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By Storm Janse van Rensburg
Mlu Zondi creates performance indiscriminately for stage, gallery and public spaces. Reluctant to get caught up in the embedded politics of these charged sites, Zondi nonetheless engages with its respective audiences and publics, and calibrate concepts and works for each particular context.
Zondi works under the banner of Sololique Projacts (established in 2000 whilst still a student), a performance company with himself as principal member and incorporating other collaborators such as his partner, Ntando Cele, a poet and actor. Sololique Projacts has established an extensive repertoire of works, and as an ethos incorporates strong characterization, playing on stereotypes and tensions of ‘otherness’, whilst developing an idiosyncratic performance language.
His interest in making work in a visual arts context developed out of a sense that the contemporary dance world do not easily accept his brand of performance, and that in the early stages of his career positive feedback and encouragement were mostly received from visual artists and practitioners.
“My work is a direct result of the frustrations in trying to find creative ways through which to express myself. As a performer with a theatre background I had to find a style that will not only expose itself in one genre but can actually be celebrated in a variety of artistic platforms. The works are my own confrontations with issues that haunt me: identity, relationships and childhood memories. Suppressed emotions emerge during creations and performances that become therapeutic.
“Every time I create I try to challenge myself to come up with a new style that will not only challenge my creativity but can also challenge the audiences’ engagement. The audience should be able to engage with the work in a variety of levels thus when I create I work in layers. I work in collages where things that don’t have a connection and associations get shifted around in the work until there is a connection. My works are organic creations and they never reach a point of completeness. Everyday they evolve to take new forms and shapes and everyday they grow.
“The objection is also to see how far they can grow and how they will look once they are complete. That challenge keeps me working all the time as there will always be new material to be added to the work and new structures to be included. That means I will never be out of work and will always have a space to crush my demons.”
He is currently based in South Korea working with the Seoul Performing Arts Company until December 2007.
INCOGNITO, his latest production, is currently touring South Africa with funding assistance from National Arts Council of South Africa. It has been seen in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
In 2006 Zondi won the prestigious MTN New Contemporaries Award, curated by Khwezi Gule at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, with a work titled Silhouette, a collaborative piece with Ntando Cele. The work incorporates live video and is performed on large swathes of bubble wrap. Playing out as an exaggerated battle of the sexes, it explores representations of sexuality and identity. The work centers around two characters, fatally drawn to each other with an inevitably violent result when they finally connect.
Silhouette was most recently seen in Cape Town at the CAPE Africa Platform, with Thando Mama responsible for the live video images. This follows successful and acclaimed performances of the work at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, the FNB Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg and Jomba Contemporary Dance Festival in Durban. It was nominated for the Gauteng MEC Award for most Outstanding presentation of the Original Work 2007.
The outline of a new, unprocessed work titled XeYed were presented site specifically at Red Eye Art at the Durban Art Gallery which can almost be described as an endurance work, with no particular beginning, middle or end, nor with a distinguishable narrative drive. The work, similarly to others conceptualised by Zondi for previous Red Eye events, allows viewers a choice of the duration of their engagement with the performance.
An earlier version of Silhouette premiered at the National Dance Centre in Paris, France in 2005 as a work in progress during a festival of contemporary African dance curated by Faustin Linyekula.
In 2004 Zondi' participated in the KZNSA Gallery's Young Artist's Project in 2004 with a work titled IDENTIKIT. The work comprised of two components. Inside the gallery Zondi created an installation based on the traditional board game, Mlabalaba, with low suspended lights above the intersection of lines, usually reserved for the stones used in the game. Zondi replaced these stones (also referred to as cows) with his own body and during the opening night moved between these lit spaces, slowly illuminating parts of his body in the process. The second component consisted of Zondi setting of into public spaces in a zany costume of colourful rubbish bags and oversized sunglasses. The documentation from these performances was installed in the gallery during the run of the exhibition, steadily growing the body of work on display.
During the same year Zondi created LABYRINTHINE for Republic, a multimedia collaboration between visual artists, choreographers and performers directed by Jay Pather. Leading the audience through an installation audience members were confronted by an intense duet between Zondi and artist Vaughn Sadie, the latter following Zondi with live camera feed project large on a screen, the piece an uncomfortable and unflinching comment on the power of the gaze.
AND BEFORE THAT
A standout work presented during 2003 was FONTANA – another site specific Red Eye performance. Zondi installed a shower head inside a plastic gazebo in the middle of Smith Street outside the Durban Art Gallery (closed off to vehicular traffic for this particular edition of Red Eye), spurting water. Two masked performers, one in a rubber Mandela mask and another in a Hilary Clinton mask, swathed in rubbish bags, plastic coats and boots, engaged in a slow, continuous pas de deux under the flowing water.
AND EVEN BEFORE THAT
After completion of his performance diploma at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) Zondi spent time working in commercial and corporate theatre. A first break occurred when he was invited to a residency in Switzerland in 2002, with an opportunity to perform at the Lausanne International Dance Festival. Early influences include Jay Pather (a lecturer at DUT in 2000) and Boyzie Cekwana, the latter a role model when a teenager.
Zondi describes his early experiences as an orphan growing up with an extended family as instrumental in his drive to perform. Growing up in the 1980's and early 1990's he was active as a Pansula, and felt that performance allowed him to stand out and be special, in a home environment where he was never made to feel to belong.
His urge to study with no financial means made him work as a petrol attendant for three years after matriculating, saving for his further studies. This tenacity and endurance is still evident in his practice, in a context where the level of experimentation and risk in performance culture is unfortunately largely absent.
Zondi is looking towards revisiting Sololique Projacts' repertoire, and interrogating earlier works that were performed only once, wanting to develop further, and extract other potential underdeveloped concepts. A tour of three previous works, Silhouette, Incognito and Fontana is on the cards at various venues in 2007. INCOGNITO was performed in Johannesburg in March 2007 as part of the Dance Umbrella. It will be performed in Cape Town in April as part of Cape 07 together with SILHOUETTE. Both works will form part of EXPERIMENTA, his Solo exhibition at the KZNSA Gallery in August 2007.