The arts move to explore humankind’s origins
THERE is a growing arts movement all over the world that is exploring mankind’s desire to reconnect to the earth. For many years in the South African arts sector, this trend was more evident in the visual arts than in any other genre. It is only recently that there are indications that a growing number of performing artists are venturing into using the stage to explore the natural architecture of our planet, and to discover new, more harmonious relationships between mankind and the natural environment. Nature will always hold great mysteries. Some of these mysteries may not even be unravelled during our lifetimes. With each new discovery that scientists make in our natural environment, we continue to remain in awe and amazement of just how many more secrets remain to be unearthed from the depths of our planet. Theatre too does that to us. It leaves us stunned by just how much more we need to learn about ourselves. Playwrights use their words to create fascinating worlds that take us into a journey into the depths of the human spirit. The more they try to grapple with the complexity of our relationships with each other, the more those of us who are in the audi- spwi ence commit our focused gaze to them. When dramatists go beyond just writing about 1130 people’s interactions with each other but interweave their stories with our environments, then the complexity of the relationships they create becomes even so Ismail much more intense. Mahomed This kind of tension inevitably is the foundation on which all good theatre is built. This year at the National Arts Festival, four productions, namely Mia, Reverse, Little Foot and The Cradle of Humankind, will share a central ethos. All four productions will engage and provoke their audiences to ask questions about our origins. The productions will explore our relationship to our environment and to the central question of what it means to be human. That all of this is happening at the time when the world is celebrating the life and sciye entific contributions of the late Prof Philip Tobias makes it all so itmuch more meaningful. In simple terms, it 3 means Tobias’s work found its resonance p even amongst our 41 artists. The internationally renowned anthropologist died at the age of 86. Tobias was a respected authority on human evolution. His name was synonymous with research at the Sterkfontein caves near Johannesburg where an ape-man’s skeleton — millions of years old — known as Little Foot was discovered. The area, now a World Heritage site, is where more than a third of all known early hominid fossils have been found. More than just being celebrated as an important scientist, Tobias will also be remembered for his humanity and deep compassion for the lives of ordinary people. At his poignant funeral this week, tributes continued to pour in from all quarters. When the Market Theatre’s production, Little Foot, written by Craig Higginson, takes to the stage this year, there is no doubt that many in the audience will find their memories racing towards Tobias. Higginson’s play was first commissioned by the National Theatre, London, for the 2012 Connections Festival in the UK. With the story situated on a farm in the Cradle of Humankind, Higginson takes his audience down into the network of caves where the three-million-year-old hominid, Little Foot, was discovered. His journey is an exploration of how the best and the worst of us have their roots in the past, and how these two capacities are carried through into contemporary democracy. Reunion-based company Taliipot Theatre’s production, Mia, evolved after the company spent time in an arts residency in the Cradle of Humankind. Rock paintings and petroglyphs inspired the works of the actors and dancers. Guided by scientists on the site and inspired by traditional healers, the company ventured into exploring the alliance between man and nature. Their work too questions the roots of our identity and mobility. The physical theatre production, Reverse, explores the evolution of homo sapiens and the complex interaction between words, mind and body. In Steven Cohen’s The Cradle of Humankind, the internationally celebrated artist performs with his 90year-old domestic worker, Nomsa Dhlamini, in a production that Cohen describes as being inspired by his fascination with the Sterkfontein Caves. Like many scientists, Cohen too, calls it the birthplace of all of our human race. This interrelationship between science and art is fascinating. It challenges the myth that the sciences and the humanities have to exist in two separate spaces. Tobias’s life too was about challenging that myth. As one of the world’s greatest scientists he was also a great humanist. This interrelationship between science and art - all inspired by the Cradle of Humankind - and which will be staged at this year’s National Arts Festival is a wonderful tribute to a great man. It is even more powerful that the tribute to one of our best scientists is being paid by some of our country’s best artists. Ismail Mahomed is the director of the National Arts Festival. He writes in his personal capacity.