South African choreographer Boyzie Cekwana talks about The Inkomati (dis)cord

South African choreographer Boyzie Cekwana talks about The Inkomati (dis)cord, a collaboration with Mozambique artist Panaibra Canda

Boyzie Cekwana and Panaibra Canda present The Inkomati dis(cord), as part of the Crossing the Line festival

Boyzie Cekwana and Panaibra Canda present The Inkomati dis(cord), as part of the Crossing the Line festival Photograph: Victor Bello

The French Institute Alliance Français's 2013 Crossing the Line festival offers another season of innovative, international artists. This year's performances include Bouchra Ouizguen, Pascal Rambert and a collaboration between Boyzie Cekwana and Panaibra Canda. In anticipation of performances of the latter's The Inkomati (dis)cord at New York Live Arts, Cekwana talked about the inspiration for the piece and the decision to make dances in Africa.

Time Out New York: What was your starting point for The Inkomati (dis)cord?
Boyzie Cekwana:
Panaibra [Canda] and I had been collaborating together for about six or seven years before we decided to make a work. We were doing training projects for young artists in South Africa and Mozambique for quite a few years, and there was a point where we felt maybe we need to explore the possibility of engaging in a more concrete project.

Time Out New York: You are from South Africa, and Panaibra is from Mozambique. How did you meet?
Boyzie Cekwana:
Actually we met in Lisbon, and it’s one of those typical occurrences where African artists always meet in Europe.

Time Out New York: That must be so weird.
Boyzie Cekwana:
It is weird. And in a sense, it was really the beginning of our conversation about this very fact: Maybe we need to change this dynamic. We are neighbors, and we always have to travel to Europe to meet. Maybe we can shift this and really have an engagement among ourselves—already there’s enough expertise and knowledge on the continent that can be shared among us as artists, at least of our generation. It was a bit tricky then; this was about 12 or 13 years ago and travel on the continent is very difficult. It’s much more expensive, in certain instances, than traveling to Europe. Part of our interest, after we spent a few years dealing with the training and educational deficiencies in our countries was that we thought it’s time that the two of us begin to engage as artists. Let’s confront each other with artistic ideas and questions for a more concrete result, which we can then test onstage. So in a sense, that was the frame that germinated. There wasn’t really much artistic exchange going on between many countries on the continent, certainly not between South Africa and Mozambique and most particularly in contemporary dance, which was fairly young in both countries. Much younger, I suppose, in Mozambique. In a way, this was the seed for us to begin these questions about the work, and the work itself was informed a lot by earlier conversations that we had been having about this dynamic between these countries. This historic dynamic of enmity—so we wanted to find ways in which we could reengage these conversations, but from a completely different point of view and to subvert this history with a new dialogue and a new way of engaging through making art.

Time Out New York: What were the topics that you brought up that led to the piece?
Boyzie Cekwana:
Without being too precise, because this is now ancient history. [Laughs] We started working on it in 2008. There were a whole lot of questions that we were dealing with in terms of being artists in Africa—choosing to live and work in Africa even though the product, the work we were making, was almost always going to be shown outside of the continent. We still chose to live there and to engage with our societies there. Those were deliberate choices, but with them came complex issues: How do we deal with the nonengagement of our own states in the work that we’re making? The lack of value. We gain more value from foreign structures than we do from our own indigenous ones and, as part of our process of engaging on the continent, in our countries, in our cities, how do we begin to not only deal with history, but to deal with the present and address a way that we can do things in the future? How do we make a work from beginning to end without asking for European funding? How do we do this without getting any support from our own countries? And can we do it? In a way, these were some of the concrete challenges that were already in front of us that we were choosing to engage in, so basically we made this work almost entirely out of our own pockets, which was quite important. It was critical to do that because in a way we really needed to concretize this theory. So there were practical questions: How do we do this? In a way, it made the work a really long and slow process because we could only work when we had money and time together. We wanted to invite two young artists who came out of a project that Panaibra was running for young artists with mixed abilities. We thought it could be interesting if we invited them to become part of this process. Maybe something could come out for them as well as part of this discourse.

Time Out New York: Where were they living?
Boyzie Cekwana:
In Maputo. Actually one of the dancers is in Maputo itself and the other is just outside. In a way, it’s a good question, because in fact the small detail of that makes an enormous difference in terms of logistics. We don’t have subways and things like that, so how to get to rehearsal, when to get to rehearsal? It’s part of this long process of trying to educate ourselves, as well as in really dealing with the conditions—not only us as artists, but also the ones that we are choosing to work with have to deal with. How do we begin to really negotiate these conditions in a manner that enriches all of us, that we are not left feeling disenfranchised by having to submit to certain standards that are not compatible with the reality on the ground—where we are. So on a practical level, these were some of the issues we were dealing with, but conceptually, on an artistic level, one of the very first questions we had to deal with was what is your idea of me? And vice versa. Because here we are almost for the first time crossing the border, going into a neighboring country, which we had never been in. Countries that have a violent past, a past of aggression and enmity. What do you know about me as a South African and you as a Mozambican? Let’s have this conversation. So we did an exercise. Okay, let’s deal with this idea: What are your perceptions of me? This was quite interesting, because it revealed a whole lot of misconceptions. For example, for the longest time I had been kind of absorbed in this image of Mozambique as a war-torn country. They’d had a long civil war with the usual tragedies of war—amputees, land mines. In a way, having to go there and having to confront your own conceptions of where you were going, who you were going to meet, what you were going to encounter there, and how you are going to make art in the context of this history? It began to feed from the very beginning how we were working with the young artists, and how we were structuring our training program. Also, to open more fields in not only the young artists’ minds but also our minds. It’s not very difficult a consequence to come to the Nkomati Accord, which was the more visible point of this friction between the two states, even though this was something that happened when Panaibra and I were kids in the ’80s. We said, let’s reexamine this: Let’s go and find archival material and talk a little bit about what it meant, and our ideas as kids—growing up very politicized in very turbulent times in both countries. What did it mean then? What does it mean now?

Time Out New York: Did you talk to older people?
Boyzie Cekwana:
It was hard. We didn’t want to contaminate the project with too much romanticism. That kind of history is not documented, so it’s easy to embellish it with emotion. Let’s deal with the elements of it that are of interest to us just to influence a little bit the directions that we might want to take or not take. The project is really not about that accord. We are not doing a political piece. We want to do an artistic exploration. We want to meet as artists. We use that meeting as the most recognizable—at least in that part of the world—link between the two countries. But we didn’t want to talk about our countries; we’ve done that. In a sense, we really wanted to speak about artistic ideas: What does it mean to meet? What are these confrontations? It’s a long answer. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: What are some of the directions you take in the piece, which includes a good deal of text?
Boyzie Cekwana:
I think one of the consequences of the time it took to develop the work was that it had a lot of permutations, from when we started to where we are now. We turned down some really strange alleyways. Ultimately, it was only a year ago—because we didn’t have much text in the beginning. We felt that there are certain things that can’t be spoken with the body without overloading the space with too much obscure information. I think I should state now that one of the things we wanted to avoid—unfortunately, we chose a title that was already loaded—was getting  trapped under the tyranny of meaning. So how do we extricate ourselves from this shadow? In a way, we made these other choices: If saying it with your body obscures the idea, then say it with your words. Find the words to say it. It meant that we took a few steps back to reexamine what exactly we were trying to say. Do we like this? And then rewrite. I think the text liberated us a bit. It gave us liberty to breathe. Initially, the need to be physically articulate and present was becoming a burden. It’s tricky. One of the tricky things has to do with the fact that one of the dancers is a double amputee, and while there is nothing wrong with this—of course, it has its own tragedies—but from an artistic point of view, we really had to examine how to deal with this body in a way that does not make it so special, so exotic—a circus act. She is not a circus trick, she is a full human being who simply has no legs. We had been dealing with her for years as a person and finding ways to edit the presence of the body out was quite important for us, because this was taking so much of the center space. The piece becomes about this. So these were some of the critical exercises we had to go through just to be able to find ways to give her and us and the work itself a chance to speak purely for the concepts that we were trying to play with. Not to then draw away from that—when you see it, it’s quite something. And she is, without a doubt, a phenomenal presence—her energy, her artistic quality is impeccable. And this we wanted more than this accident of having lost her legs. It was fairly critical to find ways to play with the presence of the body—how much of the body to reveal and why and when and how to save this body from being the focal point, so she can be fully human. So we can also be fully human where we are onstage.

Time Out New York: To equalize the bodies onstage?
Boyzie Cekwana:
I think there is this responsibility to give the viewer a chance to experience a work of art for what it is without embellishing it with too much sentiment. And also to give the performers—especially the ones who are different—a real chance to speak for themselves and to speak as artists and not as the different one among the others. This engaged us quite a lot. It took a lot of work for us to engage in this because there were a few times when we showed the work in various stages and almost immediately this is the reaction you get. People want to go like [Puts his hands in front of his face]. No, don’t do that—she’s not an egg. She’s a human being, she’s a woman; treat her like a woman. So this forced us to go back to the drawing board: What are we making? Why is she here?

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