O, Brother Where Art Thou?
Tymon Smith

With spring seemingly arriving and the smoke and shouts of student protests apparently fizzling out, it was time last Saturday to take a saunter down to the Goodman Gallery for an opening. One of those familiar occasions where you walk in, wave to the usual suspects, pick up a glass of wine and wander around looking at the art offerings, while catching up on more chit chat and promising yourself that you’ll come back in the week and have a proper, considered look at the work.

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Thing is, this was the Goodman debut of The Brother Moves On and if you thought the multi member, musical performance art collective were going to let convention dictate how their opening was going to go, you were decidedly wrong. In the parking lot, some visitors donned white vests to participate in a mini-soccer game complete with night-glow ball and seats for spectators. The rest stood in a line, the gallery doors closed, opening every few minutes to admit groups of fifteen before closing again leaving the queue to wonder – what have they built in there? In a previous performance in the parking lot of the gallery in 2014 the group ended by setting fire to the stage. What would they do this time?

As a band TBMO have, for almost a decade, taken their eclectic blend of space jazz, psych-rock, afro-funk from their own lounge to the streets of Johannesburg to suburban house parties and festivals across the country and Europe. With their singular costumes and unpredictable performances they’ve engineered themselves as a shifting organism whose existence is predicated on the energy it emits rather than the personalities of its constantly evolving individual contributors.

You can see shades of George Clinton’s Funkadelic and Parliament or Sun Ra’s Space Arkestra in their performance and hear echoes of Philip Tabane and Madala Kunene in their sound but it’s in the whole – the happening – that they’ve carved their space in this increasingly disrupted age of social inequality and unresolved cultural tension. Their songs tackle social issues from crime to alcoholism to sexuality, masculinity, capitalism and inequality.

However standing in the queue waiting to enter Hlabelala: It’s a New Mourning Kush there don’t seem to be any jam session echoes emanating from within the Goodman so the question of what’s in store beyond the doors remains the most discernible sound travelling above the heads of the increasingly long line gathering on this balmy evening.

The title of the show refers to the passing in 2013 of founding member Nkululeko “Nkush” Mthembu and as the door finally opens, his brother and fellow founder Siyabonga appears at the door, dressed conservatively by his standards in a jacket and sporting spectacles, inhabiting the role of busy tour guide. He herds the group into a square on the entrance floor and has one of us read some text on a wall: “11 Official Languages. What’s so official about the borrowed name from East and West African tribe? Bantu and Nguni subscribe to migratory patterns like when greater grandfather used to work in colonial mine, and like him I will dig for the golden days of my history and bring them back to life.” Everyone is watching this through the screens of their phones realizing that the happening must be recorded in order to explain just what was going on to those who aren’t here later.

What follows is a hurried herding through a seemingly disparate assortment of tableau that touch on the passing of Nkululeko, the absurdities of the selfie-generation and include a performance by drummer Simphiwe Tshabalala insouciantly titled “Drumming and Fucking,” and “Alice in Pondoland,” a musical interlude provided by a group of musicians in a gold spray painted shack set. There’s a lot of gold spray paint – a reference to the precious metal at the heart of so much of the city’s history and culture and there are also plenty of visual jokes and prods at the middle class behaviours inherent in the idea of a gallery opening itself.

At one moment we’re all taking photos of Goodman director Liza Essers who is in turn taking photos of us taking photos of her in an endless feedback loop of proof that we are all here. You could argue that knowing the reputation of TBMO for not relying on anyone to provide them with space for performances or permission to do what they do, they’re perhaps taking the piss out of the whole idea of being gallery artists and biting the hand that feeds them. However to their credit the Goodman’s signing of the group is not premised on a production for market arrangement but rather a faith in them to bring new audiences to the gallery – the only real items for sale are CDs, tog bags and posters.

TBMO may be shaking up the space and appealing to “the woke” but underlying all the seemingly enjoyable fun and games is a discernibly more somber meditation on the passing of Nkush and its effect on the group. In its bringing together of disparate works by a large group of contributors, the show also demonstrates what is described as “the cathartic connection the group achieves in remembering and re-membering the idea of a constant and ever-changing collaborative effort.”

As the tour ends at a hanging sculpture of a gold sheep’s head suspended above a bowl there’s a plaque which reads, “We wanted to hang you but health and safety wouldn’t let us so we boxed you and we preserved you de-contextualised from your gods.” Back outside just before the doors are opened and everyone is released to explore the show on their own, the question becomes if you go to the show when the group aren’t there have you really experienced it?

The answer is no, not really as I discovered when I did that “let me come back in the week and look at the art properly,” trip this week. Removed of the performers what remains in the space are sets for a performance de-contextualised from the interaction that is needed to fully realize the “collective happening.” They are strange artifacts of an event that if you weren’t there to see it would be difficult to imagine.

However there is still in some, such as the outhouse toilet where you’re invited to sit, sing along and take a video or the corner where under a space helmet you’re encouraged to “say something stupid,” in front of a mirror, a hint of the infectious mockery of the ways in which we perform our lives within the disparities and contradictions that govern our supposedly post-Rainbow, post-racial, globalised, pro-aspirational, anti-historical society.

There’s also TBMO’s assertion that the “performances, installations and videos exhibited serve not only as explorations of the complex identity of black youthful opposition but also a way in which to question whether these contemporary traditions can exist with the established traditions of art institutions and discourse.” The ability to extrapolate and fully engage these ideas is perhaps dependent on a familiarity with certain traditional practices and African languages which I shamefully admit are severely lacking in my personal experience. Of course the shame in that acknowledgement is itself a result of the peculiarities and absurd nature of the history of a particular generation of South Africans and TBMO are not about to explain themselves so its up to those who don’t know to find out.

There will be further opportunities to experience the show’s performative aspects with several performances of certain aspects of the exhibition scheduled for the next week. With Siyabonga Mthembu contemplating life as an expectant father and a scheduled tour of the US in the works it remains to be seen in what incarnation the group will next appear and whether they will focus more on their practice as artists rather than musicians. Whatever happens TBMO will continue to be a unique organism evolving in ever more perplexing times, humourously yet gently but firmly pushing audiences towards confronting necessary questions about how we might all try to live in this strange place.

 

– The Brother Moves On / Hlabelela: It’s a New Mourning Nkush is at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg until 8 October.

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