IMAGES: ELSA BRIGHTLING
NORA CHIPAUMIRE IS A ZIMBABWEAN CHOREOGRAPHER AND PERFORMER, LIVING AND WORKING IN NEW YORK CITY. HER WORK IS DEFIANT AND HIGHLY ENERGISED, PLAYING WITH RACIAL AND GENDER STEREOTYPES TO GET TO THE COMPLEXITIES HIDDEN INSIDE THEM.
AS PART OF DRAFF'S ONGOING SERIES 'DICK MEETS...', WHEREIN EXPERIMENTAL IRISH THEATRE MAKER DICK WALSH MEETS HIS THEATRICAL HEROES, DICK AND NORA SAT DOWN TO TALK IN ABRONS ARTS CENTRE. THE CONVERSATION TOOK PLACE DURING THE NEW YORK FESTIVAL OF PERFORMANCE, AMERICAN REALNESS, IN WHICH NORA WAS PERFORMING HER LATEST WORK #PUNK. THEY TALKED AROUND THE POLITICAL SITUATION IN ZIMBABWE, MARTYRS AND SUPERHEROES, AND GRACE JONES.
Nora: I’m happy to be interviewed for an Irish magazine. I’m like, how did I get on the radar?
Dick: [laughs] You’re on the radar, you’re on the radar.
N: Well that’s a good thing, or maybe not, I just don’t want to get on ZANU-PF’s radar, that’s all.
D: Oh my god, yeah. Speaking of ZANU-PF, whatever happened to Morgan Tsvangirai?
N: That fucker was just a dumb fuck.
N: That’s just honestly what he was. It’s so tough because people were so eager to have…
N: It’s not so much change but a viable opposition. I mean, look, Zimbabwe is this big… and real change is kinda glacial, you know? But just a sense that there’s a viable opposition that people can… that we don’t all have to belong to ZANU-PF, which is essentially what the reality is. And Morgan Tsvangirai raised so much hope for that and then it turned out he had no strategy.
D: He seemed nervous every time he was on TV.
N: Completely! Because he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.
D: For someone who’s like this radical rebel overthrowing things…
N: He’s not, because he wasn’t even radical, that’s the worst part. The man was not even radical, at all. The guy hasn’t even read Das Kapital. Jesus.
D: His party’s still there isn’t it?
N: The party’s still there. There are all these young people who are really keen. And there was such a huge excitement with the coup d’état. When…
D: Grace Mugabe was ousted?
N: Yeah, because really it was mostly about her. And then, suddenly, it was like ok, these people are not going to let anything change.
D: Was that a sexist move? Because Grace was a woman, they didn’t want a woman in charge. Or is that a real Western way of looking at it? Or was it just, she was bad news?
N: She is bad news. I don’t think she’s done yet. I think she has nine lives. Right now, she’s humiliated so she’s going to lay low. And then regroup [laughs].
D: Her and Ivanka Trump will be the next leaders.
N: I mean, wow. That would be so radical. I can’t even picture that happening.
D: So Bobby Sands, that was interesting, I didn’t mean to cut off the Bobby Sands banter earlier…
N: Yeah, you know, the whole British rhetoric still tickles me pink.
N: [laughs] What can I say, we still have a lot of things to be resolved…
D: Old grievances are still there.
N: Well, you know… it’s a long bloody history.
N: But just on a human level, the courage it takes to do what Bobby Sands did. And then the brutality of the state. It was one guy against this whole instrument, you know. It was massive. The police, the prison system. It’s massive.
D: Within very precise codes of behaviour, that’s what’s interesting. So, they’re not breaking any laws. Margaret Thatcher didn’t flout any law.
N: No, no.
D: In fact she maybe embraced the law.
N: She would never break any law, she would just create new laws. But that’s what the state does.
D: That’s how state power actually exerts itself.
N: Right, exactly, exactly.
D: In it’s own way, it’s kind of arbitrary.
N: It’s interesting because, you know, Stephen Biko, Bobby Sands, these people who died…
D: Who’s Stephen Biko?
N: Stephen Biko, was this young radical South African freedom fighter, very left leaning. So, imagine, he would have been the Mandela had he not died.
D: So he’s a martyr?
N: Completely, completely, completely a martyr, Stephen Biko.
D: Interesting. So you’re talking about superheroes a lot in your work. You know what I mean? Martyrs are superheroes right?
N: Yeah, they’re superheroes.
D: You know, they’re not really superheroes for the powerful.
N: No, they are exactly the thorn in your shoe, you know [laughter]. And it’s just one little thorn or pebble, annoying, and gradually it’s creating more and more tension, until you’re utterly constipated and you got to do something. So yeah, I think, they’re singular persons who kind of master this courage, or maybe are so brazen that… maybe they’re so full of shit, they think they can do it.
D: Yeah, yeah.
N: And then they actually do do it. I don’t know really if Bobby Sands or Stephen Biko, at the time of their death, were being upheld as martyrs. Across the board. But as time passes, it’s like their stature grows, their value just seems to grow in the imagination and maybe because, you know, now, who are the superheroes? Like who’s standing up for the little people…
D: I don't know. Who’s putting themselves on the line?
N: Is it because we’re in a completely different time where those kind of massive chasms, you know, that are on race and colonial lines, aren’t as visible? Because you know, the thing with Africa and Europe, independence seems to have suggested some kind of self-actualisation, even though I think that’s very dubious too, because that’s the appearance of something. So you know, we don’t live in those times of such clear divisions of ‘this is right or wrong’. Things are slightly more murky now.
D: So I watched a video of yours, Black African Superhero?
N: Oh yeah, Afro Promo # 1 (Kinglady).
D: Ok, Afro Promo # 1 (Kinglady). And, it’s fascinating.
N: Thank you. I love that work. I showed it not so long ago, in Madrid where I was in residency for a month. It was my first time in Madrid. And lo and behold, Spain feels like it’s in its own timezone entirely.
D: Why so?
N: It just seems to have its own cadence, different from London or Germany, or let’s say Paris. A lot of just overt racist, or let’s just say bigoted, behaviours. So I was at this place, a really beautiful art complex called the Matadero, a place where they used to slaughter a lot of animals and stuff. I showed Afro Promo #1 (Kinglady) as part of introducing myself. They’re free, these showings they do at this place, so the entire community can come. All kinds of different folks came, some black folks, Afro-peans… but there was a lot of confounding. They didn’t get it, they were like ‘What is this?’ And I couldn’t figure whether it was the language… even though I would say the way I’m narrating the superhero is very simplistic and kind of like… it’s not really Samuel Beckett, let’s say. It’s not that complicated. But the combination of what the visual thing is doing, what the voice is doing, the physical language, never mind the colours and the use of the square, or the talking to the camera. They were just like ‘What is this? We don’t get it.’ And then the black folks were more offended somehow, or at least they appeared very upset, that they couldn’t quite grasp what was being presented to them.
D: Interesting, yeah.
N: I found it very interesting…
D: Were they upset with the use of stereotypes?
N: I guess, I guess. I find that response common from black people, they are offended… well, let’s say undone, uncomfortable, with the use of the stereotype of what black people could be. But then they get stuck there. And it’s like, well, follow it through. Because the stereotype is just an entrance to a rather complicated proposition, or at least I hope it’s as complicated as I imagine it to be. So there’s usually a lot of explaining like, yeah, you know, black people are supposed to be loud, exuberant…
N: …agile, all that stuff. But you know… ‘wink, wink’ [laughs]. Is something else happening? I think in that studio time, there’s also a possibility for subversion. And I like that very much. Earlier you asked, does simplicity bother me – yes and no. I like things that are simple but complex at the same time. How do you get people in? So sometimes that very simple thing can draw in people, and then when they get in… ‘Oh this, this is not as simple as it appeared to be’. Because a stereotype is really a very complicated notion, because there’s always a grain of truth and that’s maybe why they’re hurtful.
D: For sure, yeah.
Stills from Afro Promo #1 (Kinglady)
N: It’s like you recognise a glimmer of truth and then it annoys you that somebody’s running with that.
D: Like, Irish people for instance, I’ve found that a little bit of the stereotype is that we’re liars. The annoying thing is, is that’s kind of true. But the stereotype is part of a deeper culture perhaps. Where you’re living under colonialism, the law isn’t there for you, so you have to be careful of what truth you say. It’s an aspect of being disadvantaged. So the stereotype can be annoying because you’re like, ‘Fuck, I know it’s true – but fuck you, it’s not necessarily true.' And also, there’s a reason behind it.
N: And context matters. This is the history, this is so cool, you know, why did these things develop in the way they do? That’s a beautiful thing. The way people, humans, strategise to survive. You kind of bend things a certain way, and then these strategies become part of cultural mores or something. I personally like playing with this idea that there’s a certain ‘blackness’, a certain ‘African-ness’, and some people essentialising, some people exploiting. It's why work circulates the way it does. Because I think the history of Europe and Africa and the way the art market moves… Because really there is no circulation of the work on the continent per se.
D: Of your work?
N: Of my work, [or the work] of most African artists I would say. Either it’s circulating regionally, mostly Institute Francaise-driven, so that’s kind of the French thing. I mean, I make experimental work, so that’s even harder to circulate on the continent. So the market is still the West. And so somehow this play of the politics and the body and past or futures is interesting to me.
D: But it’s probably tricky to get into because people are very worried about…
N: Being offensive?
D: Being offensive, yeah. It’s a shame
N: I think it’s a marvellous tool. I find there are certain things I like to play with in my work. The stereotype is one beautiful thing. I can’t remember when I found it, but when I did it was like my eureka! moment. But also I like to play with games, like children’s games. Because they’re also simple and super complex at the same time. They just give you so much material to think around. But I feel like the work Afro Promo #1, and any work that I do, the point is to provoke people into a conversation, which they wouldn’t normally engage in if I just kind of gave a reading of what the problems are. Everybody knows what the problems are. But how do we make something really interesting? I’m interested in ideas, proposing ideas of how we could even think. This thing of art is such a… You know, Africans aren’t supposed to have art.
D: Yeah, art’s seen as high culture right, so even anywhere remote from that is kind of… indigenous culture…
N: Yeah, you make objects.
D: It’s like it's naïve culture, complexity is not expected.
N: Exactly, and that’s kind of what I’m interested in. What is the complexity and how do you really make a provocative complexity that not only tickles the brain of the West, who have the education, but also Africans themselves? Because in that rejection, or let’s say, maybe rejection is too strong a word, that discomfort when they see a stereotype, I think that’s kind of a beautiful moment of ‘Why is that uncomfortable?’ So let’s talk about that.
D: So let’s talk about it in the context of… I want to focus on your Afro Promo piece. You know what’s curious to me, what I thought was interesting. I thought it was, ok, the [inclusion of the] Beats by Dre.
N: Yes! Everything is branded in there. You gotta brand yourself man.
Stills from Afro Promo #1 (Kinglady)
D: It’s interesting art. I’d watched this fifteen minute promo by Dre, and he was talking about when he had this great idea and it’s like as if he was a god because he’d come up with the idea of branding headphones with his own name.
N: Yeah, but even in that, the Beats, the whole Dre hip hop thing, the thing about sound, black people and sound. You know, in this part of the world [USA], the image of the black person with a boom box and that boom box shifts into these head things, that’s another beautiful stereotype. That’s basically the genius of Dr. Dre.
D: So he’s using the stereotype?
N: Of course! It’s like, people need their soul! The bigger, the better. Because also I mean I have my Dr. Dres, the bigger, the better.
D: Are they great? Are they good?
N: They are goood! I used to be a Sony devotee. And then Dr. Dre came out… so the other thing I thought Dr. Dre was able to capture super well is… [rustling noises] Where are my Dr. Beats? [hands headphones to Dick]
D: Alright… they’re weighty.
N: They’re good. The idea of design and I love this stereotype of the African and their objects and the objects have to be beautiful, so the idea of design is inherent in there. These things are nicely made.
D: They look good.
N: They look good. So the idea of looking good is really kind of also an essential stereotype. Folk want to look good.
D: Ok, alright. Tell us about your next show. What you got coming up?
N: Have you seen my #PUNK? Not yet? You’re going to see it tonight?
D: I’m going to see it tonight. One question I have is, who is the third person [mentioned in the blurb]. I know Patti Smith, and Grace Jones… but Ruth Nzele?
N: She’s an animator. The French use this word ‘animator’, atalaku in Lingala, a wordsmith basically. Kind of like an MC. So in the current Congolese Rumba universe, the emergence of these characters who are simply masters of word play in the big rumba bands is kind of a huge to-do. And Ruth Nzele is the only female working on this kind of high level with Ferre Gola, this fantastic Congolese singer. The atalaku universe is very male-dominated and I was really impressed when this woman turned up and she had so much braggadocio and she’s really doing it. So I had to salute that, it’s the future. I’m really a student of a lot of things Congolese.
D: Why Congolese?
N: I think their history is deplorable in many ways. I think the Congo… Joseph Conrad, maybe that’s where it starts, I don’t know, the Heart of Darkness. Complete utter fascination with the Congo.
D: That’s what started you, reading that?
N: Yeah, and just being confounded by it all.
D: I was watching a documentary on King Leopold, and it’s horrific.
N: It’s horrific, right?
D: And the really horrific thing is, he got away with it.
N: He did!
D: He got away with it. They’re still building statues of him in fuckin’ Belgium. I don’t know.
N: Yeah, and in Congo they have this counter-narrative like ‘We were never colonised like everywhere else, it was just this little fifedom’. Like, Leopold had this private…
D: It was his private business or something?
N: Yeah, it was his private business, so the Congolese are trying to unpack this thing like ‘So we were not quite a colony, were we? We were just a private little enterprise.’ I mean, so was the British mining company… all these folks were little enterprising entities.
D: Of course. Cecil Rhodes was just a business man.
N: He was just a business man, you know.
D: That’s another gripe of mine. That people think it was Britain who took over the world. It wasn’t, it was private businesses.
N: It was private businesses.
D: And then they went back to Britian to say, ‘Hey, can you send out the army after us to protect us?’
N: And then the King or the Queen would be like, ‘Well, what’s my cut?’
D: Yeah yeah, they get a cut. Of course they get a cut.
N: So Ruth Nzele is also the youngest, I don’t think she’s over 30 and she’s working in this sphere of Congolese Rumba which is such a dominant sound and such a genius African sound. I think those people who make world heritages should just designate Congolese Rumba as, you know, essential to human survival. It’s a fantastic contribution in terms of the mathematics of sound, the possibility of human imagination. But ok… Grace Jones… what’s there not to like? Ms. Grace.
D: I don’t know. Some of the music’s ok. But her vibe is amazing.
N: Exactly. It’s like Patti Smith… not all of it was a greatest hit, there’s moments of like Horses or whatever. But then the books are stupendous. She’s an incredible writer.
D: These are the latest books, or biographies…
N: Like Just Kids, or M Train, they’re super. That’s where she started as writer, as a poet.
D: Is that right?
N: And then putting poetry to sounds - that’s how she got into being the Patti Smith we know.
D: And do you identify with them in some way, from your own biography?
N: All three of them?
N: Well they’re powerful women, all of ‘em. They stand their own ground, they call the shots, they do their thing and it’s not trying to be like somebody else. So yeah, I identify with that space of self-determining somehow, and also in industries that are very risky. You have to take a lot of risks to pop out. I admire that very much about Patti Smith and Grace Jones and I think they’re kind of in the same generation. Now people are talking about this metoo, metoo, metoo - imagine coming up with Grace Jones. Can you imagine whatever Ruth Nzele has to go through daily, in a complicated country like Congo and in a complictaed industry? It fascinates me how women can carve out spaces and really write themselves into being. Of course Grace Jones is beautiful, but it’s less about her being a model, it’s the whole thing. She’s now relevant again. But Grace Jones in particular, she was the first superstar who was black, had a crazy haircut, which to me looked very African, she didn’t wear wigs…
D: She subverted gender as well in a big way.
N: She just fucked it up. And that’s just who she is. I so very much identify with that gender bending thing. Patti Smith the same way… her whole style is kind of fluid.
D: I guess so.
N: Maybe not as stuck, but yeah, she was dressing for herself.
D: That’s what I think. She didn’t make herself a sex symbol. Which is so…
D: Beautiful. It’s hard to think of very famous pop stars who are female and not a sex symbol.
N: But with Patti Smith clearly, it’s the product of her imagination that’s the star, so I like that. And I think there’s something also about Grace Jones of like, somehow she comes about when the rise of the celebrity starts to happen… but somehow she’s [still] Grace Jones.
D: She predates it because she’s a personality.
N: She’s a personality.
D: And that supercedes most everything else.
D: But I don’t know, I think there’s something in common with her and all the heroes we’ve mentioned, we were talking about…
N: Bobby Sands and Stephen Biko.
D: That it’s an egoism, there’s some egoism going on, and yet it redeems us.
N: It redeems us somehow. They make a huge sacrifice and it does redeem us. I was really happy to see a beautiful black woman with natural hair that wasn’t trying to look like a white woman, and didn’t give a damn if she looked like a boy either. I was always mistaken for a boy. In fact, I’ve one older brother, he’s passed away now, but I was always mistaken for him. So the whole gender thing, it’s not like I was traumatised by it or anything, and in fact I think people in Zimbabwe are so advanced in terms of the possibilities of gender. People didn’t make fun of me. Somehow I kind of liked it because I loved my brother, and I still do, so I was grateful to be mistaken for him. So it’s not a problem for me. Now, the gender fluidity seems to be trendy also in a way, but I feel like it’s just my life. Like come on, who cares, there have to be bigger things at stake. Aren’t there bigger things at stake here?
D: Than trans issues?
N: Than trans issues, like you know, you should clearly be free to be whatever you want, but that shouldn’t become the be-all and end-all.
D: Yeah, I agree. There are more important things, that’s what I think myself. I’ll declare it. But I think it’s important, yeah. That if your gender is being repressed…
N: But then also being black and having lived through coloured bars and things and we still live in a very racist world and it’s like, how much of that is going to define who I am on a daily basis? I’ve got to figure out ways to rise above that shit. You gotta, otherwise it’s like a living hell, utterly. Which is what Madrid could have turned out to be if I’d chosen to focus on the daily slights. It’s like, ok, fuck it, you just ignore it.
D: There’s no awareness of racism in Spain, is what you’re saying?
N: Yeah, there’s no awareness, people aren’t really aware of just how fucked up their regard is.
D: Or even the way people speak or these things that, to some degree, have been redressed in the English-speaking world.
N: Exactly. That there’s a caution, there’s a care, that you…
D: Be aware, you can offend people. At the end of the day, it’s not going to save the planet or anything, but it makes things a little bit easier.
N: It just makes that five minutes easier to negotiate. I feel like that’s just because Spain is practically Africa and they haven’t reconciled themsleves with that shit [laughs]. But it’s not to say that you know people’s personal struggles with how they think of themsleves is not an important issue, it is absolutely vital for them. If you’re dealing with a bad head day, that just seems to be the entire thing. That’s your massive concern.
[Someone comes into the room]
N: Hey Shamar. How are you? This is Shamar.
D: Hey, nice to meet you.
N: Yeah, awesome. So this was a great interview. We’re done, right? Kinda sorta.
D: Yeah, yeah…
N: So tell me about this magazine, you said it’s a conceptual magazine, art…?
D: It’s a performance magazine in Dublin, but the idea is they get artists to interview artists.
N: So what do you do?
D: I make theatre and I write.
N: Cool! Radical theatre?
D: It’s radical, far-left theatre.
N: Rock on! Rock on!