*By Ivan Martins
Ntando Cele has a delicious laugh. She laughs out loud, often, and her eyes, the instant she laughs, seem to express a wry comment about the situation around her. Ntando is from South Africa and, knowing this, I, who had never set foot in Africa, soon began to think that she laughs “with the joy of Africans”. Thus, almost without realizing it, I entered the troubled territory where the 36-year-old playwright, actress, singer and dancer collects elements of her work – the territory of racial stereotypes.
Ntando was in São Paulo in March 2017, as one of the guests at the Mostra Internacional de Teatro. She made four performances. As a result of spontaneous advertising, the queue to get free tickets for Itaú Cultural grew exponentially each night. Those who managed to get in saw a show that mixes comedy, music and visual experimentation. black off (literally, preto fora, but which can also be read as an allusion to the expression back off, which means to retreat, to stay away) exposes a versatility that few artists would be able to reproduce on stage. All this packing a critical content rarely seen in Brazil.
The montage that Ntando presented at the Mostra is divided into three parts. In the first, painted with white paint, and wearing a blonde wig and blue lenses, she embodies Bianca White, a white South African with a rich accent who is willing to help black people be happier, finding her inner whiteness. “Close your eyes,” she says. “Think of your bones, of your teeth, feel the delicious sensation of whiteness. Isn't it wonderful”? Laughter erupts from the annoyed audience. Yes, because, in addition to making jokes, Ntando directly provokes the audience of “morenos”, forcing people to confront their own stereotypes, if not their identity. The character Bianca White represents a visceral critique of South African racists, but at the same time she is herself a deplorable stereotype. Ntando's knife cuts both ways.
“My ultimate purpose as an artist is to be seen in a different way than I am seen,” she says, two days after the performance, while talking to me in the back of a taxi. “I want to be perceived as a multi-layered human being. I may be a stereotype, sure, but I'm so much more than that. Ideas about who I am, about what each of us is, are often false. But sometimes they are true. There is a constant struggle between stereotypes and reality. I am interested in this contradiction. I am that contradiction”.
The late James Baldwin, perhaps the most influential black writer in American history, protagonist of the documentary I'm not your nigga, wrote something similar. He said that the problem with racial stereotypes is that they capture part of the truth about people, but only part of it, which does not make up a complete human being. Then he read Baldwin. She quotes him in a testimonial text called strange, posted on her blog. It is a reference to Baldwin's most famous essay – Strange in the Village – published in 1953. In it, the writer tells what it was like to live in a Swiss village of 300 inhabitants who had never seen a black man. His conclusion is that the residents, despite months of cordial coexistence, never managed to perceive him as a real human being. Ntando lives in Switzerland, married to a white Swiss man, father of her two-year-old son. The three visited the same village where Baldwin lived 60 years later, and Ntando recounts an experience that suggests the world hasn't changed enough. She has a crying fit in the pool because people can't stop looking at her body, derisively, as if she were an object, an attraction, not a person. Baldwin would understand perfectly.
In the second part of the play, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, barefoot, she parades on stage like a “typical African”, carrying water on her head in front of a sunny landscape of the savannah. It's another stereotype, another simplistic and false reduction, which she combats, first, with a wonderful sequence of facial expressions and grimaces, as if she were putting together masks of herself in front of the audience. Then Ntando sings in Xhosa – a language spoken by seven million people in South Africa – a poignant song that seems to say: yes, I am African, a complex person like you, modern, not just the visual complement to a scene occupied by lions, giraffes and antelopes.
Ntando was 10 years old when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and assumed the political leadership of South Africa. She was one of the first generation of black South African children to enter the white school. There were four or five in each class, and she describes the situation as “difficult”. “White children were used to seeing black people only as domestic servants, not peers. This situation persists to this day,” she says. Middle class, the daughter of a police officer father and a teacher mother, she is the oldest of four siblings. The responsibility this carries is explicit in the meaning of her name: God's will. “Imagine the weight of that name on a child,” she says, before laughing heartily. Ntando attended high school, then studied drama in college. At 21, after acting in a few plays and creating solitary art and dance shows, she was “bored to death”. So she discovered European avant-garde theater and went after it. In Holland first, where she studied, then in Switzerland, where she settled and married. In South Africa, she says, she lived “under exclusion, below the standards of a normal person”. She believes the situation has improved little for blacks since Mandela, although no one likes to admit that. The country of the racial rainbow is a propaganda piece. In real life, the black majority is poor and discriminated against. The discussion, the advance towards what she calls “humanity”, is painfully slow: “I sit in a restaurant in Cape Town and I'm still the only black customer. The other blacks are serving, sweeping or washing the dishes. You know how it is in Brazil”.
In Europe, where he arrived in search of knowledge and personal freedom, Ntando found that he was confined to a space of “primitive creature”. “As an African woman, people assume that I haven't studied, that I don't know what I'm doing and that I'm probably a prostitute. That's why I'm there, isn't it? I just don't exist. People greet those next to me and don't speak to me. It's shocking, but real." As she still doesn't speak German – the language of Bern, the city where she lives – she doesn't have the necessary resourcefulness to deal with this type of situation. “It's the same experience of exclusion I had in South Africa, but now in a different way,” she says.
And Brazil? She smiles, as if asking not to answer that question, but I insist, and tell her to be honest. And she is. “The fact that most people here are mixed-race strikes me as a beautiful thing. I think people are very beautiful,” she says, with a smile. “At the same time, the fact that you're still worried about who's white or black enough, or who's white enough or black enough, strikes me as bizarre,” she continues. “As soon as I arrived in Brazil, I realized that there are no whites here. Whiteness is just a concept. Of course, there are white people, but, as the vast majority are mixed race, the approach to the subject should be different. The fact that the discussion, here in Brazil, continues to be about who is whiter, seems to me very strange, and very frustrating”.
An important part of what Ntando knows about Brazil – the N of her name is pronounced with her tongue behind the upper arch of her teeth, like an nhhhhhh – she learned in contact with the students of the workshop she conducted during two mornings, at Oficina Cultural Oswald de Andrade, in the Bom Retiro neighborhood. There were about 20 young people, selected by the organization of the Theater Show among actors, teachers and street artists. They formed a heterogeneous group, with all colors and faces from São Paulo, but with a marked predominance of mixed-race Brazilians, those more common on the outskirts of the city than in the wealthy center. With them, speaking in English, with the help of a translator, Ntando heard about racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination and violence, and how the Brazilian social hierarchy works, based on gender, color and income. During the workshop – which I participated in on the second day – she used her own work to suggest to young people the possibility of making art with feelings of exclusion and injustice, but without being overwhelmed by anger. She also insisted that a way had to be found to grab people's attention, to make them stop, listen and pay attention to what the artist is trying to tell. “Our challenge is to transform the invisible into the visible, to speak of the unspoken,” she told them. "We have to be seductive."
Transforming the invisible into the visible – and talking about what is not talkable – perhaps sums up what Ntando does on stage. In the third part of her show, she transforms into an angry and sensual rocker, who dances and sings wearing a black leather bathing suit, dragging the audience's bewildered gazes with her. The band that accompanies her – three Swiss musicians, guitar, keyboards and percussion – produces a noise that punk rock bands envy. The lyrics of the songs, all by Ntando, explore the universe of anger. "I'm here and I'm black / But I'm not here to be black," reads a refrain. What does he mean? “Being black is associated with a lot of things, and they have very little to do with how I see myself,” she explains. “I'm not here to satisfy other people's ideas about who I am and what I can do. Embodying the persona of an angry black woman I look familiar, but there are no black women in punk, and that defies the stereotype.”
When reading this sort of thing, one can imagine behind the sentences a hard and aggressive woman, but Ntando is the opposite of that. There's a lot of kindness in her, a smile that comes easily, and a warm, approachable way of dealing with people. During the workshop, she advised young people more than once not to take themselves too seriously, to try to have fun with their work, to find a balance between combativeness and inner peace. "I'm sounding a bit exoteric, aren't I?" At the end of the work, one by one, the students came to say goodbye with an affectionate hug, which she returned without hesitation. With me, as soon as we started talking, she spent long minutes talking about the delights of living with her son Valentin, and the difficulty of being away from him. “Now I am no longer entirely absorbed by my work, by arrrrte, and that feeling is very good: knowing that there is more to my life than myself,” she says. I then asked if she was a feminist and the unexpected answer was a qualified “no”. “I try to speak as a black woman, in a racist society, that's my issue. The debate on feminism, as I see it, has only one side, that of white women,” she says. “Because of that angle, I don't say anything in my work about feminism. It may seem contradictory, but that's how I feel at the moment."
as the viewers of black off could perceive, there is a lot of contradictory and visceral in the work of Ntando Cele. But there is, above all, an enormous vitality, a strength extracted from the most essential and most contemporary things, which has everything to do with what happens in Brazil. Being a woman, being black, being a mother. Being born in Africa, living in Europe, traveling the world. Getting to know exclusion in a country with a black majority, feeling excluded in Europe as a minority, getting in touch with the brunette schizophrenia in Brazil. It is from these contradictions, and from an enormous talent, that her art feeds. A complex art that, in the words of Bianca White, her racist character, only educated white people, “who are not good in bed”, are able to do and understand. Or not.
Check out more photos from the workshop with Ntando at MITsp website.
*report originally published in April 2017