One cannot avoid that vocabulary of hyper-inflation of much contemporary cultural or ‘arts and entertainment’ journalism when talking about Werewere Liking: multi-talented, phenomenon. First, both these descriptors are so often cheaply bandied about that they have become meaningless. Second, to use them in describing Liking is almost an insult because, while she is both of these, to describe her as a multi-talented phenomenon places her in that hyper-inflated economy of ‘entertainment’ often known more for its celebrity narcissism where ‘units shipped’ is taken as a measure of cultural worth.
Born in 1950 in Cameroon, Werewere Liking is novelist, poet, playwright, rapper, singer, visual artist, clothes designer, dressmaker, and what have you. She is also a kind of matriarchal cultural centre of gravity – she is referred to, also, as a ‘priestess’. In 1980 she established the Ki-Yi Mbock (Ultimate Knowledge) Theatre Troupe and, later, the Ki-Yi Mbock Village in Abidjan, an arts centre and residence for a community of artists of different ages who work across manifold disciplines. Often, the residence also takes in street children and develops latent skills in crafts and other creative endeavours, and, one imagines, a groundedness in Liking’s own ideological views: a pan Africanist who celebrates and exploits the continuity between historical cultural traditions and ‘modernity’.
If she is best known as a playwright – the pen behind wildly experimental plays such as La puissance de Um (1979) and Les mains veulent dire (1987), as well as Ray Lema’s explosive pan African opera, Un Touareg s’est marié à une Pygmée (1992), and more recently the pan African epic Sogolon Kedjou (2003), co-written with playwright Zadi Zaourou – it is probably because in all her work, she pushes language to the point were it leaps and dances off the page as performative expression. “A lunatic language,” as Liking likes to describe it, a language that demands to be not only embodied and enacted but also shared – language as conversation, process, improvisation, exchange and collaboration; as a site for our sociality, our socialism; a place where communal ideas are shaped and reshaped; as a model of radical and extensive participation.
It was in this participatory spirit that she founded Ki-Yi Mbock in 1985. Thirty years is a long time; cultural centres hardly survive that long without big-corporate or government funding. In informal conversation with her (I met her at Poetry Africa 16 in Durban last year), I asked her how Ki-Yi Mbock Village is funded. She said through her paintings and art. There wasn’t a chance to elaborate, but it’s possible that through sale of her and the centre’s artworks, significant funding is generated. Liking is not hobbled by apparent contradictions between art as authentic cultural expression and art as commodity. In fact, as Liking’s pedagogy indicates, she is concerned with developing young people’s view of art also as economic production, rather than simply consuming art as commodities from elsewhere.
CHRONIC: I want to jump right in and talk about gender politics. I know that you have, from early on, been critical of the masculinist and patriarchal nature of the early independence movements. As an independent female artist, I imagine, you must face fierce resistance from self-appointed custodians of tradition. How do you face that resistance? What inside you allows or enables you to face and overcome that resistance?
WERE WERE LIKING: I don’t know if you know, but I am self-made, I am self-taught. The only education I got was from my grandparents. And it was with that education that I launched my career. I arrived on the scene with values, with a different way of looking at things and with a certain amount of confidence in the fact that my way of looking at things was as valid as everybody else’s. As far as the resistance is concerned, it’s not a case of resistance as much as extreme astonishment, deep astonishment. And it was an astonishment that I was able to use, to make work, in my favour. I didn’t find that there was a concerted campaign of resistance against me. People were shocked, people were astonished. But because I’m not by nature somebody who likes to struggle against – I didn’t do the other side of the conflict – the resistance just wasn’t there. It was negated. It’s not in my nature.
CHRONIC: That’s a very interesting and powerful way to go about what you’re doing, especially the song you did where you said that it’s important not to struggle against something, but to rather struggle for something. That’s an important philosophical point you make.
WL: Voila! The key is the lack of conflict. Not to go in and create a conflictual situation. CHRONIC: Yes, because by struggling strongly against something, it’s almost as if you become that very thing that you’re struggling against.
WL: Absolutely. Throughout Africa, everybody who comes into power, they have spent so much time struggling against somebody, that they have become it, except for Mandela. Thank God, there always has to be an exception. But other than that, it just repeats itself with every great leader in Africa.
CHRONIC: You have been described by many critics as a post-colonial writer. Is it a label that you are happy and comfortable with at all?
WL: It’s a case of: I don’t even know really what it means. I realise I came after the period of colonialism. In any case, I don’t know whether post-colonialism is an aesthetic standard, if it’s a philosophical standard. And, in any case, it’s not my responsibility to know. I create and the critics critique, and everybody has their place in how it works.
CHRONIC: Apart from Africa having many languages, a stumbling block to pan Africanism is also the way in which colonial languages divide the continent. We know the split between Anglophone and Francophone Africa, with its respective intellectual traditions which are influenced by the old colonial systems of education. (I understand that you are an autodidact.) Do you remain hopeful at all of deepening a pan African cultural movement, one that might then influence political and economic systems across Africa?
WL: It’s this whole notion that it’s the life experience that will settle things. People need to live things and be honest in the way they live things, and things, it, will settle. So you can get those who will talk about French-Africa and English-Africa, but on the ground is where it’s going to happen. The fact that there are many Africans who speak French… there are so many in fact that French is now an African language, and so is English and Spanish. Nobody can take those languages away from Africa anymore. Africans have become owners of those languages and will use those languages to eventually find the language, or the languages, that will create a pan African environment. This notion of Esperanto… this thing that is created before, in a vacuum, and then put out there… that’s not going to work. For example, in Côte d’Ivoire there is a language called Mushi that is made up of several African languages with French and with a bit of English thrown in. It’s spoken by children who are on the streets, who don’t have any education and who need to express themselves. And they speak that language. And there is a dictionary coming out, soon, of Mushi. And it’s just the way things happen: languages, cultures, they’re out there, they will be lived.
CHR ONIC : So you imagine that it’s more important for influence to happen organically, rather than… and that influence will happen at some point. I understand that when we talk about Anglophone or Francophone Africa, we are using a kind of imaginary division…
WL (interjects): Absolutely.
CHR ONIC : …but at the same time, what I’m trying to say is: people from Anglophone Africa, for instance, don’t have the easy access to the literature of Francophone Africa, and that’s the kind of division that my question was really about.
WL: English-speaking Africans do not know that there is all this French literature. It’s their responsibility, it’s their curiosity… they have to put themselves out there. South Africans must understand that this [SA] is a very powerful country, but it’s a country that can actually crumble under its own power. It is South Africans’ responsibility to lookbeyond its borders, to be interested, to be curious. When I was five, I knew there was something called apartheid in South Africa. When I was 19, I did a series of 30 paintings on apartheid. Whereas I realise that here in South Africa nobody seems vaguely interested in what’s going on in the rest of the continent, in complete opposition to the amount of interest that is expressed by the rest of Africa in South Africa, I was born in a country that until about 1980, it was written in my passport that I could go anywhere in Africa except South Africa, as a sign of protest against apartheid… So if Southern Africa isn’t interested in the rest of Africa in the way that the rest of Africa is interested in Southern Africa, it’s their responsibility, but they have to know that at some stage they’re going to need the rest of Africa (RK interjects: again). It is going to come and they must know this. We all fought for the end of apartheid. Even in Côte d’Ivoire, where the president proposed a dialogue and was criticised by the rest of the world, it was a sign of engagement, it was a sign of wanting to do something… that he was not indifferent. And he was right, because it was through dialogue eventually that this happened. And yet he was mocked for proposing the dialogue. Everybody in Africa who has died, they’ve died for no reason, because dialogue is possible and that’s the way it should happen.
CHRONIC : I just want you to understand that I’m asking these questions as a younger writer, who in no way has the experience close to yours. My first book was only published six years ago. So I don’t want to test your patience… but your performance two nights ago, I really enjoyed [it]. What struck me in your lyrics, in the content, was: there is a general level of normality, of realism, but there will just be moments where something odd happens, or something odd is referenced, which for me makes the content that is heavily realist… it just pushes it up a little bit to a fantastical realm. And I just want to say, as someone who doesn’t have anywhere near the experience that you have, for me it was amazing. It was fantastical. You’re also starting to play with hip-hop forms, for instance. Do you see this as another form of renewal, or were you serious when you said that you’re doing this to rival your son who is a hip-hop artist?
WL (laughs): I’m not in competition with my son. I want to play, I want to have fun with him. But, on another note, I consider myself to be a traditionalist. I am a repository of traditional African culture. I also consider myself to be one of the moderns, somebody who goes toward the future. My vision is that Africa must be modern, Africa must go into the future, but mustn’t get there empty-handed. I’ve always been like that. I heard the word “avant-garde” when I was about 15 and it’s a word that captured my imagination. So I see no incoherence in calling myself a traditionalist, a repository of African culture, but moving with that into [a] modern future. And to be there and to be comfortable with it and in it. Hip-hop has taken over the world – Asia, Africa, the States. I have something to say to the youth. It would be a great pity not to use the medium that the youth are listening to. And I have a book coming that is coming out soon on that issue.
CHRONIC: I want to thank you for your generosity for granting me this interview.
WL: I thank you. I am very happy and confident, very appreciative to see this interest. I have seen in my time here, in the small steps that I’ve made, that there is interest of the youth. And now I realise it’s the first step in talking to the youth and telling them what a grandmother should tell children. I’m very confident that my message is going to come out in ways they’re going to understand.
WL (laughs): Inshallah.
La Queue du diable (1979)
La puissance de Um (1979)
Une nouvelle terre: Théatre rituel (1980)
Les mains veulent dire (1987)
Un Touareg s’est marié à une Pygmée (1992)
La Veuve dilemme (1994)
Le Parler-Chanter – Parlare Cantando (2003)
This article was originally published in the Chronic (August 2013).
In this issue, artists and writer from around the world take on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states. To read the article in full get a copy in our online shop or visit your nearest stockists.