Kwame Boafo + Dongyi Wu
I met Kwame in 2015 while he was getting his masters in Intercultural Communications in Shanghai. He later traveled to the southern city of Guangzhou for his research thesis on socio-cultural relationships between the Chinese and Africans that went beyond the political and economical space. Drawing from his experience in Ghana and China, Kwame’s art practice has been engaging on topics around marginalized people, social identity, gentrification, colonialism, race, gender and capitalism, and centers the idea of the body as a vessel of historical memory.
For Kwame, “the colonial body suffered brutal inhumane deeds.” His work searches for an opening for the body to [re]member these lived experiences and create counterforces to resist contemporary forms of oppression, making the body an author of resistance strategies.
We communicated via text on Whatsapp over a period of two weeks in October.—Dongyi
Dongyi: I remember meeting you in 2015 in Shanghai through a mutual friend, when you first started living in China. It was a serendipitous encounter for me, having lived in Accra in Ghana for five months during school, and then meeting you in China, when you began your research into the African community in Guangzhou. I partially went back to revisit my hometown to learn about the African community that grew there, to learn and understand how this community exists in relation to Chinese society. My time in Ghana back in 2010 was the first time I realized how China’s economy was extending beyond exports to the West and how it has been steadily gaining influence on the African continent through trade. I was also very amused to learn that most of my Ghanaian friends grew up watching a beloved Chinese classic on television—Journey to the West—about a monkey, a monk, a pig, and a pilgrim. I’m curious what you’ve learned during your time in China and some of the more memorable experiences that have influenced your work.
Kwame: China has been a big part in my art practice and research. Coming to China was the first time I was leaving the shores of Ghana and it has been quite an experience for me from cultural shocks to researching into Chinese relations with their African neighbours in Guangzhou.
My practice started, for the most part, in China and this began as a result of my quest to move beyond language or text for want of a better word. At the time, I felt during every performance (mostly text based drama) the emotions and spirit of the text were lost in translation and so I needed to find a language that is not text based. Also I was searching for a language that can be created during the period of the performance together with my audience. Also, we felt well-made narratives often make people think in a certain direction which are mostly guided by their prejudices. We (myself and my Bulgarian friend Yassen Vasilev whom I met in China) co-created a performance that explored the limits of the body. This was my first non-representational, non-text performance—although I observed that the movement vocabulary was developed as a reaction to various text and articles by renowned philosophers. We developed my first solo performance “Nutricula” which was the first performance of “In The Flesh,” a series of live performances at Minsheng Art Museum. Shanghai was a serendipitous moment for me as I find out how the body can be used as a tool for storytelling, how it has been deprived of its own story, and how the body says things that words cannot.
Also, living in Ghana my entire life and hearing stories of how people live in glamour and joy outside the continent and being confronted with a sharp contrast of the living conditions of the people in China, hearing and seeing the various oppressions and atrocities that people go through was also a marker of influence.
On countless occasions the racial aspersions and slurs that were thrown at me or others around me made me question on a daily basis what it means to live as a Black body in our era.
Again, the rapid rate at which high rise buildings were springing up at every moment in every nook and cranny in Shanghai was also a marker of influence as it made me question what happens to the memories of the people who had lived in these places—will they suffer historic amnesia? What will be the inter-generational narrative of the place among others?
So yeah, I accumulated lots of experiences in China and these have become bookmarks that I draw from in my works.
Dongyi: Can you expand more on how you’ve been using the body as a tool for storytelling? What does/did it mean to live as a Black body in China, as opposed your experiences in Ghana, or the UK?
Kwame: There are so many energies that flow through the body and it manifests itself through tangible and intangible means (i.e. emotions, facial expressions, physical actions, movements etc.). My work as an artist is to allow the body to move through space as it [re]members its lived experiences and connect these energies. Oftentimes in my work, the body leads in the narrative and presents a tapestry of movements that immerse it in a physical and visceral dialogue between the body parts. This is the way the body speaks and it breaks patterns and delves into the unknown.
The complexities and challenges that came along as a Black body living in China was overwhelming and a minefield for me. Initially, it was fascinating how my colour became my immediate identifier/name as I heard on countless occasions “hei ren lai le” (a Black person is coming) when I passed by. This was not so much of a surprise because growing up we had also called out white people whenever we saw them in our community.
My negative experiences included people sometimes walking out of elevators whenever I get in, people not sitting close to me in the train, people covering their noses whenever I walked by. The most hilarious one was when I was asked if I see tigers all the time when I’m in Ghana. That was an awakening for me, because it was a reflection of what the media shows—which is the narrative of Africa being endowed with great flora and fauna. There was also that part where I had to take on an accent or demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt my mastery and command of the English language before I could be offered a job. Living in China, there was always the “you don’t belong here” narrative that almost glaringly stares at me all the time. After a while I got Chinese acquaintances and we had great experiences, connections and conversations. It makes me question the initial repulsive attitude towards me as a Black body; was it an unwitting naivité or a pervading racial bigotry?
My lived experience in Ghana is unlike these experiences; my colour has never been my identifier. I would rather be called “chale” which literally translates into “buddy.” This is a daily reference and marker of belonging. In Ghana, there is always a sense of home despite the complex and numerous socio-economic problems we go through.
My recent visit to London gave me mixed feelings. I went there to work and also be part of a theatre festival, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to experiment in a non-conventional space and show my practice and research to a new audience.
It was fascinating seeing firsthand the enormous social transformation in the city. All I could think of at times were people living off the residue of the enormous resources pillaged from the continent. I immediately started thinking about reparation and how it’s long overdue. Also, almost every Black British person I heard talk revealed how the system is made to their disadvantage and the daily struggles they go through. I could make connections with the spill overs which manifested itself in different ways in China.
Dongyi: Thanks for sharing your experiences of being confronted with these challenges constantly. The misrepresentation and ignorance about Africa and Africans in Chinese media can be so absurd it’s almost surreal. Unfortunately I think the combination of the legacy of Western colonialism and imperialism as well as media representation that dominates the narratives of Africa in China continually perpetuate terrible stereotypes which prevent Africans from finding belonging in the country. I’m interested if your explorations in non-text/movement work can be a bridge to this gap.
Kwame: I forgot to mention that my Chinese teacher once asked me in class if we have high rise buildings in Ghana and we were talking about development. She was also quick to point out that pictures and news from the continent constantly show kids with flies and running noses, not having clothes or shoes on, head bigger than body and all. That becomes a bookmark for indexing and interpreting development within the African space. I couldn’t blame her especially because these are the alternative pictures about the continent aside from the flora and fauna. So it became difficult to engage on that level because already her mental pictures and prejudices are sourced from a weaponsmith (Western media) that believes in keeping the Black race perpetually out of the discourse of development.
It actually forms one of the reasons why I went into movement performance. What I realised again is that there is prejudice about African dances being energetic and aesthetically elaborate. So I decided to look at the fringes of these markers and present a performance that will not feed into the narrative. I remember after one of my performances a Japanese friend came to me and was like, “When I read that a Ghanaian and a Nigerian are performing, I thought it was going to be a beautiful dance but no, you guys talk about serious issues, it was dark and too much for me.” So immediately you see you’ve deflated their Expectations 101. Now you can have a genuine and proper conversation on the performance. So, yes I saw movement performance to be an avenue to create a vocabulary that is not tainted with imageries that links my mostly Asian audience with the existing narrative.
Dongyi: I find that oftentimes when artists and performers from non-Western countries are showcasing in Western places and institutions, there are unspoken expectations to perform the culture—and in your case there was an expectation for you to do that with African dance. How do you contend with drawing from your lineage and history while also creating beyond those limitations? Were you ever challenged about whether your work is “African” or “Ghanaian” enough?
Kwame: It’s actually a great feeling to ruin or dismantle an audience’s expectations with my performance.
All the subjects/thematic issues that are brought to bear in my performances are sourced from my immediate environment and the history of my lineage. I give vivid representation of the sentiments, aspirations, challenges of my lived realities. I also feel the complex content of my historical and contemporary life are forcefully represented in my work.
There’s a recurring statement I hear whenever I speak about my work: “We need to preserve the culture.” Meaning the culture of my parents’ generation or even beyond them. I mean it’s great to be aware of these cultures and apprise them at all levels because it forms a part of my identity—but then again identity in this global space is moulded around a complex quagmire that goes beyond territorial cultures.
So I find that statement a bit tainted in the sense that our new realities are equally our culture, and we invariably become vanguards in preserving them and it has to be demonstrated through our works as artists because our art mirrors life.
Also I feel we need to move beyond the “exotic” and nostalgic feeling that these cultural performances are made to evoke.
Dongyi: I completely agree that we have to go beyond exoticization of cultures and allow free exploration of artistic manifestations. However I also see the necessity of continuing the practice of certain traditions because they give power to groups who have migrated or been displaced from their homelands, and for me I’m thinking specifically of immigrants and refugees in the U.S. whose sense of identity and community is helped by these cultural performances. What comes up in mind, then, is who is the performance intended for?
I’m also curious about this topic because I have had my own journey grappling with wanting to be viewed beyond the color of my skin growing up in the U.S. and have actively downplayed my cultural heritage—but at the moment coming to a place of seeing my peoples’ history and lineage as complex and nuanced and using that as a springboard for my artistic practice.
Kwame: I’m also curious to know what necessitated the need to actively downplay your cultural heritage growing up. Was it the environment you found yourself in at the time dictating it, or it was it a conscious effort by you to sidestep your own cultural heritage?
And do you now view the culture you’re assimilated into as foreign/hollow/etc, hence the need to retrace your steps—“Sankofa” as it’s called in the Ghanaian Akan setting—to find your complex and nuanced historical culture?
I believe that by all means we need to apprise ourselves to our cultural heritage, we need to continue its performativity. However, it shouldn’t be cast in dogmatic terms so that it ends up being a restriction. The thing is these dynamic cultures open themselves up to adapt to the ever changing times. I feel (and this is just a feeling) that if we get ourselves saturated in cultural dogmatism we may end up losing out on the evergreen realities of our time.
I draw from traditional Ghanaian ritual as an initial source of energy for my performance and that’s a way of connecting with my traditional lineage. And so, we cannot, and should not, think of obliterating these cultures—that would be ridiculously bizarre and naive to go on that path. I’m actively learning and unlearning ways to present stories from the continent, but I’m also careful it doesn’t get consumed by exoticisation. That becomes a distraction and opens a new conversation that I am not interested to participate in at least for now.
Dongyi: As someone who migrated to the U.S. as a child it was a difficult transition coming to a foreign land where many things I’ve learned that were perceived to be normal became weird and undesirable, so I felt a social pressure to assimilate and be accepted in some sort of way. I now see that my cultural heritage also informs the way I’ve learned to see the world, the way I interact with my blood family and my people, and I want to understand that. My desire to connect with my culture and ancestry has more to do with my own process of dismantling white supremacy, that was pushed onto me in order to survive. So now I’m in the process of unlearning this part of myself and attempting to understand the places from where my lineage flows.
With that, I want to hear more about the concept of Sankofa, and how you draw from Ghanaian rituals for your work.
Kwame: Sankofa is an Akan word which literally translates into “Go back and take.”
San: To Return
Ko: To Go
Fa: To Take
Its pictorial symbolism is represented by a bird with its neck fully turned back taking an egg while its feet face forward. It is forcefully used to open up conversations on reflecting on the past in order to shape the future. We believe that the past must be a guiding light in our pathway to securing the future. As we seek to create new knowledge systems, we must always take cognition of the past.
The word was used, I believe, during the transatlantic slave trade. As many of the slaves were believed to be from West Africa, slaves who ended up in the New World constantly reminded themselves of the need to return to their homeland and ancestry. This was generationally inherited and it served as a reminder to return.
Also, after independence, it became a quotidian word that was used by the newly independent Ghana to remind herself to return to the knowledge systems and codes that her forbearers used before colonialism came in and forcefully tried to exterminate and replace them. It’s also a way of reminding Africans in the diaspora of the need to return to their ancestral root.
It often comes with the proverb: “Se yen were fi na ye san kofa a enkyi.” Which can literally be translated as, “If we forget and return to take, it’s not wrong.”
As an artist learning and unlearning ways to decolonise my practice, it guides me in retracing and researching my existence. However, one must be guided in order not to ignore/obliterate the present culture/lived realities.
Performance for me is sourced from our daily ritual and ceremonies. The Ghanaian trajectory of life is marked by various ritual performances from child birth to death. These performances serve as an immediate point of reference for me as an artist. My performance also seeks to reach out for the innate primate sense of self to find organic movement vocabularies that serve as an arsenal for the body to tell its stories. The body is a repository and author of anything and everything organic. My aim is to explore the metaphysical (that which is unspoken, seen as a taboo) dimensions of human experience to arouse a visceral resonance.