The Black Imagined Body

“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
- Toni Morrison

It is always difficult to find the birth of my love for theatre and performance. I like to tell people that I started drama as a way to help me with my speech impediment when I was 6 years old. But I suppose it started with my desire to mimic and embody my grandmother when she transformed to be Igqirha.  In those moments I knew she was magical. Another being. A true performer. 

I secretly like this ambiguous ‘birth’ to my love of theatre and performance because it speaks volumes to how I position my art in the academy today.


In my work, I see no use in reflecting back to colonialism and apartheid as backdrops of knowing our black imagined bodies and their discursive narratives.  However, these reflections of ourselves cannot be divorced from history all together. It is the black female body that moves/interests me in performance. How black female visual and performing artists are articulating their own bodies and creating new languages through their art.

As a teacher and researcher (both are intertwined), I find that my students who come from predominately rural South African homes, see their bodies in the backdrop of colonialism and apartheid discourses. For my students, when the lights go up and their eyes blinded from the audience, they already make-believe that the audience is a white audience. “Only white people go to the theatre, mam”.  This forced me to inquire how the black imagination and the black imagined body can be restricted in proscenium arch stages that are located in previously white institutions of Higher Learning (University of Natal).

The theatre, for me, became gratuitous; a vortex for black imaginaries in the teaching spaces for student artists. I had to look at site-specific performance as method in my work and teachings. I view site-specific performances as triggers for discourse to collide and converse in a struggle to make meaning of ourselves and how we relate to specific places. It is here that the black imagined body can find homes for its own self-actualisation. In my work, I demonstrate that the black performing body in site-specific performances is a knowledge making body that brings marginalised stories to the centre. Furthermore, centring performance on the black imagined body.

Pumelela Nqelenga

I grew up having to appropriate white women roles or just act as the typical South African maid. There had to be more plays for my black female body, right? I must exist somewhere!

So I took to task to make original work that dealt with how I saw the world. How I experience my body in many sites outside of the theatre space. From the kraal to the pavement, I made sure there were many narratives being made for my body. 

Written by Pumelela “Push” Nqelenga