A World That Works for All
An Artist's Journey Beyond the Walls of Division
by Andre van Zijl
We enter a completely darkened room which is set up with a foot-wide border of white muslin covered by unlit candles alternating with round black river stones. The center of the room has a circle of muslin also with stones and unlit candles. There is a small select audience of anti-apartheid community members and friends, and two Caucasian performers painted black with white costumes, and two Xhosa performers painted white with black costumes.
The performers light the candles and take their respective places at opposite corners of the space. Standing in silence with the flickering candlelight creates moving shadows along the walls. Everyone waits for sound to activate the empty space.
It begins quietly; gentle rhythmic tapping stones accompanied by grunt-hum-chant-singing and the syncopation of waves crashing on the seashore in the background. Over a period of 45 minutes it builds in increasing intensity until reaching a final crescendo of cacophonic mayhem.
The interaction between the performers mimics the intensity of the soundscape, gentleness replaced by building violence, building up to the peak of frantic sound. Suddenly silence freezes everything in mid-motion. Into the pregnant silence the performers gather, bleeding, panting, and exhausted, around the circle of burning candles. Ritualistically and solemnly they begin tenderly removing the clothes and paint from each other, the sound of dripping water becoming a prayer until all racial distinctions are meaningless.
Bowing to each other the four gather candles from every part of the room, offering them into the water and, naked in darkness, exit the room.
It was 1971 and we were in the thick of the apartheid struggle. This was one of the underground performance pieces I designed and performed in on the Fine Art campus of the University of Cape Town where I was an art student at the time. When presenting my graduating folio of ink drawings and gouache paintings on “The Pornography of Apartheid,” the work was considered so provocative that the Dean (fearful that the government might close the school down if seen by official eyes) deemed it necessary for the viewers to show ID and sign a visitor’s book. Only then would one get a key to a locked room where the folio lay closed on a table. Once seen, the folio was closed and the small room locked up for the next viewer to resume the same ritual.
I come from the fortunate perspective of being graced as a successful professional artist, having had over 35 one-person shows with work in an equal number of museum collections. I was also known as a sacred activist, throwing tear gas canisters back into police lines during the Apartheid years; expecting a bullet between my shoulder blades when rescuing a badly wounded black youth from under the drawn weapons of three policemen during an Adderley Street anti-apartheid riot.
The freedom-from-Apartheid movement in South Africa was propelled by art and performance; the songs and dances of the disenfranchised masses. They unified struggle and freedom to literally dance and sing themselves into the promises of the Mandela years, despite the short-term failure of realizing them.
During the 1970s and 80s my art was apparently such a threat to the Apartheid regime that it was regularly monitored by the state secret police. My frequent exhibition openings were attended by members of the “flying squad,” the not so secret “secret police.” Their shiny gray rayon suits did little to disguise them, especially when their truncated trouser legs were rendered absurd by white socks stuffed into neon running shoes.
My home phone was regularly tapped, my art colleagues and I harassed by the police. For each art opening I designed an art-performance piece with a Xhosa friend, performed within a ritual space accompanied by a black choir singing freedom songs. Ultimately Nelson, the Xhosa artist, was beaten, jailed, and exiled from South Africa, and the black choir forcibly disbanded by the police. My home was invaded by police searching for evidence of anti-government materials. During the search, the commanding officer asked, “Why do you always work in black and white?” I was too astonished to reply. They left, without tidying their mess.
A More Global, Cosmic Belonging
Historically, art has been a vigorous David to the Goliath of entrenched corrupt power. See Goya’s “Disasters of War,” or Picasso’s “Guernica,” protesting the first recorded instance of unarmed civilians being targeted by Nazi fighter bombers in prewar Franco-era Spain.
Today is a time when such a “David” must rise against the threats to our collective well-being. I yearn to see sacred activism supporting such a role with the national and international interfaith community come alive through an artistic vision of a world that works for all.
We now live in a time of existential challenge, where the very survival of the planet as a supportive biosphere is in serious question. Art, expressed as both interfaith activism and spirituality, has a unique role in moving us beyond the lexicon of exclusive tribal affiliations. No longer can we take the collective “WE” to mean just “me and my circle of influence” or “my tribe.” The “WE” we wish to preserve must without question include all of life in each of its diverse, even contradictory forms.
We must learn through dire necessity to face this challenge together. We must transcend all boundaries of personal comfort and vested self-interest, learning as one species amongst many, to embody the values of a more global, cosmic belonging. We cannot question that we belong intimately to each other and that our fate is inextricably intertwined with the fate of the coral reefs, Amazon rainforest, starving masses, war torn refugees, state of the oceans, and bees; of every living and nonliving thing. We sink or swim together. We live and prosper or die together. “Enlightened self-interest” is the glue necessary to weld us into acting towards radical positive change..
Seen through the prism of art and creativity, a way forward for the interfaith/interspiritual movement might well be to continue creating collaborative opportunities to challenge the status quo in such a way that public opinion is naturally swayed towards the concept of adopting a more cosmic interbeing.
The mystic traditions teach us that no matter the prism of passage we travel, we ultimately must choose to relinquish the narcissism characteristic of an unrequited ego, for an unconditionality of being which infuses every act with a hidden and loving holiness. In this state, we can experience even the act of breathing as worship, filled with quiet gratitude for what is.
Art forges for us a path to to go beyond, to gain the farther shore, where we learn to stand, “self-subdued.” The most significant art we can hope to learn is how to live well; with grace and holy optimism within the context we find ourselves in.
Header Photo: “The Temple of Everyday” – Andre Van Zijl