edition July/August 2020

"We Are Inextricably Linked"

How can we decolonize institutions? An interview with the choreographer and curator Jay Pather on the lasting impacts of colonialism and on Tanzfabrik Berlin’s program Twists. Dance and Decoloniality.

20160216 UCT Jay Pather, Intersect. Photo: Michael Hammond/UCT Jay Pather, choreographer, curator and professor at the University of Cape Town. Photo: University of Cape Town

In recent theory, Decoloniality has replaced Postcolonialism as a concept. At its core is the conviction that our societies and our institutions are not yet beyond hierarchies originating in colonialism. With their program Twists. Dance and Decoloniality – A Critical Research on Dance Institutions, Tanzfabrik Berlin has started to raise the question of colonialism’s consequences in the dance sector while trying to counter still existing (post-)colonial hegemonies, structural racism and exclusion. In April, a series of workshops should have taken place, led by Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro, Tahir Della, Yvette Mutumba, Jay Pather and Rolando Vázquez. But the Coronavirus shutdown brought the plans to an halt. In June, the first two workshops were finally able to be hosted; the third, in early July, will be held by Jay Pather. The choreographer, multi-media artist, curator, writer, and teacher from South Africa is a professor at the University of Cape Town. tanzraumberlin has been skyping with him on Tanz­fabrik’s Twists programme and the significance of decoloniality as early as April – which is why #BlackLivesMatter, the recent anti-racist protests after the killing of George Floyd haven’t found their way into the conversation, even though it touches on the topic frequently.

Interview: Elena Philipp

Elena Philipp: Jay Pather, how did you and Tanz­fabrik connect?

Jay Pather: I was invited by Theaterfestival Spielart in Munich many years ago to a conference called “Show Me the World”, which was partly curated by dance curator Sigrid Gareis who is also the initiator of the Twists project at Tanzfabrik. The conference was about the curation in the international art world and I did a paper that dealt with the curation of black bodies. In one of my sections I scratched out the word “world” and I put in “gaze” – show me the gaze – because I was investigating the problems surrounding black dancers’ and black choreographers’ works in international curating.

What were your findings in that research?

There was a kind of a tension between needing visibility and then also in a curious way wanting the invisibility, that is, not to be so obvious as “the black part of our program” or “we are doing this because of blackness”. That’s the tension in the representation of black bodies. We are so used to narratives that our political change and the evolution of our cultures mirror a kind of grand narrative of enlightenment. And yet everything in the world reacts aggressively against that idea and shows us that this is not to be. One of the most glaring examples is the state of politics in the United States of America, which is in many respects a really good example of the grand narrative moving from slavery onwards through the Civil Rights Movement to what one considered an enlightened period. And now we have this administration, which has suspended the notions of this grand narrative and asks us to constantly revisit the notions of race and its representation. So I dealt largely with that in the conference paper. And since then, Tanzfabrik and I have had a bit of a relationship.

You are a professor at the University of Cape Town. Apartheid must have left deep traces in an institution like this, too.

In South Africa, we saw our so-called independence in 1994, and Nelson Mandela did a fantastic job at that time. But one of the most alarming statistics is that we remain the most unequal society in the world in terms of race. In 2016, the protest movement Rhodes Must Fall was launched [it was originally directed at removing a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British Imperialist and former Prime Minister, at the University of Cape Town; the ed.] and then the #FeesMustFall movement where students once again foregrounded this incredible façade of supposed equality in our society. Commensurate with that was a big need to shift our curriculum because it wasn’t just about fees, but rather the entire range of cultural emblems, and how the university presents itself to the world. This really had to be more closely questioned.

How did you proceed?

It was understood, and this is applicable to Germany, too, I think, that there was a lack of change in the staff and the student complement in terms of race. On the other hand, you can’t change the staff and the students if the curriculum remains the same. I was on a few selection committees, and it was a very obvious phenomenon that when some exciting black academics were interviewed, the refrain was always, “yes, they’ve got all these amazing things around interdisciplinarity, etc., but they can’t teach 18th century painting or sculpture from the 1940s in Italy” or whatever. So we started this whole curriculum change. And that’s where my interest in decoloniality began.

Wherein lies the power of the concept of decoloniality?

I find it a very attractive concept because it’s post post-colonialism in acknowledging the fact that coloniality continues to exist. It’s understanding how colonialism might have had a certain timescale to it. But its cultural formations and impact are felt in everything that happens, and particularly in the former colonies. I’m a choreographer, but I am more and more interested in thinking about curation because I’ve been increasingly concerned about showing off work within particular frames.

Could you offer an example?

Well, I went to a festival of dance in Switzerland, in Lausanne. And I was so taken by the sophistication of its organization. But after about three or four productions, I began to be painfully aware that there was not a single dancer of color, let alone a choreographer. And then I finally see a work and it has a dancer of color. This production by a Swiss choreographer deals with what we are doing to animals. Halfway through the work the black dancer starts to make pig noises and becomes like a baboon. I was horrified and I left the venue. Since I had some of those kinds of experiences in my travels in Europe, I think that we have to be vigilant.

That’s a shocking experience. If I understand correctly, Tanzfabrik’s Twists is aimed at setting up structures in which an incident like this would be less likely to happen or at least be addressed in hindsight. Would you tell us a bit more about the program?

The idea is to look at Tanzfabrik – because the initiative has come from them – and at the construction of various parts of their programming, whether it is their curriculum, the staff, the students or the mechanisms by which they operate, etc., and to consider these within the various frameworks of decoloniality. It’s about starting the conversation on colonial structures in our lives, in our world-view, and in our institutions, down to the core of what coloniality has erased or on the other hand invited into them, with as much integrity and self-reflection as possible. Because there also is a great danger that decoloniality continues to be a kind of a trend and a buzzword for institutions to remain relevant.

What are the challenges with regard to the curation of international dance works?

One of the big topics was and is the need of Western institutions to bring work from the African continent, which I think is a good thing. But first we have to acknowledge that the colonial project is not easily dealt with because its implications have been so widespread and it is almost impossible to undo it or reconfigure it. Africans, for example, are also constantly talking about colonialism, and why is that? I think that the impulse comes from the fact that we are inextricably linked. Even in the very gesture of inviting a production from South Africa there is a sign of this linkage. But there are nuances in which the work can be seen and developed, examined and interrogated.

With colonial hegemonies still in effect, what are the chances and pitfalls for cultural exchange in your regard?

We have to move past the guilt phase. We have to move past the needing to redress phase. We have to move past the token phase, the “let’s get a couple of African choreographers to sort our conscience” phase. We have to go past those things. But at the same time, we have to work with creating a greater visibility. I don’t think it’s a question of “need” any more; well, it really does help when a black South African choreographer coming from, as I said earlier, one the most unequal societies in the world, is invited to Europe and earns euros and is able to pay his*her dancers a fairly good salary as opposed to on the continent. But that’s beside the point. We need to think beyond that and above that.

In what sense?

The West seems to have discovered its self-consciousness from the mid/late 19th century on, with figures like Einstein, Freud, Humboldt or Darwin. But self-consciousness for the colonized starts in the 16th century because in their case you’re dealing with two cultures: You’re dealing with your own culture, you’re dealing with your own dance form, and then suddenly you’re being expected to wear different clothes, and compelled to speak another language. You have another approach to your land, with which you might have had a cultural affinity and now are being asked to view as a commodity, just as your body is now a commodity whereas beforehand your body was spiritually connected to the earth and there was a kind of coherence in all of those relationships. You are now having to piecemeal these things and see them as different and cut off. So there’s this notion, which I think Frantz Fanon coined as a word, of a double consciousness, those that have been colonized have this double consciousness.

How does this double consciousness manifest itself in the arts?

This double consciousness has spawned an amazingly layered approach to art and to dance. The approach to the human and the human spirit and to what the artist is in society as it moves from this kind of imposed commercializing to being a spiritual diviner: These are very complicated, complex ideas in South Africa today. Many choreographers have stopped seeing themselves as artists and really think of themselves as healers. I guess what I’m just saying is that there is an immense amount of connectivity, of healing that African art has to offer Europe, but not as a kind of self-conscious redress, but really as a leveling of a conversation, an equalizing conversation and not speaking from a vacant space. We are all living different contemporary lives and thus we can have different answers to the same question.

You’ve mentioned your personal experiences at European festivals. Generally, what is the experience of art going to Europe nowadays? Is it one of an equalizing conversation?

I think that that’s become less and less the case. In many respects, it’s been more like “we’re doing something for you, and so what are you gonna do for us”? But I think that the complexities of human rights, of contemporary culture need to be embraced. In many spaces it has been unbalanced.

What would an arts institution that’s really balanced look like?

I believe it’s about discovering who are the gatekeepers, what are the rules, what are those criteria for gatekeeping that exist and why do they exist. I think it involves talking to decolonialization theorists and people like myself that are working in this field because it’s important to determine what they actually think, and what that institution could look like as well. We’re still in the process of asking the right questions and asking the questions that we think are not going to fall on deaf ears and strike a chord in people’s lives so that they are going to actually listen to them – because inciting change is not up to black dancers or African choreographers. I think it’s on the people that make the decisions. Are they receiving the message? That’s the point. The rest of us can have as many bleeding heart conversations as we want. But ultimately it has to land in the laps of and be expressed by those making the decisions.

What are your hopes for Tanz­fabrik’s Twists program?

I think that the selection of people has been quite meticulous. In our conversations we realized that the stakes are very high for us in our own countries, in our own evolutions as societies, and therefore to be invited to kind of a global space to entice a process of decolonization is something we all take extremely seriously. I strongly believe that this is an important moment for us to infuse notions of decoloniality into dance. That being said, it’s difficult. In a period like the present, I would imagine it to be extremely difficult to stay at it, to have the emotional stamina and political will to continue these debates and to allow for them to become increasingly transparent and out in the open. Tanz­fabrik’s Twists definitely could start something that’s able to connect with other parts of Europe and the United States. I have very seldom felt so free to speak about all this as in this project. It’s that deep self-reflection that needs to happen amongst decision makers. And I do think Berlin is the place to start. 

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