Conference "Sometimes I think: Fuck Africa."

Antjie Krog
Antjie Krog | Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/2point8

It was cheeky, even slightly provocative, of the Goethe Institut to organise an event that dealt with trauma, that bookended 9/11, but that did not have a single mention of the destruction of New York’s Twin Towers. Instead, the five-day Über(w)unden conference (Johannesburg, 7–11 September) presented artists, writers and activists from Sudan, DRC, Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Europe who discussed ways in which art can deal with trauma in countries that have experienced extreme conflicts.

Fortunately it didn’t result in a “my trauma is worse than yours” contest where the DRC, with five million victims, would easily beat Sudan, which has only two million. Equally refreshing was the fact that South Africa played a slightly secondary role in the proceedings - it’s nice to be away from the intricacies of the post-apartheid situation and Malema’s provocative statements. As writer and panellist Véronique Tadjo aptly observed: “South Africans don’t see or learn much from other countries. They think it’s only the story of them - don’t touch us! That’s wrong, it’s part of our African collective memory.”

The mystifying name über(W)unden has a double meaning in German. As über Wunden it means “about wounds”, while the verb überwunden translates as “to heal”. And that was exactly what this was about: raising questions about the role of art and artist in troubled times. How does trauma effect art? Can arts heal trauma? What role can artists play? Can art transcend individual meaning?

Those are heavy, loaded questions, and the answers slowly unfolded during the five days, which were kicked off by Antjie Krog’s keynote address. Krog, who had added a black stripe to her greying hair and was dressed for the occasion in a shirt, jacket and tie, based her talk on three works of art. In her own inimitable way she combined the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with Europe’s First World War (1914–1918) via thoughts, words and images.

Two things in Krog’s presentation stood out. Firstly, she showed us a picture of two substantial granite figures in a memorial garden in Flanders in Belgium, made by German artist Käthe Kollwitz, who lost her son in the war in 1914. We see a grieving father and a grieving mother, completely separate in their attempts to deal with the bereavement. “In grief a father and a mother are absolutely alone,” said Krog, illustrating that the tight knot of loss, trauma and art has a completely different meaning for and impact on different individuals, and each one of us deals with it in our own specific way.
This is probably the right moment to introduce the Sudanese ex-child-soldier-turned- hip-hop-star Emmanuel Jal. During the conference we were shown a film that was made about his life, War Child, which tells the story of a kid who was born in Southern Sudan, who as a toddler saw his village burn down, whose mother was murdered, whose sisters were raped, who joined the SPLA rebel movement at the age of eight, who killed and maimed, who saw most of his buddies die, who witnessed such hunger that it led to cannibalism, who was rescued by an English development worker, who was then educated in Nairobi and who eventually became an international hip hop star with a mission – forever scarred by what he saw.

The footage was literally incredible, never overly sentimental or moralistic. But somehow the stupefying chain of events and the almost religious epiphany (Jal substituted his revenge fantasies for forgiveness) were not what stuck with me. What really wormed its way into my subconscious was the few seconds of footage of an eight-year-old Emmanuel with his round, happy face, in a worn-out T-shirt, holding hands with his buddy in a desolate child-soldiers’ camp in Ethiopia. These were children whose cheerfulness and innocence would quickly be obliterated by camp commanders who would force them to viciously beat each other in order to harden them, to dehumanise them, so they could be turned into merciless killers. For me that picture contained a bottomless sadness. Having visited camps like this in Uganda and Sudan, I was deeply affected by it. As Krog had pointed out: we each deal with grief in our own specific way.

The second important point she made was about that routinely ridiculed idea of a rainbow nation. Krog is adamant that this concept can still be used to bring South Africans together. She described it as “our own home-woven, most used, most criticised, but one of the few truly original metaphors to come out of South Africa”. She demonstrated its metaphorical value by deconstructing the rainbow, showing its parts (overflowing colours), its context (raining, yet sunny, shortly after a storm) and its reality (as opposed to the crock of gold at the end of it), and she linked all this to her philosophy of interconnectedness, which she wrote about at length in Begging To Be Black: the need to be inclusive if we want to succeed as a society: “If we say we are the rainbow nation we should know that we can only exist inclusively. If parts of ourselves are too poor, too ill, too bent on revenge or hoarding, every one of us will cease to exist.”

What Krog’s rainbow idea also spoke about was the blurring of borders. Although this concept was never really spelled out during the conference it was essential: the idea that conflict, trauma and art have much less to do with geography than with the human condition. The interconnectedness is much bigger than most of us would like to believe. Emmanuel Jal’s story, for instance, links Sudan and its conflict over oil and its hospitality to Osama bin Laden with the attacks on the Twin Towers. Additionally, to cope with what he had seen and experienced he resorted to America’s home-grown street art: hip hop.
That was one of the real eye-openers of Über(w)unden. It showed us that it’s not such a radical jump from Flanders to the TRC, from Southern Sudan to New York, from the Congolese jungle to Paris and Brussels, or, as German theatre director Jens Dietrich and his Rwandese counterpart Dorcy Rugamba showed us, from Nazi Germany to Kigali.

Dietrich and Rugamba presented their project Hate Radio, which took us back to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the role that the Kigali-based radio station Mille Collines played in the atrocities, a public radio station advertising genocide. Dietrich and Rugamba spoke at length about the tactics of the Hutu extremists, which were in equal measures simple and shocking. The masterminds had read Hitler’s Mein Kampf and they had studied the German Nazi propaganda tabloid Der Stürmer, which was notorious for using caricatures to tarnish Jews, invariably portraying them with exaggerated faces and misshapen bodies. In September 1934, for example, Der Stürmer published a cartoon that said, “The Jew’s symbol is a worm, not without reason. He seeks to creep up on what he wants.” From there it’s a small step to label Tutsi’s “cockroaches”, a term that was recently picked up by Julius Malema.

Additionally, the architects of Rwanda’s genocide were known to be great admirers of chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who extended the radius of his vile messages by distributing millions of cheap radios among the German population. The Rwandese extremists borrowed a leaf from him and used the highly popular radio station Mille Collines to sow hatred. Mille Collines alternated funky pop music and sports results with incitements to kill “the cockroaches”. It was presented in such a way that a song, a football item and a killing all existed on the same level; the order to commit murder was clothed in normality. “The radio station orchestrated and directed the genocide,” said Dietrich. And to demonstrate the sickening absurdity of it all he played us the song with which the station always ended its programme: Joe Dassin’s syrupy ballad “Le Dernier Slow”, the last slow song before the lights go on: “Et si ce soir on dansait le dernier slow, un peu de tendresse au mileu de disco” (“And tonight we danced the final slow one, a little bit of tenderness in the middle of the disco”). Tenderness that would involve machetes and an estimated 700 000 deaths.

It was a conference that slowly stretched itself out, with a blurry narrative that can be constructed from a selection of quotes.

Paul Grootboom, South African playwright: “There are certain stories I cannot do.
Apartheid was a success, it put us here and no one put us back. That trauma is continuing and will never end.”

Antjie Krog, South African writer: “It’s terrible to ask artists how they think, because you simplify the art work.”

Zanele Muholi, South African photographer: “I can’t just say I’m a lesbian photographer and will enjoy my life. I can’t. I’m forced to become an activist. I’m angry, scared and scarred. The next [victim] might be me. [My art] will never give back that thing that was taken from me by force.”

Kudzanai Chiurai, Zimbabwean visual artist: “A female friend of mine says she hates Joburg, because she gets eye-fucked. Joburg is such a male city.”

Marcel van Heerden, South African actor: “I was born in South Africa, therefore supposed to be traumatised. But I was white.”

Djo Tunda wa Munga, DRC filmmaker: “After a hundred years of suffering through colonisation, dictatorship and war, Congo looks like an open therapy centre. Art can help people understand where they are and help them to be less destructive. Ideally it should be situated in the middle of society and create a new world where we’ll be able to talk about ourselves. That will lead to better health, a better economy, a better society.”

Faustin Linyekula, DRC choreographer: “We still have a colonial state where the legitimacy comes from outside. When I’m shown on foreign television they take me seriously, or if I marry a white wife.”
Hayley Berman, South African art psychotherapist: “Sometimes art doesn’t heal. A trauma leaves scars and can resurface. The possibility of repetition can be dangerous, since it may result in secondary trauma.”

Emmanuel Jal, Sudanese rapper: “I didn’t know what a trauma was until I went to a place that was peaceful. I can only explain trauma through nightmares. These days I hardly sleep. I just lie on my bed. Now it’s only twice a month that I have bad dreams.”

Rumbi Katedza, Zimbabwean filmmaker: “There was lots of harassment [from the authorities], which forced me to make a different documentary. Do we compromise our creativity for reasons of safety?”

Sam Hopkins, Kenyan media artist: “There’s a distinction between art as a healing process and the production of sublime art.”

Aboudia, Ivory Coast visual artist: “My work is a direct reaction to the situation. I did get guidelines from the gallery staff, and I respected them, but I didn’t stick to them. I work according to my own desires. It has helped me to express myself.”

Veronique Tadjo, Ivory Coast writer: “[When I was writing about the Rwandan genocide] I had to write as an outsider. My main question was: Would I have been a hero, a coward or a killer?”

Antjie Krog: “Then Hollywood comes in and coins the experience.”

And then, on Friday, we were introduced to Faustin Linyekula, a small, wiry dancer and choreographer who grew up in Ubundu in what was then Zaïre and is now the DRC. When he received the Dutch Prins Claus Award in 2007 he said that his work addresses “the legacy of decades of war, terror, fear and the collapse of the economy for himself, his family and his friends”.

Dance and trauma … Linyekula’s 2009 production More, more, more … future was performed on Friday night. It was set on a barren stage occupied by three musicians, two singers and three dancers. It started off with that gently swinging rumba music that both Congolese and the West have grown so fond of. This is a hot Congo night, where people dress in glittery clothes, forgetting their pain and sorrows. They dance, dance and dance until the morning light. But soon the pace and tone change. The guitarist activates his distortion pedal and the music grows more and more relentless, a kind of African hard rock, with singers that angrily reference the “no future” chorus of the Sex Pistols’s “God Save The Queen” by shouting out that they want “more future, more future”. Meanwhile philosophical quotations are beamed on to the wall. And at some stage, showing total disdain for the audience, the whole crew withdraws to the back of the stage and starts dancing in a circle, shouting in Lingala. Dancing to remember and dancing to forget. Then it’s back to the relentless noise of the Afro space rock.

In the end, Linyekula explained in an interview, the idea was to “use the fantastic energy of guitars and voices to show difficulties, dead ends, mistakes and the poor legacy of our fathers.” As for the punk references, he said, “[Y]oung people took music to destroy everything around, in a self-claimed no-future society. If it’s impossible for us to send to hell a future that we never had, if it’s difficult to go on ruining our pile of ruins, let’s try to dream, the feet firmly kept on the ground, and just to imagine more future …”

Like Antjie Krog, Emmanuel Sal, Jens Dietrich and Dorcy Rugamba before him Linyekula made connections between Africa and the West, in his case referencing French literature and universal feelings of alienation and nihilism. This was his take on Walter Benjamin’s “Destructive Character” which doesn’t operate from the idea that life is worth living, but from the concept that suicide isn’t worth it.

The next day Linyekula sat on the stage of the Goethe Institut talking about his life and his way of dealing with the Congolese tragedy that started in the late ‘90s with the Rwanda-masterminded revolt against President Mobutu Sese Seko, which resulted in more rape and mass killings. He spoke about his return to Congo ten years ago, after he had moved to Europe, because he felt he had to tell his stories “from within”. He came back to a different country, one that had disposed of its dictator and that had changed its name. He went back because he wanted to explore the memory of the body, the evolution of the force of violence, from the colonial days when the Belgians used to cut off hands to the present where people are still being mutilated. He also wanted to articulate a response to the question: Is it still possible to dream in this country? ‘‘I wanted to create space where we can again imagine things.”

Then, after the break, there was a discussion between Linyekula and Van Heerden, Chiurai and Jal. This is where the conference reached its pinnacle, when Linyekula posed the question that exposed the vulnerability of art, trauma and Africa, the endless struggle, the near condemnation to forever make trauma art: “Do I want to be a voice for others? Maybe not. It’s forced upon me by the context. I wish I was in a position where I could talk about flowers. Sometimes I think: fuck Africa, I hate this thing. We were never taught to be individuals. We were always part of a mass, with a dictator who ruled for life.”

A hurt Jal responded: “But if you look at Africa, who will change this situation except us? I could’ve signed a contract with a British record company and become a war-child hardcore 50 cents type of rapper, talking about whores and bitches. I didn’t. We need to raise a generation that is accountable. I helped young people to get to school and university, some are now in the government.”

Linyekula: “But when will Africa care about me, like a caring mother? Don’t you ever want it to be different for you?”

Jal: “I’ve already lost it.”

Linyekula: “I haven’t! I refuse that! I’ve given enough.”

Chiurai: “In London I have been stopped on the street because they think I am a Muslim, because of my bald head and beard. It will never be normal, it will always be unequal. To give someone a purpose is important. But this is what it is, you can’t change it.”

In the end it all came round, back to Linyekula’s dance, back to Antjie Krog’s concept of interconnectedness. That’s when Van Heerden talked about an old play he had acted in, with a black and white, male and female cast. “Of all the words spoken on stage, what scared [the authorities] most was when we danced together.”