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'Miriam,' Nora Chipaumire considers Africa and women
The Boston Globe
April 14, 2013
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on the Boston Globe website
Though the Zimbabwe-born
dancer and choreographer Nora Chipaumire has been working and living
in America for years, her native land, its people, and its politics
are often central in her art. Her 2012 dance “Miriam”
is, in part, an investigation of assumptions and stereotypes about
Africa, as well as those of the female body. The piece considers
contradictory expectations of women in general. In particular, it
contemplates the South African musician and anti-apartheid activist
Miriam Makeba - whose death, in 2008, planted the seed for “Miriam”
- and the Virgin Mary, whose name, in Hebrew, is also Miriam. Makeba
was ultimately exiled from South Africa for 30 years, whereas Chipaumire
chooses to live in what she calls self-exile. While she feels that
the geographical separation helps her to better understand herself,
she is also seeking to, as she said, “politicize” her
situation: “I think it is vital to keep Zimbabwe always in
the consciousness of people who care.”
The two Miriams are main
threads in Chipaumire’s provocative, sometimes cryptic work
of ritual and searching. The lighting design is purposely dim to
the point of murky, and the set of found or repurposed objects scattered
about the stage creates a world that is part crime scene, part bacchanal.
Excerpts from various texts - shouted out or whispered through a
megaphone by the other performer in the piece, Okwui Okpokwasili
- is punctuated by Chipaumire’s vocalizations, which range
from childish coos to hair-raising shrieks. Last week from California,
Chipaumire spoke about the work, which comes to the Institute of
Contemporary Art Friday and Saturday.
“Miriam” was originally conceived and designed to be
performed in the round. Why was this an important aspect of the
piece’s overall design, and how will you approach the fact
that the ICA stage cannot be reconfigured this way?
In the round, the audience is 2 feet away from the performance and
therefore they are absolutely inside the psyche of the piece. That
proximity can be a real experiential thing that you will then not
have from the proscenium setting. But we do want the piece to be
[performed] in Boston, and I do think the proscenium [enables] you
to look at a piece and see all of the designs from a distance -
so it has its own beauty for sure. I’ve performed at the ICA
before; it provides me with an interesting advantage in that it’s
a house of art. To be placed alongside the collections of the museum
- even if only for a blink, even if only for a short time - it’s
an exquisite honor for me.
Because “Miriam” is so darkly lit, viewers cannot always
see exactly what’s happening. Would you explain why you wanted
this deliberate obscurity?
I’m interested in the audience-performer relationship: What
are our responsibilities? I think my responsibility is to make a
strong work. But what is your responsibility as the seer? When you’re
in the dark, you’re not unseeing, unhearing, unfeeling - you
have a kind of awareness. I want the audience to use everything
to understand this work. In so doing, it helps bring the audience
closer to understanding what it’s like to be in this exiled
place, in this fault line, what it’s like to be living with
Even so, do you weigh how much context an audience may need in order
not to feel alienated?
I think with all of these “post-talks” and “pre-talks,”
especially in dance, there is a certain sense that the audience
is being overfed. It does us all such a disservice. There’s
this nagging assumption that [audiences] don’t understand
what [the artist] is saying. But what is it that makes you understand
a painting? I’ve created this environment where there’s
a lot of sensory stuff happening, where you are asked to feel, and
feeling is fact. It is a way of knowing. I’m very comfortable
in doing these small, chamber-like works that maybe are not easy
to understand, but I’m working out certain issues, both for
myself and for what is my place in the world. I would like for people
to love the work, but I’m also happy if they come away having
been provoked into “I don’t really love it, but I hadn’t
thought about that,” and maybe the work grows on them.
Why did you choose to live, as you call it, in “self-exile”?
I guess naively, I was looking for another way to understand myself,
to give myself distance to see what it was I was dealing with. I
think there is something in that condition of exile that allows
for another [way of] thinking. You say to children, “Don’t
touch the fire because you’re going to get burned,”
but they only understand that when they’ve actually gotten
burned. So I’m putting myself into the fire just so I can
Would you talk about some of the dualities that you’ve thought
about or explored, within the two main “characters”
in this piece, Miriam Makeba and the Virgin Mary?
Makeba had her own personal dilemmas. Many things happened to her
that were completely devastating, and yet her public presence was
always with this soft, sweet voice . . . so childlike, so innocent.
That sweetness is an alluring, seductive thing - it is a power -
and it seems to me that that is [something] that women are expected
to carry all the time, and it is very like the sweetness that is
perpetually that of the Virgin Mary. She is forever untouched, sweet,
innocent. The ideals that the world wants of women - to be both
mother and virgin - what a horrible contradiction! So I have questions
about what does a woman really need to do to succeed? [Does she
need] to inhabit those spaces of innocence? And yet, it seems to
me that the world is not an innocent place.
Your vocalizations throughout “Miriam” seem representative
of those extremes, from ululations of joy to deep grunts that suggest
an unearthly agony.
Why [shouldn’t] those deep guttural grunts of sheer terror,
the darkness of it, be also available to women? I think that [to
some people] I have always been perceived as somewhat masculine,
and aggressive perhaps. I don’t know if it’s an “angry
black woman” myth. I’m not angry at all! [Laughs.] I’m
just - alive, and passionate about many, many things.
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