Tanz im August review: ‘Portrait of Myself as My Father’ evokes the spirit of the estranged

Photo by Gennadi Novash

A post for Omnified by Isabelle Hore-Thorburn

Zimbabwean-born, Brooklyn-based choreographer Nora Chipaumire has an artistic practice predominantly concerned with the stereotypes of the black body. Her latest work, “Portrait of Myself as My Father,” is concerned – as the title may suggest – with the choreographer’s father, Webster Barnabas Chipaumire, and the role is performed with incredible intensity by Senegalese dancer Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye, also known as Kaolack.

It becomes clear almost from the outset of the performance that Kaolack does not so much represent Chipaumire’s father as much as he does his absence. Indeed, Chipaumire had no contact with her father or his family from the age of 5. It is by evoking the spirit of the estranged father that the artist surveys the African male through the lens of capitalism, Christianity, colonialism and liberation struggles.

Her 80-minute examination of male blackness takes place in a simulated boxing ring, at the Sophiensaele. The building is located on one of the oldest streets in Berlin and provides an impressive venue for this match of sorts. Aside from Kaolack, the other two performers in the ring are Chipaumire herself and Jamaican-born, Brooklyn-based dancer Shamar Watt, who switches between being a corner man, coach, and a heckler.

The ropes of the ring are tethered to Chipaumire, Kaolack, and to the upper levels of the building. As the dancers move within the ring, their silhouettes are cast across the exposed walls and the elastic ropes are pulled taut and slack from the balconies.

Berlin is a place of psychic importance for the choreographer’s understanding of her father. In an interview with dance and theater critic Esther Boldt, Chipaumire says that her father was a product of the Berlin Conference in 1884, also known as the Congo Conference or West Africa Conference, “where guys just sat around and decided what part of Africa they were going to take.” Chipaumire also adds that her father had “very little tools to negotiate with the vastness of the colonial project” and for this reason, he was absent not only from her life but also from his own.

Kaolack’s performance is in many ways the articulation of that absence. The ropes that tether father and daughter are less representative of family ties than the strings of a puppet master. The father becomes a Golem, brought to life by Chipaumire and Watt.

While daughter and father play out the majority of their narrative within the parameters of the ring, Watt’s place within this universe is more ambiguous. He moves between the audience and the stage, eating a banana in the gangway, adjusting the portable lights for dramatic effect, then engaging in a call and response with Chipaumire as she asks her father, the audience and herself, “How do you become a black African man?” and “What is the basis of black masculinity?”

Kaolack’s physically staggering performance is most effective in the way that it skewers what is most feared about black men in a culture where their safety is so precarious. Chipaumire and Watt have autonomy over their own movement, while Kaolack obediently follows their instructions to “swag,” “put your hands up,” and “learn how to fight.” He must learn how to fight or he will learn how to die. His performance is underpinned by a lack of autonomy, over his body, his language and ultimately, his life.

There is no fighting in “Portrait of Myself as My Father,” only the continuous potential for violence that attends to black lives. Chipaumire’s brilliant choreography, lighting, and costume design capture how that tension occurs alongside joy, humor, music, and the minutiae of life. Racism, dance, postcolonial strategy, masculinity, hip-hop, and the Shona-world are thrown into the ring to produce a postmodern – and arguably feminist – work that speaks to the messy, violent, and deeply entangled legacy of the colonial project.

“Portrait of Myself as My Father” is part of Tanz im August and will run until August 18.

Check out our full coverage of Tanz im August on our website.