Faustin LInyekula’s art has a purpose. Through multimedia dance theater, he delivers choreography that is meant to communicate openly with his audience. In “What is Black Music: Self Portraits”, he combines three artists using dance movement, text, singing, and guitar playing, all in an extremely white four story atrium in MoMa. Lenyekula’s piece was political, emotional, and minimalist, drawing upon the experience of Black people with colonialism and slavery, combining Black African imagery with Black American imagery. Although I believe that I understood the message being conveyed, it is difficult for me to be sure, simply because the political and historical systems in place that reaped human and natural resources from Africa for the last 600 years are the same systems that afford me advantage in society today. However, because I believe that Linyekula’s true aim as an artist is to tell stories – he stated many times in his piece and interviews that he is a storyteller – I want to see if I have understood his objective.
When Linyekula was asked about his reaction to the space upon first seeing it, he responded in a smooth Congolese accent, “Wow…it is really white!” to which everyone in the room chuckled. The room itself is an imposing space about twice as high as it is wide, painted starkly white. But the reason why his response was funny is because the piece was about understanding that there is a battle for achieving black identity in the white world. During his talkback, he stated that he did not have to account for his Blackness and African heritage until he left Africa and began performing in Europe. Furthermore, he stated that the most offensive review he received in France suggested that he act more African. When I discussed this with my martial arts instructor Jamal F., a Black man born and raised in Brooklyn, Jamal stated, “He couldn’t just be a dancer, he had to be all Kunta Kinte up in this bitch!” I understood that to mean that white people have certain expectations about Black performers (and black people in general), and because white people are in control of the reins of power, those expectations have real effects on Black identity. Specifically, that the audience was unable to remove the “African Image” from Linyekula’s body, and because Linyekula did not find the need to address it (which is clearly within his realm of artistic control), it seemed to the white masses to be inauthentic. It’s as if the critic did not come to see a dance piece, he came to see an African person dance for him. This is the idea, this fight for normal identity for black people in the face of whiteness, that was exposed more fully through the juxtaposition of “black music” in an extremely white space.
“Black Music” in this case emanated from two main sources: the singer and the guitarist, both of whom oscillated between Black African themes and Black American themes. The singer began by vocalizing text in a way that, to my untrained ears, sounded like a native African style. The text was a quote from Haile Selassie quoted by Bob Marley stating, “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned”. This began the piece with a tone of addressing racial activism. In a powerful, loud, raspy and shrilly voice reminiscent of powerful Black American singers like Aretha Franklin, the vocalist also asked to be “taken back to the Congo river”, implying that she was stolen from there due to slavery. Linyekula was trying to show that black people are raised with this backdrop of colonialism and racism, whether they are Black American, or Black African, and that it is his duty as an artist and storyteller to communicate this to his audience. The same is true about the guitarist. He alternated between riffs that were reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, and riffs that were all in major scales, which sounded like a stylistically African tune meant to be played on xylophones, calimbas and mbiras.
Once Linyekula had addressed the Black and African aspects of his identity, only then was he ‘allowed’ to discuss is individual identity. He mentioned that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which to his dismay is neither democratic nor a republic, a person’s individuality is stifled due to the nature of a Dictatorship, which seeks to disappear people into the herd. It is because of this that his piece was called “Self Portraits”. He mentioned that part of his creative process is remembering his own name. The importance of a name, as he puts it, is the fact that it holds within it a plethora of history and memory. That means that as a performer who is seeking to build an individual identity, must acknowledge who they are and bring that along with them. Faustin also mentioned that in The Congo, to make a piece, he must “move away the rubble to make space for the dance”. This is to say that there is both a great deal of physical and emotional rubble that he is meant to move to carve out open spaces. His job is to create new spaces and dimensions of creation and identity where there were none before. Now, in this super white space, at first he thought that there would be no rubble to clear. However, he concluded by mentioning that there is always rubble, sometimes even more of it in such a clean and sterile place. It is as if all of the destruction and rubble that colonialism and slavery made was purposefully attempted to be whitewashed away in this specific space. To me, this is what added to the effectiveness of Linyekula’s communication of the problem as he saw it.
Like I said, I do not know if my reading into this piece is accurate, and it is a bit uncomfortable for me to imagine my identity being stifled by anyone, let alone a dictator, a country, or endemic racism. Because of this, it is difficult for me to identify with this piece. I thought that it was extremely powerful and heartbreaking at times, such as when the vocalist was enacting her pain through beautiful whines and moans wishing to be ‘returned home’. In an interview, when asked about creating art in The Congo, Linyekula stated, “Probably the only way to be subversive in this country, where everyone is destroying something, is to be constructive”. I thought that this was remarkable. It takes a great deal of drive and motivation to create art and hope where there is very little. He then goes on to say, “First of all, art cannot save Congo, but art can save a few individuals”. For both Linyekula and I, art seems to be the answer. It is important to be constructive and to save at least a few individuals. I have a great deal of respect for this man because the problems that he is trying to help fix are exponentially greater and more difficult to change than they problems I am facing. Yet the way he wants to go about it is similar. He stated while talking about his arts organization, “We want to make a space to show work, we want to make a space where we can produce work, but we also want to make a space that can serve as a meeting point for the civil society, which doesn’t have a space”. I want those same things. It is inspirational to know that there are individuals who have been fighting against political odds to create art in a world that ill accepts them.
Samson Hertz is an MFA student in the Performing Arts Management program at Brooklyn College and founder of ClashHouse: https://www.facebook.com/ClashHouseProductions; http://clashhouse.blogspot.com.