’s thought-provoking photographs were the face of the Festival on the city’s buses and display panels, at a time when the Town Council (the Festival’s main backer) had been conservative (with the same mayor) for more than two decades. Finally, SAMSON, Bailey’s last creation to date, was originally planned for the Festival’s 2019 edition, in the early stages of programming, but it had to be reluctantly set aside in the final budget. After a year of cultural ‘pause’, the performance eventually went to Avignon in 2021. This interview was conducted on January 23, 2020, and updates were inserted between brackets in December 2021.

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Luthando Tsodo (original cast) in SAMSON, 2019, Woordfees, South Africa

Luthando Tsodo (original cast) in SAMSON, 2019, Woordfees, South Africa

© Nardus Engelbrecht

3Your work is particularly appreciated by the Festival de Marseille, who co-produced SANCTUARY in 2017 and invited you to design the Festival posters for the 2018 edition. Could you tell us more about your relationship with the Festival and the city?

4My relationship with the Festival and the city stems from my much longer relationship with Jan Goossens, the artistic director of the Festival de Marseille. Jan and I got to know one another several years ago, during his time at the artistic helm of the Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg (KVS) in Brussels. Jan presented my work there a few times, and invited me to attend a festival that he was operating in Kinshasa. We see eye to eye on many things. Enduring relationships like these are valuable to both artists and presenters.

5I have presented two works at Festival de Marseille: MACBETH and SANCTUARY. The city has a strong energy: it is beautifully located and – standing where it does at France’s doorway to the Mediterranean – has been pollinated by a rich diversity of influences throughout its history. The tensions between right-wing conservatism, great wealth, the church and a thriving, multi-cultural working class are tangible, and strikingly visible in the geography of the city, and the graffiti-splattered walls of 19th century piles.

Posters designed by Brett Bailey for the Festival de Marseille’s 2018 edition

Posters designed by Brett Bailey for the Festival de Marseille’s 2018 edition

© Brett Bailey © Festival de Marseille

6Not to oversimplify your multidisciplinary artistic practice but your work seems to oscillate between tableaux vivants installations (BLOOD DIAMONDS: TERMINAL (2009), EXHIBIT A (2010-2012), EXHIBIT B (2012-2016) and SANCTUARY (2017)) and musical theatre pieces such as MACBETH (2014) and SAMSON (2019). Do you feel the need to alternate between these practices to reach a form of artistic balance?

7You are correct, I do have that tendency. Generally, when I tackle a new piece, I have no clear idea of what form or shape or energy it will have. My evolving understanding of the content and energy of the piece informs the form it takes, and, as the shape emerges, it too influences choices I make regarding content. The three – content, energy, form – are inextricably intertwined. And so perhaps it’s an unconscious need – this oscillation between still installations and theatrically ebullient works: the satisfaction of the Apollonian and Dyonisian aspects of my self.

Alexandros Asaad in SANCTUARY, Theater Der Welt, 2017

Alexandros Asaad in SANCTUARY, Theater Der Welt, 2017

© Theater DerWelt

8For your last piece SAMSON you have collaborated with one of South Africa's foremost jazz and electronic musicians, Shane Cooper. What was your creative process?

9Music is often my starting point for scenes when I am writing: I have a sense of what the scene sounds like, and then the visuals emerge, and then the performative aspects. At the time of writing SAMSON, I was listening to dubstep and electronica from the mid 2000’s, and contemporary ambient electronica: Radiohead, UNKLE, Kode9, Burial.... I would often have one or two tracks in my mind when I was working on a scene.

10Shane and I began working together about 3 months before the premiere in late 2018, in Cape Town. In the successive scripts that I sent him, I listed tracks for him to listen to, with directions: ‘I like the emptiness of this track; the driving rhythms here; the way the drums come in at this time code…’ I wrote song lyrics, and asked him to listen to this or that song to pick up the feeling. Gradually the soundtrack – played live in the performance from beginning to end – shaped up.

Abey Xakwe, Apollo Ntshoko, Zanele Mbizo, Mapumba Cilombo, Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi (original cast) in SAMSON, 2019, Woordfees, South Africa

Abey Xakwe, Apollo Ntshoko, Zanele Mbizo, Mapumba Cilombo, Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi (original cast) in SAMSON, 2019, Woordfees, South Africa

© Nardus Engelbrecht

11SAMSON’s cast is headed by dancer-choreographer Elvis Sibeko in the role of Samson. Sibeko is also a sangoma (traditional diviner), and you two made sure his spiritual practice would play a part in his portrayal of the protagonist on stage. Your first plays iMUMBO JUMBO (1997) and IPI ZOMBI (1998) relied heavily on your study of Xhosa culture in the Transkei: are you in a way coming back to that inspirational source with SAMSON? How has this spiritual influence informed your work since then?

12A full answer to this question would be long and complex. The term ‘spiritual’ is very wide and open to such different interpretations. I am interested in ritualistic modes of performance, the transformative, heightening effect that they can have on performers and spectators, and the very powerful energy that can be released in such performance.

13I have never departed for very long from the inspiration that nourished my work in the mid-90s, which I found in the ceremonies and rituals of the Xhosa people. Subsequently I have investigated similar performance modes in other cultural contexts: Haiti, West and Central Africa, South East Asia… What I have learned has influenced and underpinned performances as diverse in style as the completely static EXHIBIT B and the volatile SAMSON.

Zanele Mbizo, Apollo Ntshoko, and Luthando Tsodo (original cast) in SAMSON, 2019, Woordfees, South Africa

Zanele Mbizo, Apollo Ntshoko, and Luthando Tsodo (original cast) in SAMSON, 2019, Woordfees, South Africa

© Nardus Engelbrecht

14Your work always has a very strong political dimension: do you think art can effect change and, if so, in what sense?

15Is my objective to try to effect change with my artistic work? Generally, I don’t believe so (though I might have occasional impulses or delusions in that direction). I guess I am more of a reporter than an activist, drawn to politically-complex stories, and synthesizing material from a wide range of sources (including my imagination and mythology), to describe situations in a multi-layered and not altogether unparadoxical manner.

16Some art undoubtedly can effect change, and often – because it tends to be heavy-handed and didactic – such work is not of great artistic interest to me. I do believe that social and political movements can effect change, and that art that reinforces the agendas of such movements – however subtly – can help to bring about change.

Karam al Kafri in SANCTUARY, Theater Der Welt, 2017

Karam al Kafri in SANCTUARY, Theater Der Welt, 2017

© Theater DerWelt

17What are you currently working on and what are your next projects?

18I am working on two projects:

19- rejigging SAMSON for international touring later this year [SAMSON was presented at Festival d’Avignon and GREC Festival Barcelona in 2021, and will be heading across the oceans again in 2022/3].

20- reworking my dramatization of the Orpheus myth – ‘THE STRANGER’ – to make in several cities around the world, with different and culturally diverse teams of creatives and performers.

21- [in late 2020, in response to the social restrictions of the pandemic, and the financial devastation to so many performing artists, I conceptualized and curated an outdoor night-time event on the farm where I live, in which 27 diverse musicians, performance artists and ritual workers host a series of intimate fireside performances in the wilderness along a river. Small groups of spectators visit a sequence of fires for 35-minute sessions. The event is presented again at the end of 2021, with a different array of cultural practitioners].

22France decided to organize a special cultural season focused on Africa this year — what are your thoughts about this?

23I haven’t looked into it in any depth, so I have no idea if there is controversy or debate about it. My belief is that the more access that audiences get to cultural forms, and diverse voices beyond those that they know, the more understanding and tolerance they will develop. This is particularly important in culturally dominant and imperialistic countries: their citizens may even begin to realize that their own sense of reality and how it is expressed might not be superior to the multitudes of others that exist. A diversity of cultural voices is always revitalising and enriching.

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Notes

1 On the French reception, see Fanny Robles,“From Reverse Ethnography to Cultural Performance: Reenacting Colonial Shows in Today’s France”, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 20: 7 (2018): 1037-1052.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Luthando Tsodo (original cast) in SAMSON, 2019, Woordfees, South Africa
Crédits © Nardus Engelbrecht
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/13030/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 5,1M
Titre Posters designed by Brett Bailey for the Festival de Marseille’s 2018 edition
Crédits © Brett Bailey © Festival de Marseille
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/13030/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 544k
Titre Alexandros Asaad in SANCTUARY, Theater Der Welt, 2017
Crédits © Theater DerWelt
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/13030/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,2M
Titre Abey Xakwe, Apollo Ntshoko, Zanele Mbizo, Mapumba Cilombo, Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi (original cast) in SAMSON, 2019, Woordfees, South Africa
Crédits © Nardus Engelbrecht
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/13030/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,7M
Titre Zanele Mbizo, Apollo Ntshoko, and Luthando Tsodo (original cast) in SAMSON, 2019, Woordfees, South Africa
Crédits © Nardus Engelbrecht
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/13030/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,2M
Titre Karam al Kafri in SANCTUARY, Theater Der Welt, 2017
Crédits © Theater DerWelt
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/13030/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,9M
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Référence électronique

« Brett Bailey: Ritualizing creative energy »E-rea [En ligne], 19.1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2021, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/13030 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.13030

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