13 December 2020

The Naked Truth

I posted a video today in honor of reaching 400 subscribers on YouTube. Usually, I just say thank you or talk about the projects I'm working on, but today I talked about traditions which fall into the category of performance.

The wife and I enjoy watching our fair share of YouTube videos. We watch a range of things, but many of them are videos from Kenyans or other Africans because, as you can imagine, it can feel a bit isolating to be living thousands of miles away from where you were born, raised, and spent (at this point) more than half your life. (That's Grace's situation; I live about 50 miles from where I grew up.) For me, these videos are a learning experience, whether they are specifically about Grace's culture or about another culture in Africa, and they also can remind me about my own experiences in Kenya.

We were watching videos of different tribes performing dances. Grace had found some Luo ones which, to my eye, were very theatrical in nature. Many of these performances are done by schools. It's great to see a culture passing on its traditions and societal knowledge through them. I don't necessarily understand what's going on, but that's not the point. These performances aren't for me, and my analysis of them is limited to my own understanding.

Our rabbit hole led us to a celebration dance by some Xhosa people in South Africa. YouTube had put a warning on this video because the content might be objectionable. I wondered what it could be. Would there be some cruel violence involved? No, it turns out. The “objectionable” content was that some of the performers were bare-chested.

Nudity is handled so strangely in America, isn't it? In our culture, we censor nudity in order to protect people. Who are we protecting? We all get naked at one point or another. And some of us even dance and perform naked. But in some places there are laws against it. In New York City, it is not illegal to be in public topless, yet people (mostly women) get stopped by the police about it.

In Xhosa and other cultures, there is no taboo about nudity. Creating a taboo about it might actually do more harm than good. When there is a taboo about something, it makes certain kinds of people want to indulge in it. When the indulgence in question is nudity, you find perversion. And all these people are trying to do is participate in their traditions.

A further search led me to discover Khaya la Bantu, a “cultural village” in South Africa. It seems like they (I presume colonists) set up a place where tourists can go to see how indigenous people live. It's sort of like what we call a restoration village here in America. I'm reminded of a book I read in middle school about a teenager who discovers she's been living in one and that there is a modern world outside, if only she can escape. At what point does the performance of tradition become a meaningless spectacle—thus erasing a society's cultural memory?

I refer to Paul Connerton's How Societies Remember when I say that. These traditions—rituals, dances, etc.—are a way for a culture to pass along vital memories and knowledge. Examples are found throughout the world, even here. I wonder if curating performance for a western gaze—stripping it down, or covering it up, as it were—dilutes the power of these traditions. Do we erase these people by putting a warning label on them?

I don't know enough about Xhosa traditions to know if the video we watched was “authentic”, or a true display of what a dance like that would be like. (Indeed, the performance seems to be part of an event hosted by the Port Elizabeth Heritage Society, which might be a colonial entity.) But seeing it accompanied with the warning gives me a feeling of weirdness. Are Grace and I voyeurs of some kind of cultural porn?

There are further problems to discuss here, including how a society like the Xhosa handles the few within their group who might have nefarious purposes, or even how they now have to handle the outside influence. I talk a bit about the Maasai in Kenya in the video I posted. But these are threads to pull on another day.