Guest blog

United African Utopias: A performance art piece remakes Johannesburg

During the last weekend of 2012, there unfolded in Johannesburg an astonishing collaboration between the Goethe Institute and artists João Orecchia, Hans Narva, Mpumi Mcata and Tanja Krone. They excavated a hidden version of Africa’s most industrialised megalopolis. RICHARD POPLAK tagged along, and went back to the future.

Sometimes, you have to wonder about the press release guff: “The three-day performance festival SPINES invites the audience to move along the city’s urban routes using minibus taxis, their own feet, the Gautrain, and bicycles. They see, hear, and feel performances in different neighbourhoods from Sandton to Soweto.”

Prince, or Michael Jackson?

Yes, that’s certainly what occurred during the four-and-a-half-hour extravaganza subtitled United Africa Utopias, which took place during the last weekend of 2012. But it wasn’t what it was. For instance, it didn’t explain the two young women in Afro-futurist flight attendant uniforms – think Ethiopian Airlines, when they finally introduce sub-orbital rocket travel – who greeted us at the Siemart Street Rent-A-Wreck, now heavily under construction.

Best car in the lot

After a brief interrogation, we are ushered downstairs into a sub-basement, where Rent-A-Wreck’s finest specimens lurk, and introduced to the thematic spine of the show. An ethereal black goddess appears on a well-placed flat screen, tells us not to be afraid, warns us “to take mental pictures only” – and reminds us that, “reality is something agreed upon by seven billion people.” We are about to go on a journey, into the possible, the probable.

Not about to play Generations

We are handed a tote bag, heavy with goodies. Electrical tape, a postcard series, two Chappies, a bottle of water, other miscellanea. Also, a radio, which we are instructed to turn on and tune to a local station. A wry narrator guides us upstairs, into the light, and the capable hands of our two stewardesses.

Not about to play Lady Gaga

Next, we are read the rules. Stay close together, in buddy formation, in single file, in a circle, or in a group huddle. We’re about to head out into the wilds of downtown Johannesburg, a legendarily dangerous place. But United African Utopias uses Johannesburg’s bad rap as something of an undertone. It is more interested in making new narratives out of the city’s small storefronts, or gaudy signs. This is isn’t a logical or historical reading of the city, but a possible reading of the city.

Mannequins, an important element of United African Utopias imagined past. I think.

In other words, the city becomes a stage, a venue for an elaborate performance. That actual people live in downtown Johannesburg, some of them in desperate circumstances, certainly makes this vast work of experimental art go down like a bitter draft – if art is the ultimate luxury product, consuming it among the squalor and desperation of one of the most unequal cities on earth makes it all the more tough to swallow. Are the (mostly) black faces that whip by in a blur meant to be treated as objets d’art – because in this context, with no chance to interact, how else should they be considered?

The present, or the future- you decide

But this, surely, is the point. Why else would the performers assemble the 14 participants/viewers into neat rows, with the two hostesses herding us along like Korean tourists in Disneyland. The discomfort, the outright shame this causes is part of the process – and lands differently depending on the participant’s relationship with Johannesburg.

Subject, or object- you decide

We waddle by the Carlton Centre SterKinekor, where I used to sneak into to see age-restricted movies in my early teens, and the arcade where I played Lady Pac Man until my elbows gave in. The nostalgia, the sense of belonging, was undercut by the fact that the tour made me a spectacle, and defined me as an outsider, a tourist. The word “decline” – typically associated with the area around the Carlton Centre – is challenged, because this is a city in full flight, bustling furiously with commerce. But I knew that already. Knowing, though, isn’t enough – United African Utopias wants to make sure I could not lie to myself about my “right” to belong, not only in Johannesburg, but in any of the imagined Utopias the show evokes.

Remember when this was the fanciest spot in Africa? Me neither.

For another participant, a white Canadian woman of South African parentage and a former trade unionist and academic who has lived in town for years, the performance was just as troubling – perhaps because she felt her ’hood being denuded of its current context, being turned into a playground. For my wife, a seasoned traveller but new-ish to the city, it was a series of experiences – a window into Africa 3.0. She did not see the “decline”, because for her, there is no “before and after liberation” narrative, no matter how well versed she may be in the country’s history. As far as Johannesburg is concerned, the clock starts ticking now. The city is what it is, not what is was.


This range of associations is central to the performance’s power. SPINES is free – anyone with four hours leisure time can take the tour. And it will reveal something surprising to any Jozi hand, new or old, because its range is so vast. How vast? We’re hustled into a minivan, driven to Hoek Street – through the imagined Utopias of Zumania, Jujustan and Nepotisimala (the names should give you an idea of just how intentionally funny, and terminally self-aware, the performance is) – and into the ultimate Utopia. Vadaland, where men are merely “worker bees, used for their seed”.

“Do not – do NOT look the women in the eyes. You are nothing here!”

I know what you’re thinking: all that’s missing is the township tour. Our stewardesses hustle us onto the Park Street Station, put us on the Gautrain, and perform a hilarious send-up of an emergency procedures routine. Our stop: Marlboro, from where we are driven through the streets of Alexandra to the banks of the Jukskei, for lunch.

Not a traditional Alex lunchtime. But I could be wrong.

(The goats eating the garbage on the banks are famous for being used in an earlier installation: several Alex-based artists herded them to Sandton City, to drink from the fountain in Mandela Square.)

Homeward bound, wherever home is…

The performance ends at Maboneng, in a dazzling little tableau that ties everything together. I don’t want to offer spoilers, in case SPINES is performed again (I’ve left out a couple of the most profound surprises.) But if it is, do not miss it. This is a stunningly ambitious, deeply troubling, but effortlessly entertaining show. Superb.

SPINES is part of NEW IMAGINARIES, the Goethe-Institut’s series of festivals which engage with public space in Johannesburg.

© The Daily Maverick

More Johannesburg related reading on SLiPnet:

In search of lost soles

Joburg a ‘haunted landscape’, a ‘fictive city’

Joburg: Africa's best read

The conversational moment

The whole place is science fiction’

Fabulation as mediation: Lauren Beukes’ ‘Zoo City’

o johannesburg

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