With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, U of T’s Jackman Humanities Institute has embarked on collaboration with the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.
In the hot, arid, dust-storm-swept Karoo region of South Africa lies Barrydale, a culturally diverse town of English- and Afrikaans-speaking residents with a large expat community. The town still shows traces of apartheid, when it was divided to separate whites from non-whites, many of whom are direct descendants of the Indigenous Khoisan tribe. Over the hill is Smitsville, one of countless former townships where non-whites were forcibly displaced and segregated—out of sight, out of mind—during apartheid. Twenty-three years after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the horrors of colonialism and its legacy persist in this region—a fact that is brought home sharply on the drive from the airport to Cape Town, which winds through a veritable sea of shantytowns stretching as far as the eye can see.
THE BARRYDALE PARADE
It was here, in 2010, that the founders of the Handspring Puppet Company—Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, the inventors of the critically acclaimed War Horse—began a seven-year project to bring puppetry to the disadvantaged. Committing funding from their Handspring projects and in collaboration with the Barrydale community and the University of the Western Cape, they conducted intensive puppetry workshops with emerging artists. They then took the annual Barrydale Parade—held on December 16, South Africa’s National Day of Reconciliation—and, together with hundreds of members of the community of all generations, created a veritable multilingual visual extravaganza that investigates slavery and other incendiary topics through the medium of object performance. In the process, Kohl and Jones nurtured the first Black South African puppet company, the Ukwanda Design and Puppetry Collective.
For the 2016 production, the artists decided to explore the Khoisan community’s ancestral connection to the land and animals, including the issue of land stewardship raised by game farms and tourist safaris. After spending weeks at Addo Elephant Park closely observing the animals’ behaviour, they constructed five life-size elephant puppets, and explored how to animate them as they developed a script in rehearsal. They titled the production Olifantland, based on a Lawrence Anthony book, Elephant Whisperer, a real-life account of a conservationist who adopted a herd of ‘rogue’ elephants.
FORGING A SOUTH-NORTH DIALOGUE
In the lead up to the production of Olifantland, Sonia Norris, a Toronto-based theatre artist and PhD candidate at U of T’s Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, arrived to work as an assistant director. She had been invited by the director, Aja Marneweck, a Cape Town puppetry artist and artistic director of Paper Body Collective, to share her knowledge of clown and physical comedy with the performers through developing comic characters in rehearsal.
Norris was there as part of a four-year collaborative venture between U of T’s Jackman Humanities Institute and the University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Humanities Research on the topic Aesthetic Education: A South-North Dialogue, which was made possible by a philanthropic grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The University of the Western Cape is a historically non-white university that played a central role in the anti-apartheid struggle. It was here that activists gathered in the years of Nelson Mandela and the first democratic elections in order to design the new South African constitution, a model for the rest of the world. The University of the Western Cape is now the home of the Mayibuye archives, the most important trove of anti-apartheid documents in the world.
Neil ten Kortenaar, a professor of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and of comparative literature, is the principal investigator on the Mellon-funded project. He explained why this unusual trans-Atlantic collaboration was forged. “Central to the Centre for Humanities Research’s understanding of the humanities is the notion that art can be an instrument of social, political and philosophical inquiry that yields results beyond those that traditional discursive theoretical approaches are able to.” Aesthetic education, in other words, is not just a question of theory, but is informed and tested by artistic practice: the arts are essential to develop and challenge ideas.
But there is another aspect to their philosophy that was particularly intriguing to the Canadian scholars. “The Centre also emphasizes bringing ideas to and learning from the local townships, in the belief that a university cannot remain apart but must be in dialogue with the community. These are things that we can learn from,” he said. The intention of the South-North collaboration is to extend the dialogues that the Centre already fosters between scholars and artists, and between the university and the local community, and to nurture dialogues across hemispheres and between nations.
THE ART OF PUPPETRY, THE AGENT OF CONCILIATION
Puppetry is one of the areas being explored in the South-North Dialogue because it offers a particularly compelling example of art as civic engagement in impoverished communities that, the project participants believe, has the potential to inspire similar initiatives in Toronto.
Larry Switzky, a professor of English and drama at the University of Toronto Mississauga who heads up the puppetry collaboration along with Slavic studies professor Veronika Ambros, explained that puppets are powerful tools for political expression.
“The art of puppetry trains us to see the potential agency in things through the capacity of any object to take on life and become a performer,” he said. “At the same time, puppetry is a ‘poor art.’ Puppets can be made out of everyday objects or even refuse, and puppet performances can be mounted anywhere.” As such, puppets flourish where other art forms are censored.
Switzky and Ambros had attended the parade as observers back in 2015, and are returning with Norris in 2017. They plan to develop a course that will be held at the University of Toronto in the fall of 2018. It will culminate with the participation of the entire class in the 2018 production of the Barrydale Parade.
Norris is sensitive to the fact that cultural differences and economic inequalities can pose an enormous challenge to thinking and working in the area of aesthetic production. Over her 20-year career, she has directed productions and taught theatre and circus workshops in countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa, as well as in Indigenous communities here at home, including social circus with Inuit youth. Artists and intellectuals working in aesthetic production, she believes, need to keep these differences in focus, especially when one is a non-Indigenous artist working within an Indigenous community.
“It can be challenging, but I think right now we must stay present with the discomfort in order to find a way forward together,” she explained.
When asked how the experience of working in South Africa compared with Canada, Norris said that although South Africa is 20 years ahead in terms of truth and reconciliation, neither nation is doing particularly well. She points to the fact that, despite the media attention paid to issues like the quality of the drinking water and teenage suicides, nothing much is changing in many northern Indigenous communities, including those in which she’s worked.
“It’s expecting a lot to head toward reconciliation when we haven’t had conciliation first. So what do we need to do to make that happen? The most important act we do as human beings is to create—to activate our imaginations and envision something that doesn’t exist. If we can do that together, perhaps we can create a new world together. Perhaps we can create conciliation,” she said.
THE POWER OF HOPE
In fact, Norris is unrepentant about the power of hope. She describes her latest experience as one of “non-stop, constant joy,” despite the demanding conditions under which they all worked: 100 degree weather, under burning sun, with no shelter for 10 to 12 hours, amidst dust storms because there had been no rain. And yet, despite the fatigue and discomfort, the participants would always show up. “You watch four people work in harmony to manipulate a huge puppet with an intuitive sensitivity to an entire animal that does not even exist, but that they’ve spent weeks watching to get inside its body, mind and heart.” It was empowering, for the individual and the community—and subtly answered the ontological question posed by puppetry, and that underlines Norris’s own research: “Do we become more human by temporarily becoming other than human?”
And the fact that elephants are neither black nor white is symbolic: “If we collectively feel for the elephant, then that is not an act of assimilation, but a connection to collective humanity,” she said. “If we experience our humanity together, perhaps we can find a way to live together.”
Story by Diana Kuprel
ABOUT THE ANDREW W. MELLON FOUNDATION
The Foundation’s mission is to strengthen, promote and defend the contributions of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies. It has been a longstanding supporter of the humanities at the University of Toronto.
(top) Community rehearsing for the big show. (middle) Sonia Norris with Handspring Puppet Company’s Basil Jones. (bottom) Sonia Norris works with children of the Barrydale community. Photos courtesy of Sonia Norris