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Chuma Sopotela sets the stage for new rituals

Published on 26 February 2018

Standard Bank Young Artist Chuma Sopotela’s journey into performance art was driven by her disillusionment with the mainstream scene in Cape Town, and her love of knowledge, justice and education, writes Kgomotso Moncho-Maripane

Chuma Sopotela, the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art, has an innate intensity that elevates her craft to an inimitable standard. Always deeply nuanced, resonant and unorthodox, the range of her work transcends the confines of mainstream theatre and soars in the open space of performance art.

With her footprint now firmly rooted in performance art, Sopotela tends to her theatre origins, choosing to create and learn from the people she works with. 

“When I graduated from UCT [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][University of Cape Town] in 2006 with my performer’s diploma, I set out to work with as many directors as I could to build my craft,” she says. “I knew from the onset that I wanted to create. For me the best way to do it is to learn from people because I have a problem with what we perceive as knowledge right now in our institutions. So I have found people to be where my interest lies, because ultimately I’d like to grow the skill of performance.”


Lara Foot’s Karoo Moose, spellbinding storytelling juxtaposed with the urgency of its dark themes, launched Sopotela’s professional career to critical acclaim in 2007. She received, among others, the 2007 Fleur du Cap Best Actress Award for the production.

She was nominated for a 2008 Naledi Best Actress Award and received five award nominations, including for the Montreal English Theatre Awards, for her performance in Waiting for the Barbarians, directed by internationally acclaimed Alexander Marine.

Sopotela recently enjoyed performing in her first comedy — Mike van Graan’s Another One’s Bread at the Market Theatre alongside Faniswa Yisa, Motlatji Ditodi and Awethu Hleli.


As a performance artist, Sopotela recently collaborated with Cape Town artist Kemang Wa Lehulere on his Performa 17 Biennial commission I Cut My Skin to Liberate the Splinter, which won the Malcolm McLaren Award in New York in November 2017.

The work explores history and knowledge systems in indigenous astrology, tribal wisdom and religious rites by using machines and sculptural instruments whose actions and movements, borrowed from children’s games, are conducted by Sopotela. The performance is complemented by soundscapes inspired by the revelations of astrophysicist Thebe Medupe in the documentary Cosmic Africa.

“This was a very interesting, beautiful and new process for me. You’re part of the decisions on what the set is, how it’s made, what it’s made of and what it says,” she explains. “And you’re connecting the dots, the story and what you’re hoping the audience will take out of the installation that you’re creating. We were very happy with the work.”


Sopotela was one of the winners of the Spier Contemporary Award in 2008 for her collaboration again with Wa Lehulere and theatre practitioner Mwenya Kabwe in Unyawo Alunampumlo. She also holds an award from the Theatre Arts Admin for the work she did in Inkukhu Ibeke Iqanda, her first performance art piece that was commissioned by the Zürcher Theater Spektakel in 2013.

Sopotela’s foray into performance art was driven by her disillusionment with the status of Cape Town’s mainstream theatre, which remains rigidly white.

The motivation behind her investigation of performance and her quest for a performance practice is her love of education and the desire to see black people represented, not only as participants, but as scholars of theatre at academic and institution levels.

“Most of my work is in pursuit of what we can do differently in teaching. Teaching ourselves about the other; teaching our kids and changing mindsets,” she says.

“I’m enrolled at UCT to do an occasional course in drama so I can pursue my master’s next year and a PhD later. But I’m mainly going back to school to start writing about my work because I’m in pursuit of a practice,” says Sopotela. “My mother is the driver of my passion because of her love of knowledge as a teacher. And now as a mother to my daughter, I feel more driven to create this school of theatre because I want to create a world where what she says matters,” she says.

The foundation of her performance practice draws on identity, personal history and spirituality. It can be seen in Inkukhu Ibeke Iqanda, a soulful, experimental contemplation on sexuality, ritual and memory whose bare truth forces you to examine how you receive the work and why.

“In the process of creating, I do not make sets, I build shrines. So my place of work is my place of prayer,” she says. “Therefore, whenever I perform, I’m actively connected with the spiritual world. And this informs my research into our rituals in Africa.” 

“I consider my performances as rituals even when I apply the knowledge to theatre.”

As this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art, Sopotela has captured the national gaze. The working title for her National Arts Festival showcase is Indlolamthi, in which she is trying to create a world with children, reflecting on the state of the country from a child’s perspective.

She also plans to revisit some of the productions she has been involved in over the past two years. These include:

  •  Rock to the Core, with dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza [this year’s Featured Artist], which is based on the protest Sopotela and Nyamza staged at the 2017 Fleur de Cap Theatre Awards that looks at the state of the arts in Cape Town;
  • Let’s Talk About Sex, with Palestinian, Croatian and Slovenian collaborators, which uses sex as a vehicle into the plights of war-torn Palestine; and
  • Those Ghels, a street-theatre piece exploring the progression of the sexualisation of the body with visual and performance artist Buhlebezwe Siwani, which Sopotela hopes to tour.

“One of my dream shows is to do an installation with Croatian cinematographer and visual artist Davor Sanvincenti, where we create an environment where people come to sleep. I dream a lot and I create mostly from my dreams,” says Sopotela.

This article was first published on BusinessLive. Republished here with kind permission