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The Exuberance Project

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There's a scene in the film Mary Poppins where the Banks children and the rather eccentric chimneysweep Bert (played by Dick van Dyke, of course) visit a friend who is prone to hysterical laughter. We find this friend floating near the ceiling of his attic home, high, it would seem, on the giggles. The laughter is contagious and by the end of the scene it is only the schoolmarmish gravitas of Ms Poppins that brings the group back to earth.


There's a scene in the film Mary Poppins where the Banks children and the rather eccentric chimneysweep Bert (played by Dick van Dyke, of course) visit a friend who is prone to hysterical laughter. We find this friend floating near the ceiling of his attic home, high, it would seem, on the giggles. The laughter is contagious and by the end of the scene it is only the schoolmarmish gravitas of Ms Poppins that brings the group back to earth. Playing the hysterical gentleman was, in fact, actor Ed Wynn whose comedy sketch with Buster Keaton was shown by Jane Taylor as part of the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts' (GIPCA's) Exuberance Project last weekend. Taylor, along with many other contributors from various fields, had been asked by the project's curators, Raél Salley (Senior lecturer in Discourse and Painting at Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town) and Jay Pather (GIPCA Director), to consider and celebrate 'what is extremely good, effusive and uninhibitedly enthusiastic' in Africa.Tracing the history of canned laughter on comedic film sets, Taylor highlighted the alienation and disproportion inherent in the repeated use of the recorded laugh. And throughout the weekend of effusive musical theatre ('Kat and the Kings' at the Fugard Theatre); a symposium at Hiddingh Hall; performance pieces by Mwenya Kabwe, Alain Said, and others; and an art exhibition at Mandela Rhodes Gallery, the repeated use of the word "exuberance" found the project's central premise teetering between proportion and overabundance. It was Deborah Posel who pointed out that the repertoires of exuberance are not always 'loud and unrestrained, but sometimes suffusions of joy that come quietly and modestly.' Her articulation signaled the often culturally-embedded nature of expressions of enthusiasm - be that suburban contrariness, struggle dogma, diasporic nostalgia, post-apartheid laas-it - traces of which were seen and heard throughout the weekend. But, to be more Afro-optimistic, a word coined in the weekend's closing remarks, …Though they do not designate themselves as curators, Salley and Pather's convening of the project is considerable as a curatorial act in that each element of the exhaustive Exuberance programme had obviously been lovingly selected and arranged. I use the word "lovingly" in reference to Salley's previous activities as a GIPCA Creative Award Winner in 2011. In bringing about 'groupthinks' called 'Delicious Sensations' and another weekend-long multidisciplinary programme, 'The Names We Give' (13-15 May, 2011), Salley has repeatedly offered a juxtaposing of affect and knowledge: love in the time of academia.The curatorial call for 'specific instances' of what one could perhaps term "applied exuberance" were framed under the broad sub-themes of 'Affinities', 'Euphoria' and 'Abundance'. And indeed that passion was echoed in the archival practices of the Centre for Historical Reenactment following a residency in Alf Kumalo's museum and George Mahashe's Dithugula tša Malefokane: Seeing other people's stories (2012); as well as a video installation relating to the Arab Spring, Fragments of Tahrir, which included works by Justin Davy, Aryan Kaganof, Jasmina Metwaly, Philip Rizk and Dylan Valley.However, there must always be a 'however', and in this case that pause between one good feeling and another came in the form of Thembinkosi Goniwe's provocation concerning the hedonistic Cape's perennial colonial status. The gravitas of class politics brought the room back to earth following a controversial presentation by artist Christopher Swift of his projects involving the remainder of Robben Island's original fencing. The sugar high of elation without reflection, Jay Pather stated, often results in the kind of vacuity seen in South Africa's cult of "rainbowism". So, he asked, when does the crash happen?'The moment after sex,' was where Zethu Matebeni began her analysis of Zanele Muholi's image Caitlin & I (2009). Here the black and white bodies of two female lovers are depicted layered on top of one another. In recalling the South African slang term "Top Deck", Matebeni corralled a number of candy-related metaphors recently used to apprehend complex sexual and racial make-ups. Thinking, as Matebeni implied, from bottom to top, as well as top to bottom, requires a kind of agility that the idea of a subversive exuberance perhaps endows. It was the Russian-born linguist Mikhail Bakhtin who wrote of the carnivalesque as a topsy-turvy space in which hierarchies could be upturned and new identities performed. Surely this is the unholy hysteria which cannot be contained (or canned) by schoolmarmish rhetoric in the "serious" discourse of post-apartheid. A momentary lightness that comes with the brief shedding of historical millstones. A celebration uninhibited by political correctness, but aware of its political potential nonetheless. A quiet exuberance that goes deeper than saccharine surfaces.
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