Interview with Faustin Linyekula of Studio Kabako
I was able to conduct a telephone interview with Faustin Linyekula of Studio Kabako from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, prior to Kabako’s September 16, 2005 performance at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum. A review of the performance will be available on the World Dance page.
Toba Singer: Where in The Congo were you born, and in what political period did you grow up?
Faustin Linyekula: I was born in Ubunvu in the Northeast corner of Congo. It was at the time when the country had just been renamed Zaïre, reflecting the consolidation of the murderous and treacherous Mobutu regime, which came to power in the early sixties, after the assassination of Patrice Lamumba. Mobutu was installed by the colonialists who saw their interests threatened by Lamumba and what he stood for.
TS: What were the conditions that shaped your perspective?
FL: When you’re born into a one-party system of that kind, which, though it came to power on the back of genocide, is regarded as normal by those in power, and when you know that those in power got there by killing, terrorizing and holding hostage the majority of the population, and when even the United Nation recognizes such political figures as legitimate—individuals who actually cannibalized their countrymen, it makes you question everything, especially once you have reached your teens. By the time I was a teenager, there was going to be a multi-party election and that offered a platform for my developing political interests.
TS: You were in exile for eight years, according to the press release I received. Was that exile political, and if so, for what political crime? Where did you live during that period?
FL: In 1991, I wanted to attend college, but the universities were considered dangerously threatening places by the regime, and were shut down. So, in 1993, I went to Kenya in order to attend University there, and I remained there for three years, until 1996. From Kenya, I went to London, where I became involved in Theater, but England began to view me with suspicion because of having lived in two countries on the African continent, and I was forced to return to Kenya. It was then that I began to dance at a dance theater workshop taught by Alphonse Pierou, a dancer from the Ivory Coast. Three years later, I began to choreograph. I began in 1997 with a collaboration with Okyio Okach. It was for nine artists. We took the piece to festivals around the country.
TS: It says that Triptyque Sans Titre is not overtly political, but is informed by the conditions you described. What tools do you use to keep the content of your work specific, to prevent it from dissolving into political generalities, especially given that those are so compelling?
FL: The one thing for me is that I, as an individual, have my own relationship to my country. I respond a certain way. My response is not political, in that it’s not a programmatic response. But my work poses questions. I work with choreographic movement, energy, rhythm, the body and its physical presence—the challenge to remain standing, vertical in spite of a crushing environment. I am showing the individual in a context where there is no space for individuals. It’s just as important as the mass approach that politics implies. I speak in my own name, not in the name of “all Congolese” or (worse) “all Africans.” Mine is the individual voice that is part of this society and its history. I pose the question: “What is my space in the middle of all this?” Walking poses the question. There is this world that is overwhelming, and creating even a temporary shelter from it is meaningful for me because it touches on something in the individual.
TS: What has it been like to tour your work through the countries most responsible for the political situation in the Congo?
FL: That is precisely the starting point for this piece. The question for me is “Is it possible to tell these stories and get them across to audiences that have never encountered anything like the conditions in my country?” Friends said that it was impossible to tell these. I begin the piece by saying that I am Kabako and I have a story to tell, but there’s so much noise in my head that I cannot tell it. The title describes a structure. There are so many things to say. How can I be true to the story in my work? I open by saying I have a story, and I close by saying I had a story, and the movement, images and sounds that occur in between open a window on one’s own self that hopefully allows the audience to make a connection with a human being who comes from my experience. The problem with audiences in these countries is that they come with an expectation of what an African dance piece should look like, who an African should be. In instances where those expectations are less defined, the connections tend to be more successful. An image I find helpful is that humanity is informed by one specific source of water shared by all of us.
TS: How has your artistic identity grown and changed over the course of your life as a choreographer?
FL: My vision, my trajectory—I am always becoming what I’m supposed to be. When the journey is complete, or I am old enough to link these things together, perhaps I will know the answer to that question. In 1997, I still had the naïve approach that art could save the world. Now I understand that even at its most revolutionary, art can only save the individual, who perhaps in concert with other such individuals, can save the world. A meal is a luxury in the Congo. A better self-understanding can stir the political consciousness. The question of the individual is central, and I am very conscious of treating performers as individuals, and approach each piece with that in mind. Should I be without one of the dancers in a piece, I cannot substitute someone else. The piece is lost and cannot be performed. I sit with the irony that my inspiration comes from Africa, but the money comes from performing in Europe, where the work is filtered through screens of expectations about Africans and Black people that the audience brings with them.
TS: What is the biggest obstacle to your country reclaiming its identity today?
FL: Minds. We are living in a colonial state of mind. All sense of legitimacy comes from the outside, whether political or social. Leaders. Leaders may not exist, but as long as there are “sources” in London, Paris or Brussels, no matter how corrupt or illegitimate, we are going to lack the necessary leadership. Under these conditions, my only true country is my body.