Associate Professor Nadia Davids wins UCT Creative Art Works Award

19 Mar 2021
19 Mar 2021

On a still, cool day in the east of a city by the sea, three sounds only: a bulldozer’s engine, a forgotten song, a canon that tells the time. Behind the bulldozer, a sign: Luxury Mall Coming Soon. As the vehicle moves in to the clear ground, it strikes at something unexpected…

What Remains, a years-long, multiple-output creative collaboration between Professor Jay Pather and Associate Professor Nadia Davids, is a fusion of text, dance and movement that tells a story about the unexpected uncovering of a slave burial ground in Cape Town, the archaeological dig that follows and a city haunted by the memory of enslavement. When the bones emerge from the ground, everyone in the city – descendants of the enslaved, archaeologists, citizens, property developers – is forced to reckon with a history sometimes remembered, sometimes forgotten. Loosely based on the uncovering of a graveyard at Prestwich Place in Cape Town where, in 2003, a corporate real estate development famously, unexpectedly, struck an eighteenth century burial ground- What Remains is a path between memory and magic, the uncanny and the known, waking and dreaming. Four figures – The Archaeologist, The Healer, The Dancer and The Student – move between bones and books, archives and madness, paintings and protest, as they struggle to reconcile the past with the now.

The work, concerned with the historical, with an active engagement with archive, social justice and the geographies of loss that characterise our city and our country, with disrupting received representations of oppressed peoples, and with responding to South Africa's political life, is also undergirded by the understanding that art is not only informed by theory, but creates it, and that live performance is a particularly powerful space in which to stage these questions and invite responses.

Written by Nadia Davids, directed by Jay Pather and performed by Denise Newman, Faniswa Yisa, Shaun Oelf and Buhle Ngaba, What Remains was nominated for seven - and won five - Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards in 2018, including Best New South African Play (Nadia Davids) and Best Director (Jay Pather). The Wits University Press publication of Davids's What Remains creates innovative ways of describing performance. The published play, along with Davids's accompanying essay and Pather's notes on choreography, invites the reader not only to consider the text and its genesis, but to imagine the play's staging, the ways in which bodies work to forge meaning in and through performance, and how Davids's text suggests the choreographic. 

Reviewers described the play as a "beautiful masterpiece", "transformative" and "destined to become a South African classic."

What Remains as performance makes a meaningful contribution to South African theatre and that What Remains as a published text offers exciting new pathways in how to archive and write reflexively about performance. The latter holds particular-if dispiriting- resonance during a time when the discipline of performance, with its dependence on liveness and public assembly is under siege. For now, we cannot gather to watch live performance but we can turn to books that hold performed texts, describing what has come before and what will come again.


What Remains is destined to become a South African classic. Nadia Davids’s transformative play digs up bones and reaches for the sacred. It dramatises the timeless dance between memory and ‘progress’ in a way that is also a fierce critique of the present moment. Like the best drama, it is universal because Davids roots it so precisely in the experience of her time – post-apartheid South Africa – and place: her beloved Cape Town. – Mark Gevisser, author of Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir


What Remains excavates a tragic history, mining beauty, no less than poetry, from a slave burial ground. This heart-breaking dance on the page, cries out to be performed. With Pather’s choreographic notes, it promises to be a triumph. – Zoë Wicomb, Emeritus Professor at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

Read the UCT News article about Associate Professor Nadia Davids winning the Creative Art Works Award here