Aug 3, 2017
“I am here to remind you… I am here to remind yoooou,” sings Dorothée Munyaneza as she balances the entire weight of her body on her heels before stumbling onto the floor with the microphone stand.
There on the floor, through heavy breaths, she sings again, “I am here to remind you…” What Munyaneza wants to remind us of are the narratives of children born from rape during episodes of war and genocide, in areas of the world experiencing extreme bouts of violence, including in her home country of Rwanda. In Unwanted, Dorothée explores rape used during war and conflict as a “weapon of mass destruction” that not only mutilates women’s bodies, but creates generational damage as women struggle with both disease and children who come to know that they are the children of rape, but do not know their fathers.
Dorothée Munyaneza, originally from Rwanda and now based in Marseilles, France, is an internationally-acclaimed singer, dancer, percussionist, and actress whose practice explores social integration through dance. While her primary work explores her experience during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the nuance of her practice emphasizes that she is not only interested in retelling the trauma, but in interrogating what trauma we retell, how, and by whom. Holland Andrews, an invited collaborator, is a Portland-based performer who blends live looped operatic vocals and clarinet to weave layered sonic experiences that skirt neat categorization. I met both artists when we were all residents at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s Collaborative Exchange Lab in the Fall of 2016. I sensed an immediate synergy between their work. While there are clear differences in their practices, both women are united conceptually by their engagement with approximation, or the challenges of articulating that which evades the parameters of language, easy legibility, and public speakability.
As Munyaneza describes her motivation for Unwanted, she shares a growing archive: newspaper clippings, photographs of rape survivors in Rwanda, printed articles, books, and film clips. While Unwanted erupts from Munyaneza’s growing archive, the collaborative performance is itself an archive of sorts, but not an archive in how we may traditionally imagine it as manilla folders with orderly materials that present a concise history. Rather, the archive produced through Unwanted is the one that reminds us of the very failures of archives. In Sadiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts,” she asks, “How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it? Is it possible to construct a story from ‘the locus of impossible speech’ or resurrect lives from the ruins?” In many ways, Unwanted asks similar questions of how we represent the undecipherable.
In the rehearsal, Munyaneza and her collaborator Andrews did not seek a full articulation of this history but were instead, it seems, interested in how to translate moments of speech disfluency such as stutters and stammers, or the sometimes indecipherable into the movement and sonic experience of Unwanted. In Susan Howe’s 1990 Talisman Interview with Edward Foster, Howe mentions something she read where poet Charles Olson commented that in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd,“the stutter is the plot.” Howe goes on to say that she is interested in the stutter because it is the “sounding of uncertainty.” This uncertainty creates a moment of refusal and an illegibility that invites us away from the comforts of neat narratives that lead to romantic resolutions.
Deep operatic bellows erupt from the corner of the dimly lit corner. It is Andrews sonically creeping into the space. Her words are unclear, but the mood is unmistakable: there is a foreboding of sorts, something is about to happen. However, before the expected something happens, the singing ends abruptly, and Andrews leaves her dimly lit corner to begin a circle path that hugs the perimeter of the room. Soon after beginning, she stops to look slightly above the audience as if to peer out of a window as she prunes. She continues to walk, then stumbles, but maintains just enough balance to keep walking. After a few more moments of walking, she stumbles again, yet this time she almost loses all balance. Up again she continues to walk and travels back to her corner where she was once singing.
The live operatic loop begins, and Munyaneza emerges from the opposite side of the room with a green and red patterned fabric cradled in her hands like a small child. Andrews winds up her vocals and ejects a series of mounting screams, then a shriek before this shriek unfolds into a series of unintelligible sentences. As I glance toward Andrews, my attention is dually focused on Andrews and Munyaneza who is now on the floor, then up again at which point she swings the fabric over her head before draping it over her shoulder, then finally weaves it into her white cropped tank top. She crawls across, creeping toward the audience.
She stands up to grip the microphone stand and begins to sing. Three lines are repeated: "I am here to remind you."; "Papa, papa, papa!"; and "because of you, Da-ddy, they call me Yuda!" Between these repeated mantras, she breaks into a singing of George Michael's, "I Will Be Your Father Figure" as well as Stromae's "Papaoutai." "Où t'es, papa," she asks. As she sings, she grips the mic and arches her body backward as if she might fall backward, but does not. Her balance seems to be a feat of its own. She does stumble and fall once, taking the microphone stand with her, but she continues to sing as she regains full footing. The incantation continues, picking up pace, and the sharp transitions between voices and phrases and songs remind me of a radio tuner, one which I have no control over. Or possibly even an exorcism. These stories trapped inside of her throat, her belly, fight for an opportunity to escape, and in the process they trip over themselves, folding and collapsing into one another. It is much like the sensation of stuttering. Again, as Susan Howe reminds us, the stutter is the plot. The moments when Munyaneza appears to have several stories erupting from one mouth simultaneously is a reminder of the many stories of rape during war and genocide that have such few pathways for articulation. It is a reminder of the public speakability of these traumas. It is a reminder that no one neat sentence or dance movement will suffice. It is a reminder that there are parts of this trauma that language and movement may never be able to express.
Munyaneza ends the showing calling out the names of countries where rape was used as a war tactic: Syria, Congo, Ukraine, Rwanda, and the United States of America.
Instead of giving us one neat story with triumphant endings or clear plot points, Munyaneza holds us accountable to telling complex stories; ones fraught with absences, silences, and missing bits. As a visual artist and writer, I am keen to compare this work to mediums I am most familiar with: the erasure poems, concrete poems, Oulipo-based work, and the extensive histories of Black experimental writers. The rehearsal performance reminded me of my favorite kind of poetry, what Lyn Hejinian calls "open texts" in her essay "The Rejection of Closure" (1985). Here she writes, "each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete." An open text embraces the challenge. An open text does not yearn for linearity. An open text she writes is one where any reading of work is an improvisational act itself as "one moves through the work not in straight lines but in curves, swirls, and across intersections." Open texts take a form that is less of a container and more of a "force" or "velocity." Andrews and Munyaneza’s improvisational form that integrated strategic stumbles and stutters created a velocity that led the audience to cross through various visual and cognitive terrains.
Andrews closes out the performances with a soft twinkle before Munyaneza leaves the stage. The twinkle is a clever invitation: we can re-enter our post-performance worlds to be lulled by the illusions of the immaculate resolution, or we could linger a bit more in the world created by the performance: a world of stutters, stammers, and stumbles.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist, former high school public school teacher, and writer working in installation, photography, printmaking, publications, and performance. She has exhibited her work at Jack Shainman Gallery, Studio Museum in Harlem, Bronx Museum, Queens Museum, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 2017 Venice Biennial, among others. Learn more about her at www.kameelahr.com
Photo by Janelle Jones