Artist of the Week: Mlondi Zondi

Black people in South Africa didn’t have a voice until 20 years ago. Today, the black queer (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community in particular, a marginalized group, still lacks any real visibility.
Mlondi Zondi, 25, a second-year graduate student at UC Irvine pursuing his MFA in Dance, plans to devote his career as an artist, activist and academic to changing this. A Fulbright scholar and interdisciplinary artist, Zondi is currently researching the work of black queer choreographers living and working in South Africa, and with his work, hopes to both bridge the gap between art and activism and bring art to individuals who otherwise would not have access to it.

The Early Years

Zondi, whose mother tongue is Zulu, grew up in the city of Howick, South Africa, where he attended predominately black township public schools throughout his childhood, and continued on to the white-dominated university education system.

“I didn’t have a lot of non-white teachers,” he explained. Zondi did not begin studying dance until his freshman year at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in nearby Pietermaritzburg. While a student of theater and media studies, he became interested in performance art and the idea of art as a form of social activism. After graduation in 2010, he began acting professionally, in applied theater productions, which presented on topics such as HIV/AIDS awareness and personal hygiene to individuals living in underprivileged communities. After a year, he auditioned and became part of a dance company in the city of Durban, which ultimately led him to realize his career goals.  While teaching dance at the Open Air School, a public high school for children with physical disabilities, Zondi, as part of the one of the company’s programs, learned to integrate various body types that have different abilities into his choreography and use dance to teach life skills. Discovering that he wanted to spend his career as a performer and educator working in similar contexts, he decided to pursue an MFA in dance.

The Technique

Zondi hopes to democratize access to the arts, “so that we can all as a community be involved very actively in these conversations and that is not something for just the urban elite, who are able to pay for tickets.” He considers himself an interdisciplinary artist because he draws on his background in drama, public relations and other fields in his own artwork, as well as in his research, and because his work attempts to blur the line between performance and social activism. He has also taken classes in several departments at UCI, such as Studio Art and African American Studies. A current crisis in South Africa is the phenomenon of corrective rape — men are attempting to cure lesbian women of their homosexuality by sexually assaulting them.

“That affects me. I want to make a work about it and take it to the state theater to perform it.” Yet if he were to do this, Zondi explained, only rich people would see it. His solution? Going into the actual communities affected by this conflict. “My work is about embodiment. How people allow themselves access to other people’s bodies. Can we turn this around? Can we use our bodies to say that we are not trapped in this violence and this hate? Look at yourself through me.” Zondi conceives the body as a methodology to talk about these things.

Every year in Durban, the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal hosts “Jomba! Contemporary Dance Experience,” a festival devoted to a series of live dance performances, workshops and lectures.
One year on Jomba City night, a special event where three blocks of the city become a space devoted entirely to outdoor public art, complete with live painting and dance, Zondi performed a work of art where he and three friends ‘minced’ around town in full drag. This act is referred to as “queering the space” around them by exposing others to drag in the public sphere.

“I felt so empowered,” he reflected.

What He’s Doing Now

Zondi is one of the only members of the black queer South African community to conduct research on the community from a queer black perspective, and draws upon his own experiences in his research. He hopes to inspire other current queer black artists to write about their experiences. Zondi plans to eventually return to South Africa after he completes his studies. There is much less research being done in the field of dance there, particularly on queer black choreographers, which is exactly why Zondi wants to return — to be a resource for future South African scholars, activists and artists who may find themselves wanting to perform and study the same topics, so that they do not have to travel as far as America to accomplish it.