Dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza is this year’s National Arts Festival Featured Artist, an annual recognition that celebrates and showcases artists who contribute to South Africa’s national discourse on race, class or gender in a significant way. This is the first time a dancer and choreographer has been recognised in this way.

In this Q&A with us, dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza – who is currently working in the US – underscores what drives her work: the need to bring about change that will give black artists equal, empowering opportunities to grow and excel. ‘​I don’t dance to entertain, but I dance to engage with pertinent global issues for a better humanity and co-existence.​’

Q: Tell us about what receiving the National Arts Festival Featured Artist accolade has meant to you?

​A: This accolade is not only an honour for me, but it is also an indication of true leadership that is shown by the National Arts Festival in trying to make their platform as diverse and as transformed as possible. I am sure moving forward, many young black female artists will​ be truly inspired by this positive change, and they ​can also start to believe that it is possible to be acknowledged.​

Many of us know you as an arts activist, but how else would you like to be known?

​I am more than happy to be known as an artist that is active for the good cause, to ensure that black artists in general ​are not put in, or confined, to the periphery, but that they are also given equal, empowering opportunities to grow and excel in their respective genres of art. But, of course, first and foremost within the art fraternity, I am a dancer/choreographer who uses the body as a tool to convey topical messages. ​I don’t dance to entertain, but I dance to engage with pertinent global issues for a better humanity and co-existence.​

What is weighing on your mind right now?

​Right now, and all the time, I ask myself: are there standard criteria used at state-subsidised entities – such as mainstream theatres in Gauteng, KZN,  the Western Cape, etc. – to invite black female artists to showcase their respective creations? I ask this because I have the desire to see dance as an art genre elevated at these spaces. ​ 

You have been named by the Clyde Fitch Report as one of the ’30 international artists to track during 2018’, and you do much of your work internationally. Is there a bittersweet victory in being internationally recognised (and awarded at home) but really having to work abroad to keep working and growing as an artist?

​Indeed, my answer to your previous question can be directly linked to the answer I will be giving here, because this recognition is a direct result of me not being able to get invitations to showcase my art work in my home, South Africa. I have been knocking and knocking at doors and applying at these institutions, but I have been declined or  ignored. But, because I love my art, I keep on in the midst of this adversity. In a certain interview, I even called myself ‘the Miriam Makeba of Dance’. I will probably die dancing on a foreign soil.​ 

What would change the dynamic for artists in South Africa? Is it about money or do we need to do more to integrate cultural experiences and cultural literacy into our society?

It is definitely NOT about money, but about visionary leadership from those who are at the strategic helm of art platforms. I give genuine praise to the National Arts Festival’s Artistic Committee for elevating young artists and black women who are practising their art. Until patronage and gate-keeping are done away with at mainstream theatres, many black artists will be on the periphery. Art has money, but art has cabal, which is to the detriment of art development in our schools, communities and universities.

Do you have a message for artists who are bringing work to the National Arts Festival Fringe for the first time?

Notwithstanding the name ‘Fringe’, ​​National Arts Festival Fringe artists must regard this platform as the core foundation of the whole Festival because this is where fresh, visionary and indeed brave work springs from. My message to these artists is: Don’t Imitate, but be INSPIRED. All of us have our own idols and icons that we get inspiration from to do our art work.

Tell us about your plans for #NAF18? What are you going to put under the spotlight for South Africa’s audiences?

​One of my passions as an artist is diverse audience development​. Actually, my trilogy of work created between 2016 and 2017, which is: (1) DE-APART- HATE; (2) PHUMA-LANGA; and (3) ROCK-TO- THE-CORE ​is also attempting to invite a diverse audience to my work. I dream of a day when I showcase my work and audience members will watch the work, without  judging it, and swearing to never go back to the Baxter​​​ Theatre if ‘such vulgar and savage work is being shown’.

  • Follow Mamela Nyamza on Instagram @mamela_nyamza
  • Please note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the artist/s themselves and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the NAF