In 2005, acclaimed Kenyan author and editor Binyavanga Wainaina wrote his sardonic work, How to Write About Africa. In it he instructs, “Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.” In approaching the issue of curating contemporary dance from Africa, I think of that line and ask myself: To what extent does the foreign curation of African contemporary dance rehearse this same rhetoric that Africa is inherently different than the rest of the world and Africa is to be saved? Is there a better way to curate?
Colonialism, by definition, was a process of violent theft buttressed by the establishment of systems designed to enrich the colonist by making the colonized economically dependent, despite being the actual source of wealth. I suggest that the foreign curation of African contemporary dance can perpetuate this superstructure even while it suggests or attempts to do the opposite. On the other end, many over-exploited African nations have assimilated the colonial mindset which undervalues African arts. Despite the post-independence fervour to develop the arts as a pivotal aspect of national identity, over time, many African governments have left dance artists dependent on foreign funding. Too many African artists find their domestic governments unwilling to invest in dance as an arm of education or cultural and economic development. Meanwhile, Europe fiends for creative products from Africa, both for their intrinsic value and their “exotic” allure. Artists across the continent want to work at home but have to work abroad, at least part-time, in order to make a living.
My aim here is not to place blame or shame on any artists or institutions who are in fact creating needed financial opportunities and often, incredible performances. Rather, I wish to shed light on a complex issue comprised of three primary dynamics of the white gaze that factor into foreign curation of African contemporary dance works. First, there is the expectation of essential difference that emerges when artists are placed on programmes specifically for African choreographers, whilst the rest of the invitees are blended in another programme. Then, there is the unspoken expectation that the artist translate or transform the work to suit a European audience, and lastly, an unwillingness to honour the vast and distinct differences in aesthetics amongst African choreographers and to hire them accordingly. These problematic dynamics have roots in centuries-old ideologies.
The notion of essential difference is promulgated when, for example, European venues continue to curate festivals and programmes within festivals dedicated to the continent as if it has one unifying culture, artistic voice, or even socio-political paradigm, whereas diverse works from Europe or the USA are grouped together simply as dance. I presume this pattern of special programming was enacted to secure region-based funding for artists’ travel and visas, but this “separate but equal” policy rehearses a paradigm of essentialist difference that may be hampering artistic freedom and cultural exchange. And although it is true that this type of programming draws audiences interested in particular cultural geographies (I have seen huge audiences come to see Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company because it is marketed as a Cuban company, not just an amazing one), it is also true that the artists themselves are then burdened with a type of representation not bestowed upon “Western” choreographers. Renowned Congolese dance artist Faustin Linyekula once stated, “I speak in my own name, not in the name of ‘all Congolese’ or ‘all Africans.’” He had to say this because he was repeatedly being asked to represent and explain his heritage when presenting his work abroad. Since then, choreographers all over the world have made similar statements, and have criticized the failure to be curated because their work is “too traditional” for contemporary festivals but “too contemporary” for traditional or ethnicity-based festivals. It is as if some presenters think that over 500 years of contact, conflict, and communication across cultures as a result of European colonialism would have no effect on dance, but in fact, artists everywhere are influenced by the cultural clashes in which they are enmeshed, and at the same time are individuals having deeply unique experiences that should not be thought to represent any one “typical” for their nationality. There is always the question of who gets to just be an artist, and who has to be an artist from a certain location.
Dancing Across Borders
The burden of cultural translation is carried by African artists who are invited to perform abroad, particularly in Europe. Black bodies under European curation continue to perform the marker of difference, but the “home field” is always Whiteness, and therefore Europe always has the advantage of hosting, framing, and gatekeeping through curation. By being programmed as African contemporary dance, the work can be pigeon-holed into a set of expectations, assumptions, and limitations distinct from those any European artist might endure. These ideas are demonstrated through curation when work that conveys suffering is curated more frequently than joy or even abstraction, when exoticism is valued over sincerity, when choreography that seems to speak directly to White audiences (even when critical) is repeatedly prioritized over work that values African respondents. Although one can only appreciate art from one’s own perspective, curators can and should be held responsible for engaging more deeply with the artistic communities they invest in and explore avenues for dialogue that are led by the artists’ work and desires.
On the contrary, some of the most popular non-African productions about Africa seem to have skirted this responsibility when it has come to curating the creative staff. In 2008, I had the opportunity to dine with one of the European-American producers of Fela! On Broadway. This interdisciplinary collaboration performs the life story of Nigeria’s most dangerous and internationally beloved musician/composers. It’s critical to note that through this conversation, I learned that the producer was not otherwise employed in the arts but was, in fact, an oil tycoon. I nearly choked on my meal, thinking about the Ogoni people who lost their lives fighting the exploitation, pollution, and corruption of Shell Oil–a fight Fela Kuti himself took on with his lyrics! This producer explained how the choreographer was selected: the producer was having a meeting with his lawyer, and they began to casually discuss music. The producer mentioned the exciting new project he was funding, and how they were still looking for a choreographer. As it happened, one of the lawyer’s clients was Bill T. Jones. Jones is one of the most pivotal postmodern/contemporary dance choreographers of the 21st century, having earned accolades such as Tony Awards, Kennedy Center Honors, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a National Medal of Arts. What he is not is Nigerian, Nigerian-American, or an expert or even practitioner of any form of Nigerian dance. But for the lawyer and the producer, he is an African American choreographer (who, to be fair, has choreographed for Broadway productions), and that was enough. Even a cursory engagement with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company’s website would tell you that he is a choreographer with a specific lineage, set of interests, and methodology that have little to do with the Yorubá ceremonial dances or Nigerian social dances that appear in the musical. To bridge this gap, Majia Garcia, one of his former dancers who is an acclaimed Cuban American director/choreographer, was brought on as “rehearsal director.” One has to wonder about the many dance artists qualified to choreograph Nigerian dances that were overlooked in favour of the one whose name brought prestige and who took little effort to find. When being of African descent and being well-known are the only requirements for under-researched curating, the project may be entertaining, even beautiful, but it will not be a fair representation of the culture, and it may not be the enriching creative collaboration that it could be for the artists. The expert knowledge and embodied experience a Yorubá choreographer could have brought from their home culture was lost. Although this was a U.S. production, there still should exist an ethical obligation to consider and in fact frame one’s artistic and managerial choices mindful of how Nigerians will receive the production about one of their heroic icons, and how Nigerians could be brought into the work in positions of creative leadership.
Culturally insensitive curation can also lead to mismatched collaborations framed under the assumption that all Africans have a shared artistic voice. The interdisciplinary contemporary opera Le Vol du Boli purports to tell the story of Michel Leiris’ 1931 theft of the sacred Boli sculpture from Mali as a metaphor for fraught European and African relations. It was first set to premier in France with choreography by Haitian contemporary dance artist Kettly Noël in 2020, but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the task of choreography, rehearsal direction, and performance was bestowed to South African choreographer Mamela Nyamza, largely known for her anti-spectacle solo and small-group work. At the Théâtre du Châtelet, one of France’s largest stages, with a cast of seven dancers including herself, Nyamza was an unusual choice for the role. This speaks to the strange nature of curating African and diasporan choreographers I’ve witnessed in several productions globally. In the United States, when Abdel R. Salaam curated his first Dance Africa event in 2018, he explained to the audience at the end of the show that during his visit to South Africa, he asked his guide to bring him the best dancers from the various dance companies all over the country. Suddenly, my colleagues and I understood what was beautiful but not fully gratifying about the work. Although each performer was excellent, the work indeed lacked a sense of unity. The artists had been torn from their artistic families and merged together by an outsider giving little time to create the bond needed to present a unified force. When a producer gathers talent rather than the artists choosing themselves to work together, one has to wonder how coherent the result will be. This is of particular relevance when the performance is presenting an “African” dance to a foreign audience.
Le Vol du Boli is an impressive and important work. Given the complex nature of its theme, I wonder if Africanité became a singular race through the process of curating the multi-national creative staff. Although there were several references to various countries in both Africa and Europe, the curation of the opera relied too heavily on a supposition of a shared experience amongst the Africans and another amongst the Europeans. This diminished the need for artistic collaboration to be based on a shared vision or practice—the desire to be in the room with particular people. The opera was intentionally creolizing cultures, but with only three weeks for the dance artists to prepare, the work suffered from trying to convey “Africa” in the language of one choreographer. Multi-lingual as she is, Nyamza does not speak the thousands of embodiments (and their relative philosophies) of the continent. Nevertheless, in its oscillations between strained and easeful collaboration, the work beautifully demonstrated the complexity of postcolonial identity itself—neither here nor there, but both and neither. There is a colonial entanglement that ensnarls Europe, the Americas, and Africa in complex histories and wedded futures. What can an understanding of this do for the foreign curation of African performance? Is there room for the self-determination of Africa in this relationship? Can performance be a site of anti-colonialist reparations that goes beyond the return of art objects?
It is my assertion that colonial nations cleanse their consciences by patronizing and curating African performance as a form of unmarked reparations (welcome, albeit inadequate) for colonial genocide and epistemicide. When not done with care, this process can reiterate colonialist ideologies of perceived essential difference from the presenting nation, and essential sameness amongst the African nations. Difference does exist. But it is cultural, religious, economic, and political. It is not skin deep, nor is it all-encompassing. So how might the world support contemporary dance in a way that rejects, rather than repeats, this colonial paradigm?
Many treatises in decolonial theory have been written. Emotional pleas for equity have been made, but we are often left wondering what to do. The work of building anti-colonial paradigms is by necessity crafted uniquely by each community. The points below are incomplete and non-prescriptive. My hope is that these anti-colonial moves can be considered as part of a larger project that would include both intimate and public atonement for colonial genocide and subsequent exploitation, opportunities for in-depth and long-term investment in African-led artistic projects and transnational dialogue on reparations that recognize and build on Africa’s wealth of artistic resources, rather than capitalizing on White guilt without bearing the responsibility to eradicate racism within one’s own artistic organization or curatorial practice. Organizations hosting African contemporary dance artists may consider the following actions:
• Hire African curators.
• Curate programming thematically rather than ethnically.
• If your festival is organizing programmes by nation or continent, do this consistently for all, rather than having a main programme, then an annex for African artists.
• As a non-African presenter, ask yourself:
• How do we acknowledge difference without fetishizing and capitalizing on it?
• How do we acknowledge sameness without ignoring or oversimplifying neo-colonial violence?
• How do we create dynamic exchanges that are mutually beneficial?
• How do we become better listeners?
• How might we better respond to artists rather than funding bodies when establishing categories?
• Does framing a collaboration as reparations help identify a dynamic that can be improved by making sure the members of the global majority lead the establishment of the terms of communication?
• Is there a way that foreign bodies can better support contemporary dance in Africa as a form of reparations that are led by the needs and desires of African artists?
There is not one singular or simple solution to the complex challenges of international dance curation. The body is an archive of cultural memory, a conduit of the imagination, and a conjuror of future worlds. Engaging artists mindfully, curiously, and humbly will begin to open possibilities for truth, reconciliation, reparations, and new avenues of equitable dance curation.
Rainy Demerson is a dance artist and scholar invested in global intersectional feminism and decolonial embodiments. She has trained extensively in San Francisco and New York City, as well as at L’École des Sables in Senegal, Teatro Nacional de Cuba, and Escola de Dança da FUNCEB in Brazil. She has produced her work in the USA, Senegal, South Africa, and Barbados. Her pedagogical praxis is informed by many years of teaching disenfranchised youth as well as formal study in the Dance Education MA at New York University. She also holds an MFA in Dance from Hollins University and a PhD in Critical Dance Studies from University of California Riverside, where she published her dissertation, Decolonial Moves: Re-Membering Black Women in South African Contemporary Dance. She taught at Lindenwood University, El Paso Community College, Crafton Hills College, Scripps College, California Polytechnic University Pomona, and California State University San Marcos before joining the University of the West Indies Cave Hill in Barbados. Her work has been published in the Journal of Dance Education, Journal of Emerging Dance Scholarship, Critical Stages, Research in Dance and Physical Education, and several anthologies.
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