13 april, 2019, Bassano del Grappa Museum | A conversation with Nora Chipaumire and Yasmeen Godder, moderated by Peggy Oligslaegers
“I had to run like a fugitive just to save the life I live
I’m gonna be Iron like a Lion in Zion”
“Whatever is profound loves masks”
Friedrich Nietzsche — The Gay Science
“Why on Earth should we talk about gender? Why is that important? Why is that needed?” – Peggy Olislaegers implores. The addressees of these controversial yet highly topical questions are two exceptional guests: the African-American choreographer Nora Chipaumire and the Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder. Although these are certainly two very different artists, many points of convergence emerged during the conversation.
Why question ourselves about gender? The answer lies within bodies, according to Godder. In bodies that dance different roles, different emotions. Chipaumire, on the other hand, unhesitatingly highlighted nature in its primitive, ineluctable ancestry. She talked of a biological body and of reproductive functions, of acculturation, of societal and cultural superstructures that have codified biological roles into positions of power, going straight to the heart of the issue.
“It is still relevant to talk about gender because it is part of nature. In nature you have gender species. Biologically you were born with settled equipment and we are part of nature. On a very primitive level it seems still essential to recognise that we are part of the nature and that we are required to reproduce. It’s a need for human beings to address gender and to recognise that it functions in that way.
In another way, gender is the socialisation: how we’re acculturated, how we are systematically brought into this structure, how the family organises what power means, which is depending on your biological body. That perhaps translates in many societies into who rules and who has the power to govern and to do legislation and to have jurisdiction (on people)”. (Nora Chipaumire)
Peggy Olislaegers is once again provoking the two interlocutors with a deceptively rhetorical question, which interrogates them around the gender of dance. She cited the UK-based choreographer Amy Bell who, a few years ago, voiced her frustration at the way that she had been taught dance, as if it were an exquisitely feminine pursuit through which one learnt to be graceful on stage and in life.
Paradoxically, it is around the theme of stereotypes that both artists, Chipaumire and Godder, see an opportunity for study, to make art, to create a free and new space. The gaze of the Other becomes liberating or chilling, decisive or cogent. Concerning the stereotypical gaze of the Other on oneself, Chipaumire made the occasion one of provocation and perturbation, an affirmation of her multifaceted and complex identity as a woman, an African American and as an individual. The question mark placed by Chipaumire lands on the very meaning of the word woman. “What does it mean to be a woman, what does it mean to be a black woman, an African American…?” – Chipaumire pleads, unlocking a potential Pandora’s box.
“I’m frequently called “sir” because I think stereotypically people glance at bodies and I think: should “sir” mean “man”? That’s a kind of stereotype, I think. I say: I am a girl, do you wanna see…? That space, the attention of that shock and horror of “My God! “what is it?” “What is this body? Is it a she or is it a he? For me what stereotypes will bring to reading bodies is very much related to the stereotypes we bring when it comes to race. Perhaps for me the question of gender stereotypes is also connected to my race, being a black person. I do feel that there is a laziness that the world brings in regard to black bodies. That space to me starts to be a very interesting space of research: what do you see? What is the act of looking? What is the act of seeing? What is the act of recognition or whether its truth or a mistake or something else in between. In the space of a performative act you’ve come to look at me. Now, I want to ask you to look really deeply and take time. We’re gonna sit together in this act of being together and whatever the masking or the revelation or the confusion …in this so-called safe space, which I am much interested in, in making them laboratories, making them super-unsafe. So, we are in constant work”. Nora Chipaumire
On the power of the viewer’s gaze, on the power of otherness and its inevitability to bring about an encounter, Godder’s work has and continues to reflect on this, utilising stereotypes about women as a way to react to those very same stereotypes.
“I connect greatly to that because in this question of dealing with stereotypes to my body was again this thing to say: how using the theatre space to take on what people see in my body as a female body and working with that, to have real time to question how that responds back to me, giving it visibility, visibility to the gaze and actually using the female stereotypical stances physicality poses as a means of responding, as a means of speaking back, as a means of reclaiming a way to talk about myself without fear, that language that has already been used but in a way that feels like: “I am now in charge of them. Let’s say the rules of how this is gonna be, how this is gonna be spoken. So, I can really connect to what you are saying because there was a displacement. You said how gender is related to being a dancer and then to being deconstructed. I think there was a moment where I realised that when I’m standing on stage and people see me as this women, it is a place that I want to challenge. There was actually a moment when I wanted to bring life into the theatre and to bring this unspoken conversation I was experiencing in the street into the space of the theatre and to use my power of having time to talk to people via this work, to choose how I want to communicate with this information. (Yasmeen Godder)
A question brought to light by both artists and embellish by Peggy Olislaegers concerns the importance of the physical space of representation. Culturally, Westerners have designated theatre as location of representation, however Chipaumire points to the limits inherent in this convention. Indeed, in her opinion, European architecture finds it hard to contain that indefinable and ineffable otherness, that which escapes a binary and exclusionary logic. Even the English language is inadequate at expressing and translating the immense spiritual world of African culture, populated by symbols and totems.
“Totemically I am a lion. You can google ‘animistic practices’. I come into the world as a lion, this is my family…. The presence of this supreme power that is in addition to what you’ve already said about a female or male body, there’s an additional lion or lioness. How do you talk about that presence? I’m interested in my work: evoking a much larger space beyond the biology and whatever power is there. In nature I also have power! Theatre spaces and European spaces in general are frequently failing to contain this potential, these possibilities, because European architecture of some spaces just does not allow for human beings to take over the space and to express their own massive pluralities“. (Nora Chipaumire)
The image of the lion became a thread which connected the conversation in a profound and unexpected way. Ironically, the heraldic symbol of the city of Bassano represents two lions rampant, facing each other on either side of a tower. The lion evoked as a totem by Chipaumire is joined by the mascot lion recounted by Godder and present in many of her performances. The lion, therefore, rises up as a powerful symbolic image, liberating and freeing the imagination of both listener and speaker. Once again, the inadequacy of language to convey the concept of gender itself emerges as a core theme throughout the talk. If, for Chipaumire, the English language is impoverished compared with the rich plurality of African languages and cultures, for Godder the intriguing thing is to speak a mother tongue like Hebrew that structurally connotes gender. In every expression Hebrew denotes masculine or feminine. On the other hand, in English this separation is lost, it does not distinguish its entities into male and female genders. If for Chipaumire the English language seems to subtract lexical space from the synchronic disruption of plurality, for Godder instead, English grammar would seem to widen the notion of gender to the law of excluded middle, that which is normally expelled from the dichotomy between male and female that, in contrast with many other languages.
“I made a work with the image of the lion, that actually has been carried through a number of works that followed it. It was a work where I wanted to take the image of the lion as a mascot. It started all as mascot, which is a game: is it female is it male? Like being the leader of a team, or as a choreographer carrying a group of people and having to stand for something. I felt that this image was very connected and related to the research I was doing on embodying male bodies. I was dealing with ambition and I was looking at how to embody ambition in a male body for this reason. So I worked with the notion of ambition in my own body and the embodiment of the male body as well as the lion. After this work, there was a piece called I Mean, I Am. In Hebrew the title is female and it is connected to the way a girl might talk in the street I mean, I am. There is a (gender) twist between the English translation and the Hebrew. It is interesting: in Hebrew everything is very gendered and in English it is not. Following that, I took the lion mask because I felt that it became part of the identity that I was developing and perhaps a kind of freedom for my body. Then I took its big mass and it did bring something different. The mask was covering my breast too. The next piece is another solo work called Lying Like a Lion which again had this idea of lying, to put on the mask and play with my identity. Again in Hebrew the verb “to lie” is gendered, you have to say if it’s a male or a female. “To lie” is also a double meaning. It means both to recline and not tell the truth. Lying in Hebrew is gendered as a lion. So for me it’s interesting the way that this lion is, in English gave me the freedom and brought me to gender in Hebrew. I feel weird having it only in English and then I translated it into Hebrew. The thing is that in Hebrew I’m gendered, I think it connects me to an internal dialogue that’s always happening, that’s identity. Perhaps, when I leave my country and I go and live somewhere else I can be free of that identity among other identities that I carry with myself? Does English give me that freedom?” (Yasmeen Godder)
Peggy Olislaegers brilliantly dwelt on this part of the conversation between the two artists, encouraging them to open up about themselves, how their lives have affected and continue to affect their work. In particular, she invited them to contemplate the link between gender and displacement and on the quality of the relationship that is created between them; cosmopolitan artists eternally uprooted and en tournée around the globe, whilst their public is rooted, sedentary. Chipaumire related her exile from Zimbabwe and the impact it has had on her. Arriving in New York City, the metropolis where she still lives and works, paradoxically it drove her to experiment around “the savage” that allowed her to realise her totemic animal — the lion — and thus to find herself.
“I had to be in exile outside of Zimbabwe to find the quiet space in which to perhaps interrogate my own culture, my own family. The outside exterior which we call “masango” is the bush or the wild…. I had to be in the bush to find myself – a lion has to be in the bush, I guess – to find my own kind of spine, not dictated by family, by nation or whatever. Being an outsider in foreign spaces is just – how can I say it – … I have another freedom and I am very fortunate to be in New York City which is a black city. It’s so easy to become invisible and disappear. America is black but it is not like me. I’m not controlled by the same history that they came through. I am in this kind of open veld. That really helped me to find myself, useful and it continues to function for me in that way”. (Nora Chipaumire)
Godder, on the other hand, speaks of her transfer to New York as a change of course, which allowed her to connect emotionally to the history of her family, epitomised by the diaspora.
“Yeh, there is a history of displacement in my family which I discovered when I was displaced at the age of eleven. I mean, I discovered it emotionally when my parents moved to New York. I think that part of my biography – at a young age moving to New York and grow up there – is still influencing the way I make work and the way I think about this multi-player of identities and spectrums of lying and being others and being free and knowing who you are, and at the same time being able to look from the outside at what you are. I was still there, at the time when my family lived in the U.S. and there are these different identities that are constantly in dialogue when I structure and I think about performing, each time I choose to take these multi-layers in order to create almost like a focus in different place”.(Yasmeen Godder)
Once again, the unexpected points of contact between the two artists were surprising: the city of New York as a destructive city regarding the search for its own identity and awareness of itself; the declared search for a gestural simplicity in their productions, a similar aim at communicating instantly to the audience, to talk to them, to involve them and to create a relationship, a bond, an encounter. Peggy Olislaegers captured this attitude to the Other that actually unites them both. For example, for each artist the gesture of the closed fist is considered a very effective way to embody overwhelming assertiveness, yet at the same time, the desire to subvert this order. A symbol, that of the clenched fist, which also historically embodies the life of these artists.
Both of you are looking for an encounter. You travelled a lot yet most of your audience is not displaced at all. How do you communicate with people who very often don’t have the luxury of displacement. How do you communicate with people who don’t immediately recognise themselves in you?
That’s a huge intrigue. I assume that humans recognise as human. There is a very primitive layer of recognition. The fallout of understanding that you don’t recognise as human is what the encounter is and perhaps what education is. I am also interested in simplicity. I would say that my work for simplicity is propaganda. I am of the generation of propaganda in Zimbabwe. I am a child of a revolution. I direct simple messages that are simply logical. You all recognise what a fist is. What is it saying: solidarity? rise up and stand up? The simplicity of direct language does bring us to a kind of dialogue. The gesture … the courage to “lean into” which means: “let’s really talk”, or they discourage dialogue which is also, I think, another dialogue.
Do you agree Yasmeen?
Yes, I do. I travel with my work in different places and different contexts and I think I try to tap into the fact that the people coming already have preconceptions and I find that super-interesting. I want to work with those preconception about female choreographers living in New York. I want to bring them to light, I want to play with them, because … when I started to make work ….I realised that no matter what I did, people saw certain things in my work and I was always surprised by that. In the last few years I have been really trying to work with these things and returning to stereotypes. Questioning the stereotypes in my body but also questioning the stereotypes that people come with. How do I use it? Actually I just play with it. You (Nora) talk about the fist. It’s interesting what the meaning of the fist is. In my last creation Demonstrate Restraint there is a fist, a sculpture of fist and it’s a fascist symbol. What I want to represent is that the fist could be fascism, that famous leader, you know…. Then the sculpture is broken and we see these sculptures of men, broken men, the revolution happens and the fist then represents the power of the revolution, the desire to protest, or it’s fascism. So, to me these symbols are very basic and simple. I want to work with them, to tap into what’s there in every place I go into…
Courageously, Olislaeger aims straight at the heart of the matter, questioning the artists about the response they are seeking and how they are able to offer something to any audience, one that might be unable, or worse, prejudicially refuse to recognise their works. Whereas Nora Chipaumire repeats her line like a mantra of not giving up, of stepping-up, of not backing down, standing her ground, Yasmeen Godder would seem more willing to make room for the negative, to accept it. However, in that peremptory physicalising of the offensive words by Chipaumire, it seems to conceal an immense capacity to make room for the other and the negatives evoked by Godder. For Chipaumire making space for another is an almost a cannibalistic act. Chipaumire incorporates the negative within a hug like Godder’s in her Simple Thing, but it’s more powerful. Beneath a warrior’s mask, Chipaumire seems to be shielding her angelic face.
“Now let’s zoom-out a little bit more on encounters like these…in a public space talking about you and your work. Yesterday we talked about the difficult time we are living in. We said that we need to step-up, we need to talk. How do you deal with the fact that, when people see you, they say: “she is a black woman, a black choreographer, or she is a Jewish Israeli choreographer”. How do you make yourself available for such encounters with people who don’t agree with you or even seems to fight your identity?
I am interested in your idea of standing your ground, which perhaps is also my American mind. I think, I operate with an American mind, I operate with an African mind. I want to say always that I am a black African artist. I want to stand my ground, I want to try also to stand my ground. I try to bring it into whatever discussion or confrontation. For instance I made a work called 100% POP #PUNK *NIGGA. Already in the title people ask: what is she talking about? Is she a punk? Yes, I am a punk. Am I punk in a bad sense (not a decent person) or am I talking about ‘punk-ing’ the system which means doing-it-yourself, a strategy or a history of refusal? So, all this stuff is kind of already in place. I want to stand my ground. I am not really going to apologise for destabilising with the presence I bring into the room. You have to accept that I come from a colonial reality. We haven’t recovered and we are not out of colonialism. So, whatever you think, this is a larger question I place, I try to stand my ground.
What about you, Yasmeen? What’s your desired position in relation to people who questions your value or even your identity?
I think the way I have been dealing with it in the last two years is by trying to find my own strategy. It is like within the context of the work, trying to create the situation where you disarm… Looking for places for reliving people of tension and the issues they come with and try to snake-in otherwise. I know that it sounds very holistic and New Age. It is strange because these are really the opposite of my work but it is coming out. It is another aspect of what I do. It is something of the essence of how I am making work now. If you are pissed off with what I do, there is space for you to express that. It’s ok. It’s ok not to like this. Bullshit… At least, I think these things need to be exposed. It doesn’t have to be a formalistic judgment: I like you / I dislike you.
More people don’t feel any restriction to speak bullshit or to say “I am allowed to be racist and I’m proud of it”. So, if that’s happening, if that freedom is used and abused at this moment, how to respond to that?
I think that is one way of letting things be present. Another way is to propose and almost teach about finding ways to be sensitive and conscientious, and using dance is using a place where people meet and find connection with each other and this can be proposed through choreography. Actually, I made a piece called “Simple Action” that had premiered for the Operaestate Festival, commissioned by Roberto Casarotto around Stabat Mater. The purpose is to slowly invite people one by one, while the dancer offers to carry the weight of the people in the room. You see the process that happens within every group. Some people may feel uncomfortable about it. There is a slow process of letting go and a process of teaching via the nervous system of people touching one another. To find a place for connecting with each other in another way, in a way that challenges us perhaps.
Let’s talk again about dance and body as a response to words that position people in space in a very negative way like “I hate woman” or…
Physicalising text such as “nigger haters”, “pussy haters”, “pussy lovers”, “nigger lovers”… I am very much interested in those kinds of texts that are already physical. You have to hold the body, in a way. There is no surrender in the body if I say: “Nigger hater”. I look you in the eyes… who is gonna drop their gaze?”
Through their journey against the grain, along both personal and artistic paths of these two artists, Peggy Olislaegers takes us back to the initial question: the sex of dance. In Nora’s articulate and provocative response, which invites us to approach the subject with circumspection about the variegated and complex female universe, and in Yasmeen’s answer, verbalising “queer”, we all find ourselves in agreement. Far away, finally, from all that bifurcation and insane senselessness that is so eager to delineate the sex of angels.
The meeting ends with a speech from Tea Hvala in the audience (one of the playwrights involved in the Perfoming Gender project). With astute irony, she reminds us how this binary way of thinking is typical of European and Western thought but not of the whole world. In fact, we add, traces of a third, non-dichotomous methodology, that also emerged from one tradition of ancient Western philosophy, which had been able to contain the myth, thanks to the wonderful and esoteric wholeness articulated in Plato’s ingenious myth of Aristophanes. A non-Parmenidean, non-Aristotelian logic that is found in the enigmatic fragments of Heraclitus. To paraphrase Tea’s speech, she further alluded to ancient European maps, prior to the colonial period, where unknown and unexplored lands were ascribed with the Latin: “Hic sunt leones” — “Here are lions”.
That power of the wild (the bush) which remains unexplored, the words and dance that Chipaumire can evoke and convey. That leonine camouflage, in Godder, is the fluctuation of multiple identities.