Visual arts

Jay Pather

Many African artists address social movements of destruction through art

Jay Pather is a choreographer, multi-media artist, curator and writer. He is a professor at the University of Cape Town where he directs the Institute for Creative Arts. Curator for the Infecting the City Festival the ICA Live Art Festival in Cape Town, for the Afrovibes Festival in Amsterdam, co-curator for Body, Image Movement in Madrid and Spier Light Art in Cape Town, he is one of the performing arts experts working on the programming of the Africa 2020 Season.

Updated on 05/06/2020

2 min

Jay Pather
Jay Pather
© DR

You run two festivals in Cape Town, both organised by the Institute of Creative Arts of the University of Cape Town : Live Art Festival and Infecting The City. Why these two festivals ?

The viewing of artworks in both Cape Town, and South Africa more broadly, is largely determined by segregation and the apartheid topography of our cities. The Infecting the City festival started in 2007 in response to this and was conceived as a means to procure audiences by bringing the performing arts into public spaces.

The artists we work with as part of the Live Art Festival can take as much creative risk as they would like. This allows the artist to pursue a non-commercial approach to art-making and so that they may truly explore complexities of politics, social situations, and reforms they are interested in discussing without the imperative to entertain or procure large audiences.


How do you balance these two festivals with your activities at the Institute of Creative Arts?

They sit well together. The Institute of Creative Arts sits in two spheres: one is to do with live art and the other with the broad subject of public spheres. One of the big aims we have is to take the academic and research-based work we do and bring it into the public spheres. We do this through lectures, seminars, publications, and other public engagement programmes, including these festivals.


Are there differences in the work of artists in different parts of the African continent?

It is a double-edged sword. On the one side, we are clear that Africa is a continent of enormous magnitude and art cannot really represent the continent as a whole. But on the other side, there are certain common themes in African art. Most of Africa has been colonised, so there are certain clear similarities and they can be seen through how a country tries to re-navigate and reclaim its identity. Our common processes have gone from notions of colonialism to neo-colonialism, to post-colonialism and finally to de-colonialism, and it’s something that we share across the continent. ‘De-colonialism’ is in fact an interesting concept. It is a challenge to post-colonialism, as it is looking again at a time where countries were rid of their external rulers, but still felt the ravages of colonialism and of the mindset of that colonial oppressor. So really, de-colonialism is both a continued development and reaction to the post-colonial period, inasmuch as it allows us to truly form an identity from our own culture, but also reminds us about how we construct modernity and not retain the baggage of the past. This idea is something that runs through the African continent.

Because performance art is not something one can wrap up and sell— it is temporal — it is very difficult to sustain in economic terms.

Are they specific themes or issues that performing arts in Africa treat nowadays?

There is still a predominance of ‘crisis’ in its many forms. Many artists – such as Faustin Linyekula from Congo, Boyzie Cekwana, Mamela Nyamza, Buhlebezwe Siwani, and the iQhiya Collective from South Africa – are responding to social movements of destruction and are finding ways, through art, to address that. This type of work could take the form of any type of contemporary art or dance you might see in Europe or the United States where you can take a seat and watch a palatable work, but it seeks to uncover an element of crisis that may not be present in these two parts of the globe.

There are also other artists who are finding more practical ways to connect with these social issues in very disruptive ways. It is this type of work that is becoming more and more predominant, particularly in the form of live art or performance art.

So in many respects, the response to the political irrationality of the time has engendered these highly disruptive works that refuse to take a more traditional form, but equally these concepts are present in more traditional works, too.


South Africa has contributed greatly to contemporary theatre on an international scale. The Handspring Puppet Company, based in Cape Town, created the horse-puppets which features the award-winning and critically acclaimed play War Horse. What other examples would you point out?

In the performing arts generally, there is a wealth of great works to choose from. We have writers like John Kani who also starred in the Marvel film Black Panther and Nadia Davids, who taught at Queen Mary, University of London and previewed her work, What Remains, in the Netherlands. And there are also choreographers like Gregory Maqoma and Neli Xabaa and others who do more radical work. There are also artists who have taken it further and combine visuality with performance, like Tracey Rose, whose video projection work TKO can be found in the Tate collection.

So even though we start with something like War Horse, which is something quite traditional, the artistic spectrum expands way into that which is wildly experimental and confronts political circumstances of today.


What challenges do you see in Africa for the development of live art as an artistic genre?

I think that because performance art is not something one can wrap up and sell—it is temporal—it is very difficult to sustain in economic terms. Indeed, the question of how to create this archive and permanent presence was one of the reasons why the Live Art Network Africa (LANA) was lauched in Cape Town in February 2018. Many of the political and financial infrastructures in the countries of the artists that produce these artists are not able to sustain them. 

As such, many have to turn to Europe or the US to sustain themselves, and we wanted to do more to help artists do that here by maintaining this art form more permanently. This initiative with LANA is not just about helping artists, but discovering what can be learned for a greater sustainability across the continent. This is, of course, good for the world – not just Africa.

L'Institut français et le projet

Initiated by Emmanuel Macron, the President of the French Republic, the Africa2020 Season will take place throughout France (mainland and overseas territories) from December 2020 to mi-July 2021. It will be dedicated to the 54 states of the African continent. Find out more about the Africa2020 Season


Visit the Africa2020 Season website

L'institut français, LAB