SPACES OF DREAMS: FAUSTIN LINYEKULA

AND HIS WORK AT STUDIO KABAKO, KISANGANI, ZAIRE

by Joanna Spinks

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Peter Sellars speaks with Congolese contemporary dance choreographer Faustin Linyekula about his first solo performance Le Cargo and his righteous capacity for placing beauty in impossible places

Crossing the Line Festival 2012 // French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) 

This stimulating dialogue occurred on September 17, 2012 as the first of this year’s Crossing the Line’s Lecture/Performance Series, “defying the conventions of the lecture as simply a source of knowledge” (FIAF).  The event succeeded: more than a lecture or an interview, a deeply engaging and performative conversation took place, conducted by American stage director Peter Sellars.  Linyekula dissolved expectations for the rhythm and form of the dialogue, taking long pauses then launching into eloquent stories detailing his development as a young artist in Kisangani, a city desecrated by colonialism and still without infrastructure. 

With Mobutu in power in the 1990’s, universities were shut down in an attempt to quell protests.  Linyekula, then a biology student, fled to Kenya, the most stable country in the region at the time, with $300 in his pocket and a secret dream of becoming an artist. “You just don’t dream of such things when you grow up in a city like Kisangani, in Mobutu’s Zaire. You just don’t have examples around you to say that, oh, this is also another way of living.”  From Kenya Linyekula traveled to Paris where he studied dance and had great success as a choreographer.  After eight years outside the Congo, it became clear that “this artist thing really meant something to me.”  Faustin was on the periphery of the public eye in Europe, and at the moment when he was poised to catapult onto the world stage, he resisted and chose instead to return to the Congo and to pose the questions: “Is it possible to build spaces of dreams in the middle of all this? Is it possible to invent some beauty from here?  And if it’s not possible, is there anything I can do to make it possible even on a very small scale?”

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His return home is the basis for the powerful dance piece, Le Cargo, which he performed one night only, the evening following his dialogue with Sellars.  Though it was Linyekula’s first ever solo piece, he is no stranger to solitude; he remains a singular voice in contemporary performance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The act of return to his country marks artistic maturity–a triumph over the “outward gaze,” that is, the notion common among those oppressed by colonialism that validation and legitimacy must come from the outside.  This feeling is part of a concept Linyekula calls “coloniality,” — what remains of colonialism after it has officially ended. “So if Paris and New York say that this is something good from Africa, then we’re accepted… it’s not any better in New York or Brussels or Paris so I’ll stick with my mess and try to do something about it, here.”  Linyekula places his work precisely where it is needed rather than seeking validation from first world culture capitals, which, as Peter Sellars pointed out, are beginning to crack themselves.  Sellars specifically argues that poverty is engineered in our country while a super rich substratum reigns.  He reminds the audience that numerous public schools around the country have had to hold fundraisers to keep doors open.  Cultural organizations and artists face devastating defunding.  In short, problems in the US today are no longer so far removed from those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sellars deems Linyekula capable of teaching the west “how deal with society in collapse.”  And it’s true — Linyekula has fashioned a model that works.  Studios Kabako engages Congolese youth, who, Sellars stresses, “literally have nothing to do.”  Faustin places his Studios and recruits dancers from in and around Kisangani.  But he points out, “if someone doesn’t know where their next meal is going to come from, how do you expect them to even listen?  So we have to make a project that begins to address that.” Once part of a project, a dancer receives a stipend which enables him to feed himself and his family, thereby extending support into the community.

Work developed in the Congo often premiers in Paris, and tours throughout Europe and the US. The project only received funding in 2012; for its first five years Faustin funded it out of pocket with money from touring.  But he still struggles with the fact that the money comes from outside. “What does it mean to develop work there, be there, and dream of impacting lives there, and relying on touring to sustain it? It feels very twisted sometimes.” Faustin and Sellars then dialogued about the intensely high demands of dance; what it means for young people to devote themselves to it, and the tragedy of wasted artistic potential that is the norm, not only in the Congo, but universally.

Choreographers and dancers encounter a great deal of resistance creating work in New York.  But as the FIAF audience listened to the impossibilities conquered by this young artist, things were looking up.  In a city lacking running water, a postal service, a functioning government, transportation and education, culture is arguably the only functioning system.  Studios Kabako is a huge part of that culture. Particularly inspiring is the fact that Studios Kabako had no physical space until five years after Linyekula’s return to the Congo.  He described the first step toward his goal as carving out a “mental space” inside which he could retreat and attempt to be in touch with his ancient self.  He literally founded and maintained a project for five years that existed only in his mind. Which is why the eventual precise placement of his Studios in the city’s “most fragile spots” is so important.   Linyekula maintains an idea of architecture as acupuncture: connecting points and allowing for circulation in a suffering city.

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Linyekula admits to being a privileged Congolese, whose visa allows him to travel freely.  For fellow citizens, travel is extremely difficult, even within the city of Kisangani (population 10 million) so he asks, “what is it that I can set up here so that I’m not alone outside there?”  From what we heard that evening, Linyekula is providing practical answers to his own questions.

In Le Cargo, Linyekula’s recorded voice chants the mantra: “Je suis Kabako, c’est moi Kabako, encore Kabako, toujours Kabako” and the image of a laptop open atop an african artifact––a small carved wooden stool––creates a disjointing effect.  Yet it represents Linyekula beautifully: “while I’m relatively young, I believe deeply that I’m ancient.”  The piece displays an elegant balance of the contemporary with the ancient, both in its design and in Linyekula’s physical work.

This physical awareness is present, too, even in Linyekula’s intellectual dialogue.  He reminds us of how important it is to “allow our body to be part of how we think.” Useful tidbits even remain of the dancer’s years as a student of science: “like in biology they say that in order for a cell to connect to another one and create tissue it needs to be fully developed.” I looked on as tissue formed between Linyekula and    Sellars, and I took away the following: the key to finding the energy needed to cultivate resistance against the spiritual collapse of our society ultimately lies in looking to cultures more experienced in confronting such problems.

In keeping with the vision of Crossing the Line, this unique platform delivered information as performance, and I left convinced that socially engaged practice is the future of live performance.  Linyekula’s commendable life work is proof that “yeah it’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.”

Watch full interview: http://www.fiaf.org/crossingtheline/2012/ctl12-photos.shtml

Faustin Linyekula and Peter Sellars at Crossing the Line

Faustin Linyekula and Peter Sellars at Crossing the Line

Faustin Linyekula will perform Le Cargo February 6-10th in Athens, Greece and February 15th in Ostende, Belgium. More info: www.kabako.org

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