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Postcards from the Field: Body Politics and Moving Bodies

Updated: Nov 10, 2019

The first of two posts about launching South Africa’s Sex Worker Theatre Project. Written by GlobalGRACE member Yasmin Gunaratnam (Work Package 1: South Africa).

The Banyana Banyana may not have got off to a strong start, losing to Spain in the first round of the Women’s World Cup on June 8th 2019, but they made quite an entrance. The South African team sang and danced their way into the Stade Oceane, animating the sombre corridors, the black plastic chairs and the inevitable grey stone bust of a man or two lining their route.

Music and dance are a pulsating lifeblood in South African cultures, a crucial means of communication and resistance to Apartheid and its dehumanising regimes.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been taken by surprise that the launch symposium for South Africa’s Global Grace project on sex work and theatre was full of musicality. But I was. And I’m still trying to figure out how these plumes and tides of fleshy and sonorous exchange bring us to feel differently the shapes, surfaces and depths between inside and outside, me and you.

I’ve long been interested in the senses, especially in sound and its unruly pressing in on bodies. Sound is a primal relationship for those of us who can hear. It can draw us into sociality with others and otherness—and whether we like it or not—it is one example of what feminist philosopher Rosalyn Diprose (2002) thinks of as “corporeal generosity”. Corporeal generosity is how Diprose has theorised our bodily openness to those around us that extends beyond common sense notions of choice and personal virtue into ethics and politics. It is an intimating and intimacy that Hortense Spillers has documented in the slave ships.

Our bodily interdependence can be beautiful and brutalising, the making and the breaking of us.

These were some of the backgrounded ideas and thoughts that accompanied me when the sex workers’ theatre group began the symposium by singing and dancing into the room. Their a capella songs were a gorgeous blending and fusion of different musical traditions from Mbube to its offspring Isicathamiya. Dance and music were woven throughout the symposium, not as an exoticised other to more conventional modes of academic presentation, but as integral social and political analyses in their own right.

To begin to enter into these corridors of knowing, you can ask questions as I did; questions of history and context, or of the routes of the inventiveness of cultural hybridities, for example, how the sex workers had created new musical “words” to overcome some of the language differences between them. Yet, this type of thinking lures us back to Northern territories of representation and knowledge, to the altar of rationality and science. Encountering and dwelling with difference necessarily demands the holding of ambiguity and not knowing.

‘Reality is delicate’, the film-maker and writer Trinh T. Minh-ha has said in her film Reassemblage, ‘My irreality and imagination are otherwise dull. The habit of imposing a meaning to every single sign’.

Realities, especially those that are deported and exiled into peripheries, are delicate. They suggest that we might do better to feel with the singularity of their demands, unlearning and refusing “the habit of imposing a meaning to every single sign”.

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