Nessun Dorma: None Shall Sleep Tonight
In 2008 I was invited to participate in an exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery where I was challenged, along with all the other participating artists, to respond to the title: “The World’s Most Dangerous Ideas”. For this, I created the work Nessun Dorma: None Shall Sleep Tonight which involved relocating my bed from the safe, more affluent northern suburbs, where I lived, to sleep a night in Joubert Park in Hillbrow, then considered quite a dangerous area in downtown Johannesburg.
The performance included four CSS Tactical Security guards from the area where I lived, one at each post of my bed. It is important to note that the security guards were older Black men, who preferred not to be named and were all from a lower social-economic status than me, who probably really did protect me in reality whilst I slept in my bed at home. It also included two professional opera singers, Rheinald Moagi and Khotso Tsekeletsa who stood on two raised plinths and sang Puccini’s aria: “Nessun Dorma”. Watch the video here.
The opera resonated through the park and into the surrounding area and people came into the park from the street to see where the sound was coming from. During their singing I read “Don’t Panic! Don’t leave for Perth! Stories from [privileged, White] South Africans'' (my additions in brackets) and a book on Utopia. By relocating my bed from the privacy of my bedroom in the more affluent northern Suburbs, the performance exposes an everyday reality, revealing and unmasking this white privileged body and also shining a light on these bodies that protect other bodies, every night: who guards those who get to sleep at night?
Mary Corrigall, the South African art critic, writes about Nessun Dorma in her review of my first solo exhibition entitled ‘At My Own Risk’:
The risk value, so to speak, of sleeping in the notorious Joubert Park, on the edge of Hillbrow, is directly attached to her status as an affluent white. Impoverished people sleep in this park daily without it being construed as a statement (Corrigall, 2009).
Read the whole critical review here:
I return to play scholar Thomas Henricks’ question: ‘What kinds of people get to perform what kinds of activities with whom before what kinds of others – and what meanings are attached to those events?’ (Henricks, 2015, p. 180). My identity and power allowed me to perform many things in this performance: I was able to perform fear and being ‘on guard’. I was able to perform a nightly ritual in assumed safety, relocated to an unsafe area guarded by security guards. I was performing my privilege as a previously advantaged white South African. Whilst this performance does not explicitly engage sport or playfulness, this work remains critical for my practice in thinking about power, privilege, and the act of revealing this identity through performance.