Michael Moloi. Photo courtesy of Moloi.

Everything is Art

Michael Moloi has danced his way from South Africa to Las Vegas to Eugene. Now he’s a painter, too.

Michael Moloi received a Black Lives Matter Grant from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation last year. The art he created, which was shown at the grant-related exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, was a video he choreographed during the pandemic that showed people in different countries performing the same steps. When we met on Zoom in June 2020 to discuss his work, he said the hardest part of making the video was teaching the dance moves long distance. 

“We have to work together,” Moloi told me then in his lilting South African accent, relating what he knew about reconciliation after apartheid to the BLM movement in the United States. 

This year we met on Zoom again, which is largely how I’ve been conducting interviews for the past two years. Speaking about racism and its related effects, his easy-going demeanor turns weighty. He grew up in Johannesburg and was in grade school during the last years of apartheid. 

“We had two names,” he says.

Every student had an African name — his is Tumelo — and an English name given by their teacher. I notice he goes by Michael more than Tumelo, so I ask if he has a preference. “Whichever makes people comfortable,” he says. The answer reflects his attitude towards mending an unjust society, which is that people need to be comfortable enough with one another to work together. 

Moloi missed the outdoor reception for the Black Lives Matter Artist Grant Exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art last summer. He had to be at a different show — performing with Usher at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

The Usher show was not Moloi’s first time performing on the Vegas strip. For 11 years he played the role of Sugar Plum Fairy in The Beatles LOVE, a long-running Cirque du Soleil production at The Mirage. The great part of that job, he says, was getting to work with people from all over the world. He met his wife, Jacqueline Moloi, at The Mirage, too, though she wasn’t in the show, exactly. She was in Las Vegas on a softball scholarship at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, majoring in sociology and also working as an usher at The Mirage.

“I was in the theater before Michael,” Jacqueline says. 

She wasn’t a performer in LOVE, though ushers were sometimes pulled into the act, but the show did bring her and her husband together in real life. Then after about a decade of living in Las Vegas, the original cast of LOVE began going their separate ways. 

It felt like time to leave, too, Michael says, and he and Jacqueline came to Eugene to be near her family.

It’s important, Jacqueline says, that their children know both her and her husband’s family. She usually goes to South Africa with him, but last time he visited she stayed in Eugene because their youngest child wasn’t yet able to be vaccinated.

Jacqueline’s parents, Sheryl and Roger Kerrigan, run Mountain View Farm, just north of Junction City. When Michael isn’t performing in Vegas he helps on the farm and at Lane County Farmers Market selling fruits and vegetables. Did he bring farming skills with him to Eugene? No, Jacqueline says, but he can learn how to do anything if he puts his mind to it. 

She adds, “Michael sees everything as art.”

Gumboot is a type of dance named after the boots that workers wore in the mines of South Africa. Working under an oppressive system, miners came from different subcultures and spoke different languages. To communicate with each other they invented a rhythmic language stomping their boots. The stomping evolved into a dance, which the bosses, upon seeing, found entertaining — despite the fact that it sometimes referenced them in a negative way. 

Gumboot, when performed for those in charge, functioned as a subversive dance.

Michael Moloi became an expert at gumboot as a member of the South African company Via Katlehong Dance. The dance company was developed to keep youths off the street during apartheid. He traveled around South Africa performing with them and then to Europe, which is where Cirque du Soleil eventually spotted him. He was an original cast member of Beatles LOVE.

Brett Alters came into the LOVE show later to step into the role of Clown. He and Moloi became friends, and it was through him that Moloi was called to work for Usher. Alters’ wife, Allegra Libonati, was hiring BIPOC dancers for Usher’s new show. When she asked her husband if he knew of anyone that fit that bill, he thought of Michael. 

While working for Usher, Moloi stayed at Alters’ and Libonati’s home. Remembering that Moloi carved wood during the day while performing at night in Beatles LOVE, Alters gave him his garage as a space to carve. Moloi used the garage, but not to carve wood. He used it as a makeshift painting studio.

Moloi says he had the desire to paint since he was a kid, but couldn’t. Now, after spending a sizable amount of money on materials, he felt pressure to succeed. His first painting was inspired by a get-together with mutual friends of his and Alters’. 

Alters wanted the painting, but Moloi didn’t want to sell. Finally, after haggling in reverse — Moloi not wanting to take money — a price was agreed upon: $750. Alters thinks he got the better deal. He loves the painting in his house but also believes Molois artwork is going to “blow up.” 

Moloi is delighted, too. The amount he got for that first painting more than covered his initial expenses. He brought some paintings home to his mother, when he visited South Africa this last time. He has plenty more where those came from, as he’s made around 50 paintings in the last half a year. 

“Did he tell you he gave one to Usher?” Alters asks me.

No, he didn’t. He didn’t tell me that he performed for Nelson Mandela, either, alongside artists such as Beyoncé and U2. I read that credit in his biography. Maybe he doesn’t like to name drop, as I am doing now, or maybe he’s just humble.

That’s how Eric Braman, program director at Lane Arts Council, describes Moloi — as a humble artist who captivates people with his performance. Braman has seen Moloi at work as part of LAC’s Teaching Artist Residency Program. 

“He doesn’t speak at first. No words. He just starts moving,” Braman says. “No matter which age group Moloi works with, he connects.”

Eugene’s Cultural Services Division posted a video of Moloi demonstrating basic moves from gumboot. Wearing the yellow boots often associated with the dance, he cups his hand, which makes a different sound clapping than when it’s wide open. The hand is an instrument capable of producing different tones. When Moloi performs, he uses his whole body this way — making sounds by clapping, slapping, stomping, whistling. The effect is an intensely rhythmic dance, alternately sorrowful and joyous.

You can see Moloi’s brilliantly colorful artworks on the walls of Lane Arts Council’s office in the new Midtown Arts Center on 16th Avenue. His paintings, acrylic on canvas, are bold, like his dancing, and the gestural style gives the subject matter — people and animals — an immediate and welcoming presence.

He envisions them ultimately as an element of a larger performance to include dancing, poetry, and music, too.

 “We are lucky to have Michael,” Braman says. “He is Eugene’s unofficial arts ambassador from South Africa.” ν