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15 Min

18.01.2022

Equal footing

Martine Dennewald and Kerstin Ortmeier in conversation with Esther Boldt 

 

International cooperations and coproductions with artists from Africa pose special questions and create challenges – in terms of economy, but also in terms of communication and transparency. For Kerstin Ortmeier, curator of the africologne festival, and Martine Dennewald, artistic director of the Theaterformen festival, they are motives to think about post-colonial curating.  

 

 

 

 

 

In my experience, international cooperations demand structures built over the long term

We are talking about two very different festivals: Theaterformen, which is associated with the state theatres in Braunschweig and Hanover, and the biennial festival africologne. Where did the focus on African-German cooperation at your festivals come from? 

 

Kerstin Ortmeier: africologne emanated from a cooperation. In 2010, I was invited to the Récréâtrales festival to accompany productions for six weeks as a dramaturge. This happened due to an initiative by Gerhardt Haag, who has been travelling in Burkina Faso for the last 20 years. Back then, he was the artistic director of the Theater im Bauturm in Cologne; I was the dramaturge there. The desire then developed to be able to present some of the productions in Cologne and initiate contact with local African communities. That was the kickoff for the biennial africologne festival. In my experience, international cooperations demand structures built over the long term. Of course, some things can happen spontaneously or quickly – and that can also be wonderful, productive and creative – but reciprocal trust, research on common subjects and communicating on equal footing needs a certain amount of time and a big network.  

 

Martine Dennewald, you placed the focus of Theaterformen 2018 on productions from African countries. Why? 

 

Martine Dennewald: The decision to orient the 2018 festival towards post-colonial subjects and investigations had been growing over the course of the previous years. Every edition of the festival is identified by a research question. For 2018, I wanted to try to figure out what it means to organise an international theatre festival in a post-colonial world. That is a very simple question, but also a very expansive one. It has many components and doesn’t just have to do with curatorial questions and decisions, but also with work organisation, power structures, control of interpretations, communication and transparency. It was actually necessary to take apart the festival apparatus and restructure it in order to do justice to what was supposed to take place on stage.

What did this restructuring look like more specifically? 

Martine Dennewald: We explored five larger fields: how are curatorial decisions made; who takes what risk and with what commitment; who frames discussions; how do we deal with our audience (this is a question that we pose every year, but this year in a special way); and who can contextualise our work publicly and question it. 

We are talking about two very different festivals: Theaterformen, which is associated with the state theatres in Braunschweig and Hanover, and the biennial festival africologne. Where did the focus on African-German cooperation at your festivals come from? 

 

Kerstin Ortmeier: africologne emanated from a cooperation. In 2010, I was invited to the Récréâtrales festival to accompany productions for six weeks as a dramaturge. This happened due to an initiative by Gerhardt Haag, who has been travelling in Burkina Faso for the last 20 years. Back then, he was the artistic director of the Theater im Bauturm in Cologne; I was the dramaturge there. The desire then developed to be able to present some of the productions in Cologne and initiate contact with local African communities. That was the kickoff for the biennial africologne festival. In my experience, international cooperations demand structures built over the long term. Of course, some things can happen spontaneously or quickly – and that can also be wonderful, productive and creative – but reciprocal trust, research on common subjects and communicating on equal footing needs a certain amount of time and a big network.  

 

The state of the world is post-colonial, and this should be reflected in the programme

Addressing colonial history is just starting in Germany; when speaking about Africa, there is a lot of ignorance to be dealt with. How do you deal with this lack of knowledge at your festivals? 

Kerstin Ortmeier: In the end, our objective is to precisely present a diversity and not just paint everything with a broad brush. Our work very often has a social / political context, and we can communicate about very specific subjects such as Afro / Arab / French authors, politicians and the co-founder of the concept of négritude, Aimé Césaire, in introductions, discussion evenings and post-event talks. For example, in 2015, we invited “Nuit Blanche in Ouagadougou“ by Serge Aimé Coulibaly; he worked with the activist and rapper Smockey and with the ensemble on forms of rebellion. This piece’s premiere was in October 2014 in Ouagadougou, simultaneous to the actual people’s rebellion against the Blaise Compaoré’s long-term dictatorship. He had been supported by the West – mostly by France. Artistic and activist positions flowed into one another. We were present at the festival back then and deeply impressed by the commitment to civil society, and above all by the artists and intellectuals who could break new ground for their countries. In the following year at the africologne festival, we organised a dialogue forum that has entered into the program since then as a discourse format. The title was “The End of Patience. Political Change and Protest Movements in West Africa”, and we spoke about it with activists, artists and the audience. And then there is always the question of what our relationship is to it all, and what does it have to do with us? 

Martine Dennewald: At Theaterformen, this is a little bit different, because we did not create a festival with an African emphasis. The state of the world is post-colonial, and this should be reflected in the programme. Productions from Australia, Canada, Germany, France and Vietnam were represented, as were productions from Nigeria, South Africa and Mozambique. There is an opening in the world, in the different forms of colonialism and neo-colonial structures throughout the world, and it was very important to me that even there, where we Europeans are, does not remain a vacuum. This is why there are three positions that deal with the European perspectives on post-colonial subjects, namely: Milo Rau with “Mitleid“ and Julian Hetzel with “Schuldfabrik“– even if Hetzel does not deal with post-colonialism directly. In a scenographic installation, he sells a soap that is made of human fat – vacuum-extracted fat from beauty clinics in Europe. The sales profits are then directed towards a water well construction project in Congo, and soap is also delivered. Hygiene and drinking water for the Congo! And then we are in the middle of the issue. Another installation that was very important and central in the festival was “Race Cards” by Selina Thompson, an archive on racism. It was built into the foyer of the state theatre in Braunschweig. You had to go by it and could not avoid asking, what it was. These three works were needed in order to anchor the programme on site, here, and not conceptually be limited to the proclamation that we are giving the stage to others now, isn’t that great? No. That just doesn’t suffice.

What models of cooperation exist exactly? I am hearing that there is a network at africologne that has grown over many years; on this basis, cooperations and coproductions were built. And at Theaterformen, decisions were also passed on – and with them, power. 

Kerstin Ortmeier: That’s also what we want to do; for example, we would like to pass on the directorship of the dialogue forum 2019 to the Senegalese economist and author Felwine Sarr. We think that he can introduce relevant subjects and we no longer want to predefine them. And it’s also about giving away some of the prerogative of interpretation. Two years ago, Sarr published the book “Afrotopia” and in it, he developed a vision of de-colonisation, of how African countries can shape their futures and control them without having to be marionettes of the West or reproducing our models. 

 

The choreographer Nora Chipaumire from Zimbabwe recently told me in an interview that if you don’t follow a European aesthetic as a so-called “African artist”, then at some point you stop getting invited anywhere. A canon that would look “African” is not being perceived as contemporary dance, but rather as folklore. What experience have you had with these classifications? The choreographer Nora Chipaumire from Zimbabwe recently told me in an interview that if you don’t follow a European aesthetic as a so-called “African artist”, then at some point you stop getting invited anywhere. A canon that would look “African” is not being perceived as contemporary dance, but rather as folklore. What experience have you had with these classifications? 

Martine Dennewald: The thing with folklore is very central, because very few people are aware that the idea of folklore first emerged in the 19th century as a romantic idea of folk art. The sharp differentiation between art-art and folk-art is an invention of European modernity. When Picasso paints “Demoiselles d’Avignon“ and makes reference to certain masks, it ends up in the museum as art, but the masks came from a folk art museum. And there was, in fact, a production at our festival that tried to work with that: “Theka”, a coproduction with Maputo. Two contemporary choreographers who were also educated in Europe, Horácio Macuácua and Idio Chichava, worked with a traditional Mozambique dance group, Associação Cultural Hodi. This dance group had the appropriate musicians along with them, but there was also someone who made electronic music on a laptop. And here we are in the midst of it: what musical material do you use, what does the one thing add to a piece, what does another? Then to stand there as a festival and say: yes, there are drums on stage, and that is contemporary art – that’s not so easy in our context. 

In addition, there are also quotes and references in international theatre that are hardly legible, regardless of whether it’s a production from Iran or Maputo. 

Martine Dennewald: One could systemise these problems: the perspective, the gaze or the expectation that something, which looks too much like folklore, is immediately cancelled out beforehand. There is a deficit of information, e.g. historical knowledge, and then there is still a third blatant problem: that one is so willing to deny that an entire continent has culture at all. A critic wrote about our festival that theatre and culture are not so important on the African continent: “The people have other concerns.” 

But what Kerstin Ortmeier reported on the conflation of art and activism in the example of “La nuit blanche à Ouagadougou“ is the opposite

 

Kerstin Ortmeier: Yes, political and artistic commitments flow together. But to get back to the question of aesthetic formats: I would say that we are completely open at the onset. It always depends on the way things are dealt with in terms of content, on what is transported, on the stories or emotions. How does something touch us? But there is also the audience that expects something folkloristic in African art. Then the point is not to leave the audience alone in their disappointment, but rather lead them to understand that there is a greater artistic bandwidth that is worth examining. But the audience is extremely open in Cologne.  

Martine Dennewald: The decisive thing in this context is that these fantasies are supported by extreme economic inequalities from crimes of many types that we didn’t perpetrate personally. They were performed in our names and we continue to profit from them. In this case, it makes dealing with it so virulent and so difficult – and so personal. This is why a discussion I have with a Japanese artist about cultural differences, about ignorance and for my part about relationships of power is a different one than with a Nigerian artist, since the art market is also structured in a way that Europe has special influence. 

How do we deal with this economic imbalance in power? I assume the majority of the coproduction funds come from your hands. 

Kerstin Ortmeier: One could say that money means power. But the point is, not to give it too much power. Of course, we have better opportunities to acquire money than an artist in Senegal might. Many means of production come from Europe. But when we want to realise a production together, then it doesn’t matter how much we give and how much comes from there. The point is actually to get something going together, and everybody does what they can. 

 

You don’t derive any rights from your funds? 

Kerstin Ortmeier: Exactly. And we pay all of the project’s artists the same, regardless of which countries they come from, even if the costs of living vary greatly. This is another way we try to create a cooperation on the same footing. Of course, it’s not always easy to solve problems together, but it shouldn’t be different if you work with a partner here or from an African country. 

 

But aren’t you the one who tips the scales? Can’t you prevent a production from even happening? Or are there enough producers in Burkina Faso or Nigeria in order to realise them without a European coproduction? 

 

Kerstin Ortmeier: That depends on the artists. Some of them, who are known internationally, have an expansive network and sometimes a foothold in Europe. And there are, of course, others who are dependent on one single partner who determines if the project can be realised or not. 

 

But I am looking forward to the moment when I have the feeling that artists manage to use me as much as I use them.

But could, for example, the above-mentioned choreographer Serge Aimé Coulibaly work at the level he is producing at now without European coproductions? 

[Heads are shaken] 

Kerstin Ortmeier: No. But there are also projects, of course, that are developed from artists’ commitment without European money – and they go on their own paths. On the one side, we present works from artists who have become rather famous in the meantime and thus find means of production more easily. On the other side, we invite artists such as Peter Kagayi, who brought the work “The audience must say Amen“ on stage without any supporting funds at all. 

Martine Dennewald: I am more sceptical about an equal footing. I know that we take great effort on our side to hold on to this equal footing, and it already is quite revealing that I formulate it as an “effort”. This does not only include financial questions, but also issues of transparency and communication. But, in the end, it’s still the case that I extend the invitation. I also extend the invitation to do something with my colleagues in Maputo and Grahamstown and thus to pass on… not my responsibility, but my curatorial work. I believe the world would have had to have changed to such a degree that I can’t even influence, for us to be able to say that there wouldn’t be any difference between working with an artist from Tokyo or one from Lagos. But I am looking forward to the moment when I have the feeling that artists manage to use me as much as I use them. If someone strains the festival framework, strains the institution, and even uses and abuses our resources a bit inconsiderately. I think that’s good. Equal footing is reached then. 

How do you give your programme a context? 

Kerstin Ortmeier: Among other things, we have a film programme, scenic readings, exhibitions, workshops, audience discussions or thematic evenings. And, of course, the dialogue forum I already mentioned, a conference that took place for the first time in 2015 and addressed political issues.  

Martine Dennewald: We have a whole series of different formats that we are developing in cooperation with the theatre pedagogue Marie-Luise Krüger. In addition, there was also “Watch & Write”, an idea by the journalist Parfait Tabapsi from Cameroon; he suggested inviting a group of African journalists to the festival. In the context of the TURN application at the German Federal Cultural Foundation, this was possible in 2018. On the basis of an open call, we invited 12 cultural journalists from ten countries, most of them from the countries that the productions came from. They saw all the pieces, and they published texts in the festival blogs and at nachtkritik.de that not only addressed the festival, but rather also their own theatre backgrounds. Great texts were created that described things that I can’t see – and that no European journalist wrote. It needed this perspective. And it’s too bad that I can’t do that every year; I don’t get any support for these formats, except from TURN. 

Sometimes performances by artists from Africa are cancelled because they aren’t granted visas. What is your experience here? 

 

Kerstin Ortmeier: Up until now, we have only once not been granted a visa. A Schengen visa was rejected by Belgian authorities, but the Congolese artist then received a visa from the German embassy as an exception, because we work very closely with the Foreign Ministry. Some of the productions are also funded with German tax money; it would be absurd if artists weren’t allowed to travel here. 

Martine Dennewald: This year, we had more visa problems than usual. And we try to prepare everything well; for example, the Goethe-Institutes on location are always informed. Just one visa for a journalist from Senegal was not authorised in the end. Even in a case like this, we always try – up to the last minute – to remain in a dialogue with the respective embassies. That takes a lot of time and energy. It’s difficult – but because it’s difficult, you have to do it. 

Martine Dennewald studied dramaturgy in Leipzig and cultural management in London. From 2007 to 2011 she worked as advisor for drama and curator at the Young Directors Project at Salzburger Festspiele and as of 2012 as dramaturg at Künstlerhaus Mousonturm which she directed together with Marcus Droß und Martina Leitner ad interim until 2014. In 2015 she took over as artistic director of the festival Theaterformen.

 

Kerstin Ortmeier is a dramaturg, curator and co-founder as well as project manager of the africologneFESTIVAL in Cologne. She studied modern German literature, Romance philology and Theatre and Media studies in Erlangen and Aix-en-Provence. She worked at the Theater Bauturm in Cologne, Staastheater Nürnberg, for the international performing arts festival off limits in Dortmund, for the festival of German speaking contemporary drama Mülheimer Theatertage, for Kampnagel Hamburg and for the festival Récréâtrales in Burkina Faso. 

 

Esther Boldt is an author and performing arts critic who works for publications such as nachtkritik.de, Theater heute, ZEIT online, etc. and tanz. She regularly publishes essays on contemporary theatre and is a member of a series of juries.