5 Questions for Gina Kraft

The Last Supper
The Last Supper © Gina Kraft

Artist Gina Kraft used Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" as a visual reference for her performance piece, on show at GoetheonMain in April 2015. She talked to us about religion, rituals and representations of the female body.

Why Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting The Last Supper?
GK: One of the focus points of this performance project is to subvert and challenge the established and maintained status quo propagated by the Christian religion. The Last Supper story told in the Bible is the crux of the matter; it is the prequel to the salvation of “mankind”; the moment where all is revealed. The widespread fame of Da Vinci’s representation of this moment has made it an important visual representation of the story, one that people revere and to which they refer for visual cues in aid of their religious performances.

I come from a religious background. I was brought up by evangelical fundamentalist Christian parents. I was thoroughly immersed in the culture, rituals and practices of the church until, in my early twenties, when I began to question the legitimacy of such a lifestyle or belief system. This has created a critical attitude and curiosity in me towards religion, rituals and representations thereof. In response I have been exploring, subverting and experimenting with different existing rituals and ritualistic gestures as well as creating new rituals. In my experience, the performance of and participation in rituals is the binding factor in religious communities. Common action is more important than common beliefs in creating and maintaining communities. Experiments in relationship and community building through rituals is an important element of the Last Supper project.

Da Vinci’s depiction of the Last Supper portrays thirteen men sitting next to each other at a long table.  There are no female disciples ever mentioned, and there are no women in the painting. According to the story, these men provided and made their own meal and ate it, while locked up in a room. In this project, I am challenging the exclusion of women in the strongly patriarchal system represented by the painting.
The female body, and more specifically, your body, is a recurring element throughout your artistic work. What is your motivation behind using your body as a vehicle to convey a message?
GK: The issues that I find important to address and question in my work often have a lot to do with the female body, how it is perceived, looked at, judged, loved, envied, manipulated, distorted, maimed. I often focus on challenging stereotypical gender roles. Considering this, using my own body as the vehicle to introduce questions and highlight issues is most appropriate.

There is a vulnerability in creating any artwork. Whatever medium is used, theme broached or concept questioned, creation always comes from the artist’s self in some way. Using my own body emphasises and taps into that vulnerability. It creates an immediacy and direct challenge to audiences to question existing thoughts and ideas in their own minds, to recognise possibilities, and potentially challenge established thought in the issues I address.
One scene from your Last Supper performance is visually particularly striking; it shows a group of women squirming and writhing while their heads and faces are covered in transparent stockings. Can you elaborate a bit on this scene and its context?
GK: This particular scene draws on a feeling of anguish in the process of loss and grief, which are the main themes of The Last Supper Part III. I wanted to convey a feeling of helplessness in being able to change the circumstance that caused the feeling; to emphasise the intensity through the number of women writhing and screaming with grief, the feeling is more than one person can take, yet it has to be borne alone.

I have recently gone through many losses in my personal life. The screaming gestures in the scene are external gestural representations of how I pictured my internal anguish. As a continuation of The Last Supper Part II, in which thirteen friends know that one of their number is about to die, they use choreographed gestures to express anxiety and fear of loss.  It is a personal reflection and expression, represented by women who have lost their friend.  In the scene referred to above the death has occurred, the extreme and irrevocable loss experienced.
In your work, you concern yourself with questions of how women are perceived by society in different cultures, what is expected of them and how they are confronted with oppression. How do you view gender politics and power structures in today’s world?
GK: The legacy of millennia of power struggles between genders, whether subtle manipulation or outright physical abuse, is evident in today’s world. Stereotypical gender roles have been formed to keep a balance of power and maintain the status quo. These prescribed roles undermine the legitimacy of individuals for the sake of power and dominance. In many cultures, women have been subjugated and harnessed for centuries. These roles have developed and adjusted according to lifestyles in different times and functions of family units. The subscription to and perpetuation of these gender roles in today’s world adversely affect the lives, ambitions, happiness, productivity and self-esteem of women globally.

The media plays a substantial role in the manipulation and establishment of stereotypical roles and precedents for people to aspire to and live by. Celebrities, through the media, have affected and influenced men and women in their ideas and expectations of beauty and appearances. As people are increasingly exposed to the unrealistic pervasive ins and outs of celebrities’ lives and appearances, they continuously feel inadequate, undesirable and unattractive.

Another big player in the maintenance of the power structure status quo is religious constructs and belief systems that steer societal morals and values, endorsing and perpetuating a patriarchal society, where gender roles have been long established. Having been brought up in the core of this system, I fitted into it neatly for years. I recently divorced my husband of almost eighteen years, a relationship in which I fell into the stereotypically heterosexual gender role. Looking back at my situation, I am able to critically reflect on how I lived for all those years as a “wife” and “mother” fighting for a chance to be myself, for time to be ambitious, productive, and self-fulfilled. I recognised the inappropriateness of the stereotypical gender role I represented.
Part of the Last Supper performances at GoetheonMain will be workshops, rituals and shared meals, thus interacting with the audience and the community in the Maboneng Precinct. What can audiences expect to experience?
GK: The focus of this project is to create an opportunity for people to experience a type of community without prejudice, judgement, or exclusivity, but rather participation, acceptance and inclusion.

During the time the Last Supper project is occupying GoetheonMain, besides performances, video screenings, and visual and aural documentation, there will be workshops twice a week, on weekdays to prepare and develop performances. This will be an opportunity for audiences to experience our specific process of choreography and preparation for performances. There will also be other related workshops where audiences can become potential participants. We will be sharing meals, which we invite audiences and members of the community to join. Sharing a meal with someone creates a type of bond in people through conversations, the potential result of spending time together during a meal. There will also be various dance and movement workshops, celebrating the magnificence and beauty of the human body. 

At the beginning of every workshop, the cast performs a particular ritual, which is aimed at sharing vulnerability and creating bonds between participants. It is always done in the same way, but with different partners every time. There is a response session after the ritual, to share each participant’s individual experience. This makes the whole process more personal, inclusive and meaningful. The cast has been doing this ritual at rehearsals for the past year. We have found it has created a very deep bond between participants. Again, we invite people to participate in this initially vulnerable and uncomfortable, but ultimately soothing, comforting and worthwhile experience.

Gina Kraft is a South African performance artist based in Johannesburg. She has experimented with the spectacle and impact her body can make on those around her through live, and often, interactive performances. Her work embodies action in confrontation of thoughts and practices and it is often in the context of public spaces, but she also performs in galleries and for video or photographs. She currently leads performances which involve audience participation and collaboration.

Miriam Daepp conducted the interview with Gina Kraft in April 2015