For Refilwe Nkomo, choosing the arts as an African child is a courageous thing

Refilwe Nkomo chose this year’s Cape Town Fringe Festival to perform her choreopoem Songs for Khwezi for the first time in South Africa.

‘Khwezi’ is the now the well-known pseudonym of the woman who accused incumbent South African president Jacob Zuma of rape in 2005. In 2006 Zuma was acquitted by the Johannesburg High Court. Khwezi on the other hand, faced threats by Zuma’s supporters and was forced to leave the country. 

For Refilwe Nkomo, who developed the performance during her studies in New York, there is not enough conversation taking place about rape culture in South Africa. With Songs for Khwezi, a mix of dance performance and poetry, she seeks to stir up a debate on gender-based violence. The piece, Nkomo says, is about violence against women, but also about survival and standing up to power.

We speak to the artist about being a woman in the arts industry, her first time on stage, and the process of putting together Songs for Khwezi.

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How did you develop your artistic voice?

I think my artistic voice has always been there, I have always been performing, but when I went to Cape Town I started studying business science. I think for many children in Africa, to take up the arts is an incredibly courageous thing, because we’re always told, ‘Be an entrepreneur, be a doctor, be a lawyer, be an engineer, be these things that are building industry and infrastructure’, But for me it is really important to think about what we want the decolonial project to look like, what we want South Africa to look like, what we want our relationships to look like and how we craft our culture and understand it and what stories we tell ourselves. All of that sort of identity-making is hugely important and I think story-tellers and artists are the ones who do that.  The stories we tell ourselves about women, about girls, about what girls can do, about what girls can’t do are hugely important not only to ourselves, but also to others. What blackness means or is, how we construct it, what class means or is. How we take on certain struggles and how we leave things behind. To be an artist in that sort of climate is incredibly important.

You said you studied business science – when did you decide to be an artist and go up on stage?

I started performing my poetry while I was studying in Cape Town and I haven’t really stopped ever since. It’s been slower at times and more at other times, but a couple of years back I decided to take the leap. After working in the NGO sector, in gender-based violence and in health, and going to all these rural areas I was really starting to think about what impact my work as a creative individual can make. So I create theatre and performance that is aligned to certain issues, mostly around race and gender. It really started with a production of the Vagina Monologues here in Cape Town and then I produced it in Jo’burg as well and so I got interested in producing strong female-narrative driven plays and productions. 

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What led you to create Songs for Khwezi? 

I started the process in New York while I was studying arts and politics at New York University. I was feeling a bit displaced, away from home. New York is an incredible city, but very hectic, and I was busy doing my masters. I wondered what it means to be displaced in your own body, to not feel safe or comfortable with it, which brought me back to Khwezi. I was in Cape Town at the time of the trial and it was incredible to see these scenes, to read the newspaper and see these images on the TV-screen of people saying “Ruin this bitch!” and “She must die!” I thought, wow, this is so intense: to speak up means that you get all that additional violence on top of the violence that has already occurred – and that was sort of like how the piece started to come about.

When did you perform it for the first time in South Africa?

I performed it in South Africa for the first time at the Woman Conference which was a pre-conference to the World Aids Conference and that was a beautiful space, but it was just a small piece, so this performance (at the 2016 Cape Town Fringe Festival) was the first time I performed it in its completeness. My hope for the piece is that people are able to continue the conversation afterwards, that it is not just something they watch for entertainment. I really want people to think and talk and do stuff.

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Who do you address with your work? Black women, South African women or women in general? Do you have an audience in mind when you write?

I write and perform my work out of something that comes from inside of me, I don’t think of the audience ahead. When I work with a director that is when it gets more nuanced – how can we tell the story in a way that people can engage with it? I am fiercely feminist, or rather womanist, and fiercely black and fiercely African, so that’s what a lot of my issues are around. But I worked with men as well around gender-based violence. My artistic partner, Antonio, and myself founded an organisation called “We are here”. We have been doing work with men and boys for a couple of years now, using applied theatre techniques. It’s really incredible work, it’s not something I thought I would be doing. I first started working with women and girls and then realized we can’t do this work in a silo, it needs to be a conversation with everybody.

What’s next for you? 

I will be doing more work around HIV with “We are here”, the organisation I already mentioned earlier. We just got a grant to do male circumcision and workshops with men and boys around health and gender. I am also trying to perform Songs for Khwezi a few more times, also in Jo’burg.

Follow Refilwe on Twitter.

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