My Only True Country is My Body
de / by David Van Reybrouck
Clad in a sheet of newspaper, this is how I first saw him dance. I was watching a dvd of his choreography Spectacularly empty. A faint lightbulb left the stage in a state of penumbra. Faustin Linyekula moved across the stage, his body sinewy and sinuous as that of a contortionist. His movements were gracile like a bird. He was naked, but for a loincloth of newspaper. This mixture of physical vulnerability and the fine-print language of power provided an unsettling imagery that has stayed with me.
It made me think of an essay written by Marianne Van Kerkhoven, a cardinal dramaturgist and intellectual in the Flemish theatre scene in Belgium. Her words were originally written to reflect on the high-voltage tension in Flanders between the political theatre of the 1970s (with its clear social statements) and the postmodern experiments of the 1980s (with its not-so-clear ideological deconstructions and its eulogy of art’s sovereignty). She wrote: “Searching for an organic merging of political commitment and artistic autonomy seems to me of crucial importance. Politics are personal and the personal is political: a process of truly interiorising the social options is for the ‘political artist’ probably the most important artistic deed.”
Her creed was a forceful, programmatic statement, yet honesty compels us to admit it was only rarely realized on the stages of Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp. In Kinshasa, however, Faustin Linyekula walked across the stage, almost naked, clad in a sheet of newspaper. The body every inch political, and politics overtly physical.
The physicality of politics must have been frustratingly obvious to anyone born in Kisangani, the city in eastern Congo where in a previous century Belgian colonizers and Arab slave-traders forged a painful coalition to suppress local African groups. They were also frustratingly clear to someone like Faustin who fled his native Kisangani to seek refuge in Nairobi, Kenya, where he lived as a clandestine migrant before he got kicked out of the country. Power made itself felt in Rwanda again where, six months after the genocide, he tried to set up a Hamlet-production with the American staff of the International Court of Justice. Once more he got kicked out of an African country.
Yet Faustin danced, he danced in Kenya and Angola, in South Africa and Slovenia, in Austria and America, in Belgium and in France. He was well on his way to become one of these international dancers, one of those people for whom the globe has become a second home, albeit a home mostly filled with international festivals, hotel rooms, and waiting areas at airports. He chose not to. He went back to Congo, to Kinshasa, if only to tell his grandmother: “I have been on the road for such a long time. My only true country is my body. I tried to survive like some music that was never written.”
The body can be tattooed, tortured, kicked out and kissed. Yet the body is also a site of revolt, of refusal, of rebellion. The body is a country, not a secret garden, it’s a republic of contest and comfort. Faustin says: “I am a dancer. I am an African. Yet I am not an African dancer.”
A contortionist, indeed.
There is something deeply urban about the work of Faustin Linyekula. The received idea that the third world is predominantly the universe of emerald rainforests and ochre savannahs, sparsely dotted with cosy mud houses, is readily surpassed by today’s figures of the radical urbanization taking place in South East Asia, South-America and sub-saharan Africa. Happening at a speed and a scale unseen in the West before, in Africa it results in bustling, humongous cities like Lagos, Cairo, Gauteng (the agglomeration of Johannesburg and Pretoria) and Kinshasa.
This urban condition surfaces in the material culture of Faustin’s stage. Among his favourite props are the neon light and the sheets of corrugated iron, reminiscent of the shantytowns of Africa’s brutal urban sprawl. In his Festival des mensonges, three dancers performed what looked like a courtship display with the bleak, bluish light of a pair of city lanterns. Kinshasa is, among many things, the thin and slightly depressing glow of its suburban neon lights. As if they were not there to cast the dark away, but simply to dot the night.
Yet his vision on African-style urbanization is not pitiful or naïve. He accepts the urban condition as a given. His attitude is in line with what Vincent Lombume, Kinshasa’s most exciting novelist, has recently written: “One shouldn’t spit on the city. The city is a womb. My city has produced me. From its clouds of dust I was born. One should take the city as it is.” And he added: “There are cities and cities. There are cities which you kill in silence, cities that you love and cities that you give birth to every day. There is the city which you carry within, there is the city that you dream of, there are imaginary cities that clash in the imaginary world.”
Faustin opted for Kinshasa. He based his private dance company Studios Kabako in Kinshasa. He once took me to his rehearsal area. It was quite a ride in a jeep through the dusty neighbourhoods of Kinshasa where chickens fluttered away as we passed by. During the shaky ride, Faustin told us he was rehearsing a choreograpy that was soon going to be performed in Paris and Berlin. In front of a concrete wall and an iron gate, the vehicle halted. “Here we are”, he said as we entered. Two young men stood on a lawn without grass. A sandpit without kids, eight meters by eight. They switched of the cassette player. There was no light, no stage, no mirror, no bar, nothing. Not even a strip of shade. Only dust. And yet, here it is, I realized, that a passionate choreographer traces his artistic urge by developing shows that are going to be performed in the lofty theatre halls of the European capitals.
If Kinshasa is the city where Faustin Linyekula modelled his Studios Kabako, Kisangani is the city which he carries within. Much smaller and less vibrant than Kin, the place now licks its wounds after four years of civil war and human atrocities that defy the imagination. For the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna, Faustin decided to go back to his native Kisangani, fully realizing that the city he carries within has become a city he can only dream of. The once magnificent Hotel Zaire Palace where he and his friends phantasized about as kids, is now the home of innumerable squatters. On the first floor rooms are still for rent, not per night, but per month. The tariff is twenty dollars.
Faustin re-enters his native town and wonders what has become haunted: Kisangani or his body. His town no longer exists, his group of friends has fallen apart. What has been left of Kisangani once the friends are gone? Perhaps their words.
Kabako, the one after whom the dance company was named, died close the Ugandese border of a disease that seemed to have become historical: the bubonic plague. Some of his writings occur in the new production. Kabako died in a small village without cemetery, as normally everyone gets buried on his or her plot of land. A villager who had lost all his sibs and peers took care of the young and unknown body: Kabako was buried under a coffee tree. The body, even the corpse, is a locus of pity and oblivion. Yet for his friends, his far-away tomb is an uneasy thought.
Faustin’s other friend, Vumi (Antoine Vumilia Muhindo), is one of the thirty citizens that has been sentenced to death for their presumed part in the killing of president Laurent-Désiré Kabila. The process that condemned him was said to be a show trial. He was a poet, he still is a poet, but a poet that was seen as a spy. His text, Un monologue du chien (A dog’s soliloquy), forms the literary backbone of Faustin’s new performance. If the poet has long been considered as the king’s jester, the spy is most certainly the king’s dog.
Seven people are on stage, four dancers, one actor, one countertenor and one technician. They start from the dreams held by the inhabitants of Kisangani. And they end with Dinozord, the 21-year old Congolese breakdancer whose nickname is French phonetic for ‘dinosaure’. An appropriate nom de plume for he considers himself to be last man of his race for whom the body, even when mutilated and fallen to disease, is still sacred. His final solo is essentially a duet with Serge Kakudji, the 17-year old, but remarkably mature opera-singer from Lubumbashi. For the last word, says Faustin Linyekula, should be given to the youngest members of the group.
The choreography is not a nostalgic return of a now established dancer to his roots, not a predictable trip down memory lane by someone who has succeeded. It is an exploration of a city that grieves and a hope that might be rekindled. “For me,” says Faustin, “it is a matter of coming home before setting off again, a matter of turning this page, while starting a new one. It is as if Mozart would have written his Requiem before his Magic Flute.”
David Van Reybrouck is a Flemish author and playwright who is based in Brussels and who prepares a history of Congo. He was recently given the Flemish Press Award for North-South Coverage.