AMONG the people who are relieved at political centrist Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election on Sunday, are arguably South African artists who have benefited over the years from French support. Macron won 66 per cent of the vote, against far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen’s 34 per cent, which is nevertheless a significant percentage and also revealed the uglier, chauvinistic side of French society.
Their contrasting world views is not just political, but about values – Macron’s belief in creative, positive engagement with the world, versus Le Pen’s emphasis on a French machismo and rejection of ‘the other’ – such as immigrants and refugees – entwined with grandiose patriotic posturing. Her supporters have compared her immoderately to French historical heroine Joan of Arc.
Last week a moving ceremony at the French Embassy in Pretoria showcased French openness when South African dance guru Georgina Thomson, long-time artistic director of Johannesburg’s annual Dance Umbrella, was knighted by the French ambassador, along with Soweto-born dancer Gregory Maqoma, artistic director and founder of Vuyani Dance Theatre. The latter is a protégé of contemporary dance pioneer Sylvia Glasser, who started the mixed-race company Moving into Dance Mophatong in the garage of her Johannesburg home in 1978, seeking out talented young black and white dancers and turning them into skilled professionals – a brave act at a time when the apartheid regime frowned on such inter-racial activities.
Other protégés of Glasser have thrived in France, including Vincent Mantsoe whose company Association Noa is based in Saint Pont. Glasser was knighted by the Netherlands in 2014 for her achievements.
Backing for South African arts has brought French artists to South Africa and promoted local artists internationally. In 1991 the iconic ‘white Zulu’ singer Johnny Clegg was knighted by France for his courageous voice against apartheid in its darkest years, and legendary South African choreographer Robyn Orlin received the French Order of Merit in 2009 for her “spirited and dedicated work in the sphere of arts and culture.” A similar honour was given in 2013 to Johannesburg-based artist William Kentridge.
Provocative performance artist Steven Cohen, who broke new ground for his genre locally, was headhunted by Paris-based Ballet Atlantique’s Régine Chopinot in 2002 and now lives in Lille, France. His seminal work Golgotha, which debuted at the prestigious Fest d’Automne at Paris’ Pompidou Centre, was billed by critics as the definitive 9/11 artwork in its engagement with loss. Cohen’s confrontational work later offended some Frenchmen in 2013 when he tied a rooster – the ‘Gallic rooster’ is a French symbol of nationhood – to his genitals at the Place de Trocadéro, known as the Human Rights Square near the Eiffel Tower, and subsequently was fined after a trial for indecent exposure.
As today’s politically tense South Africa attempts to clarify its own distinctiveness, and as militant ‘anti-colonialism’ among certain political activists wants to cut off European influence in all spheres, engagement with the French and other countries is doubly important. While nurturing indigenous, local arts is crucial to South Africa’s quest for a new identity, so is openness to the best of world culture, of which the French are a great example.
The rise of ultra-nationalists globally such as Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May in the UK, with their inward-looking ethos, will endure for the foreseeable future. A Le Pen win would have given another boost to this phenomenon and conceivably raised questions about continuing international support for the arts. For now, for Jews, growing anti-Semitism in France is causing extreme unease, which has led many Jews to emigrate to Israel and elsewhere. Some 94 per cent of French citizens who cast their ballots in Israel, voted for Macron. Negative sentiment against other minority communities, particularly Muslims, is running high.
Macron’s win, however, seems to be an encouraging sign from the liberal centrists that they are still a force to be reckoned with.
- Read about the Pretoria knighthood ceremony here