Berlin — An urgent conference of world powers is taking place. To salvage what remains of the planet’s resources, world leaders have taken it upon themselves to redistribute possessions and power among the nations.
No, we’re not at the 1814 Congress of Vienna, nor the signing of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. We are in a displaced and reimagined Berlin Conference (1884), set in 2065 and unfolding on the stage of Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) theater for the Return to Sender performing arts festival (March 2015).
As a delayed “counter-move” to the Berlin Conference, and commemorating 130 years since its occurence, Return to Sender invited artists from Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, Mozambique, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo to create works addressing the legacy of colonialism.
At times, 2065 BC seemed to lack coherence and a consistent aesthetic, particularly the first half, which almost purposefully challenged the viewer’s patience with its overuse of tedious repetition. But once immersed in this absurd, unapologetically farcical piece, I began to appreciate its shrewd political commentary and the over-the-top antics of its four female performers.
First, Mona Gamil counted slowly from one to 130, her mechanical, monotonous voice creating an agonizing rhythm. After this metaphorical, sped-up tour of the 130 years since the Berlin conference, 2065 BC began.
An international conference gone awry, combining dance, theater and installation, 2065 BC took place in a dystopian (or utopian, depending on your side of the equator) future in which the women-ruled state of Arsika (we were all handed complementary passports as we entered) leads an inverted colonial process: carving up Europe for redistribution among African nations.
Alaa Abdullatif contemptuously listed the states (all African) attending the imaginary conference. She would repeat this feat throughout 2065 BC, each time with slightly more venom and anger, until she was violently screaming at the audience.
The text of 2065 BC seemed to have been sourced from the General Act of the Berlin Conference, as well as speeches by Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, and other historical texts whose content has had a profound effect on those living in the shadows of colonial legacies, though many have probably never read them. Hafez found an ingenious new use for these impotent texts: as fodder for ironic reflection.
At one point, Fatma Kamal began passionately soliloquizing in Arabic, urging the sons of the nation to go forward and assuring them that victory is near. The bloody, nationalistic phrases were reminiscent of speeches by late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser or fallen Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi, but the text was in fact the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. Translated, decontextualized, shouted and not sung, it was stripped of romance and left as a series of barbaric, bloodthirsty phrases.
This device was one of the strongest elements of the work: juxtaposing appearance and intention by a simple alteration or addition to a historical text. Gamil’s recitation of an 1892 poem satirizing champion of colonialism Cecil Rhodes, in a faltering Thatcher-like voice while lying immobilized on her side, wonderfully conveyed inept British foreign policy.
In another segment, Kamal danced in a seductive, typically oriental manner, with large plastic breasts attached to her behind, while Abdullatif read Gustave Flaubert’s description of his encounter with an Egyptian dancer in the mid-1800s. The other performers surrounded Kamal and began to whisper, then chant, segments of Article 6 of the Berlin conference charter on “instructing the natives and bringing home to them the blessings of civilization.” Evoking exorcism, she twitched and writhed to the repeated word “Civilization!” then collapsed before walking to the podium to baptize, in perfect French, each performer with the phrase “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.”
At several points 2065 BC descended into farce, notably when the performers donned 1920s flapper garb and serenaded the audience with variations of well-known songs (Lamia Gouda performed a rendition of classic pop song Fever, re-titled Theory, with the chorus “Never ever read Deleuze”), and when Gouda shouted out the lyrics of George Symonette’s Don’t Touch Me Tomato while wearing a skirt of plastic bananas. Both segments, though amusing, felt like inserted comic interludes with overly direct symbolism. I preferred the somber and subtly sarcastic tone of the rest of the piece.
As with Hafez’s earlier works, a clear sense of ritualism pervaded, but there was less focus on conventional choreography — of the performers, only Gamil is a trained dancer. The occasional fragmentation (intentional, but disquieting) was more than compensated for by stellar performances, playful visual projections by Nurah Farahat, and ethereal sound composition by Ahmed El Ghazoly (a.k.a Zuli).
Heaving sighs echo through the pitch-black theater
Employing an aesthetic more rooted in North African tradition, Moroccan-born Bouchra Ouizguen’s performance Ha! (March 6 and 7) was a voyage into the dark, impassioned madness of Sufi poet and mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi’s quatrains.
Her performers, too, were not professional dancers, but Moroccan cabaret singers. Their black-clad bodies — round, plump and uneven — combined with primal movements and guttural voices, gave the performance a refreshing truthfulness that I hadn’t realize was lacking in the festival’s more intellectually driven performances — until I saw this piece.
In the darkened theater we could only hear faint exhalations, which turned into sighs then moans and grunts, beginning to create a rhythm. This continued just long enough for my body to become accustomed to the uncomfortable vibrations in my sternum from the rhythmic “ha!” emanating from the stage. The “ha!” then transformed into the clearer Arabic “hay!”, which roughly translates as “he lives,” as recited in Sufi zhikr and Islamic devotional chanting. The performers had been moving gradually from the darkness to the dimly lit forestage, jerked forward by the swinging of their heads in a trancelike state.
At one point, a woman clearly sang out, “It’s my life, and I will do what I will with it.” At another, they all engaged in a thrusting hip rotation while emitting joyously sexual moans, maintaining the rhythm throughout. Sporadically, the phrase “there is no god but God” repeated among the bass-driven chants.
By the end of this hour-long foray into spirituality and fundamental desires, I was entranced, as though it were a meditative experience.
While Ha! was thoroughly immersive, I questioned how well it fit with the festival’s theme. Was it a reassertion of traditional, authentically North African forms of movement and sound in spite of Morocco’s colonial heritage? Was it an experiment in placing the conventionally private but necessarily inclusive experience of devotional chanting on stage for European audiences (which has been done to death)? Or was it a celebration of the union of the primordial, the spiritual and the performative elements of ecstasy in whatever form?
I decided to walk away with a Rumi-esque interpretation, searching for hidden meanings behind articulated sounds. To borrow from Rumi himself: “A great silence [overcame] me, and I [wondered] why I ever thought to use language.”
Red stilettos sit on a prayer rug
An “enfant terrible of an art that does not exist,” French-Moroccan Mehdi-Georges Lahlou contributed a wonderfully brazen take on sexuality and Islamic religious and cultural identity in a series of videos, sculptures and installations titled, Rendez-vous sur la Corniche.
In the exhibition, on throughout Return to Sender, five small screens each displayed a looped video. In The call, the prayer, and c’est charmant (2010), a pair of red stilettos in what appeared to be a mosque caught my eye. The call to prayer rang out and the shoes sat there, unmoving, their existence an offense to the space. Lahlou then entered the frame, dressed in black shirt, shorts and sheer tights, nonchalantly stepped into the heels and began to pray, pressing his head to the floor as the shoes glinted sinfully.
The stilettos featured in all the videos. In Course de 8 km en chaussures rouges à talons sur sol pavé (2009), Lahlou limps through the streets of Ghent in them. In C’est charmant (2010), he uses them to crush shot glasses arranged in a row in a public square while wearing a flamenco costume. In Saut de haies en chaussures rouges à salon sur carrelage mosaïque (2009), he gallops circles around an audience before jumping over a series of horse-racing barricades, repeatedly landing on the arabesque patterned tiles in front of them. With every jump the stilettos crack the tiles a bit, leaving a pile of rubble by the end.
One highlight of the exhibition, I used to be Nefertiti (2014), was a bust of Lahlou as the ancient Egyptian queen — the original bust currently resides at Berlin’s Neues Museum, and the Egyptian authorities have repeatedly demanded its repatriation. In his Équilibre sculpture series, his unadorned white bust balances a shisha on his head, then a classic Moroccan tajine.
Lahlou is playful, cheeky and intent on deconstructing his audience’s (orientalist?) associations with objects. While his work touches on sexuality and gender roles (he appears in one series of photographs wearing a hijab and balancing fruits on his head), it is not overly concerned with breaking taboos. Rather, the focus is on the limitations of these symbols and cultural objects, how an artist or people can become trapped within them, and how to repurpose them to create a self-reflexive art that can both mock and enshrine its heritage.
A word of thanks to Otto von Bismarck
Leaving the theater, I passed a memorial for Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian politician largely responsible for unifying the German states into a hegemonic empire and the main architect of the original Berlin Conference.
It’s to decisions taken by him and other politicians behind closed doors more than a century before my birth that I owe a mixture of random realities: Among others, the fact that the architecture of downtown Cairo closely resembles the beaux-arts style of various European cities, that up until very recently Egyptian passports were issued in Arabic and French, and most obviously, that I am (capable of) writing this article in English.
While the performances were thought-provoking and enjoyable, there was something mildly discomforting about the idea of a European theater commissioning a series of performances — meant for European audiences — to overtly address colonial legacies. It almost seemed like an exercise in alleviating postcolonial guilt, one that somehow inadvertently solidified the established position of the participating artists as belonging to colonized cultures.
The festival’s concept created an opportunity to address colonialism as artistic content, while the fact is that for many artists it is their inescapable artistic context — their basic realities confronted on a daily basis.
Correction: This article originally stated that Mehdi-Georges Lahlou is a self-described “enfant terrible of an art that does not exist,” but this is actually a quote from writer Marie Moignard that was used in his artist statement. “Self-described” was removed on March 22, 2015.