BODY POLITICS FROM L.A. PARIS TO SOWETO: 40 YEARS LATER
Sam Nzima took a striking photo of Hector Pieterson’s limp body, standing about six feet away from what seemed a deadly nod from the white minority government of South Africa. The trauma and anguish experienced by Mr. Nzima and the trio of students who took part in that violent choreography was astonishing. In 2016 especially, the Black body is a space in which selfless acts of torture are seen as self-defense in the eyes of the perpetrators. White officers pulling the nipples of black female students, lifting bricks with the scrotums of black male students. These bodies: black, young, and dying. The representation of black bodies – dead or alive – in photography from 1970 until the present moment shows a violent discourse of flesh between governing officials, police, and rioting peoples.
The Watts riots of 1965 (Los Angeles) were a precursor to what would later happen in Soweto (South Africa) in 1976. The twenty- six African countries that pulled out of the Olympic games that same year was done in solidarity as a result of apartheid Soweto. Known as the South Central riots, L.A residents took to the streets in 1992 in reaction to a videotaped beating of a black man by white police officers, who were later acquitted of all charges. In 2005, dehumanised residents of an apartheid community outside of Paris rioted, set buildings on fire and two young boys died while hiding from police in an electric substation.
The black body politics of each riot in recent history – dating back to 1976 – has the same dehumanising choreography. However, with the gaze of the Afro-Futurism and Black Lives Matter movements, the politics that are now being choreographed are ones of communal healing, strength and solidarity. Individuals, brown and black bodies, and police agencies within this society have laws. The guardians of the law are also subject to the laws they serve.
The riots in L.A., Paris and Soweto all have law-enforcement at the center of them. Maintaining civil peace is the responsibility of the entire community, however, in each case there has been excessive force and
incalculable efforts of mass murder.
In our urban communities, riots often occur due to distrust and hostility within the framework of conflict choreography. In this complicated movement there is no mission to heal the strained relationships at play. Without that, the quality of the society is harmed and cannot survive.
For months leading up to 16 June 1976, the children of Soweto peacefully planned this protest. They were being
forced to study in Afrikaans, a foreign language, through forced, hostile measures. The tension ignited conflict within the bodies, taking the students’ education, legacy, and future away from them by creating a sense of ownership – the black body in the hands of the white South African establishment.
Black and brown bodies, grouped on mass on the ground or singled out – face down on the ground, knees pushed into their backs – are punished by white males, standing over them in an authoritative stance; legs apart, chest pushed out, weapon in hand. The increased number of weapons, manpower, and the legal framework that allow such brutality to persist is an undertaking of urban society that must be improved.
If one re-watches the L.A. riots without any commentary (by muting the sound), what one sees is a type of assembly-line, choreographed civil disorder. These bodies moved like clockwork; groups of black and brown bodies, no longer sitting in prisoner camp style on the ground – backs hunched over, heads hanging. These bodies are empowered. They’re taking their power back, they did not have their faces to the ground. They burnt buildings down that represented the power structure, and they were moving so fast, so effortlessly in time, because instinctively they knew that the white authoritative male was coming to place them back in that awful mass of bodies on the ground and in cement architecture.
As a choreographer I look at Paris and the parallels are staggering amongst people who’ve never met, yet know the choreography of it all too well. Like Soweto, Paris was a space where white males conquered one’s freedom and will to be. Choreography is very accurate to the human spirit. If someone stands over you with their knee in your back, and then places you on the ground with human bodies that share your pain, the only way to continue this performance is to survive. Severe physical and financial punishment, loss of revenue, lootings and burnt-down property is what bodies do to get power back. A strict curfew in the wake of Paris, L.A. and Soweto is another form of societal choreography, where black and brown people are supposed to portray this character of being controlled. The coordination of this performance does not cooperate with the human spirit, especially when white males have been in the driving seat for so long.
Paris was a space where white males conquered one’s freedom and will to be. Choreography is very accurate to the human spirit. If someone stands over you with their knee in your back, and then places you on the ground with human bodies that share your pain, the only way to continue this performance is to survive. Severe physical and financial punishment, loss of revenue, lootings and burnt-down property is what bodies do to get power back. A strict curfew in the wake of Paris, L.A. and Soweto is another form of societal choreography, where black and brown people are supposed to portray this character of being controlled. The coordination of this performance does not cooperate with the human spirit, especially when white males have been in the driving seat for so long.
The search for new choreography in the urban field is on. The children in Soweto were marching peacefully and seen as a threat to the system. It is time for people of colour who reside in urban societies to change the conflict choreography. Change the music, change their body languages, change their body politics, their tongues, their lands, their communion. Rise from the ground in which they were choreographed to originally sit, stand proud with heads held high, and even if death comes there may be others waiting, re-positioned, creating a new dance in our favour.
Featured Paper: Art Africa
December 2016 in conjunction with The Goodman Gallery, NYU Black Portraiture III Conference Johannesburg, South Africa