A Breathing Space Project
In 2020 we saw many of our assumptions about society, culture and economy upturned or broken. We saw in equal measure the emergence of possibilities for rapid and transformative change, and the deepening of existing fractures and injustices. It is clear we are inside a period of disruption that neither began nor will end with the COVID-19 pandemic, and in which the larger social-economic-ecological crises of our time become vivid and present. Against this backdrop, the Breathing Space grant programme of Pro Helvetia’s Johannesburg office looked to enable modest relief, or ‘breathing space’, for arts practitioners, organisations and networks across the subcontinent to rethink ways of working, to experiment with new formats of production, exchange and collaboration and reimagine the shape and position of cultural and creative work.
The ocean will always try to pull you in is a work in progress by Kenyan theatre maker and storyteller Ogutu Muraya. The project traverses the realms of magical realism weaving together first-person accounts and fictions.
This project began with a quest – a long and difficult search for something important. Ogutu set out to investigate ‘a neglected migration crisis’ that has led to the steady disappearance of 50,000 people since the mid-90s on the waterway that connects the island of Nzwani with the island of Mayotte, the southernmost part of the EU. On this journey Ogutu became lost in a maze of intersecting truths and fictions, at the centre of which is the consuming ocean.
Ogutu travelled from his home town of Nairobi to Nzwani via Moroni. Nzwani is part of the Comoros archipelago, a group of islands located in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of East Africa, South of the equator between Mozambique and Madagascar. Throughout his travels Ogutu encountered more than he bargained for, from the deadly force of the tropical cyclone Belna, to a mystifying volcanic lake that defies the laws of nature, a geological enigma that connects the island to a pre-Jurassic supercontinent – Gondwana, an encounter with a coelacanth fish considered a living fossil thought extinct 66 million years ago.
Sometimes the only way to access reality is through fiction. In Ogutu’s project, fiction interacts with experience to produce the unruly, the imaginative, and the fantastical. The stories – both fabricated and testimonial – collide and blur the line between reality and illusion, between dreams and fantasy. The stories are imaginative responses to the complexities of lived realities, history and human migration. The stories follow the principle of fractals – a story within a story within a story within a story. A fractal is a never-ending pattern where the same patterns occur again and again at different scales and sizes. Using this notion of self-similarity these never-ending stories or patterns put together form a kaleidoscopic view of Nzwani, a magical and sometimes mysterious island.
The initial research for this project was supported by Zürcher Theater Spektakel and the first chapter was produced by Festival Theaterformen, and presented as part of the festival’s special edition ‘A Sea Of Islands’ in July 2020. Ogutu has a total of 12 chapters planned which will each be staged as an audio-visual artwork. With the support of the Breathing Space grant, he will continue working with dramaturg Leila Anderson from November 2020 to February 2021 on the text for the next two chapters of the project.
Ogutu Muraya is a writer and theatre maker whose work is embedded in the practice of Orature. In his work, he searches for new forms of storytelling where socio-political aspects merge with the belief that art is an important catalyst for questioning certainties. He studied International Relations at USIU-Africa and graduated in 2016 with a Master in Arts at the Amsterdam University of the Arts – DAS Theatre. He has been published in the Kwani? Journal, Chimurenga Chronic, Rekto:Verso, Etcetera Magazine, NT Gent’s 4 edition of The Golden Book series, among others. His performative works, storytelling & collaborations have featured in several theatres and festivals including- La Mama (NYC), The Hay Festival (Wales), HIFA (Harare), NuVo Arts Festival (Kampala), Spoken Wor:l:ds (Berlin), Globe to Globe Festival (London), Ranga Shankara (Bangalore), Afrovibes Festival (Amsterdam), Spielart (Munich), Theatre is Must Forum (Alexandria), Theatre Commons (Tokyo) & within East Africa. In 2019 Ogutu was nominated and won in the category of ‘best production on spoken word’ as part of the Sanaa Theatre Awards in Nairobi for his solo performance ‘Because I Always Feel like Running’. Ogutu is also a recipient of The Eric Brassem Exchange Certificate. He was recognized as a talent in the 2017- 2018 Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst – 3 Package Deal. Ogutu is based in Nairobi where he continues his artistic practice and also teaches part time at the department of film and performing arts at KCA University.
Leila Anderson (b.1984, Cape Town) is an artist and public arts curator. She has a BA Theatre-making cum laude [University of Cape Town 2006] and an MA in Performance [DAS Theatre, Amsterdam 2016]. She is the founder of Borderlands Public Arts Project (nominated for the International Award for Public Art 2018) and her work explores the intersection of ethics and aesthetics, the social and environmental. She is currently writing on intimacy in public art for the upcoming Institute for Creative Arts publication, Restless Infections. She co-curated Infecting the City Festival in 2016 & 2017. She has been a guest lecturer at UCT for several years. She works as a dramaturg, editor and collaborator with several artists, including Ogutu Muraya: ‘The Ocean will Always Try to Pull You In’ 2020 and ‘Because I Always Feel Like Running’ 2017.