- African Ideograms
Awave of curiosity toward African culture invaded Europe in July 2013, thanks to the sixty-seventh edition of the Avignon festival, the last one curated by Vincent Baudriller and Hortense Archambault whose associated artists this season were the French Stanislas Nordey and Congolese Dieudonné Niangouna. As a rule for these past ten years as coordinated by this team, the associated artists recommended other artists who influenced or inspired them. This edition of the Avignon Festival will probably be regarded as the most militant, as the line-up included a series of productions expressing a critical position toward colonialist attitudes still very powerful in Europe.
Performances by African artists from North (Dieudonné Niangouna, Faustin Linyekula) and South (Brett Bailey) alike took up colonialism’s long lasting effects, insisting that European audiences face the hard truth they are trying to forget: that colonial attitudes are still very powerful and define a way of thinking for many people, including those in the cultural field. This year’s most impressive productions expressed a clear, honest political message in unexpected poetic forms inspired by African rituals and dances intersecting with Western elements, completely new for the “white audience.” A new form of magical purification was born out of this combination.
Using pieces of history like found material—personal stories of African peoples, philosophical ideas from the world patrimony, or general stereotypes—and mixing them up with both authentic African rituals and Western aesthetic traditions appropriated and transformed over years, these African artists generated a new kind of beauty and an original way of understanding the Other. Dancers, musicians, and actors became abstract signs in the context of these performances, beautiful ideograms somehow channeling abstract European art while using elements of the indigenous ethos.
The result was a type of philosophical performative lecture with a powerful accent on movement. The themes referred not only to African culture and the devastating effects of colonization on this culture, but also to the shape of [End Page 66] the world today, in a globalized context. Today’s African ideograms can be seen as projections of tomorrow. It is not by chance that one of the debates included in the festival’s program, called Theatre of Ideas, moderated by Nicolas Truong, had the title, “Is Africa the future of the world?”
The four-hour production Shéda, written and directed by associated artist Dieudonné Niangouna, was one of the best examples of this mix of Western education and African sensibility. Political and philosophical ideas flow in Niangouna’s discourse intermixed with poetic images, like that of an empty, devastated city guarded by an old child. The text was composed out of found material—fragments from classical texts together with long poems which intentionally break the fluency of the “play”—and was delivered in the spoken word form, accompanied by live African music and special stage lighting used to enrich the magical feeling induced by the site of the performance: Carrière de Boulbon, a place near Avignon discovered years ago and transformed into a natural stage by the director Peter Brook. Rehearsed in his native Brazzaville, Congo, Niangouna’s work was responsive to this natural stage. It risks being suffocated in an enclosed traditional Western venue as it tours around the world.
A poetic quality and a kind of gravity of the spoken word define Shéda and Niangouna’s writings. His texts are rich compositions incorporating and dismantling stereotypes and preconceptions as well as challenging ideas fundamental to Western culture. From Nietzsche’s Zarathustra to Bernard-Marie Koltès’s plays and André Téchiné’s films, many European cultural ideas are deconstructed and questioned in this version of a “global village,” placed in a post-apocalyptic space and time reminiscent of Sun Ra’s cosmic philosophy.
The work process consisted of exercises and rehearsals, some of which took part in Brazzaville, where all artists, some French among them, lived together in poor conditions like African people so that they could understand the local ethos. For Niangouna this was as important as the performance that resulted, which, as he said in a press conference, is more...