Actor, dancer, choreographer and performance artist Owen Manamela-Mogane passed away last week. Celebrated choreographer Gregory Maqoma remembers a spiritual man who left an impression on everyone he met.
1977 - 2019
My last encounter with Owen Manamela-Mogane was on a rather gloomy day in the doorway of The Market theatre. It was just ahead of the opening of Exit/Exist, a work in which I connect with my ancestor, Chief Maqoma.
“I’m now back in Johannesburg, we should do something together,” remarked Owen.
We hugged and wished one another well. Walking into the theatre, my head was full of questions about the traditional beads he was wearing around his neck and wrists. Is he one with ancestors? In reverence, veneration, one with the spirit? His aura was filled with the spirit, I felt. Or is he a sanusi? What type? A diviner or a herbalist, or both? Or, as is the case in the African independent Christian churches, in the form of a prophet or what the Zion Christian Church calls lebone? Is he the one – someone who is possessed by the holy spirit and is able to foretell the future?
Who was Owen Manamela-Mogane?
Owen was a trained actor, dancer and choreographer born on July 12 1977 in Mpumalanga and raised in Johannesburg. It would have been his birthday next week.
His career began at the Alexandra Theatre and his interest in movement led him to the Johannesburg Dance Foundation, where he received his diploma.
After graduating from the University of Cape Town (UCT), he worked for Jazzart Dance Theatre, Inspirations Dance Company, Free Flight Dance Company, Bovim Ballet and Remix Dance Company.
He had returned to work with his community in building the arts in Alexandra township after 18 years teaching and working as a professional performer and director in Cape Town.
His list of productions is extensive – Junction, Rain in a Dead Man’s Footprint, Cargo, Ubuhle Bemvelo, Bolero, Lovaffair, Mendi, Waiting for the Barbarians, Eurydice, Impending Storm and Biko Rising. Then there were appearances in the many pieces he created.
He worked with directors Mandla Mbothwe, Ina Wichterich, Mwenya Kabwe, Mark Storer, Mark Fleishman, Faniswa Yisa, Marthinus Basson and Jaco Bouwer; with choreographers Adele Blank, Sean Bovim, Mamela Nyamza, Jay Pather, Alfred Hinkel and Sifiso Kweyama; and with musicians Sibongile Khumalo and Neo Muyanga.
His film credits include Stokvel, Master Harold and the Boys, and Janjaweed. He even hosted the TV show Rands with Sense on SABC2.
Owen was a creative and conceptual genius, an inspired choreographer and exquisite dancer, an insightful teacher and an active collaborator
Manamela-Mogane worked predominantly within the structures of his culture and traditions, and opened a new language for understanding the spirit world. He was a loner who often referred to his struggles with history and his spiritual research as evident in his works, including seriti, which he described as a “shadow or pride of a human being, but also can refer to the spirit, which becomes one of the ancestors when they die”. Seriti is his UCT master’s work, which displayed with pride that his spirit was one with ancestors.
Last week an omen of our times – who left a formidable impression on all those he came across, myself included, however brief our encounters – departed the realm of the living.
Those who knew him better speak passionately about his commitment to the arts.
Warona Seane, the award-winning performer and director said: “I first met Owen at a welcome braai we were having for a production we were scheduled to begin working on, Ukutshona ko Mendi: Did We Dance, in King William’s Town eight years ago. Owen taught me the alphabet in sign language and that was the beginning of a friendship and professional relationship that weathered all kinds of storms, coming out of each one stronger than before.
“Owen was a creative and conceptual genius, an inspired choreographer and exquisite dancer, an insightful teacher and an active collaborator. He loved his daughter, Bontle, with a fierceness and a gentleness that were both affirming and devotional.
“His final gift to the arts world was his master’s dissertation, Performing Masculinities: Stereotypes and Representations of the Male Body in Contemporary South Africa, which is now available at UCT Libraries. Rest well, Kgarudi. The love you shared with us transforms our grief into inspiration towards the imagining of a creative future without convention and with possibilities as endless as the universe.”
From film producer Linda Makgabutlane: “Owen was the type of friend who would convince you to stay longer at a gathering in order to enjoy yourself, then walk you to your car to make sure you were safe in the early hours. I was excited at the possibility of having him present in my own future.
“Having been raised alongside his sisters and raising a daughter of his own meant that he was a pleasure to be around for both men and women, which is rare. Streetwise and sensitive, masculine and open minded, proudly from Alex and worldly...
“I would often be envious when he would casually describe how an image for a theatre piece came to him intuitively or in a dream-like state. Only a few sit comfortably enough within their own creative processes and sense of self to work in this way. His work was reflexive. His understanding of performance making, the moving body and space allowed for him to take risks, experiment and play. To then pursue and translate his concepts into storytelling and choreography in performances felt necessary within local contemporary theatre making.”
Mpho Molepo, Owen’s mentor and friend in charge of the Alexandra Arts Academy where Owen was the new deputy director in charge of training and shaping a new breed of performer, describes him as “a dear, gentle brother”, who was “very passionate and driven”.
He said: “His departure is a great loss to the academy and the arts community of Alexandra. His knowledge and contribution were immense. His death was unexpected after a short illness.”
Owen has left us behind to continue to work tirelessly to move the arts from a mundane state to the wordly, passionate and healthy position it deserves, the one that Owen deserved.