A CONVERSATION WITH NORA CHIPAUMIRE
Born in Mutare, Zimbabwe, and based in New York, iconoclastic choreographer and experimental dance practitioner Nora Chipaumire uses her work to think through representations of the African black woman’s body – the signs that have made it legible to the world (signs, of course, are always saturated with politics) in art, aesthetics and performance. A disruptive energy courses through her vast body of work, which includes the critically acclaimed Portrait of Myself as My Father, #PUNK, Chimurenga, and other productions. She is also at work on a long-term book project, Nhaka: Cartography of the Animist Body and Radical Black African Presences. “African experimental dance practitioners have lacked texts and libraries that locate us in the present future,” Chipaumire says.
We met in November 2017, a time of both relative optimism and angst in Zimbabwe, our home country. She had just arrived in Cape Town for a two-week residency, when the Zimbabwe military moved to seize power. By the time she had returned to her base in Brooklyn, the unthinkable had happened – the country had ushered in a new president. As events unfolded, I would frequently drop in at her dance studio (laboratory, though, is a more accurate description). She had been working on 100% POP, a tribute to the Jamaican singer/songwriter and model, Grace Jones, and an exploration of her own working-class roots. I would like to say that we spoke about one thing, but our conversations tended to meander, encompassing the many themes that thread through her work – history, politics, animism, music, curriculum, among others. The conversation below follows on from those studio visits. – Bongani Kona
Bongani Kona: The last time you were in Cape Town, the driver who picked you up from the airport kept insisting that you couldn’t be a Zimbabwean woman. I wonder if you could speak specifically about that – your disruption of these cultural codes of what a Zimbabwean woman should be?
Nora Chipaumire: I’m going to be 54 in June and most 54-year-old Zimbabwean women have an average of three or four kids already. But I’ve chosen to give my body over to the development of ideas instead of the perpetuity of the Chipaumire. And I think that most Zimbabweans, men in particular, are stunned at my choices. It’s so contrary to our culture and to what a woman’s role is. But I do think there are many, many other women who disrupt those codes, but maybe not in such a public space as I am. Because my work is to disrupt these things in a public space. I think of Ambuya Stella Chiweshe, she is also an anomaly. Not only because she is working in the spirit world. But even in that world she wasn’t supposed to do what she does.
Because of how colonialism has worked on us we aspire to be white. And so, if you can master the language without an accent, or you’re doing ballet… all these things mean that you’re actually somebody. It’s something that makes us proud, but to me it’s highly disturbing. It means we are so deeply gone that even when we do our own experiments, we cannot see ourselves. So, part of my work, to go back to what I do, particularly with the book project is to help us see ourselves. We’ve always been capable of these anomalies. Female bodies that don’t follow the code. Our bodies are such weapons of intelligence and there are all kinds of teachings that are encoded in these bodies. Again, our elders knew this. They knew what to eat… There is so much information and a science in the body that is held for us as African people in the way that we have carved out a rhythm, time. I even prefer to talk about time and not rhythm because when you say rhythm, it’s always “ah, you Negroes know rhythm.” So then it’s reduced to something intuitive that we do. It’s not at all intuitive. Our relationship with time is spectacular. We know how to divide, sub-divide, add, stop it, hold it, and speed it up. And that, to us is our virtuosity. It’s our physics. Quantum physics. So for me I’m interested in looking at our bodies, the way scientists look at black holes… in awe and wonder, like what happened there? What is happening when we move is spectacular. It’s mind boggling.
Of course, it’s then connected to sound, it’s connected to voice. It’s connected to language. At the moment we’ve lost our language or our mastery of the language – then we are also losing an essential aspect of the physics. Because the way we speak has something to do with also the way we divide time when we move. So, it’s complex. No wonder people just reduce it to Voodoo, or animism. But I’m interested in decoding that, because I think it’s knowable, but it takes a deeper kind of listening, a deeper kind of focussing. On the inside, rather than outside, and that deeper listening of inside has to do with keeping it as clean as possible, which goes back to what we eat. To keep ourselves clean and receptive.
BK: You’ve spoken before about growing up at the intersection of all these times: colonialism, independence, cold war. Can you tell us about your early years, and what drew you to this particular form of self-expression?
NC: I was born in Mutare, in Zimunya, where my father was from. That side of the family is very rural, agrarian, bona fide farmers. They worked the land. My mother’s people were more business oriented. My maternal grandmother had this kiosk in Sakubva Township. So that’s kind of my background. A mix of these two strands. But they divorced very early and since I was five, I’ve been raised by just my mother’s people.
My mother had to drop out of high school because she got pregnant and had to marry my father. So, she was in a very tenuous position of being super young and under-educated within the Rhodesian context, so when she left her mother, her life was very, very complex. This is just to say I didn’t grow up with people who seemed to me to have artistic expression as their primary kind of thing. I didn’t really have anyone around me I thought I’m going to emulate. So, I think it’s something you’re either born with and nurture as you grow older. Or you discover it at some point and you start developing it.
For me that discovery happened in high school, because I was part of some debating society. I was really good at talking, let’s put it that way. I was able to stand up in front of people and just speak. And in a way that is kind of the beginning of the understanding that there is this kind of ability to be in front of people and talk and not feel ashamed. At one of the debating competitions, they had a person who was working for radio, as one of the judges. And after the debate – I didn’t win – he said to me: You’re kind of good at this and maybe you should look into radio.
Radio 4, at the time, had these radio dramas and that’s how I started. I don’t know if that was in Form 2 or Form 3, but I started doing radio dramas for Radio 4 and by this time we had moved to Harare and I was going to Melboraine Girls High.
The work wasn’t stimulating, but it was an inroad into what has become a life of public expressive stuff and it started with voice and in some ways, language and dramatisations. Once a week I would go to the studio to record the dramas and then I became part of Radio 4 and the Mbare studios were kind of my base. I then moved up to Radio 3, where I had a Saturday show and I started deejaying in night clubs. So you see, it starts to kind of escalate and by the time I graduated from the University of Zimbabwe, the only thing I cared about were my radio shows, club gigs and how I could get more vinyl records, that kind of thing.
I don’t know if this is answering your question, but I feel like what I do is a matter of conviction and at the same time it must have always been in me, some need to be expressive. I just didn’t know that it would be through the body. That I discovered when I arrived in the US. I was always a good dancer and I am not easily discouraged, but there weren’t any people to look up to. Americans like to ask: Did you study dance in Zimbabwe? But even my idea of what study is now is completely different from what I would have said maybe 20 years ago, which is sort of a classroom with a teacher, you know. As I said, my background is really single parent, working poor. Even though my mum’s people were sort of business folks, because she did this thing of divorcing her husband and came back to her family with four kids during the time of Rhodesia when she couldn’t get any jobs, she was on her own. So, my mum was, like, a tea girl. There used to be these jobs of women who served you tea when you went to places like Meikles Hotel or something. So this was how my mum tried to support us. Tanga tiri malodger, living in one room in the township. Until 1980, or 79, 80 when, you know, [Bishop Abel] Muzorewa did that thing of negotiating with Ian Smith [for a short period the country became Zimbabwe-Rhodesia]. Because he started the whole desegregating of the neighbourhoods, the schools – and then by the time of Independence proper, living – in the white areas became really, really possible.
BK: Can I take you back another step here, possibly in another direction, to your experience of Rhodesia? I remember one of the things you had said at the time of the coup, when you were in Cape Town, is that your relationship to Robert Mugabe is so different from my generation and this has to do, I think, with the eras we grew up in. Could you speak a little on that?
NC: Of course. Remember that being from the Eastern Highlands, on the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, we were really on the frontline of the war and were very much all pro-ZANU, for better or for worse. Because that was our indoctrination and that was our experience. I have many aunties on my mother’s side who were freedom fighters. We were so close to Mozambique, you could just walk across and it was known that you could meet people who could take you further inland, to Chimoio and to the camps where people were being trained. So that idea of becoming a freedom fighter was part of my thinking. That if life didn’t move one way or another, being poor and stuff, you’re always thinking: I will go and join this whole thing because every day you’re hearing “ah, so and so has gone”.
Those days remember we had Radio Chimurenga, a satellite radio station which was broadcast from Maputo, and I remember my grandmother would be listening at midnight and we would be hearing the propaganda. Why we were at war. Why we had to support anamukoma (brothers) when they came through and not sell them out to the whiteys. Also the terror of when the Rhodesians would come through. My grandmother’s kiosk was right on the main road from Mutare going to Mutambara. In fact, the road goes all the way through to Beitbridge and this was the main thoroughfare for the Rhodesians and their convoys. They used to have convoys for white farmers to protect them from getting massacred, or ambushed, and they would always stop at these little pit stops and terrorise the hell out of us. I’ll never forget this white guy, a soldier, bringing my grandmother to near tears and my grandmother was a big lady. But he reduced her to nothing by asking her about the terrorists. “Are you hiding terrorists here!?” And we all know that my aunties are these so-called terrorists. So if you didn’t experience the convoys, the curfews, and the roadblocks, you can’t really understand why the white people were such an aberration in our eyes. I wanted them gone.
So, anyway, the time I’m growing up and going between Mutare and the rural areas, Mutambara, Zimunya West. These were really hot, hot areas. Even in Dangamvura where we also lived, you could hear the war at night because we were in it. So, for me, it was clear the enemy was white people. They were the Rhodesians. There was no question. There was no doubt at all. We were completely focused on that and knew that ZANU was going to be our guiding light. So the Muzorewa thing was quite an anomaly and never taken seriously. We totally believed that he was a sellout. So, of course, when comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe won, you can imagine what it was like. There were these aunties who had come back home. Hardcore comrades who had fought in the war. There was no questioning about anything. There was just such euphoria. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything close to that ever vis-à-vis country, nationhood. Just sheer joy I’ve not experienced like that moment.
Especially because the elections happened, we had just started at Melboraine Girls High School. And in 1980 it was still pretty much a white school. Even though now I understand that it was white working class. It wasn’t as bougie, like the private all-girl schools. But as far as we were concerned, it was like Mecca, right? My sister and I, and maybe two other black girls, were the first to desegregate that school. It was hardcore. Those white people were giving us a fucking hard time, every day. At assembly they would announce: “You African girls, you need to wash. Please stay behind so we can talk about cleanliness.” And they would talk to us about using soap. This coupled with the fact that we had grown up so segregated from the white people and we knew they were the enemy. It was real. There was no relationship with whiteness that could convince me otherwise, that they were not bad people and that they had not robbed our country. So that interaction at 13, 14, being told you guys need to wash… and we thought, they smell bad, but we couldn’t say that.
On the day the election results came back, half the school emptied. All the white parents were coming to take their kids and all the white kids were crying – “Oh, they are going to murder us.” Obviously, we couldn’t go home to celebrate. None of our parents were coming to take us. They were busy at work. And we had to suppress our sheer joy. The headmistress was letting parents come and take their children out of class. By like 11 o’clock in the morning, results were coming in and I’ll never forget this. It had been a landslide. I was ZANU–PF hardcore, for better or for worse. We bought the propaganda that [Joshua] Nkomo was kind of dubious. And because I’m coming from Mutare. Mutare was hardcore ZANU, there was no infiltration of ZAPU or anything like that. We only just started to understand what Joshua Nkomo and ZANLA had contributed at that moment of independence, and for me it was all good that the two sides were coming together. There was no question. Get rid of Ian Smith. Get rid of all white people. Take the land back. We were unquestionably in total support of Robert Mugabe. And also within my family, one of my aunties was married to Ndabaningi Sithole (Founder of ZANU). So, we kind of knew that there were tensions, but at the moment, that was irrelevant. Nobody questioned Robert Mugabe.
So then I went to UZ and everybody there was communist. But even then, there was also no questioning of that man at that time. The whole rhetoric was around the constitution and how the constitution had been so compromised. Those early years at UZ, that was the biggest thing. How come we didn’t tell them all to leave? That was the sentiment. Really. And white people were scared. Fast forward and things start to fall apart and even when I left Zimbabwe in 1989, 90, there was such euphoria still. People were coming back home. All the people who had been in exile were coming back home. Not leaving. So I was going in the wrong direction at that time. But that’s because what I was doing in radio and this and that… the territory had become really small and I was leaving because of artistic expression and not because of politics. And the longer I stayed out… stuff started to get really, really strange.
BK: And the coup?
NC: I was all for it, because I think old people need to give way to young people. And clearly it was a coup within ZANU–PF, so not much changed there. We went from one old man to another old man. So, to me, it’s really more of the same, even though it seemed to be a mesmerising moment. Mesmerising because it was unthinkable, but Ian Smith used to say the same thing as Robert Mugabe, “not in my life time are you going to run this country”.
But I will say one of the good things about where we are now is that in 1980, at that moment of independence, we were still convinced that the best way forward was to become more white than white. To be independent meant to speak better English than they did. To have read more of their stuff than they had. You know? And have this whole appearance of whiteness and live in the suburbs. Big house. Swimming pool and all that. Whereas now, I am really stunned even with the way my people eat now. My comrade aunts are eating the organic food they used to eat back in the day. That food revolution of going back to the future was made possible by the economic collapse during Mugabe’s extremely long tenure. If you think also about Zimdancehall and how it has its back turned towards whiteness. That is really a product of the long duration of Robert Mugabe.
BK: Sometimes I think whiteness is sometimes too broad a term. I certainly had the sense that we aspired towards Englishness. Even to think that Robert Mugabe was admired for his voice. Our schools then were also very Victorian. Previously, there had been an economic basis for that kind of aspiration, but the absurdity of that project, its unsustainability, became more apparent with the economic crisis.
NC: And I have to say that for better or for worse that is a beautiful direction.
BK: That forces us to have an honest reckoning with ourselves.
NC: Yeah, on a massive scale. We need critical mass. Because that’s the power of Zimdancehall. It has critical mass. But for dance, one would have to say that the dance world is still very elitist. Catering to the one per cent of people with leisure money. So, for me, even before we get to the curricula, the artist has to kind of decolonise themselves. To get away from the art-for-export economy. Because all of us are involved in making dance for export. I’m living in Brooklyn making dance for export to Africa and that is part of my tension of living in the US. Because Americans are like, what it this? This is not really our thing, but I’m making it to sit in Africa and most of the African artists are making their work to sit in Europe. It’s sold in Europe because that’s where the market is. So, I feel like any question about curricula needs to also to take into account this whole question of where the audience is and unless we are willing to take a steep dive into our local audience, we can’t really talk about curricula. Because that will ask us as the makers of the work to shift the language we are using in our work. So, I feel like the idea of curricula… yes, I’m involved in it, too, because that’s why I started to really desire to make this book, Nhaka, because people have been asking for years about why don’t you write about what you do. Because for a long time I was very anti-NGOs, because I don’t need your charity to make my work. I need fair trade. Not some grant or handout for me to make my work. That was kind of the tip I was on as a way to claim my kind of independence. But I feel like as long as artists are not themselves, even in the mindset of questioning the language they are using in their work and who their public is, we can’t begin to talk about anything else. We have so much to do in terms of developing critical analysis. In terms of developing a language about the creative process that is by us and for us. Because then we would be able to go to the townships and all those spaces and do the dance and people will see themselves in the dance.
This is what I’m attempting to do with the book project. For a long time now I’ve been going back home simply to learn and to find the masters of the dance. And these masters are there but they don’t just come out for anything to show you their dance. There also hasn’t been a real effort to really study and research what is our language, what is our time signature, and all that. So that’s what I’ve been doing and trying to then take this information from these masters into a studio and try to analyse. Rework it. To create a practice that is from our own way of using the body. A daily practice. Because also, you know, in our own traditions of dance, it’s not a daily practice of thinking and critiquing and questioning and finding answers, problems and solutions. People just get up and do it. This idea of building curricula is such a long-term project. Because even the people who are leading this discussion of what is curricula, they are so Europeanised. They also don’t know what they are talking about. Just because they are black doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about. Or just because they are African doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about.
BK: You’ve said before that practice has moved ahead of theory.
NC: Yeah. It is ahead of theory and it’s a big problem. In theory it means you have to have this critical mindset, right, and also to propose concepts and then just work kind of abstractly. It’s very difficult for us because we are not thinking of culture in this scientific way. My generation was taught that Chivanhu (the mysticism of our ancestors) was bad, but this is my work. This is my research and I’m loving it. As I said earlier, this dance is a conviction – I was just born to do this. And my elders understand that this is my job, so they allow me to talk to them. To record. To question. I feel like the work I’m doing needs to be done more by the people who are talking about curricula. Talking about books. A lot of people who are teaching this African dance… when I hear that, my first question is: Who is this person? And how do they come to the knowledge?
BK: My final question has to do with the body and the memory of trauma. The last, say, 20 years have been a violent time and our bodies have been trained, attuned to expect violence. Can our bodies un-remember this? Can the body learn freedom again?
NC: I think that’s a question that needs a lot of care in order to answer it. This violence you’re talking about, it’s not just post-2000. It came with the Rhodesians. So, we are dealing with generations of violated, traumatised bodies. My aunties who were comrades, they are still grappling with those experiences from Mozambique. My aunty was telling me that she can’t even tell me the things they went through, even now. Because they were raped, brutalised, in the name of the struggle. They were also fighting the Rhodesians, but their own comrades were raping them. And so, then they come back to people who don’t know what the war experience is. We only know the war experience from being the civilians in a war zone. So, we have a different kind of fear and trauma. We haven’t even begun talking about how traumatised our bodies are. We don’t acknowledge what we went through, from the late 1800s to now, has scarred us so profoundly and so deeply that violence is our manner. Violence is our language. Violence is so close to us. Even this Zimdancehall that I love so much, it has a violence in it. It hits you. The sound hits you. You know these guys are not playing, you just know. There’s a violence in the way that the time is being negotiated.
I think for me, when I was able to reckon with this violence was when I was in the US, because for the first time I was outside of the sameness – I had a moment that I could look at myself. Because also, in the US, I was an outsider and this fuelled this desire to learn more about myself, like, yo, I come from such a terrible time and history. But all these things live in my body. Frantz Fanon talks about the disease of it and how the cells even shift. The violence of the colonial project created something that is specific unto itself, and until we are able to really reckon with that thing, there cannot be any real kind of critical healing on a mass scale.
In my work called Chimurenga, I started to talk about this chimurenga. No, I wasn’t a freedom fighter, but I was growing up in this and I knew the sound of gunfire, bombs. I knew what curfews were because I lived through them. I knew who the enemy was. I knew all these things. In our bush war, we were all combatants, to some degree.
But in terms of how do we heal through the body? I say we start acknowledging that the body has been wounded. If we can’t acknowledge that… then the wounds will only deepen.
This and other stories available in the new issue of the Chronic, “The Invention of Zimbabwe”, which writes Zimbabwe beyond white fears and the Africa-South conundrum.
The accompanying books magazine, XIBAARU TEERE YI (Chronic Books in Wolof) asks the urgent question: What can African Writers Learn from Cheikh Anta Diop?
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