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Visualized Memories / We Almost Forgot.

Visualized Memories in Performance Space(s) / Qudus Onikeku: We Almost Forgot

Speaking from the center and not from the margin when being in performance spaces is a constant struggle for contemporary African artists, who aim to represent themselves through deconstructing colonial fantasies of the Black experience. A visual art piece fixed in a canvas is like an imagined, captured memento of the past, whereas visually accessible movement art pieces expressed through dance is a flow of story-telling that has the ability to transform and change with each performance; to become the center. Movement art is the epitome of performativity.

For centuries, Africa has been represented as a continent that is best characterized through a nonverbal aesthetic (Ebron), which in turn perpetuates the legitimacy prescribing whiteness to speak for and to the “other”. The category-making of African dance for instance, creates the hegemonic construction of dance. As anthropologist Paulla A. Ebron, puts it critically, the discourse of difference between Music (here: Dance) from “the West” and “African Music” is that, the latter “evokes feelings rather than stimulating thought” [1], again denying the autonomy of the “other’s” body of thought expressible through art. Africa as a locus of emotion versus “The West” the foundation of reason. Ebron points to theories of Edward Said, Homi K. Bhabha, and Trinh Minh- ha, who in varying ways delineate how any representation of Africa is constructed and reproduced by Eurocentrism. Constant discourses on diversity create a hegemonic norm (the West) that defines and subordinates the “other”.

The category “African music” emerges under the guise of a hegemonic construction of music attributing emotion and collective spirituality to the entire African society, and rationality and individuality to the West. Traditional music falls under Africa as classical music au contraire is perceived as a pure white commodity. This power structure due to monolithic story-making contributes in the making of the psyche [2], as stated by Bhabha. What is considered spiritual and emotional subjugates the globally accepted sovereignty of reason and rationality. The danger is the fixation of one characteristic treat to the whole continent and then speak of a collective sense of belonging through the very same subjugated treat. Defining static identity markers for the “other” is a large part of how the process of othering works.

Qudus Onikeku is a choreographer, movement artist, founder of QDanceCenter in Lagos, and art director from Nigeria. He produced a dance theater piece called We Almost Forgot in 2016, which features seven artists of diverse backgrounds Gabon, Algeria, Nigeria, Mali and Madagascar: Deborah Aiyegbeni, Sonia Al-Khadir, Ese Brume (Poet), Gaëlle Inonda, Tidiani N’diaye, Gwen Rakotovao, Qudus Onikeku. We Almost Forgot deals with collective memories of a painful past while connecting with the present and alternative futures. The piece premiered in Berlin, Lagos, Abuja and Paris.

In the still above, you can see five figures in their moment of catharsis. One of them is crawling on the floor filled with fallen leaves while the others are jumping, deranging and throwing the leaves around, creating a fragmented testimony or traceability of their individual hurtful past. The autumn leaves on the floor are part of the arranged performance space and represent the foundation of selves scattered on earth, which need to be saved or retraced. In the still, the movement artists manage to rearrange and pull up the leaves. The leaves in turn look like abstract shadows or mirrors of themselves. Qudus Onikeku focuses on “how to use gravity and the floor as dance partners, to develop a strong harmony, and finding a balance between what we control and what transcends us” [3] in his pieces. We Almost Forgot tackles issues of war, genocide and suffering from a worldwide perspective, there are no cities, countries or stages of terror named, but they are there, uniquely universalized. Onikeku’s direction in (movement) art is towards healing the marks from pain engraved on our bodies. His style of dance is highly energetic and breaks the boundaries of what is known as contemporary dance. In We Almost Forgot, he included Nigerian actress and poet Ese Brume as a narrator, who delivered a breathtaking performance. This was the only verbal instance in the piece filled with vigorous story-telling through the dancers body language. If at this stage of the performance it appears we have been rather kindly couched from the horrors of which our narrator speaks, this misconception is forcefully rent in the final scene which is perhaps the most horrific. It is the telling of a massacre, wild and frenzied, with machetes, of an entire household. Our narrators voice trembling in the ghastly recounting of it, in screams that roar to a crescendo she at one point describes the chopping action of their assailants machetes “up and down, up and down, up and down” persistent in its deafening repetition, imprinting gruesome images of an absolute horror until the smell of blood rises in your nostrils, the sound of metal striking bone ringing in your ears and you find yourself in recoil, burrowing deep into unyielding plastic seats from the shock of it, from the absolute reaching corruption of it.” [4]

Writes Eboka Chukwudi Peter, critically acclaimed Nigerian writer, upon seeing the piece in Lagos. In June 2017, I asked Onikeku what pain and its exploitation through the white gaze mean to him and he responded with the following analysis; Pain as you might call it or or the struggle to remember or the process of healing trauma has been major in my work, for it is normal that when the conditions are favourable we mortals seek reproduction, but when it isn't favourable we seek self preservation, so I recognize why our art speaks and seeks to stay alive in every means necessary, mostly through the expressions of the soul which the West refer to as art, and if we can survive and travel and be famous on the process, no wonder a genre is formed from so doing.”[5] Interviewing one of the dancers after the performance at Ballhaus Naunynstraße in Berlin, Sonia Al-Khadir described her body as a place of horrific memory, and her only way to reclaim her body was through movement, emptying out the traumatic past. This led me to the question whether or not the beauty in deconstructive art stem from the experience of pain. In this paper, I am referring to the pain and trauma post-colonial people in the diaspora are subjected to - even presently, with the rise of right-winged hatred in Europe and U.S.

Started off in 2017, Qudus Onikeku curates danceGATHERING - an antidisciplinary29 art festival in Lagos. The motto in 2018 was Body and Memory. Onikeku and co-curator Onye Ozuzu seek to transform the aesthetic perception of “the body as a storehouse of memories and inherited traumas, as the living thing that has passed through the tunnel of history, the body as a prized possession, a battlefield and a space of freedom; memory as an element of healing and restoration, to go beyond set limitations and communicate those in nonverbal, performative forms.“ [6] They brought the interactive, local and international artistry of dance, poetry, music and paintings to the public space in Lagos Island, performing several artworks on Broad Street live, asking spectators to join.

The body as a prized possession becomes the body that expresses itself freely despite being possessed. The body as a storehouse of inherited trauma becomes the body of thought and communal healing, despite being trapped in the misrepresentations and oppressive mood of the hold. What kind of power lies in (re-)claiming public spaces for healing purposes, through the transformation into a performance space? Does the process of becoming in the memento of performance influence the external markers of being? Is the performative universalization of pain and memory an alternative progress to coming-in-terms-with-our-routes?

If the belly of the ship births blackness, as Sharpe puts it, how to dismantle the ship? Pain and trauma seem to be the very starting point for artists of color, when they speak of healing. Recalling Qudus Onikeku’s response to my question, he defines art as an expression of the soul in contrast to what “the West“ rationalizes as a mere material, disposable aesthetic production. Close to what Ebron describes as a hegemonic construction of Music in Europe and Africa.

By taking up space on African soil, Qudus Onikeku literally brings diasporic subjects (most of the dancers grew up in France, where Onikeku professionalized in dance, and most of participants of danceGATHERING are form the diaspora) back to their center of being, making them the story- tellers of their history, the owners of their bodies, the subjects of their being. “Performance is representation of being - the coming to be and the ceasing to be of processes in nature, human society, and thought.” [7] This is a key argument by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in defense of performance spaces. But to what extend do (visual) artists, for instance, truly have the power to perform, to heal, to transgress hegemonic constructions of the self, of cultural identity?


1 Ebron (2002) p. 36 2 Ebron (2002) p. 29 3 4 Review on We Almost Forgot by Eboka Chukwudi Peter: post/2016/07/19/A-review-of-Qudus-Onikeku’s-“We-almost-forgot” 5 during my research in Nigeria, I visited Qudus Onikeku’s studio and held short interviews with him and the dancers for academic purposes.

6 antidisciplinary describes the act of working against normative ideals of disciplines 7 QDanceCenter/ danceGATHERING

8 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1997)

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