Collectif d’Art-d’Art: Overcoming psychological and physical barriers
“An artist is above all a being of blood and flesh, that is to say human. Thanks to the support of the SDC, we have met people with whom we have developed strong human ties in Lusaka and in Harare. Meeting other people, artists or audience, who approach the art differently, who have other expectations to art, gave us time to question more of our work that is centered on the human, the sharing, the breaking of the limits and the possibility of inventing new dialogues between humans. Because for us, artistic practice makes sense only if it has the human as a starting point and as a point of arriving for its own transformation into a little more human.” – Michael Disanka
Collectif d’Art-d’Art is a performing arts collective from Kinshasa, DR Congo led by actor, director and author Michael Disanka together with Christiana Tabaro. At the core of Collectif d’Art-d’Art’s work is the convergence of personal stories and the contemporary history of the Congo. This is set against the backdrop of the realities and condition of artists living and working in Kinshasa. The collective is interested in deconstructing colonial paradigms and furthering a pan-African social imaginary. Collaboration is central to the collective’s process and the projects and activities that would be supported by SDC finances between 2017 and 2019 would see the development and growth of strong networks between Collectif d’Art-d’Art and Waza Art Centre in Lubumbashi and Modzi Arts in Lusaka, Zambia (both of these organisations would separately receive SDC supported as Regional Mobility Partners for the Regional Arts Programme).
The three years of SDC support saw a series of residencies take place in Kinshasa, in Lubumbashi at Waza and in Lusaka at Modzi Arts. In addition to this, Collectif d’Art-d’Ar was supported to tour work in Harare and conduct workshops with Zimbabwean dancers.
Since 2015, Collectif d’Art-d’Art had been initiating dialogue and engaging with artists from various disciplines at Waza in Lubumbashi. This gave rise to the project 00243, which looked to explore the potential for art to transcend boundaries – of artistic medium, language, history, and later, national borders. The project set out to narrate contemporary Congolese history through the seemingly banal gestures drawn from the lives of the artist. Following the staging of the production at Waza in 2015, plans begun to develop for Collectif d’Art-d’Art to expand the network of practice, to share artistic and organisational learnings, and to forge human connections across the region.
“We met good artists with whom we communicated through our souls.”
In 2017 Michael and Christiana were supported for a prospection trip to Lusaka and Harare. This mission consisted of presenting and talking about their 00243 work, meeting and interacting with artists, programmers, and various people from these cities, to test how their work resonated with non-francophone audiences. Michael explains that “We wanted to discover and experience at the same time whether we had reached, with this vast project 00243, a language that is really above of language.” On this trip they also explored the possibility of creating links and initiating dialogues with artists in these cities to see how to spread their work in Southern Africa through this network. During this exchange they met Modzi Arts founder and director Taonga Julia Kaseka, who resonated strongly with the themes of project, and would become a long-term collaborator.
“Our mission of exploration was a great success,” Michael reflects. “We achieved the objectives that we pursued, the first of which was to feel if our work exceeded language. This allowed us to see where our work, while being singular, had a universal language. We also wanted to open up opportunities for dialogue by creating links, spaces for exchanges with artists and the inhabitants of Lusaka and Kinshasa.”
The creative tension posed by language as both facilitator and divider, and by restrictions – on travel, on communication – and their circumvention through art and shared humanity is another theme that has informed Collectif d’Art D’Art’s practice. In Michael’s words: “We met good artists with whom we communicated through our souls. Our language was much easier than we thought and from that point on, our mission made a lot more sense because breaking the barriers of language and even showing the nullity of the borders that prevent free movement and the need for exchanges between different cultures. At the end of this exploration, we realized that the barriers are sometimes only mental, and it is at this level that we must emancipate them, and the rest will follow.”
“The performance will be subversive, because it aims at the liberation of psycho-physical borders that are in excess of their presence in the bodies and minds of many of our contemporaries.”
In 2018 Collectif d’Art d’Art returned to Modzi Arts in Lusaka for a month-long residency that would include readings, discussions and workshops. Inspired by the struggles of two icons of African independence, Emery Patrice Lumumba and Kenneth Kaunda, Collectif d’Art-d’Art worked with Zambian artists to trace and assess the evolution of the decolonisation against the backdrop of more than fifty years of independence. Through the sharing of personal experiences, the residency aimed to explore the need for a process of psychological decolonisation. Congolese project partner Christiana Tabaro explains further: “Together we wanted to know where we are today, young Africans, after more than 50 years of African independence. Are we free in our being? Can we imagine ourselves positively in our common space of Africa? How can we trigger the ‘rise in humanity’ and decompartmentalise our mind, which is always turned towards a better elsewhere, therefore towards forgetting and abandoning ourselves, in order to paint new utopias of Africa?”
The residency was disrupted however, and the decolonial theme of the project given a real-life expression, by the detainment of Christiana for supposedly overstaying a visa period.
A #FreeChristiana campaign was launched on social media that gained traction. In the end, Michael says, “We were happy to have contributed, through the resounding echoes that this case has had, to the improvement of the treatment of Congolese prisoners in Zambia and especially to the bilateral cooperation between the two countries on the issue of migration. This has led to a drop in the number of arrests of Congolese in Zambia.” In an open letter circulated upon her release, Christiana wrote, “I cannot conceive that I would be imprisoned just because our art collectives are seeking to strengthen our bond through dialogue to see how to create a cultural and artistic bridge between our two countries, how to strengthen ties between artists from Zambia and the DRC.”
The challenges faced by Collectif d’Art-d’Art in terms of travel logistics and administrative obstacles are indicative of those faced by organisations trying to work across borders in Southern Africa. Visas are difficult and slow to obtain, travel is expensive, and authorities extract tariffs at every opportunity. The cumulative effect can feel punitive, as Michael recalled: “Having a Congolese passport was a sin. We were put aside, we were even insulted and in the end we were paying taxes that do not exist. We claimed the receipts for these taxes, they threatened us with expulsion. In short, we have been segregated because we are simply Congolese.”
“These links we have today with Lusaka have not only influenced our work but our whole life.”
These trials and tribulations informed the next stage of the collaboration. In December 2019 Michael and Christiana reconnected with Taonga for a production residency at Waza in Lubumbashi to work on their new piece Overstaying. “We will work on the notion of psycho-physical overcoming,” Michael explained at the time. “We will work on a language that goes beyond the languages inherited from colonisation, as this is the first frontier to cross. We will then test our bodies as in a ritual of atonement of the Ba Ngunza of Congo, to elucidate from our bodies and minds some ideas that distil the humanity of being African and thus help Christiana to heal herself from the physical and mental abuse she suffered during her arrest. The performance will be subversive, because it aims at the liberation of psycho-physical borders that are in excess of their presence in the bodies and minds of many of our contemporaries.” The work was developed in both French and English, and included a series of conversations interspersed with performative moments.
While the SDC funding supported organisational development and the creation and presentation of new artistic work, the lasting impact for Collectif d’Art-d’Art and the project collaborators will be the human connections that were established and have become their own loci of creative learning and expression. As Michael reflects, “I believe that the objective of our project is more than achieved. The lasting impact will be the circulation of works produced in the region, the impulse to create new projects, and the common commitment to continue the dialogue between Modzi arts and the Art-d’Art Collective. We have produced new works, but the aim was also and above all to consolidate the collaboration between the Art Collective, Modzi Arts and the Waza Art Centre. Inviting Modzi Arts to Kinshasa allowed Taonga and her team to see where our word, our energy, our anger, our fight, our commitment to art comes from. These links we have today with Lusaka have not only influenced our work but our whole life. It is beyond artistic sharing. It’s clear that with these wonderful people we will move forward.”