Congo Trip Notes: Leaving Kinshasa

Posted in Uncategorized | December 10, 2009 | by cathyz | Leave a Comment

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Leaving Kinshasa, I’m renewed in my conviction that artists are critical thinkers, provocateurs and primary thought leaders possessing the skills and rigor needed to create pathways for understanding and social change. I feel a purposeful connection to what Faustin and Virginie are doing that could not have been possible without my sharing, even briefly, their life in Kisangani.  I’m sobered by the challenges they face and worry about the artists and people I’ve come to know and have now left behind. At the same time, I see that even the smallest act of genuine interest can have profound impact. I understand Faustin’s art and work more profoundly. The structure, ideas, ambiance and context of his work is Congolese; the craft and imagination is the artist, Faustin.

It is also very clear to me that The Africa Contemporary Arts Consortium’s commitment to engage in this way is no small thing and it comes with responsibility. We must take the appropriate next steps to build on these trips.

Three weeks later…

In a quiet moment three weeks after my return from my visit with Faustin and Virginie, travel notes and financial reports complete, the rhythms of Kisangani waft through my senses.

The enfolding green of the forest which is embraced by two beautiful flowing rivers. The red clay of the earth that connects the people so intimately to their land. The people who are bound by community and whose daily lives are lived mostly in plain sight walking, riding bikes, and carrying food and other goods. The buildings, beautiful and sad in their detritus, oozing with a powerful sense of place a complex history and a precarious future yet to unfold.  I recall the many young artists I met, the urgency of their endeavors and the sincerity of their interactions with me.

Congo Trip Notes: Last days in Kinshasa

Posted in Uncategorized | December 9, 2009 | by cathyz | (1) Comment

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It does feel that Kinshasa is striving toward modernity. In certain neighborhood quarters there are new apartment buildings going up. The Chinese are investing in Congo and their efforts are noticeable as they are building a big modern hospital and a soccer stadium. I was told there are plans for Chinese investment towards infrastructure and road building, etc. There are neighborhoods of gigantic mansions with barbed wire atop high stone fences. In these neighborhoods, where expats and wealthy Congolese live, there are paved streets and yards. Unfortunately, according to people I spoke to, very few of these advances have any impact on the daily life of most Congolese and corruption continues at all levels.

My last full day in Kinshasa, I had a tour of the city led by Paul Kerstens of KVS/Brussels. KVS has been working to develop artistic projects in Congo since 2005. They have supported and presented Faustin’s work (Festival of Lies, The Dialogue Series: iii Dinozord and more more more…future) and Jan Goossens (KVS’ Artistic Director) has visited Kisangani three times. Paul, the director of the Congo project, spends approximately six months a year there and pretty much knows the scene.

Most recently KVS organized – in partnership with Françoise Gardies, director of the Halle de la Gombe at CCF – the first festival of contemporary dance in Kinshasa. It lasted six days and, in addition to Alain Platel’s work Pitié!, there were workshops and presentations of work by performers from the Congo, Cameroon, Kenya, Rwanda and Mozambique.

With Paul, who hired a driver so we could travel through the various “quarters” of the city where artists live and work, I visited two visual artists’ work spaces/homes/compounds; and Les Béjarts, a socio-cultural organization for young people where I was treated to an excerpted performance of a play they’re developing about everyday life in Kinshasa.  I also visited the Zoo Theatre (because it’s next to what used to be a zoo).   At one time it was a beautiful and busy theatre but now it’s decrepit and used mostly for rehearsals and community gatherings.

At the end of the day, Paul and I spoke about building on our two organization’s efforts in Africa through knowledge and resource sharing to create an international network that includes the U.S., Europe and Africa.  Stay tuned…

Congo Trip Notes: Kinshasa Performances

Posted in Uncategorized | December 7, 2009 | by cathyz | (1) Comment

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I traveled from Kisangani to Kinshasa with Faustin and his family. It’s the 10th Anniversary of the French Cultural Center (CCF) and Faustin has been invited to teach workshops and perform as part of the 4-day program of festivities. Over a period of three days, he will work with five men and one woman who will be incorporated into his performance.


They rehearse and perform in a covered outdoor space. The floor is cement, blanketed with construction dust and dirt from the outdoors. There are framed windows without glass and scattered debris all around the space. During rehearsals there is the noise of hammering and mowing and construction workers constantly walk through the space.

Faustin does not teach technique – he wants to impart a method of thinking about performance that the dancers can develop and use in other work. His focus is to imprint the notion of context, spatial awareness and purpose/intention of movement. He’s rigorous in his work with them and very tough but the artists know and respect him and are hungry to learn.

Faustin put together an hour- long performance consisting of excerpts of his work going back 10 years in honor of the CCF’s long support. He introduced the evening by quoting Pina Bausch who once said that dance didn’t really interest her. What interested her was why people dance. Faustin explained that with this performance, he was attempting to distill the why of his dance-making over the past 10 years.

Faustin transformed and revealed the space through the simple use of light from a projector which he manipulated to frame the action. The clearly articulated spatial relationships created between performers and between the performers and the space they occupied, provided context for the viewer and supported the emotional terrain of the piece. The movement vocabulary, created through a series of theme-based improvisations, was unique according to the capabilities of each performer– the woman was especially engaging in that her movement and presence was so different from the male dancers. They were all wonderful—comfortable in their skins and deeply committed to the extremely difficult work they were doing—and it was hard to imagine that all this had been accomplished in only three days. They rolled, dropped from window heights to the floor, cart-wheeled and repeatedly jumped on the hard and dirty cement floor. There wasn’t a single part of their bodies that wasn’t covered in dust and dirt and I can’t imagine any dancer I know in the U.S. consenting to work under these conditions, nor should they. For Congolese artists, there’s no choice in the matter and I couldn’t help but be moved by their courage.

Congo Trip Notes: Dinner at Mom’s House

Posted in Uncategorized | December 4, 2009 | by cathyz | Leave a Comment

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The highlight of my visit has been dinner at Faustin’s mom’s house.  His family lives in the green Tshopo community named after the river that flows nearby.  It was pitch dark when we arrived and we were greeted on the road by Faustin’s mom, sister and sister-in-law, who led me through the garden lighting the path with their cell phones!


The family, including husbands, wives, grandchildren and grandmere live in two dwellings connected by a large mud “patio” where the cooking and most of the family activity take place. There was one oil lamp burning and that, along with the bright stars, was the only light we had.  It was so dark I couldn’t see the food, but it was delicious Congolese fare consisting of crawfish, chicken, banana fou, plantains, rice and legumes.

Like Faustin, his mom is a force and the center of lively conversation. She sat next to me and spoke in a combination of French, Swahili and Lingala which Faustin translated. There were about ten children ranging in age from one to fourteen. The fourteen year old is Faustin’s youngest sister. The older kids served the food, cleared the table, and washed the dishes.

From what I could tell, most of the conversation centered around the resignation of the Vice Governor of Kisangani who is a childhood friend of Faustin. According to Faustin, no one has ever resigned from government office. Those in government want to stay because it’s the only way to make money, which is why there’s so much corruption. The Vice Governor came to office hoping to make changes and address the rampant corruption. However, his office doesn’t really have any authority and the Governor doesn’t want to have anything to do with this agenda for change (sound familiar?). The story goes that the Governor concocted a corruption charge against the Vice Governor (he said he misappropriated money) which prompted the Vice Governor to ask for a public investigation. The Governor refused saying an investigation wasn’t necessary. The Vice Governor then offered his resignation saying that since he didn’t have the opportunity to clear his name, he would not continue to hold the office.

The whole evening was surreal and wonderful.  I’m sitting in the middle of a rural area listening to the sounds of the surrounding forest and distant singing coming from a local church. I’m eating authentic Congolese food and the traditional languages of Swahili and Lingala are being spoken all around me.  Meanwhile, cell phones ring throughout the night and a bizarre story of political corruption unfolds with the focus of the scandal being Faustin’s childhood friend.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.


A couple days later, it was Faustin’s son’s two-year birthday and we were having lunch at an outdoor café along the Congo River.  What’s important to note about this meeting is a question Faustin asked of his friend in the Parliament:

The question I have for you is do you think it’s possible in the Congo today to fight for an idea without being imprisoned or murdered?

The question haunts me and this is what Faustin is addressing in his newest work more, more, more …future

Congo Trip Notes: Faustin and Virginie’s Vision

Posted in Uncategorized | November 30, 2009 | by cathyz | Leave a Comment

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espace culture rehearsal space for beatricel

Faustin and Virginie strive to provide artistic opportunities and access for the local population and to bring the people and the country into contact with the broader world. Their vision is to create an arts community in Kisangani and to provide ways for artists to make a living through their art.

Just prior to my arrival, Tunisian artist Hafiz Dhaou taught a two-week workshop to a group of fifteen young aspiring hip hop dancers. Studios Kabako paid the dancers the equivalent of a decent meal and transport money to attend the workshop thereby insuring that the boys continued to come for the whole two weeks. After working with Hafiz,  three  of the more talented dancers have a fire in their belly to continue.

papy at bejarts

Papy Ebotani, an artist member of Les Studios Kabako, will teach a workshop in January.  A second workshop will take place in August 2010 possibly by  Senegalese choreographer Andreya Ouamba. Faustin and Virginie have invited some contemporary choreographers from Africa (Boyzie Cekwana and Panaibra Gabriel) to come to Kisangani, not to teach, but to exchange about their respective projects.

In October, Studios Kabako produced their third day-long music event featuring local hip hop artists which 4,000 people attended. The day was totally peaceful and created a desire in the community for more. The plan is to stage another smaller music event in December but this decision is pending fund raising since the events are free to the public.

Studios Kabako has been supporting Papy Ebotani as he’s been developing his artistic voice and teaching skills—commissioning new work and sending him abroad to perform and teach. This year, for the first time, Papy generated income for Studios Kabako.

While all this sounds very positive (and it is), life here is beyond difficult and I find myself confused and overwhelmed by what the people are up against. Faustin often feels a sense of hopelessness and sometimes wonders  why he is doing this work in Kisangani, but then there are those moments when someone “gets it.” Those moments keep him going.