Wacky Steven Cohen nudges South Africans out of their comfort zones

Steven Cohen 3 (2)

Challenging tired old comfort zones: Performance artist Steven Cohen poses new ways of looking at art, identity and politics in the confusing context of South Africa today

WHEN 54-year old, controversial performance artist Steven Cohen astonished a sober gathering of arts lovers two weeks ago at the Wits Art Museum by bursting into the centre of them and doing his bizarre dance routine, anybody who happened to be thinking about something else was instantly riveted. He was dressed – actually only partially dressed, since much of his body was naked – in an outrageous get-up consisting of lily-white skin, high-heeled pointed shoes, naked backside behind half a black dress, and other tricks.

His entire performance lasted five minutes, then he was gone. But it left intriguing questions about what is art and identity, what is Jewishness – he wore a silver Magen David above his eyes and another mounted on top of his head which he discarded at a certain point, accompanied by music from Fiddler on the Roof – and what is the meaning of everything else?

The gathering marked the 80th birthday of a South African icon of the arts, Linda (Goodman) Givon, who for the past fifty years – through Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery – had encouraged, cajoled and facilitated development of a veritable parade of young black and white artists, during times when the apartheid regime did everything it could to discourage such mixing. The event marked a dignified end to her career, described eloquently by one of her gallery’s successes, celebrated artist William Kentridge, in his speech, and the handing of the baton to younger people.

Steven Cohen’s shaking up of conventional notions about identity, something he has done for the past twenty years, is a metaphor for the unpredictable events unfolding in this country today. Such as the thrashing which the ANC’s tired old men – epitomised by President Jacob Zuma and his cohorts – received in the recent elections at the hands of the young bucks of the EFF and DA opposition parties, which are bursting with fresh energy. The leaders of the latter parties – Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane – are in their mid-thirties and at the beginning of their political careers. Anything is possible.

In similar fashion, this country and its component minorities, including Greeks, Jews, Afrikaners and others, are in need of new, forward-looking people who recognise past history but are not hamstrung by old slogans hanging like lead balls around their elders’ ankles.

What will this country look like in twenty years time? No-one can say for sure if South Africa’s non-racial project will succeed. And what will minority groups look like, such as the Greeks and Afrikaners, when most of the older generation has passed on?

Given recent demographic trends, will the shrinking of the minority groups continue? If the size of the Jewish community today is already down to a mere 70 000 in a national population of 55 million, only half of its high point in the 1970s, will it have dropped to 30 000 in twenty years time? And if it is so much smaller, what kind of community will it be – both in Jewish and South African terms? Greeks and Afrikaners are asking similar questions.

Every generation has its challenges. Young South Africans who grew up after apartheid – the “born-frees” – do not want to be forced to follow the old Struggle catchphrases of their elders who fought apartheid. Those are now in the realm of folk history for most people, and things are different. Looking forward is the only meaningful path.

Every generation needs a Steven Cohen to shake things up and give a glimpse into a different way of looking at things. And it also needs the courage he has shown in charting his own path, despite the dangers it has sometimes posed. For example, on the day he walked onto Loftus Versfeld rugby field in Pretoria in 1998 during a match, dressed as an “ugly girl” in his characteristic, half-naked style, and confronted hundreds of conservative, macho, white – mainly Afrikaans – sports fans who couldn’t work out what he was saying to them, and some of whom wanted to attack him.

We live in exciting times, even if we can’t quite work out what it is all about.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

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