über(W)unden – Art in Troubled Times A Conference of Extremes

Work by Sello Pesa at the JSE
Work by Sello Pesa at the JSE | Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/2point8

Apartheid, genocide, civil war – many artists from sub-Saharan Africa have gone through traumatic experiences. Now, in Johannesburg representatives from a variety of fields gathered for one week and discussed their personal experiences and the question of how much their work is linked to these events. A live report by Elisabeth Wellershaus.

The white van weaves slowly through the afternoon traffic of Johannesburg; on board is an assortment of artists of various disciplines. In the back row sits the Rwandan theatre-maker Dorcy Rugamba photographing people on the street. Next to him is Aboudia from Cote d’Ivoire, sketching his colleagues with rapidly drawn lines. A few rows ahead is Etienne Minoungou, known as a festival director from Burkina Faso. Minoungou is just sitting there, staring at the city zooming by, and seems exhausted. It is the fourth day of an ambitious project week organized by the Goethe-Institut during which extremes are continuously being sounded out.

Only a short time before, they had been sitting with coffee and biscuits in the institute conference room in an evidently prosperous suburb. Fifteen minutes later, they are passing residential streets with dilapidated buildings, in front of which stand beggars with glassy eyes in tattered clothes. “It’s the way Johannesburg is,” says writer Véronique Tadjó. “In this city all of the extremes of the continent meet.” It is an attribute that makes the city the perfect backdrop for über(W)unden – Art in Troubled Times. The artists who have come from all over Africa not only want to reflect on the conference theme of art and trauma as theory. Mainly they want to discuss their different personal situations in nations shattered by civil war, traumatized societies and postcolonial times.

Photo gallery: Between art and trauma – the conference über(W)unden – Art in Troubled Times

This afternoon, the old stock exchange of Johannesburg is a place of contention. From the outside, the chunky building next to the taxi stand does not make much of an impression. From the inside, however, it is like a huge ghost town. The red lifts go up and down along a glass façade, but are transporting hardly anyone. The many small escalators are also empty. The stock exchange operators have longed moved away from the city centre to one of the more wealthy suburbs populated mainly by whites today.

Nonetheless there are rumblings in the lower storeys and Sello Pesa is responsible. The choreographer discovered the building as a performance space and is hosting a production during the conference between the old high desks and switch panels. His piece is about forming an identity in a heterogeneous society, but primarily about the uncertainty and mistrust that still dominate in post-apartheid times between the black and white populations.

“As children, when we came with my parents from the township to the city, it was always like Christmas for us,” Pesa relates. “The first thing that we saw in this fascinating, strange city was the stock exchange. It was right next to the taxi stand we arrived at and appeared to be the centre of a place where at that time we could only be guests. Perhaps that is why I always wanted to know what it looked like from the inside.” Pesa finally got a look at the building this year. “But, I still had the feeling I wasn’t really welcome. Without my play, I would never have seen the inside of the stock exchange.”

Stories about convergences like this play a central role in über(W)unden – Art in Troubled Times. First of all, one has to explain to the others who one is. For instance, in his rap songs, Emmanuel Jal describes nearly inconceivable scenes he experienced as a child soldier in the Sudanese liberation army SPLA. The pictures by 28-year old Aboudia testify of the immediate impact with which he experienced the civil war-like conditions after the elections in the Cote d’Ivoire. And the works by Dorcy Rugamba reflect his memories of the genocide in Rwanda in a haunting way.

Rugamba, who lost nearly his entire family in 1994, indefatigably deals with the background and consequences of the genocide. The director surprisingly is interested in learning about German perspectives. A few years ago, he produced Die Ermittlung by Peter Weiss with Rwandan actors – a documentary dealing with the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. He is now excited about a video installation in Johannesburg that the German artist Marcel Odenbach set up for the conference, for it supplies yet other perspectives of the genocide in Rwanda.

Understanding the different languages used to express the unspeakable – this nearly impossible task was the starting point of über(W)unden – Art in Troubled Times. The certainty that valuable stimuli were offered over this gruelling week is the outcome.