Miriam Syowia Kyambi & Helen Zeru : Addressing the Notion of Displacement through Performance
This article was written for Africa Acts, Performance arts from Africa and the Diaspora – Paris, 5-7 July 2015
Many rites of passage on the African continent are traditionally performed with the human body playing a pivotal role and it is interesting to see how contemporary African artists are adopting and adapting this form of expression.
Two female visual artists, Miriam Syowia Kyambi from Nairobi and Helen Zeru from Addis Ababa express current social issues in many different ways but often through using their bodies in performances. In their work, both artists address notions such as displacement, memories, vulnerability and confusion which are recognisable in their rapidly changing African societies. Nairobi and Addis Ababa are both undergoing profound changes; they are modernizing at lightning speed causing alienation between inhabitants and their sense of belonging.
Both artists explore these upheavals and their consequences. They use intimate stories and their experiences of their immediate environment as inspiration for themes which are simultaneously personal and universal. Displacement shows people’s relationship and attachment to their values and past and raises questions such as: what is identity in relation to place, history and self-acceptance?
As an artist-in-residence in Kampala (2014), Helen worked on the theme of displacement and interviewed Eritrean refugees in the refugee camps. As part of a vivid performance piece she moved a tree from the countryside in Uganda to the capital Kampala as a metaphor for what happens to refugees.
She wanted to find out if the roots would grow again where the soil might be different. “If somebody has lived their whole life in one place and you move them, what will happen? Will they be uprooted forever or will they find their way back into the soil again, even though the soil might be of a different composition?” This dilemma of being uprooted applies just as much to people during the process of gentrification when they are moved out of their homes and into new condominiums, a process which is currently taking place in Addis Ababa.
History and its effects on the present also play a very important role in one of the works of Miriam Syowia Kyambi. Her notion of displacement and being uprooted is multi-layered: “I want to share a story with many stories within it, that’s how I think life is.” In the installation and physical performance entitled ‘Fracture (I)’ (2011), she uses Rose as the main character, a woman who is tormented by doubt. She no longer knows where she belongs and is unable to cope with herself either within the context of the rural Kenyan tradition or urban modernity. Violence in the performance stands for destruction of culture and traditional life in Kenya but also self-destruction.
During the performance Rose tries to lead the perfect modern life. She gets ready for her working day but she keeps breaking down. She mourns the past and tries to reassemble broken pots and vases that represent lost culture, practice and people. She stumbles over the remains of her past destruction and her dilemma is only resolved when she finally faces her loss and gives up the role she has created for herself. Miriam explains: “Part of the work has to do with colonial history and recognising its violence and part of it with self-violence and accepting the situation as it is. Acknowledging destruction is a very important step in the healing process. If you understand your history, then you understand the present day relationships and circumstances better.”
Miriam and Helen’s vibrant treatment of personal and universal issues rooted in a contemporary African context aim to confront, confuse and thus create dialogue and awareness.