Sunday, 1 September 2013

Identity and the Artist

Aug 29

I take the morning off, and roll in for the afternoon session. It begins with Moses Serubiri giving a paper on Ugandan Identity and the Arts. Moses is a soft-spoken and, as it turns out, quite brilliant speaker. He is also a violinist and a photographer. Here's an attempt to capture a few of his points:

1) The ultimate challenge of the artist is to be unsure of the Ugandanness that constitutes their identity: "We are as we have been influenced," says Moses. But he also asks, "What are we influenced by? What are our choices?" Ugandan indentity is shaped by many influences.

2) In Uganda, there is sectarianism, tribalism, and racism (much, I would argue, as there is in Canada, or pretty much everywhere I've traveled). For the writer / artist, difference must be expressed in a language comprehensible BEYOND the borders in which it has been produced. Through the language of art, difference can be bridged.

3) Ugandan identity on stage is fluid. A character can change from one kind of identity to another, depending on circumstances, since Ugandan identity is shaped by many influences, and is dependent on context.

4) Being an artist involves taking on the identity of the other.

After Moses speaks, others begin to join the conversation. Binyavanga Wainaina (who has decided to stay for the whole conference, since it's an AMAZING thing), speaks about how art can create a space for awkwardness. He speaks of the shyness / shame that so many (maybe all?) people carry with them, and the need for a mask. Yet the mask is just that - a cover. Art can look under the mask, at the unguarded human.

Sam Okelo - another Artistic Director, and local force of nature - sums it up nicely: "One of the things that keeps human beings alive is fear." To this can be added Ted Hughes' notion that art throughout history has operated as medicine for a damaged consciousness. We are all, always, trying to understand how to behave, and we want to get it right because we are afraid of getting it wrong. And so - as Binyavanga says - we pick up masks. Art can offer solace, ways of being, comfort, challenge.

Kiki Katese, from Rwanda, says that the first time she felt really alone was as an artist. But she also speaks of the responsibility of the the citizen, and that the artist is not exempt from this. Because, as she says, if we don't pay attention, we will lose ourselves.

But she adds how difficult it is to survive as an artist  "in our countries, where we have to prostitute ourselves".

The talk continues and it is fascinating. Is there an African Identity? Is there an African signature in African work? The room is full of some of the most articulate, thoughtful, and precise thinkers I have ever been honored to be in a room with. I am captured by this talk, and forget to take more notes. Hence the skimpiness of the blog at this point! But there is a chorus of Canadian chatter at one point when one of the Ugandans asks, "Do other peoples worry about identity as much as we do?". The Canadians all practically shout "Yes!" Who we are on this earth seems to be an ongoing, unsolvable puzzle. But it seems right that it is the artist who wrestles with it, in ways beyond the sphere of other forms of human expression, beyond empirical study, journalism and politics.

Says Donna Michelle St. Bernard, "I try to give your belly something your brain already has".

Aug 29 evening

The evening is Nova. Nova Bhattacharya dances for us all, and it is tremendous. She dances three pieces, and speaks between each. The first is Classical Indian Dance. The second is an early piece of hers, when she was exploring a contemporary way to use Classical dance in performance. The final piece was made for Nova by Canadian choreographic legend Jose Navas. Through the three pieces, we see both the evolution of Nova's practice, and the incredible skill and depth of her expression. It is riveting.

Inspired perhaps by all the fascinating talk of the afternoon, Nova introduces herself as a Canadian, and how tricky it can be to maintain that simple identity when she dances - how the South Asian-ness of her appearance, and the form she has trained in (in Canada!), leads others to assumptions.

Assumption. The part of identity that identity fights against.

Aug 30

The Woman Artist

Today's panel is an examination of She. There are three speakers from three different countries: Odile Katese ("Kiki") from Rwanda; Pamela Acaye (one of thee conference directors) from Uganda; and Sarah Sunde (a director and the associate AD of New Georges in NYC), from the USA. Here are a collection of impressions:

1) Kiki speaks about all she has done in Rwanda - creating the organization, Professional Dreamers, creating the Women Drummers of Rwanda, founding a national drum festival, running an International Theatre Festival: "From the stage, I learned to be active. To make something from nothing. I had to accept to be stubborn."

2) Sarah speaks about New Georges in New York. It is a theatre with 175 associated directors and writers. They are careful with the language they use to describe themselves, and say, mostly, that they make plays that happen to be created by women.

3) Pamela speaks of women's stories. She says that these stories are everywhere in the environment around us, that every mat, every basket has a story, perhaps of subjugation, perhaps of rebellion.

The moderator, Melissa Kiguwa, speaks about the age-old invisibility of women's words in the world of the published book: "If women are writing, where are their words?"

The talk turns to moments of oppression, of the obstacles faced by women.

Pamela tells the story of her mother - the second wife of her father. Pamela's mother gave birth to too many girls, and was judged as worthless. One day, male relatives came to the house to clear away all of these useless girls, to throw them into the market, to make their own way as prostitutes, or, well, whatever. Pamela's mother stood up to the men, and kept her girls together. The young Pamela watched this, and something awoke in her - an awareness.

Kiki spoke of poverty, and the women drummers she works with, of learning the despair of women. She says that until she began to work with them, and understand the pressures of their lives, "I didn't know how poor they were".

The talk shifts to harm - and how an educated woman who goes into a community to work with local women, may have to be very careful to not leave harm, to not create stigma, to not mark these women out for derision or retribution. A woman named Sophie Alal, artistic director of Denyu African, speaks of always asking the question: "How stealthily can I enter a community?" Sarah, the American, talks about dropping labels: "Women's Theatre" or "Feminist Theatre", since power accrues to that which doesn't need a label. I speak about Jackie Maxwell's work at the Shaw Festival, tipping the male / white balance more towards female / diverse.

Words are spoken of. Kiki says she hates the word "sacrifice". She says she doesn't make sacrifices, she makes choices.

Sophie says she hates the word "empowerment." She says we all have power inside us. The trick is getting to it. But it's not as if it's not already there.

Sophie goes on to talk of the idea of sisterhood - that a sisterhood is a safe place to talk, to enjoy a liberty from other, outside pressures. This, she says, leads to an awareness of gifts - of the things that are available to women, that may not be available to men. She speaks of the sympathy that she discovered for men through sisterhood.

Kiki - who continues to blow everyone away whenever she speaks - sums everything up perfectly: "We are just ordinary people, doing a crazy thing, an extraordinary thing." Of the women she works with, and of herself, too, she says that the work is the thing. The work is the focus, and at the end of each day, the artists doing this work, the women making this work, simply go back to their lives. The work is the thing. And this work - art, whatever you want to call it - will affect people however it will.

That's the idea.

Aug 30 Evening

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

We all gather for the sub-Sarahan premiere of Iranian Nassim Soleimanpour's extraordinary White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. Donna Michelle St. Bernard bravely volunteers to be the actor for the piece when the scheduled actor doesn't show. The show is a cold-read, and looks at issues of art, of being trapped, and of manipulation and enforced obedience - all in an enormously quirky way. It has travelled the world since I saw a rehearsal of it in Tehran 2 years ago, and told playwright Nassim Soleimanpour I wanted to produce it. Everywhere it goes, this play seems to connect in a visceral way with the people who experience it together (it is a rare experience as audience to know that the performer doesn't know anymore than you do about what is about to happen). This is no exception. There are Rwandan and American artistic directors in the audience who want to carry on the tradition of taking these words to their own homes.

We take pictures. We email Nassim. There is only one day left.

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