Desire for the unknown
Anoek Nuyens about Atelier Kinshasa
With five Dutch people and one Flemish, theater maker Lotte van den Berg went to Congo for four months. They settled in Kinshasa, on the edge of a large sandy square in the popular N’djili district. There they built an open studio, together with Kola, the owner of the site and Toto Kisaku, the young and ambitious artistic leader of the k-mu Théâtre. Every week there was an exhibition, presentation, debate or performance. Anoek Nuyens worked as a dramaturge and reporter.
While the landing is being used, I press my head against the window of the plane. We fly above Kinshasa but there is nothing to see at this late hour of the day than a dark plain with a light here and there. It is as if I am flying over a sacred land. Kinshasa is a candle blanket. A city that, as it seems, can be blown out by a gust of wind. This still completely unknown place will become the temporary base for theater company OMSK for four months.
Lotte van den Berg founded the theater company OMSK in Dordrecht two years ago. In a short time she gathered around a group of artists (visual artists, theater makers, a filmmaker) and asked them what a home is. Then they moved into the city, met residents from Dordrecht and surroundings and worked together on the show and exhibition Het verdwalen in kaart. In this way more questions arose. For in addition to the feeling of wanting to attach yourself to a place, to let a home arise, there is also the desire to be far away from home. Where does that desire for the unknown come from?
In recent years, Lotte toured the world with her performances. This period of many travels and the temporary touch of new soil and other cultures produced a lot of food for thought. How do we relate to other worlds from our own world? How do you re-approach the other? Can you see from the perspective of someone else?
In August 2007, together with fellow maker Guido Kleene, Lotte drove in a 1958 Peugeot from the city of Douala (Cameroon) to Kinshasa (Congo), where Guido has since been established. While writing and thinking, the idea arose to attract a multitude of viewers, thinkers and makers to this metropolis and to experience and explore the perception of an unknown other world.
Artists from various disciplines were asked: Rachid Laachir and Ank Daamen traveled along as visual artists, Guido Kleene as a theater maker and filmmaker, Daan ‘t Sas as a machine builder, Fierman Baarspul as a technician and internet specialist, Rianne van Hassel as a producer and myself as dramaturge.
During the preparations for the trip a second team of artists formed in Dordrecht, who felt challenged to enter into a dialogue with the travelers during the trip and to relate to that unknown world. This resulted in various correspondences, live connections via internet, and packages with work and material were sent back and forth.
A daring project: leaving for a completely unknown world without any theater text under your arm, without a defined artistic framework, but with the intention to ask questions on the spot and let ideas arise. It may be a somewhat naive attitude for an outsider, but you could also call it fearless. Looking into the world without intentions.
Being open to the unexpected in a city like Kinshasa, is not that common for a foreigner. Most foreigners in Kinshasa are present from clear beliefs, such as Catholic missionaries, or from economic interests, such as many Chinese who set up their business there.
High heels sink into the sand
To the outside world, Congo is a politically and socially unstable country. Insurers are hardly prepared to insure you, the Dutch embassy in Kinshasa gives you the feeling of being in a city where there is a constant political and military threat and warns of possible danger during demonstrations and holidays. For example, we received an official warning from the embassy to avoid the public festivities around the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of the Congo and the more or less urgent advice to stay inside.
We live in Masina, a relatively young working-class neighbourhood far from the center. It is, like many other days, around 25 degrees. Occasionally the sun breaks through. It is not uncommon to see a Kinois with a woolen cap walking down the street at this temperature. There has been no power in large parts of Masina since our arrival and the water is occasionally shut down. We sit at home at our new blue plastic table with matching chairs and drink instant coffee from our blue plastic cups with motif. A few people dare to use powder milk. Are we going or are we not going? Still a bit uncomfortable, we are just there for a month, but with enough confidence to lay down the advice of the embassy next to us.
We walk along the sandy roads to the main street. Immediately we notice that we are totally unprepared. Every Congolese is enchantingly beautiful. The government had a special fabric designed for the anniversary of independence and distributed among the population. Women are decked out in beautiful dresses and adorned with beautiful hairstyles. Their high heels sink deep into the sand every step of the way. Men walk proudly next to them, sharp suited. With a hat or walking stick. We try to look festive with shawls and some bows we buy along the way. Together with Bibiche and Rachel, two students living in the same neighbourhood, we cram into a taxi. Kinshasa is a clean dream for one day. The trash that normally blows through the streets has disappeared. The old and dirty taxi buses have been parked just outside the center. The pousse-pousseurs, men pushing big carts with all kinds of stuff, have been sent away from the street.
With hundreds of Congolese people we walk the last stretch where taxis are no longer allowed to drive, towards the newly constructed avenue that still smells like asphalt. In silence. While we are waiting, police officers direct the crowd. We form two large rows opposite each other. In between, the procession of President Joseph Kabila takes place. While the policemen are struggling, a few men start to run over, from one side to the other. In this way a strange game is created. People are running over and over again. The trick is to run hard enough and not get caught by a policeman. This game continues for no less than two hours. Whoever overtakes the other side is cheerfully welcomed by the bystanders.
I think about the embassy. There one is accustomed to the rich center of Kinshasa, Gombe. There you are caught in the middle of the day by street gangs. In Gombe, all street children were arrested for this occasion and put in jail for a few days. The story spreads like a rumor through the neighbourhoods. Nobody knows if it is really true. I do not see any street kids in the crowd.
Our wait is finally rewarded with a parade in which Congolese soldiers occasionally throw a can of sardines and a packet of handkerchiefs into the audience while dancing in rows. There are still some fighter planes flying over, after which the parade is closed with a number of tanks that are not very combat-ready. As we walk back to the taxi we are interviewed by the television and we take a picture with a few Congolese people.
The next day we meet one of the military escorts of the Belgian King Albert, who was present at the anniversary as one of the most important guests. He tells us that everything went well. They did not have to use the secret, hospitalized aircraft. With a possible blood transfusion was also taken into account: the soldier walked for days with gallons of blood for the king in a bag under his arm, just in case… He is clearly confused when we tell him where we are staying. A strongly inadvisable district for whites, according to his book. It is the neighbourhood where we walk back home undisturbed after night.
‘J’ai besoin d’idées’
Adjacent to our residential area Masina lies N’djili. We worked in this district for four months. The place where we worked was called Espace Kola, named after Kola, the owner of the site. Lotte met Kola during an earlier visit to Kinshasa in October 2009. His terrain caught her immediately because it is one of the few places children can play. Kola was not interested in strange white person at first. He was not out on money, but on something completely different. ‘J’ai besoin d’idées’, he told Lotte. He showed a picture of a pretty weird looking car. Later it appears to be the first car designed in the Congo. And Kola next to it as it’s owner.
Espace Kola is adjacent to a sand plain of about three football fields. In addition, there is a petrol station where taxi buses drive. A lively place where thousands of Kinois pass by every day. In the middle of this bustle we worked with a group of changing Congolese artists: players, a photographer, theater makers and various visual artists including the ministre de la poubelle. The latter makes tableaux, paintings and collages with found street waste in which he, as an artist, clearly connects with social and political issues. Every week omsk and k-mu Théâtre presented the open studio. Exhibitions, rehearsals, workshops, presentations, short films and performances. Again and again dozens of spectators, casual passers-by, gathered around the work. Often talking about the work took more time than looking at the work itself. Without embarrassment, hundreds of questions were asked.
Everything is a performance
In Kinshasa we notice how daily situations in public space grow into small performances. An unusual attitude, a small fight on the street, a moped that stands still in the middle of a square: things are watched with an intensity and constant expectation. You could say that eight million spectators live in Kinshasa. Everything that happens here on the street is seen. A fight between two boys? Within a matter of seconds there are 50, 100, 150 spectators around it. When Rachid dyed a container at our workplace on the edge of a square, people were looking forward to it all day. Every day, people gather around televisions in the street. We walk across the street with cleaning supplies. People stop to look at us. If you were flying low over the city, you could see a lot of people watching in every street.
Together with Ados, a Congolese actor, Lotte played one of the scenes from her earlier performance Gerucht (2007). A man walks across the street, sits down and starts to cry softly. While Ados quietly puts his hands in front of his eyes, he can not be seen within five minutes. A shield of people has formed around him. A boy stops his motorcycle and tries to squeeze between them. What is going on here? In retrospect, Ados tells people that they came as close as possible to him. In consultation, an explanation was sought for his grief.
Sitting close to someone, so that you might smell his breath, try to explain the grief of another person and perhaps understand. That sounds like an intimate encounter between friends, but not between strangers. Again and again as we play the scene, the touch between bodies takes place. Again and again people try to move in the situation of Ados. It confronts me with my own perspective, which seeks the distance and the context to relate to the crying man.
During these street rehearsals, also known as the ‘théâtre invisible’, we, the whites, usually present ourselves as unobtrusively as possible, for example by sitting on a terrace somewhere. As a white person you attract a lot of attention. Sometimes I can imagine that it looks like the existence of a pop star. The closer you get to your house, the more people call your name. Being white means a high status in Kinshasa. White means wealth, the chance to end up in Europe is immensely interesting. Twice the neighborhood children came rushing at me: “You’ve been on television! We have seen you.” At big concerts you are invited to the stage as a white man. In churches you will be thanked at the end of the mass as a guest of honor for your visit.
That attention does two things with you. On the one hand it gives you the feeling that you are important, that your presence is appreciated and that it is perfectly logical that you are there. Everyone is cheerful anyway? However, it also has a downside. After all, to what extent is a relatively poor country like Congo waiting for an artistic exchange and thus for new Western impulses? Can you speak of an equivalent exchange or is it a disguised form of postcolonialism? The Congolese government will not prohibiting you to come here. After all, we bring money to the country. An economic stimulus should never be the reason for a cultural exchange project.
Both people in Europe and people in Kinshasa were critical about this. Some Congolese accused us of the non-committal nature of our stay: “You come to see and then go back again, with a wealth of new inspiration and material, but what do we have?” Hans Aarsman, a Dutch photographer and writer, said: “Imagine that during the Second World War, artists from other parts of the world visited Europe as part of a cultural or artistic exchange.”
You may also wonder what you do not have to look for. It is outdated to continue to see a city like Kinshasa as a war zone. There is hopelessness, poverty, hunger and many people die too young due to lack of money and medical care, but Kinshasa is also one of the fastest growing cities in Africa, which develops in its own unique way, despite the West’s great influence. An example of this is mobile telephony. Everyone has a mobile phone in Kinshasa. You only manage your banking affairs via telephone. As a student you will receive your exam result via telephone and not via your teacher. It is a development that can occur because the fixed telephone has been completely skipped.
The complex relationship between the Western and African world is where the new Surface of Toto Kisaku show will be about. For his performance he interviews Congolese who have been legally or illegally staying in Europe for a while and have been sent back to Kinshasa. In addition, he draws a lot from his own experiences in Europe. In a garden covered with corrugated iron, he rehearses some scenes from the so-called underworld. The inhabitants of this fictional underworld literally try to stick their heads above the surface in order to end up in the upper world. Without knowing what to expect there, but with big dreams and curious desires.
below the city A hairy man lives
While Rachid and I walk down the street, we notice plucking hair on the ground. Hairdressers cut the wigs and extensions of the many women on the street. Everywhere fake hair rolls. It seems like a big hairy man lives under the city, of which only a tuft is visible. Together with a Congolese actress we make a hairy man, the size of a real person. We dig him out in the middle of the street. More than a hundred people look with us. That one tuft becomes an impressive man.
Rachid is working in Kinshasa on a study on bodies and attitudes. He tapes himself and other Kinois with plastic garbage bags. A greeting, a sleeping man, a mammi carrying a table on her head. Attitudes that are essentially different from what we are used to. At Espace Kola, Rachid sets up an exhibition. The exhibition starts on top of a large steel square structure. In the middle of the construction there is an expansive surface of interwoven umbrellas, sheets and fabrics. The wind lifts it up every now and then, creating all kinds of associations with living beings and also becoming curious about what is going on underneath that whole. Via a staircase you then lower a floor and you come under the moving sea where the blue plastic sculptures are exhibited in different poses. Sometimes it feels like you are in a breathing body for a moment.
As an artist you are also an ‘educateur’
Daan has put a container on the spot near Kola as a workshop. There, together with Kola and his brothers, he builds new machines that mainly originate from conversations with passersby. In Kinshasa he met engineer Mongi. This engineer is determined to design a new time especially for Congo. A time based on the existing time, but with different rules and possibilities. An extraordinary and almost impossible idea that stands out against the usual time. The conversations around the new era make you realize that the open studios as we organize them for many passersby also serve to gather knowledge and exchange ideas or thoughts.
The conversations between Daan and Mongi over time could be seen as a performance, because they were seen and listened to by dozens of curious passers-by. In this way it is not entirely incomprehensible that an artist is also regarded as an ‘educateur’, or an educator or teacher who always tries to teach his viewer something.
During a visit to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the majority of the artworks contained a social or political message. A crying woman who is beaten by her husband. A cheerful baby in his mother’s lap who’s been fed. A life-size black silhouette of a well-known politician. We talk to the painter of this last canvas. He tells us that it is a metaphor for the political corruption that hangs over the country like a black shadow. Painting something like that and claiming something like that is not without risk in Kinshasa. It is a small revolution that these young artists seem to be using through their work.
Guido Kleene, who together with Lotte created the performance Braakland, has been researching ‘le deuxième monde’, the world of spirits and witchcraft that is inextricably bound up with the real and visible world in Congo. That so-called second world is initially not visible to an outsider. Occasionally you catch something of it, but if you keep asking, the answers are evasive: ‘Oh I do not know, that is hearsay’, or ‘The ministers in certain churches speak of things like that’. Later on, there is a whole world hidden from rumors, whispers about hidden powers, witchcraft and faith. Guido researched this invisible world by visiting rituals, exorcisms and masses, and by talking with pastors, féticheurs and professors. Guido filmed all these experiences. They form a collection of divergent perspectives on the invisible world.
If you are traveling with a theater company, everything is different. You become a colleague, best friend or enemy, roommate, fellow traveler, co-discoverer, in short: you share everything. Sometimes our group does look a bit like a hippie commune from the seventies. The bedrooms are adjacent, you eat together, you get drunk together, go to the pool during the weekend. All the frameworks of home fall away. In the weekend you go to the swimming pool with your colleagues, not to the movies with your loved ones. If you are ill, it is your colleague who visits you at bed and asks how you are. It is going to form a part of the work process. You are much involved with each other, without you possibly choosing it.
Who hears the black bird?
During the nightfall, between eight and nine, a large black bird flies above Kinshasa. You do not see that bird. The sky above Kinshasa is just as black as the bird itself. You can hear the bird. ‘Brrr, brrr’ it does, a man explains to me. Those are the witches. They then fly to a place to eat. I nod to the man who is sitting opposite of me. He is silent and looks at me with an inspecting look. It is really true, he says again. When I think of things that I know exist, but have never seen them with my own eyes, I think of a bacterium, a cell or tissue from my body. I have never seen my body on the inside, yet I imagine my inside and know that it exists. Yet I will probably never be able to hear that same bird because I can not disable my own perspective, the way my father and mother have brought me up, the way the world has impressed me.
We long for the unknown to re-experience the things that are known to us. Moving yourself in someone else has a lot to do with yourself. Together with Lotte, Guido and a number of actors we drove into an unknown neighborhood during one of the last weeks. In a wide street we installed a large bamboo framework of about four by four meters. We placed twelve chairs for the frame. When we sat on those chairs, in the middle of that road with all the people around us, we uttered a cry of joy. That which we so often see through in our own world, that familiar framework that offers you the possibility of distance and overview, was now in the middle of Kinshasa. Together with dozens of curious people, we looked through the framework as if it were a film. Some chose to play in and played small scenes for the framework. Others remained sitting and watching.
We left for Kinshasa on the day that elections were held in the Netherlands and flew back in the week that a new and relatively right-wing cabinet was established. One of the most important items of this new cabinet is that integration must be enforced from now on. The intention is for foreigners to fully adjust their costs to Dutch culture and society at all costs. That a part of them grew up in another world is irrelevant. However, you can not simply disable or forbid that perspective. That is part of who you are.
In Kinshasa I decided halfway through our stay to live with a Congolese family. In the morning at 5 o’clock I went to church with the girls, I learned a bit Lingala, spoke as little Dutch as possible and only ate with my hands. That is a way to get to know a city, a person, a culture. However, the trick is not to transform your own way of being into that of the other, to want to be the other person in that immersion. ‘Who is nowhere at home’, writes Patricia De Martelaere, ‘never sees the banality of things, never comes to automatisms. Who is nowhere at home, finds everything interesting, is always alert.”(*)
The attitude De Martelaere describes here is exhausting and inhumane. People simply have the property to attach themselves to other living beings and to places. Every person ultimately needs a home. A place where one’s own being can freely manifest itself. Only then can you turn to another. In order to eventually be able to move in that other person, you have to be able to show your own perspective, even though the differences sometimes seem unbridgeable.
(*) Quote from: Surprises, Essyas – Patricia de Martelaere. Meulenhoff, Amsterdam 1997.