Faustin Linyekula’s Spaces of Possibility

by Ariel Osterweis Scott

Dancer Magazine, June 2008

If all you had were the ground beneath you, what would you create? In Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), choreographer Faustin Linyekula asks his students precisely this question. Having secured land to build three cultural community centers in the city of Kisangani, Linyekula has begun a process of creative healing in a country that has been devastated by colonialism, genocide and war. Linyekula decided not to linger on loss but instead to create “spaces of possibility where it is possible to dream.” Because Linyekula’s cultural centers have not yet been built, the bare earth underfoot provides the only physical infrastructure on which to conduct monthly workshops. In Kisangani, creative urgency overrides the need for architectural completion. “We cannot wait until we have the building to start something,” Linyekula says. “The space can begin to exist first as a mental space before materializing as a physical space.”

Linyekula starts something wherever he travels. He is just completing a world tour of his collaborative piece Festival of Lies, which invites local community members to join him on and offstage in each city for an experience that at once resembles a performance, a festival, and community-building. Having already toured America, Austria, Belgium and Portugal this season, Linyekula pauses in Paris to join me in a phone conversation. He tells me, “Reflection and development should begin with the arts because art is that space where we attempt to identify our fears, our hopes, and our dreams.” Referring to personal as well as national “reflection and development,” Linyekula sees the arts as the link between rebuilding one’s sense of identity and a communal sense of Congolese purpose. This process is a complex one in a country whose name has changed four times in the past fifty years.

After founding Studios Kabako (the home of his contemporary dance company) in Kinshasa several years ago, Linyekula decided to shift locales to Kisangani, developing three cultural centers under the same name. Now, Studios Kabako includes Linyekula’s dance company in addition to the three centers. The plural, “Studios” reflects Linyekula’s resistance to the idea of “one monolithic center.” Instead, he prefers to build multiple studios that act on the city “like acupuncture; because when you connect the dots, you begin healing or appeasing the body. Our goal was to create a network.” Having experienced uprooting, violence and exile, Linyekula is known for stating “My body is my only country,” and is able to imagine the DRC’s healing through his body—and it’s own national “body”—one choreographic experimentation after another. Like acupuncture, Linyekula’s cultural centers can only come into being one point at a time. Thus, he has begun with three centers. “We acquired a piece of land in the central administrative hub of the city and are acquiring another piece of land in the left bank of the city by the [Congo] river, which is the most populated yet neglected area,” he explains. “Everyone has a right to culture.” Linyekula believes in diversifying the activities of the centers. One is for showing work, another is for arts residencies, and the third is for rehearsals, recording and editing. If the first space is a stage, the second is a studio that communicates with the outer world, and the third is a “bubble-like” space in which individual artists are free to experiment without distraction.

Faustin Linyekula and Papy Ebotani

During our discussion, Linyekula explains, “The idea for the cultural centers started one and a half years ago when I returned to Kisangani for personal reasons. I asked myself, ‘How do you continue to work here?’ Growing up, [Kisangani was a] city where it was possible to dream of becoming so many things—a writer, filmmaker—not of making a profession out of it, but of doing it. Now it’s broken except for an emerging fragile rap scene. How do we create spaces where people can think it’s possible to imagine things for the arts? You can use the arts as a starting point to talk to the city on a larger scale.” Linyekula asks himself, “How do we live here? How do we invent solutions for ourselves here? How do we continue to imagine a future for us here, from the arts to the city life at large?” In order to recuperate “spaces of possibility” in which young artists can “dream (not as in fantasizing, but as in imagining possibilities),” Linyekula is committed to building his centers in Kisangani, privileging the idea that development should occur internally, not from an external band-aid mentality: “Today when we talk about development, it always has to come from outside.” To redevelop the DRC from within, through the arts, is to manifest change physically. Furthermore, Linyekula imagines a Kisangani that exceeds his childhood: not only will young artists dream of “doing” their art, but they will be able to realize professional careers in the arts.

Despite his focus on Kisangani and its communities, Linyekula does not mean for Studios Kabako to remain insulated from the rest of the world. Quite the contrary, Linyekula has invited internationally recognized artists to collaborate with the Studios Kabako participants, from American theater and opera director Peter Sellars to Congolese hip-hop dancer Dinozord. Studios Kabako focuses its attention on young adults—“people in their twenties who have made a commitment to becoming professional artists.” Participants have chances to work with the likes of Sellars and Dinozord in six-week workshops. Additionally, Linyekula leads workshops in theater, Congolese director Detna Ndaliko has led a film workshop, Congolese musician Flamme Kapaya has led a music workshop, and company manager Virginie Dupray has led a session on arts management and production. So far, fifty people from Kisangani have participated in these workshops—that is, unless you include the forty young children who danced on the sidelines of the unfinished studios during a dance workshop that could only officially accommodate twelve students. Such interest from neighborhood youth has inspired several of Studios Kabako’s young artists to work specifically with children in their own art practices. The activities of Studios Kabako extend beyond the boundaries of a typical arts center, reflecting the coalescence of dance studio, film editing room, theater lab, and socio-political think-tank.

That a lack of finished architecture allowed those forty children to experience dance training for the first time is an unexpected benefit of being in-process. In the next several years, Studios Kabako will indeed erect walls and floors, studios and doors. Linyekula is collaborating with a “French architectural school that has developed expertise in raw earth architecture.” He explains, “We would use the most available material at home, gesturing to the rest of the community that raw earth is not a material that we should despise, it’s material from which you can do sustainable things.” Applauding the union of local material with innovative new architectural technology mimics Linyekula’s overarching concept that dance cannot exist in a vacuum. He believes that dance is inherently informed by—and informing—theater and music, and that film is the mode through which Congolese dancers can share their ideas with the international community. By explicitly joining dance with other art forms, Linyekula’s vision creates possibilities for its depth and longevity.

A sense of collaboration drives Studios Kabako. Not only does Linyekula bring together dance inspired by Congolese pop music, ndombolo, with European tanztheater aesthetics, but he transfers a choreographic sense of collaboration to art forms such as rap. Recently, he curated a performance in which three MCs from Kisangani who would have otherwise been battling each other came together on the same stage to share their talents.

Thus, Linyekula reminds us of the fragility of Congolese culture in this historical moment. Beginning with his own dancing body, Linyekula imagines a country that can heal itself one artistic collaboration at a time: “If you are thinking of reconstructing a country such as the DRC, you must begin by reconstructing the soul, and art offers that possibility. If we begin with the arts we can talk about everything else. If we can re-find a sense of home, maybe we can move forward.”

* To learn more about Studios Kabako, please visit the following websites:

Ariel Osterweis Scott is a contemporary dancer, choreographer, teacher and ethnographer and is currently working on her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. She can be reached at aos@berkeley.edu.