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Welcome to Performance, belonging and the politics of difference in Africa

This interdisciplinary working group draws on contributions from Heike Becker and Emile Boonzaier (Anthropology & Sociology), Miki Flockemann (English), Desiree Lewis (Women & Gender Studies)


 Performance, belonging and the politics of difference in Africa


This interdisciplinary working group draws on contributions from Heike Becker and Emile Boonzaier (Anthropology & Sociology), Miki Flockemann (English), Desiree Lewis (Women & Gender Studies), together with some fifteen postgraduate students and inputs from Birgit Meyer (UtrechtUniversity), MathiasKrings and Anna-Maria Brandstetter from the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz. The working group is currently engaged in three interlinked projects:

1. Performing the “Rainbow Nation”: Cultural performance, belonging, and citizenship in contemporary South Africa.

This innovative, interdisciplinary project investigates the significance of cultural performance in the processes of reconfiguring citizenship in contemporary South Africa. As the resurgent xenophobic violence in the context of service delivery protests demonstrates, such issues of belonging have become quite explosive, particularly among populations who live on the social margins of South African cities. The project will reveal how notions of inclusion and exclusion are mediated through cultural forms and the politics of authentication through which mediated cultural forms come to be framed as authentic and “true”. It focuses particularly, but not exclusively, on performers and their audiences in socially marginal urban settings. Amongst the fields that this interdisciplinary project studies are performative cultural forms, including festivals, masquerades, rituals, public spectacle,drama productions, music, dance, sports, fashion, and other forms of contemporary popular culture.

Current sub-projects include:, “Styles and spectacles: performance of belonging and politics of difference in Africa” (Heike Becker and Birgit Meyer); “Anthropology and the study of popular culture in Southern Africa” (Heike Becker), “Migrancy, hosts and strangers: the aesthetics of everyday trauma in three performances” (Miki Flockemann with Mark Fleishman of Magnet Theatre); “Music, modernity and global imagination among students at the University of the Western Cape” (Emile Boonzaier, with Jabulani Leteane), and “Performative acts at the end of the rainbow: the self-portraits of Sophia Klaaste” (Desiree Lewis)

The project is currently funded by the South Africa-Netherlands Programme for Alternatives in Development (SANPAD), 2011-2013 and has been evaluated as “important and extremely relevant to social and political stability and fuller citizenship”, as it “goes to the heart of citizenship and

follows up on some world-famous projects in art and aesthetics in South Africa”. Significant results are expected, not only for South Africa, but also for other African countries, and probably also for understanding citizenship in established democracies.

2. Performance and the Politics of Difference in Africa

This new project, starting from January 2012, investigates how categories of social difference and belonging in contemporary African societies are created, reproduced, contested, and reconfigured through performance. The research starts from the assumption that in order to develop new directions in the study of belonging and the politics of difference, we need to take the connections of aesthetics and politics as a starting point, focusing on performance, style, spectacle, and the materiality of cultural forms. The grounded theorising draws on empirical investigations conducted in South Africa, and selected countries in Southern, East and West Africa.

The project builds on and relates to the research done on performance, belonging and citizenship in contemporary South Africa. With the new project (funded by the National Research Foundation, 2012-2014), the South African-focused work will be expanded to West and East Africa in order to gain comparative insights into African societies, and overcome the analytical problems associated with the assumption that South Africa is a special case and completely different from the rest of the continent (“South African exceptionalism”).


3. Performance, Postcoloniality, Pedagogy and the Aesthetics of Transition

The broad focus of this on-going study is how South African cultural production engages with the processes of social transition. The project explores the aesthetics of transition as performed in diverse forms of cultural expression. The aim is to track shifts in aesthetic trends and to identify emerging trends. The focus is on the question how performance can operate as a site for enabling transformative processes, as opposed to representing transformation as outcome. There are several sub-projects which also involve student researchers. The aim is to develop research capacity for young researchers and this has resulted in the publication of several co-authored articles. Current sub-projects include:

• A study of how experiences of migrancy, xenophobia and civic belonging are performed;

• A study of how personal and historical trauma is mediated through performance;

• A study of how incorporating performance as pedagogic activity, as event, and as object

of study could address calls for curriculum responsiveness and diversity practices.

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