It is the season of the Rites – I speak of Stravinsky’s influential The Rite of Spring, of course – and having just reviewed an interesting riff on it and contextualized its 100-year-old origins, I will skip right ahead to sharing a few thoughts on another, entirely different, yet equally fascinating investigation, presented by Nora Chipaumire under the title rite riot as part of the 2013 edition of Crossing the Line Festival.

© Sasha Arutyunova
© Sasha Arutyunova

It is difficult to categorize Nora Chipaumire, and I mean this in the best possible sense of the word. A multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary creator, she is a writer, a thinker, a dancer, an actor, a choreographer, an auteur (amongst other things) – but also an artist with a keen eye and a musical sensibility, all of which imbue her work with thick layers of imagery, sounds, movement and meaning. In her own right, she is like a Michelin-star-toting chef – when you sit at her table, you just have to trust and surrender: you may never know what she will cook up this time, though it will be a challenging dish most likely but a rich one definitely, and the one that is sure to leave you thinking and talking about it for a long time to come.

As is often the case with her work, Chipaumire is not interested in politeness. She acts quickly and ferociously: gloves off, she strips the layers, the skin, the fat and goes right for the heart. Yes, it’s personal, and without the unnecessary preliminaries, and her work demands that her audiences have the same ability for self-confrontation and honesty: her presence creates a mirror for us to zero in on and examine our own assumptions.

Speaking of mirrors: the visual envelope for her current work is all about reflecting surfaces, literal as well as figurative. Upon entering the venue (Le Sky Room at the French Institute / Alliance Française building) we find Nora enclosed in a Plexiglas cube, against the floor-to-ceiling glass wall that puts the iconic Manhattan skyline on magnificent display. The genre, if you will, is very much in the realm of a fine art exhibition, although decidedly a surreal one, which includes an intentionally oversized artwork label bearing the title “Black African Body” followed by an extended curatorial note (with text by James Hannaham) that scrolls down the wall and runs the entire length of the room’s floor on a strip of white fabric. As much as I would like to tune out the obvious connotations, the initial image promptly sets up the imperialism-vs.-slavery dialectic in my mind, and never lets go. I immediately think of Saartjie Baartman, the (in)famous “Venus of Hottentot”, an African slave woman who was exhibited as a freak-show attraction in 19th-century Europe, and curiously enough, she is referenced also in Hannaham’s scroll. Not bad, as far as first impressions go, but if I may continue to indulge in the circus analogy, Chipaumire has many more tricks up her sleeve.

In the first part of the show, multiple speakers set up around her cube emanate a cacophony of voices – they are all recordings of hers having real (or imagined) conversations with her collaborators, diary-style remarks doubting her own process, even arguments. “I’m trying to write a manifesto”, she ruminates. It is as if we are given an opportunity to lend an ear to her inner demons, and for the ensuing 75 minutes, she seduces us into helping her through elaborate acts of exorcism. In a state of near nakedness – save for skimpy, colorful undergarments and glossy red Grace Jones lipstick and eye glitter – Chipaumire’s body morphs in slow motion from a slave in a cage, to the winged Greek goddess Nike, then, ferociously, she becomes a dancer in an distant African village, a caged animal, a stripper in an Amsterdam storefront. Throughout, the soundscape drones through her inner voices, the Stravinsky, the Smashing Pumpkins, death metal to African folklore music, and so on. It is as if she endeavored to take on the ritual of stripping her body off the layers of history, much like one would strip layer upon layer of crusted old paint to expose the bare walls, to start with the clean slate. And indeed, in her work’s final, reaffirming act, Chipaumire puts on an outfit all of her own making and emerges from her glass cage. No longer on display, but mingling with the audiences, she is no longer “them”, she becomes “us”; she dances, but it is not an African dance; indeed she emerges from her artificial cocoon not black, not African, not female, she emerges as a person with a will of one’s own.

***11