As Americans we are repeatedly stunned, shocked, appalled by each new incident of a seemingly random, mass shooting by some male loner motivated by personal rage and despair rather than ideological zeal. The most recent being Las Vegas, the one with the largest body count. But before that there was Orlando, Santa Barbara, various other school campuses and public places, names faded in memory going back to Columbine. We wring our hands and shed tears of sympathy for the victims and their families. Speeches are made decrying the availability of military grade weaponry. Voices are raised condemning gun culture. And then our lives go on with business as usual. Until the next time, for in the deepest darkest place in the national psyche we accept it will happen again.
Some historians might argue that our nation was built on a foundation of violence and slavery from the outset. And if you are African-American more than a century of lynching, incarceration, and police brutality are part of your heritage. Except for those who have served in the military, to live with the daily violence and destruction of perpetual war and local conflict as in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, is for most Americans unimaginable on a visceral level. It is something we watch, pictures on a screen, not something we live in the middle of. We can turn it off. As for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also briefly known as Zaire, many Americans have no idea where that is, or even care. For those that read books in their youth, the Congo may be recalled as the otherworldly locale of late 19th century colonial exploitation portrayed in Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness, which ironically became the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppella’s Vietnam War epic film Apocalypse Now.
In 2012 Jeffrey Gettleman, the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times described the Congo as “a never-ending nightmare, one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II, with more than five million dead.” A land of spectacular natural resources, it is one of the poorest nations on earth. First made a colony by King Leopold of Belgium in 1870, it finally achieved independence June 1960 under the name Republic of Congo, only to subsequently be ruled and renamed by a few of Africa’s most corrupt and repressive dictators, Patrice Lumumba, Mobutu Sese Seko,and Joseph Kabila. A pawn in the Cold War, and the battleground of competing “revolutionary” groups from both outside and inside the country, the Congo has been “rived by civil war, haunted by warlords and drugged-up child soldiers,“ and called “the rape capital of the world” by the U.N. (Gettleman)
And yet, what is most remarkable is that out of this, or in the midst of it, has arisen poetry, a belief in beauty and love, and in art as one’s highest calling, an act of salvation and redemption. Faustin Linyekula /Studio Kabako’s performance Sur Le Traces de Dinozord (In Search of Dinozord) is just such a transcendent and breathtaking work. Performed at REDCAT before a spellbound audience it is an act of remembrance and reclamation. Pain, loss, and suffering are made palpable through the bodies of the six men in the company, but so are friendship, brotherhood, and love. Their experiences and that of their country are given voice as lived and witnessed. But unlike much of contemporary political theater in our western postmodern world, it is done without recrimination, righteousness or outrage. “In the face of political corruption, child soldiers and senseless death, was it possible to make poetry and beauty?” Linyekula asked himself in 2007. Apparently so! Which leads us to wonder at how he found the way to do that.
As Mark Swed so eloquently described in his L.A. Times review –“Rather than redirecting power, as protest art feels it must do, Linyekula simply soaks it up, bravely, at times violently, and you fear possibly fatally, but never sanctimoniously.” But then this work, although essentially political, is not simply a protest work. The creation and performance of Dinozord is a spiritual act not just of survival but of forgiveness. It embodies the triumph of the creative imagination over darkness, despair and hopelessness. Out of the artist’s journey of self-empowerment arose the necessity of reclaiming one’s culture in all its diversity and richness and saving it from extinction in the wasteland of post-colonialism’s endless ethnic power struggles and political strife. Hence the name Dinozord with its reference to dinosaur, as in searching for something lost. It represents Linyekula and his Kisangani Studio Kabako colleagues’ sense of themselves as the “last of a tribe.” Yet they do not present themselves as victims. Rather as active participants fully engaged in their own and their country’s transformation. There is sorrow but without the sting of acrimony, despite the death of friends, incarceration, torture, and exile. Remarkably there are no sides taken in the presentation of unembellished historical facts.
The performance opens with five men in white shirts and dark pants standing on the far left. Another in white face stands alone on the far right, his raised hand with spread fingers vibrates as an intense blast of electronic music sends out a high-pitched, pounding, screaming wave of sound. It seems to charge through his body like an electrical current. Or is it the other way around, emanating from him? This is a choreography conceived in a different language, a form of narrative poetry written in, with and through the body, not on it. What follows for the next ninety minutes is a heart-pounding dance of breath, blood and tears. The bodies of the six dancers engage in variations of intense spasmatic movements, taking in resonating energy and expelling it back out. The evening culminates in dancer Jeannot Kumbonyeki Deba’s boundary-shattering, body/soul merger with Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile.
In between the story unfolds in fragments like stanzas in an epic poem or sonata. Some verses repeat like the chorus in a song. Others are operatic arias sung by an astounding countertenor Serge Kakudji. Spoken softly in French, the narrative shifts between personal accounts, dreams, memories, and excruciating tales of brutality, along with expositions of political events. These include being seduced by a fanatical ideology that “turns thinking men into beasts.” At one point the performers crawl on all fours, growling and snarling like a pack of rabid feral dogs. The speaker raises them to their feet, reclaiming their humanity as organ music by Arvo Part swells. The spasms in their bodies express the struggle of redemption. A video message from exiled former prisoner Antoine Vumilia Muhindo serves as witness.
Interwoven throughout is the effort to resurrect and preserve the legacy and memory of Linyekula’s fallen friend, Kabako, a poet with dreams of changing the world and African literature. Instead he died of bubonic plague and became the martyred namesake of their theater group – Studio Kabako. A large red metal trunk serves as storage container and coffin for Kabako’s body and writings in repeated rituals of grief and mourning. When he falls down in a spasm, his compatriots raise him to his feet, resurrected. At different times the dead man is stuffed into the trunk, laid out and held tenderly, shocked back to life, covered in white body paint, and accompanied by sections of Mozart’s Requiem which Linyekula declares as “The last king in a short dynasty. The last sleep. The last kiss.” The ideal anthem for the last tribe! Serge Kakudji sings of lost dreams as Kabako’s tattered writings are spilled out and strewn across the stage, then repeatedly retrieved.
Kabako is a ghost, a symbol of all who have disappeared and with them their stories. “History will ignore what I have seen…steamrollered into oblivion.” Linyekula and his troupe – dancers Jeannot Kumbonyeki, Papy Ebotani and Yves Mwamba; the countertenor Serge Kakudji; and the actor Papy Maurice Mbwiti do not accept that. Instead of exile like Muhindo, they choose to return to their home in Kisangani in the “spittoon republic” to keep Kabako’s dream alive, to build a model of a different reality through their art, and to stake a claim on the future.
Which brings us back to the finale. Jeannot Kumbonyeki’s solo to Jimi Hendrix’s music is the culmination of an ideal set forth early on and more. “God saw man’s misery. God danced. Dance is magic, the magic of joy.” Hendrix reborn in and through the body of the dancer is pure exultation, a wordless revelation so transformative in its jubilation as to literally take your breath away. La joie de vivre incarnate!
What does it take to have the capacity to rise above all the brutality and suffering that surrounds you to make something of such power and beauty? Sheer force of mind and will? A moral imperative so strong it conquers fear? A deeply held spiritual belief in beauty, poetry, music, and dance as essential to the life of body and soul? Or is it a resilience grounded in an idea about what it takes to become a fully integrated and conscious human being, and thus a liberated one?
Through the determination and eloquence of the Congolese men who had the courage and vision to create this work, we have a chance to see a different perspective on what is of true value, and what it takes to make a better self and a better world in the face of overwhelming obstacles. There are lessons to be learned here. We should pay close attention. And maybe look more deeply into our own heart of darkness and the moral morass, violence, vulgarity, hypocrisy, and mendacity that has infected our own culture and country in this very sad time.
Faustin Linyekula /Studio Kabako.
Sur Le Traces de Dinozord (In Search of Dinozord)
631 W. 2nd Street, Downtown Los Angeles
Photo credit: Steven Gunther
September 28-30, 2017
Jacki Apple is a Los Angeles-based visual, performance, and media artist, designer, writer, composer, curator and producer whose work has been presented internationally. Her critical writings have been featured in numerous publications including High Performance, The Drama Review, Art Journal, and Artweek since 1983. A contributing writer to Fabrik since 2011, she is Professor Emerita at Art Center College of Design.