At the crossroads of arts and theatre
on occasion of educational theater days in Kisumu, June 1997, organized by The British Council
Ladies and gentlemen, (...). I am an artist, I write. From 1986 up to 1993 when it was closed, I worked at the Institute for Theatre Research in Amsterdam. I was given the unique chance to develop theatre my way.
In summer 1995 1 took part in the 'Centenary walk of the Fathers of Mill Hill', on the invitation of Father Hans Burgmann, the leader of the 'Pandipieri-project' here in Kisumu, a friend of ours. With a group of about 45 Kenyans and Europeans we walked from Mombasa to Kampala. It took us 50 days. We covered about 30 km a day. In a way Africa through my feet penetrated into my body.
During that walk I was asked to come to the 'Mwangaza Art Studio' - even if only for a short period - to stimulate students to make use of their own creativity.
Last year, on the Art Studio's request, the 'Netherlands Management Cooperation Programme' (NMPC) in The Hague sent me for a first mission of one month to Kisumu. I am back for a follow-up mission to carry on with that task. My month will end this Friday.
Being here, I was asked to join these workshops, to talk about what happens at the crossroads of arts and theatre. I will elaborate what I can tell about the matter on the basis of my personal process. This will be followed by a performance presented by the students of the Mwangaza Art Studio. The idea was theirs. During the last three weeks they worked every day to get the material under their skin.
To avoid any misunderstanding, the crossroads I will talk about are the junctions, where arts and theatre and life, coming together, influence each other.
At those junctions I get a taste of bloody sweat: sweetish, rotting away, with a dash of bitterness. In merciless labor I find myself following that nauseating flavor, like a hound tracking down its prey.
Ever since I can remember, I badly wanted to know about the connections of life: where do actions start, what do they cause and where; where do sounds absorb their overwhelming power, or abject servility; where are we caught in a way that makes us bend our heads and torment our bodies - the only and lasting buddy we can - and have to - rely upon. Too often I felt cornered by the discords of spoken and written words and the message my senses spoke of. What according to the words was to happen virtually followed a different logic.
When, for the first time, I found myself bewitched by lines and marks in faces and bodies, tracking them down by setting lines and marks, pushing them forward and backward to their utmost frontiers, anxious to see what will show up, it nearly drove me mad. I faced the deep-rooted struggle for life; a struggle not rooted in any soil, but in our inner selves. It made me humble and conscious of myself.
To me some places taste better than others. My husband and I are living in a house standing on a small plot of land we bought a long time ago. Nonetheless I don't feel bound to any soil. I exist, which implies that I am somewhere - right now I am here - and I have to make sure that I am where I am for a 100%. Not one single minute I live is not 'life', and I won't get it back again; nobody ever will.
My father's ancestors, a mixture of the Balkan's peoples, turned out to be actors. Ever since 1825, when one of them got his first contract in Vienna - a memorable year in our family chronicle - there have been actors in every generation. To be honest, up until the generation of my father they didn't even know how to earn their living another way.
My father, who earned our living with commercial art, didn't want us to become actors or artists anymore. We were to live settled, normal, secure lives. His decision was not only caused by his experience as a child of traveling actors, but also by the consequences of World War II. It was only in 1931, two years before Hitler (the Nazi-regime) seized power throughout Germany, that my grandfather became a naturalized German together with his two sons. At that time my father was 18 years of age. Eight years later he had to serve as a soldier. In 1941 the war in Russia froze him a cripple, which saved his life.
In March 1945 my mother left Stettin with her three children. Stettin, the town she was born, where she met my father and my elder brother and sister were born, nowadays is Polish. That early March we passed Berlin, which we were not allowed to enter anymore. The town I was born in July 1940 and spent my first three, four years - years still without the protection of a proper skin of language - was burning like hell. (It was only nine months that we had been evacuated to the forests east of Stettin.)
We were to live normal lives. My brother studied civil engineering; my sister was allowed to attend an academy of arts for commercial art and design.
One and a half year after I graduated from secondary school I married my husband, a Dutchman, and came to the Netherlands to live this cherished normal life. I had used those eighteen months to study English and French and - knowing that I would go to live in the Netherlands - Dutch as well. And I earned some money.
Finally, being in my new home country, with at least a geographic border between my past and my future, I took up again arts on my own. I had to forget about acting: I had entered a foreign language and culture.
When I got the feeling that art was my way, I managed to stay pregnant. We have two beautiful daughters. (The youngest is an actress.)
I became a graphic artist and painter. And when my father was dead for more than twelve years, I was given the chance to develop theatre my way, in German, my mother tongue.
The literary legacy of the Polish-Jewish graphic artist and writer Bruno Schulz - nothing more than two volumes - for the first time in my life gave me that sensation that turned me into a hound tracking down his prey. I finally managed to say "yes" to that dense power of life, where murder and love start at the same time, that makes us draw up moral codes, nourishes our philosophies, religions and believes, that the generation of my parents locked up in themselves, and in consequence in us their children, to survive the hell of World War II.
Art, as original dance does, goes together with that power, or leads towards it, breathes it. The area of art lies beyond any moral codes, philosophies and religions. Art is perceiving with the whole body, retracing tracks... witnessing, creating knowledge...
Art (in all its disciplines and ways of expression) is dance, is inviting, is demanding that power to show up, or stay away, the last lines, steps, cries being set in utter exhaustion. Art is the no-blood shedding twin brother of war. Every line, every step we set is a decision and marks a new starting point that asks to take new decisions.
I was thirty years of age, our youngest daughter still a baby, when I took those volumes (of Schulz) from my father's bookshelf. In fact, as usual when we stayed with the children at my parent's, I was looking for a whodunit to fall asleep upon. On the second page that taste of blood struck me. I felt the movements of those people's bodies, Schulz had written about, I saw them wading through the trembling heat, offering their gilded smiles.
During World War II, Jews, by millions, were transported - under pressure of Germany's Nazi-regime - to concentration camps and gas chambers to be exterminated. Bruno Schulz, a Jew from Drohobycz, which nowadays belongs to the Ukraine, was shot dead during a raid against his people in November 1942. When I read his volumes and, finally, entered the world revealed, I did not realize that he was a Jew. That was not and is not of any importance: the drawing hand doesn't know whether it is in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland or Africa. It follows traces and marks, can either enter or is yet rejected.
Before I was able to follow the people of that parade of gilded smiles - the gilded plaster didn't prevent me from getting that taste of blood deep down - I had to live and work another seven years. It was only when, on a certain day, I felt my movements falling in with my own rhythm and melody that I simply followed those people's ways. One way or the other I had got infected. In hundreds of drawings and about 300 etchings I caught their movements. I painted Schulz gazing at his self-portraits and photographs; and I was asked to write about that process Schulz had evoked in me.
The further I entered the world Schulz offered, the world offered by those I met on my way and that of myself, the less I was hindered by my limited means. Standing face-to-face, giving to understand: that is all I am able to stand, to give, at least at the moment. The dance down there is a frightening one: those areas are filled with deep fear of death.
I experienced the capital importance of one's own rhythm and melody: to take away another's rhythm and melody is to bereave the other of his own movements, his own way of living, his own way of leaving given situations, his own way of dying. The difficulty is that we will never know, or will be able to tell what that is, neither concerning the other nor ourselves. But that is no excuse: by imposing a certain rhythm and melody - a certain way of living - on the other, I reduce him to being a mannequin, a mere porter. His movements become impeded; his rhythm and melody become humiliated and deformed.
I started with ballet and drew ballet to get to know more and more about movements, the limits bodies impose on them. I wanted to feel what I drew. I love to dance.
I went to Poland to see, to feel where Schulz had come from, absorbing the rhythm, the melody of his language so different from those of my mother tongue. Drawing there, I physically felt the pain caused those bodies by their locked-up emotions, laughter and cries. In my drawings I located the marks of the naked struggle in their faces and gestures. It caught me deep down. (It was still the time of the Communist regime.)
I drew my dying mother in law. There were no horizontal lines anymore in her face, only perpendicular ones, which faded away, as well.
All those bodies and faces and gestures I had caught on my sheets of paper, etched in zinc. There I sat in our living room together with our daughters, gazing at that world. I asked my daughters to do me the favor of moving like those people, telling me how they felt, standing, moving like them. I had checked all drawings myself that way. I could be wrong. My daughters did me the favor. We laughed our heads off, or were just silent. I remember them walking like that man who looked like having been hit in his belly by a fire-fist. The centre of our regenerative and creative power and hunger seemed burnt out.
In 1983/84 - Poland had just suffered two years of military regime under Jaruzelski - a choice of 80 of my 'Schulz-etchings' was shown throughout Poland on an invitation of the Warsaw Studio Theatre. "You bring back Schulz' work from the depth", they said, "and our life at the same time. " At that time it was not possible to bring their life as such. To bring Schulz was possible; Schulz was regarded history.
There I was offered to do theatre together with the stage director of the Warsaw Studio Theatre. They were convinced that the combination of my graphic work and my texts would lead to theatre. After a moment of being flabbergasted, I said: "O.K. "
Home again, I immediately started to get acquainted with the new - to me old medium. It was the massive obstruction of my father that had kept me away from the stage.
We didn't succeed in Poland. Communication those days was close to impossible. As if big black birds were swallowing letters to and fro.
In 1986 I got the chance to develop this theatre at the Institute for Theatre Research in Amsterdam. "Do you think you can manage here", was the only question put by the director, followed by the sentence: "You need not prove anything. " I knew by experience, that you couldn't prove anything with art. You create knowledge, dance the knowledge off your (?), whatever discipline of art you are working in.
Every discipline can, to a certain extent, replace the other, adding something, offering other points of view, shades, layers, depth. To me, all those disciplines are a unity. I will come to their different approaches in search of life at the very end.
When I was offered that chance for theatre, some three, four white transparent gauze-covered giants in chicken wire - dummies taken from life, frozen in their movements - started to occupy our house. I had chosen a text of my own about the celebration of Carnival. Each and every year at the edge of the late winter days people of our small town celebrate Carnival, and I used to be part of that celebration: a dancing and dancing white-washed face in the crowd.
At the institute I shaped ten more of those white transparent dummies and delivered the final theatre text. But who was going to play that play, and shouldn't it be translated from German into Dutch? The director of the Institute had told others that he didn't want me to play it myself (I had not thought of it, or had I?), he was afraid that when I would act the way I drew and had shaped those dummies and wrote, I would fall dead within a week.
I played it myself, in my mother tongue, those dummies being my accomplices and opponents. I never felt more alive.
It was hard labor for me to ingest my own words, moving to their orders as they reappeared out of my mouth. Every day I checked and rechecked the process by drawings. I learned how many zones of our body are left unanimated. We just carry them along: dead. With mad-driving pains life returns to those parts.
If I had any idea of the labor I had to deliver, would I have done it? I can't imagine things beforehand. It is rather that in a given situation I know that I have to do things.
Training my voice perhaps was the most difficult task. Painters, sculptors, writers are close to being autistic. You feel the sounds but can't produce them. Even dance can be close to autism. Yet, to dance and utter sounds from behind masks go together ever since.
I promised to say something about the different approaches of the disciplines I worked in. Drawing on paper, painting on canvas permits an unbelievable freedom of acting. In this flat dimension nearly everything seems possible: driven by emotions, eyes can peep off their sockets, hands fly away, thoughts can visibly leave brains.
Shaping a figure you have to accommodate the whole scale of emotions under the skin and within the structure of the chosen material.
Living your act you are the main instrument yourself. The shape of your body is a given fact. You let it happen to get bewitched by the given character, by emotions that will turn you inside out and leave you. The density you live there is likely to kill you. And the audience, every one of them, witnesses your act of life, whichever part you act.
Last hut not least, another difference. I am able to witness murder and death by telling, writing, drawing, painting, even sculpturing what it is about. Acting it to me is a farce. I don't believe in the hero being murdered and, afterwards, getting up to collect his applause. Death is a curtain that cannot be lifted any more.
index sabine vess
Stimulating the others' creativity
on occasion of the exhibition Images of Africa (Nanne op 'Ende, Sabine Vess) at the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague, September 1999
As part of our exhibition Images of Africa, I offered to talk about the work that, since 1996, brings me to Africa time and again.
I will start to introduce myself, spending some words concerning art, and how I got to Afrika - Kenya and Uganda - for the first time, giving you some of my first impressions. This first time had consequences for my life.
I am a painter and a graphic artist, I write, I was given the chance to develop theatre my way.
Art carries traces and signs of the most fundamental human dance, in whichever discipline, is a visible, tangible part of the process of art and thus of the process of human life. Every step, every line we set is a decision the consequences of which we have to live.
Art witnesses and, whether we can or want to find ourselves in what is revealed or not, art is a signaling system.
The area, which makes a subject art, a movement dance, lies beyond philosophy and religion, beyond moral codes, explanations and statements even though, very often, art has to serve to support them. We find ourselves caught and confronted with the other as well as with ourselves beyond reason.
To reach this area cannot be taught, only be stimulated.
Art is labor. You need tools, at least your body. Technical know-how - being taken as the tool it is - is of advantage. Intensity is needed; you know very consciously that you will get involved.
You can stimulate others to find their way to that area within themselves, where not only love, but also the reverse of this beautiful medal, the systematic destruction of the other, begins. You can help them in accepting it, to prolonging their capacity working in a state of high intensity, to keep away from conditions and restrictions when having called for that force. Shaping art is a kind of sorcerer's work. Artists have something in common with sorcerers.
It is known that dance is dance and daily life is daily life. What we perceive in making or looking at art can induce us to think about the structures of the social life we share. We can take the traces to decorate our houses, as well.
The structures of the society we live in, the circumstances they help to create, take their part in forming us. I spent my first years, years still without the skin of words, in the epicenter of World War II. I was born in Berlin in 1940.
In the beginning of the last week one of my figures, to me the purest one, had been taken off the wall and crushed. Crushing the signs, covering the traces is not getting rid of the knowledge revealed, it is close to the worst means of solving tensions, to murder and genocide. Yes, it can make artists afraid of being killed, raped, tormented, brainwashed, and they forget about their job as a witness. Artists first of all are human beings wanting to stay alive.
As long as there will be human beings, there will be artists.
For the first time in Africa
On 15 July 1995 I am leaving for Mombasa (Kenya). I will share in the Centenary Walk of the Fathers of Mill Hill. On 19 July we will leave Mombasa. We will reach Kampala (Uganda) on 6 September, exactly 100 years after the first missionaries of Mill Hill reached it. We will walk more or less the same way, covering about 30 km a day. We will sleep in boarding schools, churches, railway stations and even a prison. We, that is a group of about 45 people, half of us are Africans, Luos from Kisumu - the slums of Kisumu, the area up until Uganda - at least one Kikuyo and one Massai, the rest are European friends and some colleagues of Father Hans Burgman, the organizer of the walk.
In 1966 Hans and I attended the same classes at the Academy of fine Arts in Breda: nude studies. He had studied theology together with a cousin of my husband in the early fifties to be a missionary. Hans finally went back to Africa, which he had left in the early sixties. Going back in 1977 he went to start a project in the slums of Kisumu
The walk corresponds very much with my way of working. I draw as good as every day, make some brief entries before going to sleep; my way of cleaning myself of impressions and setting something within myself going to work with what I experienced. It simply happens. Those words and lines are kind of keys. I take my rest wherever I am, continuing my way when opening my eyes in the morning. There is no way back. Concerning this walk we know where it will bring us, as to art you never know in advance.
Nairobi in the very morning is cold. Women are handling brooms in the waiting hall. The man in his box selling the stamps for the airport tax looks like being blind. His hands know the value of the coins and bills.
In Mombasa beggars are leaning against those corroding tin walls, as amalgamated to those walls, their legs spread out on the sidewalks, some gnawed. Their open hands - people's arms down here are so long - they place their hollow hands on the pavement beside, into their laps, are sitting there from morn till night, day by day - yellowish grey dead beaten faces and gestures - are sitting there in the steady wind of pesticides blowing through the streets.
Their view focused on infinity hundreds, thousands of people are trotting through the streets. All of a sudden the line I am part of dashes towards the crowded, due to leave ferryboat. A cord stops us. "He!" Chattering, laughing we are waiting for the next ferry due in ten minutes - you never know, "he".
To the luggage we will have to carry personally - some dear belongings, our papers, a bottle of water, toilet paper, our personal cupboard, cup, knife and spoon - belongs a cross: a double cross. A big cross, the mother of all crosses, and fixed to it by a rope a smaller one with a corpse. We will leave the small one, that with the corpse, at the parish we come to and take the one they offer us and carry it, fixed by ropes to the mother of all crosses, to the following parish in exchange for theirs. The mother of all crosses is plane, only telling the day we start and that which we are due to arrive in Kampala. The small one is to have a corpse. Even the corpses on the crosses in Africa are white man's corpses. I tell Hans that this only makes sense, when some when during our walk we take the corpse off the cross, any corpse of any cross, and burn the crosses, yes, the mother of all crosses as well, to spend us some warmth during the cold nights.
About 1968 I ceased, consciously, practicing the belief I was fed up in.
19 July, we start very early. Mombasa's streets are still dark. The cross carrier in front is followed by a group of fanatic singers of Christian songs. We are walking the line. The homeless, lying in front of the market hall, raise their heads as if having a queer dream, guardians sitting by their small fires raise their hands "yambo", prostitutes are thrown out of damping disco bars. The imam tells that it is five o' clock in the morning. The first pedestrians are heading towards the centre.
The yellow and deeply red soil starts to penetrate our bodies.
The fifth evening the cross we get in exchange of ours is plane. I draw my first corpse on a cross. The Africans say: ""He, that is an African corpse. "
I had been told African people are walkers. Blisters, cramps, tired feet and legs do harm them as well. I do not remember how many black feet and calves I kneaded the first evenings - many.
Doing the laundry, washing the kids, whatever, women bend forward, their feet as planted into the ground, wombs and breasts hanging down. The basin is placed on the ground. Here, everything is placed on the ground.
Movements reach far beyond the long limbs into the earth and back into the bodies.
When they are young, movements are rolling through their whole body - could it be that the earth is rolling their bodies? Soon the pelvises reach behind, the backs hollow. Black bodies are marked by age, get fixed as ours do, but a fluid of smoothness remains.
Happenings are welcomed by yelling women throwing their swirling hands into the air, are followed by thousands of feet all day, for days.
West of the Riff-Valley our walk changes into dance. Being welcomed by drums and crowds of singing people our feet have to.
Dance seems to take away any load of age and weight. Women tie the kanga around their hips, play the drums, roll their wombs, yell. Young ones throw themselves up into the air, yell, clap their hands, laugh, pull their feet out of the ground as hard as they can, stamp them back into the ground. Pieces of their bodies seam to fall off them down. They laugh their heads off and throw themselves to the ground, some dance but with their gazes.
Little girls dance in front of the altar. This is not their dance even though it is they who are dancing.
Women dance in the evenings - I feel OK again.
African kids look straight into your eyes. I like that.
I had consciously trained my feet and staying - rather walking-power. I feel light and happy. Fifty days just sucking the yellow, the red soil, sun and rain, the noisy nights, the movements and sounds of people. There are days that I feel worn out. I manage my daily entries and to draw.
Feeling my intense joy in walking there, I am asked by a medical doctor who accompanies us a fortnight to do theatre with her street kids in Nairobi, and by Hans to work with students of the art school, that belongs to his project in Kisumu. He wants me to work with them as an artist.
I do not say no.
I do not know how to manage to get to Nairobi to work with the kids and whether I will have the necessary skin-to-skin contact with them. Besides juggling with the balls - the material, the personal power you dispose of - creativity has something to do with your skin. Being touched always does something to you, causes a reaction.
As to Kisumu, I advise Hans to ask for my assistance in the matter at the Netherlands Management Cooperation Program (NMCP). Even though stimulating creativity takes a marginal place in the programs of NMCP, somebody of the organization had advised me to get registered when coming back.
The request of Kisumu is honored. During one month I am to stimulate the students in relying on their own creativity.
Two months before I am to leave, NMCP asks me to do a similar job in Yaoundé, in Cameroon, beforehand, at an educational centre for teenagers who, for whatever reason, do not finish secondary school. There they learn how to knit and sew, doing timberwork and to batik. They want to professionalize the batik and to bring African motives. Batik, the old Indonesian wax-technique, was the first technique I had practiced. Working with the tjanting batik is very much suited for free ornament. Free ornament corresponded with my imagination when I entered the fields of arts. The batik forced me to work in a disciplined manner, to think in strictly limited color spaces. My clumsy almost grotesque creatures seamed to come from another planet than the creatures of the imagination of the people I was surrounded by. Protected by the exotic technique and the bright colors I used, they were not rejected. Finally I had to leave my beloved batik behind, the movement those dear monsters of mine had caused, broke the chains of ornaments. I had started to enter the lines of the masks and was caught by the movement underneath, and still am.
With regard to the job in Yaoundé I know that with the batik I dispose of an instrument to let them meet their own creativity instead of only letting them copy so-called African motives. I accept the request.
The pupils of the centre, most of them girls, had never drawn before, with the exception of Donald Duck and his relatives and cross-stitch patterns.
I start to let them make masks to let each of them experience directly and from the very beginning that creativity is close to your skin and that everybody more or less disposes of this source. Working on my own theatre at the Institute for Theatre Research in Amsterdam - that Institute does not exist any more - I once had needed masks very close to skin and had needed them directly. As a matter of fact, I had wanted to clone my whitewashed skin. So, I took silver paper and pressed it on my face, on my body, around my arms, wrapped my hands into it and took the paper off again, spraying all parts white. That way I started a whole wall of skin-people. (As some of you did on Wednesday before the opening of the exhibition). I had thought of letting the pupils whitewash their faces, as it is not unknown to African cultures. I decided to let them immediately work with silver paper: you need not wash your face having peeled off the paper and the masks stay, every face offering another mask, even the second one you take will look different, and you can use colors decorating it.
Everybody fixes his face, his hands to the wall. This way we not only decorate the poor rooms, but also produce our first chain of free ornaments.
We go on cutting masks and hands out of old newspapers, coloring them, cutting hands and feet, fix them to the walls, as well.
We draw faces and ornaments on the blackboard, one by one, only eliminating as much of the faces and ornaments of those before us as necessary to produce ours. We draw faces that we break by chains of ornaments and break chains of ornaments by setting a face into it. Those who have to wait for their turn are drawing into their little exercise books. We switch over to birds. You can, to a certain degree, catch everything in ornaments.
I ask them to hum their own songs, to laugh. Skin-to-skin I work with all of them separately while working with all of them at the same time. The first week I let them, above all, feel the pleasure of working that way. After a day's work they dance in the little courtyard behind the little complex and I dance together with them. I show them that chains of ornaments are nothing more than the chains of steps of their dance. I ask them to draw a sheet full of ornaments every night at home. The third week I do not have to ask for the delivery anymore, they deliver it themselves.
Let us go back to the masks out of silver paper. Of course, several of the pupils come to tell me: "It is spoiled. " I tell them that this word does not exist. You get one piece of paper as you get one life. Sometimes only a ball of crumbled silver paper rests. We unfold it as carefully as possible; crumbled faces show up.
At the beginning of the second week we dispose of enough layouts to make our choice for a first set of simple, little batiks.
Batik is gentle, is always showing something; it is hard, it demands to work disciplined. Every wax spot takes part and you have to do something with it, you cannot erase it.
They want their batik to be ready the day they start it. Maintainig the tension in a tiny painting, a tiny batik is not difficult. They will have to work on big batiks. A big batik is asking for passion and patience, you have to maintain your concentration over a long period. In my old batik days I often worked more than 150 hours to realize one.
The enlargement of a motive does not really cause them trouble. They do not enlarge it mathematically, but their enlargements keep the tension as well as the radiation. To me, this makes the difference between a pattern and a chain of - free - ornaments: every section shows the emotions of the day, even the moment.
At the end of the third week one of the girls produces a motive that tells me that batik is their medium.
They want to see the result the day they start.
You have to tell them time and again the technical procedure of the process; not, when they dance - they will have to make what they do their dance.
They do not mind working with three or for others on their personal layouts, a kind of social happening, as their dances are.
After the first week I want to walk to the centre. Walking is my speed. I want to feel where I am, smell the streets, the markets. We are having breakfast with friends of the director in the 'sous-cartiers'. The weekends we go out dancing together. I see them sitting in front of their houses: where are they, when they are sitting there gazing in absence but there? It seems to be an important part of their life. That gaze is not strange to me, more than half of the time I work on a canvas is gazing at it in complete silence.
I advise a second term. Apart from improving the technique as such I will have to stimulate them still more in relying on their own creativity. To show them ways they will not have forgotten the following day because they are not theirs. I will have to let them feel the pleasure of creating new forms, playing with their forms, which is more fun than only copying lay-outs of others; and it stimulates your standing power and I know by experience, when playing with forms you start questioning the structures your life is caught in, as well.
At the beginning of June I am in Kisumu
It is not without emotions to see so many of the people from the walk back.
I am brought to the slums, to the art school, and after Bible Sharing - the art school is part of the missionary program Hans set up - I am introduced to the students.
They show their works: Jesus nailed on a cross with a bag of our sins around his neck, huts, trees, some graphic design, some portraits. Those works are far from moving me. He who leads the school, who had become a dear friend of mine during the walk, is a former handicraft teacher. He does what he does with emphasis; he has the status of 'old man' and is loved by his students. He knows that all that does not imply to be able to stimulate the students in relying on their own creativity.
It is agreed upon that the month I work with the students the other teachers will not give classes, and that the old man will leave after Bible Sharing.
Here, as in Yaoundé, I start letting them make masks out of silver paper, out of old newspapers. We fix them to the walls, to the timberwork of the classroom. Some of them let me feel that they know things, because they are artists. An artist does not know but is busy shaping his next starting point, knowing nothing about it in advance.
I walk with them through the slums. Back at school, I ask them to draw what they had experienced. The result is poor. Ducklings in a puddle, some huts. I do not get the feeling of slums, the smell, the pressure of the eternal dirt, the apathy of its people, the laughter. Of course, it is difficult for them; the slums are streaming through their veins, filling their lungs from their first day until they die. They do not get any distance from this area and the heavens television brings, the church brings, are virtual ones. Some lucky reach another town. The garbage of the slums is what they can achieve by themselves to shape their knowledge to make it visible. We start to draw each other. I ask them to drum on tables, on lockers besides of working in silence. I want one or two of them to drum during the lessons. The next morning we start again with walking through the slums. This time I ask them not to draw but to cut the people they had observed out of old newspapers, adding some color, if needed. We fix all those people to a ladder hanging in the timberwork. We move the ladder and those paper-people move, even swing. And I ask them to move the way those figures move: a control of the tension of movements and our first dance. From that time on we check the drawings of people's movements by mowing as told by the drawings.
Next morning we start again with walking through the slums. Again, they draw what they experienced. It still is quite stiff. "I am ready. " "No, your life with this piece of paper still lasts another 15 minutes. "But... " "Draw another drawing across it, look what it does. " As in Yaoundé, I take my time for every one of them. I add lines to their drawings that could lead to new formations on their paper. One of them looks at my drawing, takes my pencil: "Look, Sabina, with just this line you can change the whole expression." We start with ornaments, combine both. I tell them to draw the rhythm of the tam-tam. Their lines loose their straightness, get feverish, the students start to get rid of their knowledge. I let them draw with the hand they usually do not use, without looking at the paper only at the face, the movements they draw.
At the end of the second week we cannot dispose of any material, he who has the keys for this room has broken his leg and is lying in hospital. That day we really start with theatre; we draw and paint with our bodies, our voices. I tell them not to imitate people but to start concentrating on getting the feeling of the other. Two of them are really extraordinary. The kids of the nearby center for street kids start to be our audience. Their laughter fills our classroom.
Together with the old man I am going on home visits. The weeks we work together they are kind of high, and I do not let them slip away. When I am gone parts of what they have achieved will be swallowed by their circumstances, by their family, by church as well; the mission feeds them: you do not spit into the food the other offers you.
More than looking at the artistic results as such, they will have to be stimulated to use their creativity to find their way out of the actual situation with the means in reach. That could even mean that they have to stay there under those rules until their own movement is strong enough to break through, as my movement finally broke the chains of the ornament of the batik, the strict rules that had guarded my life. And they need paid jobs to nourish themselves.
The last day in Kisumu we have a kind of farewell party. Having drawn and painted to their own drums during those four weeks I ask them to start that last day drawing to European music. We draw listening to the Toccata of Bach. Some of the students cry from emotions.
I advise another term for Kisumu as well. In that second term I will have to coach two students who will graduate this year in getting to feel the way to stimulate their students. Both will finally be teachers at the art school.
I am leaving for Nairobi to see whether I can work, and how I could realize to work with street kids.
The army of street kids is immense, the slums they live in are horrible, and this is a gentle term. I am brought to about six centers. I am welcomed with: "Good morning Mrs. Visitor". It is nearly impossible to work with 120 kids at the time, having to show a result after two hours. Not the children need the result that fast, they feel good or not, but their teachers do. These kids dispose of an unbelievable experience. You cannot solve the problem without them working on it themselves. In two centers I do have the necessary skin-to-skin contact with the kids and get them to dance and laugh within half an hour. This means nothing more than that it could be possible. I stay in Nairobi for five days working with the kids, talking to people about possibilities. I am just someone able to have this contact, able to let them work extremely concentrated, no institution with money. These kids starve and their army grows - not only in Africa.
Back in Europe I tell people about the projects and about the street kids, draw and paint and start to write letters on behalf of a project for the kids. And I prepare the follow-up-mission for Yaoundé in February 1997. The follow-up-mission for Kisumu will start at the end of May. NMCP agrees in giving me some extra-money for Yaoundé for technical equipment and a set of good quality colors to start a more professional batik center. I advise to send somebody to help setting up the administration and rules of the center and to help with some practical advices for electricity, water pumps etc.
I am back in Yaoundé
The center is transformed. They have installed six concrete-basins to dye the batiks. The former courtyard at the back has become an extra room. And last not least, they have installed a WC and a shower. This has been realized together with people from the sous-cartiers. They tell me that more than anything else I had stimulated their pride.
I concentrate on the batik group. Besides buying the necessary equipment we can get here - the rest belonged to my luggage - we start with drawings to choose the layouts for the big batiks. The money I am allowed to spend enables them to work on big batiks. They work tremendously, even longer than the official lessons. With volunteers I even work on Saturday.
I ask my friends in the sous-cartiers, friends of the director who come as good as every day helping at the center: "Where are you when sitting there like being dead, gazing in absence? " "Oh, Sabina! " I learn that they are able to transfer themselves for instance to their dala's, walking there, talking to some aunt or whoever. It has very much in common with the gazing-era of painting and the state of being when setting lines, which has nothing to do with reasoning. I tell them and we are talking about both.
I still have to introduce the batik with foam-plastic stamps. Cutting foam-plastic is easy. A foam-stamp can be used to wax-print about 10 m of cloth. But you have to fix it to a wooden holder to work with it. This causes difficulties. The people of the timber place simply do not do what I ask them. Three days before I am to leave again, I cut a stamp and fix it with some needles to a sponge. It is more than primitive, but I do not see any other way to show them the use of that revolutionary technique I had seen in Kenya the year before. I show the result at about noon. After the break the teacher responsible for the batik is swinging a foam-plastic stamp fixed to a real wooden holder. They feel directly very much at home with that technique.
Last year I was told that the center works. This news had reached Mali and on a request of Mali, last February, I flew to Bamako to work with textile people.
At the end of May 1997 I am back in Kisumu
It looks as if everything we did the year before has passed away. The second day I know it has not. We pick up labor, even with the new students, within two days. There are students coming from outside the slums. The percentage of those who finished secondary school increases. I still have the feeling that they do not feel the way they work being theirs. I tell them that drawing, painting a face is floating away in its lines as floating away when transferring yourself to other places, that the big difference is, that the pencil on the paper, the brush on the canvas makes the way you cover during that increased intensity visible. It is as if a lever had been shifted.
This time I give model-classes as well. Not nude studies, in a Luo-community that still is not possible. But the plies in your clothes tell about the tension of your body. What they experience in those classes is that the model, the other side, takes an active part. When you really want to get to know something about the tension of a body - a moving one, a silent sitting one - the model has to live that movement or silence in complete concentration to let you taste its radiation. Taking over the part of their model I show them and the model what that means. Acting as models themselves the students are getting the feeling of the interaction.
As to theatre we get an extraordinary chance. I am asked to hold a lecture at the British Council in Kisumu during a workshop with two or three other people from abroad on educational theatre. I am asked to talk about the influence of art on life and vice versa. 'At the crossroads of art and theatre' I call that lecture, elaborating what I have to tell on my own life. I am not an advocate of so-called educational theatre; theatre, art must be that strong that we are grasped by it. It is agreed upon that my students take the demonstration for their account. They build three figures out of garbage and finally play, rather live the streets, the slums in a way that everybody gets it under his skin, and they make the 'East African Standard' with a photograph.
I am back in Nairobi together with one of the ex-students I had coached. We contact a group of artists already doing theatre for and with street kids. As my students in Kisumu want to start a theatre group for and with street kids, I, at least, want them to start with a kind of exchange with the centre in Nairobi.
Sabine Vess, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, September 22nd, 1999
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