Peter Van Heerden
A Q&A with the South African performance artist
"Ubuntu" is a Bantu word that conveys an African humanist philosophy, and as promoted and discussed by figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, one of the organizing ideals of the Republic of South Africa following the transition away from apartheid rule in 1994. "Ubuntu" is also the title of South African performance artist Peter van Heerden's solo piece that he performs for the first time in Baltimore this weekend at the Theatre Project. The 37-year-old Cape Town resident has been visiting Baltimore recently, leading a few workshops in Towson University's MFA program, and his Ubuntu performance continues his ongoing exploration of white South African masculinity. Masculinity itself is an increasingly ripe topic in visual art--see also: the strong Mixed Signals: Artists Consider Masculinity in Sports currently at UMBC, and Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle is, in many ways, a highly symbolic meditation on American masculinity. City Paper caught up with van Heerden on a recent evening in Mount Vernon to discuss his work, confessing that we knew very little about it other than what we could glean online.
City Paper: Is Ubuntu part of a larger project? As in, are all of your projects related in some way or is this a stand-alone piece?
Peter van Heerden: This is a stand-alone piece, but my research goes all kind of the same. My research started looking at issues surrounding white masculinity. So it trying to unpack issues around me being a white African in contemporary society--[there's an attitude that] you weren't allowed to be African if you're white. So I try to look at those kinds of issues, and it's grown a little bit bigger and looks at our social order and constructs and how we kind of carry ourselves as human beings in Africa and the things we need to start doing. Ubuntu--the word comes from a kind of practice. Ubuntu is this notion we have in Africa where, a person is a person, but you also have a people. And we have the Rainbow Nation and we're doing fine, but perhaps you're not doing anything around this--people say, 'Oh, it's ubuntu' [which means], 'It's fine, it's cool.' But nobody's actually doing anything. So for me the word for was, kind of, What does it mean to actually practice ubuntu? The work doesn't show that necessarily, but the work is looking at why we arrived at this need to have ubuntu in South Africa, to deal with colonization.
CP: So when you say white masculinity in South Africa, is there a political element to that? Because, sadly, like many Americans, I am under-informed about the political and social issues affecting South Africa outside what makes it through to mainstream media, and I can only imagine I'm getting but a thumbnail sketch of South African cultural life. So if you have to give a short précis of any social-political history that might help inform somebody watching your performance, what would it be?
PVH: For me, I'm a white Afrikaans in South Africa. I speak English, but van Heerden is very Afrikaner. So when I started my research, with the political shift that took place, the white male suddenly became the abject identity--from being in the center of the social situation, the co-identity of the country, and suddenly finding itself on the outside. So it has to work hard to relocate and reorient itself. I mean, I grew up in apartheid--it wasn't my choice, but that's what it was. And now, I'm on the outside of the social structure and how do I read it, how do I face the world. I mean, I feel African--I am an African, and if anybody wants to tell me different they can fuck off. That's what I feel, so I'm trying to re-integrate those concepts and those ideas into what South Africa is. Because, yes, apartheid did exclude people, and yes, there is a stigma around being white, but we have to look at those roots and find out how we unpack them and deal with them.
I mean, I don't have the answers, but a lot of my work is about trying to stimulate a dialog or a conversation about it--what do we do now? Race is still an issue. We talk about this idea of we're unpacking the past in the present so we can enable future. But there still are lots of things in people's cupboards that they don't want to deal with.
CP: So this social shift is something you personally felt when it happened? There was a definite, observable change in how people carried themselves and interacted with each other?
PVH: Yes, and it's still kind of there. The younger generation, they didn't grow up with apartheid so it's not so much there for them, they don't have to deal with those kinds of issues. But there's all these pieces to the puzzle, and it's a beautiful puzzle, but we're not quite sure how to put it together. So I'm kind of trying to raise awareness about it and talk about it.
CP: How did you come to performance? Did you come out of visual art or the theater itself?
PVH: I studied theater. I studied physical theater. And went back and did my MA in 2004-'05.
CP: OK, here's another thing I'm completely ignorant of--what's the history of performance art in South Africa? I'm slightly aware of South African theater from Athol Fugard, who is somebody whose plays do get read and performed, and through him I've been exposed to, say, John Kani. But in looking at what I could of your work online, I immediately thought of rather classic politically minded body art--which can be what some Americans may think about when thinking about performance art, given the rise of it in the 1960s and especially the '70s. Is there a performance lineage in South Africa that's similar?
PVH: Yes, but the niches are a lot smaller than that. We definitely have drag--our fine art and performance relation is probably a bit more close. Theatrically, there hasn't been a very prevalent or strong movement, but there are always people out there who are doing this thing. A lot of them are overseas now. Steven Cohen is somebody everybody knows. I think a lot of us are looking at social-political issues.
CP: I was going to ask about that, because while we tend to think that body art of the '70s was political, it's not like American performance artists stopped pursuing that element. They didn't, and performance artists still do extremely strong work, it's just an aspect that doesn't get as much attention as other visual arts, although in recent years that's been changing a great deal.
PVH: I had an interesting conversation when I spent a week in New York [before coming down to Baltimore]. You know, being a performer in 2009, the genre of performance is so huge.
CP: It's gigantic.
PVH: And it's hard to put your finger into what genre of performance you fit into. And I talked to [Towson University Assistant Professor] Stephen [Nunns] about it, this notion of a solo performance artist seems to be endangering itself in America. A lot of people that were into that stuff are getting into ensembles and collaborations and doing things on a different scale and shifting away from that type. Whereas at home, I think we're still exploring the idea of a performance artist because the niche is still small. But I think social-political theater, in general--people aren't seeking it back home either. People don't want to deal with it or embrace it or--I don't know, but it still seems to find its way in. The things that I think are happening socially or politically I don't think are pretty or good, so I think they need to be looked at.
CP: When I look at your work, I see a range of cultural ideas coming together to collide. How do you go about incorporating the visual elements into your ideas of movement theater pieces?
PVH: I got to a point where I realized that I wasn't doing formal theater anymore--the constructs and rules of theater started to break with me. So I started to move out of the theater. And I started to investigate different Afrikaner heritage and culture. You know, we had the Voortrekkers, who were the guys who checked away from the British. So I took the concept of the Voortrekkers--so you have Voortrekkers and you have Draadtrekkers, and Draadtrekkers are on the fence. They're fence-sitters. A Draadtrekker is also a wanker. So we call ourselves Saamtrekkers--"saam" means to pull together. I call myself a Saamtrekker, and it's the idea to pull concepts and ideas and people together so we can move forward with something.
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