Qudus Onikeku, 27 years old, Nigerian, was born in Lagos, has lived in France for three years, and graduated from Châlons-en-Champagne CNAC as a dancer and acrobat. His end-of-course show, “20ème/ Première”, has been performed over 50 times in France and Latin America (Brazil, Argentina, Colombia) in 2009. His Yoruba tradition plays a special role in the way he exercises his art. He is one of the new generation of creative artists that is springing up in Africa. Playing an interpretative role in the creative works of Heddy Maalem, he has toured in Europe, the United States and the Caribbean.
He is also well known for his artistic research focusing on the African continent. In 2004 he created a dance solo, “Lost Face”, which toured for two years in Africa and the Caribbean, and directed “Do we need Cola-Cola to dance?”, a project of urban dances, in various African capital cities. “I must set forth”, a 20-minute solo and the first stage of his creative project, was presented in August 2009 at the Bates Dance Festival. In 2010 he created his current piece, “My Exile Is in My Head” which he developed for theatres and which is also adaptable for alternative/public spaces. It was premiered in Paris in May 2010, and is currently shown abroad.
Would you call dance the purest expression of human creativity?
No. I think that will be too arrogant, when we say pure, we are talking about what is honest, naive, unadulterated and manifests itself with certain confidence of innocence, and we basically see that in the way kids express themselves. We as dancers often tend to say that a child’s first true expression is dance or movement, but I don’t think so, I know some kids first expressed themselves in drawing or excessive chattering for example. The simple act of destroying things, or merely tearing off papers and destroying their toys are for me pure acts of expression in themselves, only if we the adults around could have the patience to listen. From what I could remember in my childhood, it was through a backflip that I first realised my creative energy. For me, I think the need for expression is a basic need and it is like a trance, it usually comes in obscure forms that when it eventually finds its way out, you won’t bother to care about the form, but about what is being said.
Has practicing acrobatics and dance changed your perception of space?
Very much. But I don’t know if it has changed my perception of space or it is actually the foundation for such realisation. You must know that I started acrobatics at the age of five, when I saw a random person doing it in real time, not that I hadn´t seen it on television, during the Olympics I saw even more spectacular things, but seeing someone who could probably be me – in my own space of truth – doing it, was a revelation and that’s how I began acrobatics on my own. As I didn’t see any other figure, I thought the only thing that existed was a backflip, so I began to accumulate, doing as much as 60 flips in a row, which arguably gave a sense of improvement. I got to a point where I myself didn’t know my limit, the only restraint I had was whatever obstacle was limiting my space. It made me realise that there is no space, if there is no obstacle, and it is the existence of two separate obstacles that gives an idea of distance. Just as architects say, they don’t occupy spaces, they create spaces.
And performance has also given me another view of space, which differs from the concept of a place, that we might not necessarily be in the same place but can occupy the same space. This has to do with my adoption of the term “African world” i.e. a psychological space, inhabited by those who find it useful and comfortable, and are usually connected based on their common narratives, aspirations and affiliations. Not necessarily having a bloodline or common skin flag. This is very much opposed to “Africa” as a black place in the world map, sitting flat on its black ass, with a lot of histories and prejudice. Once seen as a den of savages, infested with superstitions and fanaticism, destined to be despised and cursed by God Himself. I am afraid; the stories of this “place” had been so told with a distant gaze and understood from a convenient angle, that it’s meaning no longer embody its humanity.
Has traveling changed your dance and writing style?
It has. In fact it is the only thing within which I have grown my art, I became an artist within the borders of different cultures and languages, I have been fed with various books and artists, some in their original languages, and others translated. So to a large extent, travelling has been a means of liberation and a way to escape the burden of fixed ideas and fixed identities. I think learning is embedded in encounters, while knowledge is scattered in space and within a timeframe. The experiences that come with travelling are unconditional experiences; I try to experience them without finding a worldly logic to them, nor discriminate, whether they are good or bad for me. If there is a dance or a culture that fascinates me in Brazil, I will like to learn it, know its history, I’ll like to see how it can nourish my ideas. And for my writing, it is exactly what pushed me into writing in the first place, most of my writings are informed by my experiences, by my thoughts which are usually in line, either with the state of my mind or the space in which I find myself.
What are the implications of nomadism?
What do you mean by “implication”? That word has a lot of implications. We are indeed in the age of hybridity and mixing, technology and popular culture; we are all facebooking and twitting on top of one another, we all share information on YouTube and MySpace. It is a nomadic era, a time when fixed identities and boundaries lose their meaning and everything is in flux. I know all of these might be seen as madness in certain logic, but the nomadic principle in my own case translates into action, into a desire to depart, it is an opportunity to discover new environments and inscribe my creative process in a setting that I do not fully understand. So I try to make sure that what is at stake in my nomadism, is not simply taking part in acts that finds its most impoverished expression in tourism. I hope I’m not participating in the homogenization of all countries and simply roaming the world with the aim of a hedonistic assimilation as many artists do these days. This constant call of elsewhere is rather a way to be jostled and dislocated.
Is your work political? What’s your strategy?
I cannot say my work is political per‐se and I cannot say otherwise based on popular definition. Let’s ask ourselves, for an artiste what does political mean? It means to be opinionated, it means to be concerned with the status quo, concerned with the human condition, and it means to be conscious. If these words are part of what being political means, then of course I am. But if it means wikileaks or dancing to some revolutionary songs, hmm I don’t think that’s my realm. I have often repeated myself that I am an artiste; I’m not an activist. I think it is important to understand the society, the environment in which one lives, and in that very process of understanding, break away from it. However, just as our parents are frightened by such arrogance of us attempting to be total individuals, so the governments are frightened by us willing to break away from the society, because they want us to remain safely within the prison of environmental and national and religious and cultural influences, but it is only the individuals who break through the social pattern by understanding it, that will not be bound by the norm, and will eventually be liberated and become creative. It is only such people who can bring about a new civilisation Being political means you are reacting within the prison, it is not an unbiased action; you resist one particular pattern because another shapes you. The realm I anticipate is not to lie within the prison, but rather in understanding the prison and breaking through its wall – and that very movement through freedom creates art and creates a new culture. So in that sense you can say my work is political or even radical, controversial, rebellious or provocative, but one thing that I am very sure of is that I’m naturally indocile, I don’t conform to norms.
How important is theoretical research for your work?
It is very important for me to understand my work in theory, I try as much as possible to write about it before it is done, rewrite on it after it’s done, I read loads of materials, be it articles, books or essay that relates to my subject matter. I spend hours and hours on YouTube and sites like TED or RSA to see what has been said about such subjects. I don’t think my opinions are personal, and I think such “collaborations” with what already exist give a clearer image to my intuition. One thing that is clear is that I separate my thematic from the artistic investigation, the artistic research is something that is always ongoing, when I finish one piece, it continues in the next piece, while the themes might have nothing in common, like in my last piece I was exploring questions of exile, belonging and non‐belonging, while in the next I’m dealing with violence and schizophrenia as a metaphor for our civilisation. However, the artistic research is a continuation of what I tried to do in my last piece and perhaps wasn’t able to get to its end. So my artistic research is a continuous one that informs the kinds of book I unconsciously collect and read, while the theme leads to the kind of books I read just for a particular production.
What can you say about the communication between your writing and the creation of artwork? Do you see similarities of these art forms in terms of its compositional structure, emotional content or rhythm and (how) are you transferring the knowledge of one medium into the other?
I think it’s all one, structures, rhythm, forms and necessary beauty. This is all I try to accomplish in both my dance and my writing, it’s not just about the significance, it’s about my encounter with my audience or reader. A journalist once said, “Qudus‘ work has a social dimension, it is a story that seems to have links with the artist‘s own life, in this sense, the work resonates as an essay in first person.” And I think he is very correct. Writing has helped me a lot in finding a dramaturgic logic to choreography, from the first paragraph of a piece, your reader must already have an idea of your direction and the emotional content, then there is the body, then we see your argument, then we see your proposition if you so wish, then we see your conclusion. This is precisely what I do with my dance pieces. When I begin to write, I don’t usually have a predetermined number of words I want to work with, that’s why I find it hard to say how long my dance piece will be when I have not created it. In a way my writing makes me understand my piece better, especially it’s argument. And at the same time, it is my knowledge of dance that largely supported my writing at the beginning; it gave me a powerful faculty for description and timing. As a dancer it is important to understand stillness as distinguished from silence or nothingness. These things don’t usually come to us in words, we experience them, but merging the practice of a writer and a dancer together makes it incredibly interesting when you are able to explain a situation or an inner feeling or thoughts in words.
Do you use an external eye during the creation process, how important is the process compared to the product of your performance / text work?
Yes, I do in a way or the other, even if I don’t invite someone officially to be my external eye, it might be my musician, it might be the video artist, or the photographer. Most of the time I like feedback, especially when it is a solo piece in which I’m choreographing and also dancing it. The same goes for my writing, I have few trusted friends with whom I share my texts while writing it, especially my fiancee. I think the process of creating is the most important part in the lifespan of a piece of art, if I have my way I will spend my entire life in the studio, it is during the creative process that we grow, that we are very sensitive, and very open to rediscover new defiant paths in us. And I can say the same of writing, it is the process of writing that you realise that since the last time you wrote, you have improved, you have restructured your views on certain issues, you have seen what you got wrong in the previous writing. I don’t like the idea of seeing a piece as the end product of a period of creation. No, it is in fact the remains, it is an evidence of that transformation, it is what opens up further spaces for critical dialogue. This doesn’t mean that I’m oppose to the popular saying, that a piece is not finished until it is shared with the audience, but can we ever finish a piece?
Do you also use spoken word in your performances? If yes, how is your movement related to the text?
Yes, I find the use of texts quite significant in performances, if it’s not text then it will be symbols, if not, it will be signs or images or sounds. Through the history of dance, we have come to agree that dance can stand alone as an art form. There is no doubt about its strong poetic prowess and its emotive capacity, that through one movement we can say a lot. However, the world we live in now is not one that is so sympathetic with poetry or some high forms of expressions that can mean everything, instead we are bombarded with some catchy phrases on billboards and the banalisation of violent images on news. Fashion magazines sells more and influence us faster than the books of Nietzsche, we can easily recognise the logo of Coca‐Cola and Mc Donald’s even when they are not written clearly, but who still cares about Newton or Nijinsky?
During my creative process, I know that it is very easy to quickly lock myself in the utopia I build around myself in the studio. So I have learnt to step out of my studio and step into the real world from time to time, because the feeling of interaction still seems to me, very important. Not the kind of interaction that is embedded on a conversational style though, let‘s say, it is a revelation of words left unreconstructed in the subconscious of my audience. I have a need to create a common space for our collective human experience. My dance has been dedicated to finding ways of expressing some very deeply rooted expressions, which literary words had failed to capture in conventional styles. So are my movements related to the imagery I paint with this external elements I bring in? I don’t think so, but it seems to me that I try to find means of enforcing my expression through different media and find parallels for them, without necessarily reconciling between them.
Dancing also means writing into space and constructing a world through movements. How important is the awareness of the needs each space, country and continent provokes for your artistic interaction?
There is something I find very noteworthy in our imagination of the world, our mind is very complex and its capacity is almost time without end, we can go as broad as we want and be very well understood in that very capacity, and amazingly we can also come back to its contrary. Be as simple as possible, be as basic as possible, yet we can still be understood and this is part of the beauty of what we call life isn’t it? If I do understand your question well, I think I have decided to focus my attention on my own basic need, rather than the need of a certain space, nation or continent in my artistic concerns. I am very much aware of all the elements that come together to make up my identities, and I regard them as equal without necessarily paying heed to their needs, because their needs are not necessarily my basic human need. Therefore, I am very much wary of the obsessive leeway that often comes with the needs provoked by these various notions of belonging.
How does architectural space and social context influence your work?
Until now I don’t think I pay much attention to architecture, I know a lot of friends who are very good at making that link, and I do admire it in their works, but I’d simply call it “space”. I think I am also doing what architects are doing, only that my work is not fixed in space, so in away I’m creating spaces; democratic spaces built on empathy.
Are you interested in creating a dialogue with the audience? If so, what are your methods?
In fact my performances are all embedded on interaction and cohabitation. Because a piece of art is always a proposition, it is another opportunity to grow and discover new sinister byways, and it has to be confronted with other kinds of mind in order to pass the test of time. I am not always comfortable to dialogue with the audience after a show because they usually come with a lot of complaisance that it becomes quite difficult to have a deeper conversation. However, what I usually do is that, during the creative process, I organise series of open door rehearsals and conversations around the proposition, in a form of an encounter with the audience, I try to create a bond with them, so they can follow how it progresses and observe how it is being constructed, just like a piece of architecture in the community, I make them a part of the creative process, because at the end, they will eventually be an integral part of the outcome of the piece.
Is there a different perception of your pieces in Europe and Africa? Are you adapting your pieces for audience in different continents?
I think it is quite normal that there is a different perception of my piece in Europe, in Africa, in America or Latin America. People have different narratives, it might be common based on their common narratives, but as we move farther in space we begin to perceive things differently, and we travelling artistes also perceive the differences that exists in distance. Now, do I adapt my piece for different audience? No, I don’t, but I might adapt its discourse or the imagery I use in contextualising my intention during conversations that precedes the performance. I never adapt the artistic proposition; even in some cases I refuse to subtitle certain texts. As a dancer, I am working with my body most of the time. I am not working on artificial constructs, based on political boundaries, racial confines, economic or cultural margins. I’m interested in going back in time, going to the root of all expressions, going back to the basics to rediscover what I refer to as “true movement”. With all the events that have happened in strains of our lives, we often break some extraordinary happenings down in words for easier consumption and understanding without toil. In that same sense, if we put so much effort in trying to explain art or putting it in a very logical perspective, we tend to lose the essence and often deny us the holistic sense of certain emotions and feelings. Through dance I try to recapture that essential aspect of communication because I realise that our body memory tends to be vanishing through sophistication, and what I try to do in my performance is to bring back that sensitivity.
Does it make sense to use the same contextualisation, picture language and association in Africa as well as in Europe or do you feel a different understanding of art and also requirement of the audience?
Africa, just like Europe is merely a place that is part of the world and hence part of the human sphere, just like, let’s say, Iceland. We need to understand that now, like never before, do people have so much in common, same MTV, same CNN, same Kebabs, same Sushi, same Coca Cola, same YouTube, same Google, same iPhone. And the list goes on and on. So what other picture languages do I need that the reality out there has not made available for all to understand? I don’t think art in any form is closed ended, it is only the sentiment that we attach to them that are most times closed minded, that art begins to mean something else in our will to turn art into a special capsule that cures certain illness or morality. I’m not saying that I’m not also guilty of this, but it is still the equivocal features of art that makes it possible for me to make it responsive to a circumstance, and I feel as equally liberated to use it for another, but we must be clear that we are not talking about art itself, we are talking about the many lies we’ve created around ourselves and badly need to be solved. So in essence we are only talking about the utilitarian aspect of art when we talk about contextualisation.
Which books influenced your work on stage?
I have read a lot of books and they’ve all in one way or the other fed me as a person, and it is my person that then influence my work a lot as an artist. Like I said, I use certain books based on certain projects I’m working on, but in general I connect with the writings of Wole Soyinka, perhaps art came to me in the same way it came to him based on our temperament and cultural affiliation. Presently, the ideas of Amin Maalouf, Edward Said and some writings of Freud I can really relate to.
Which philosophers do you feel connected with and are you referring to in your work?
I have a very personal opinion about talks on influences and references, I don’t pay so much attention to them, only when I write, I hear echoes of certain writers I have read long ago or recently. I might eventually feel connected to them but I usually don’t refer to them, because I don’t see the need, and in the same way I think my own work will resonate in other people’s works or for the coming generation that find it useful. I think the human mind works in an unprocessed manner, the memory of all our little experiences, the things we’ve read in books or observed in the world around us – all of these our mind observes, it discerns, it learns, it is the mind that cultivates virtues, that communicates ideas, that has desires and fears, and that’s also what we at the end refer to as consciousness. The coming generation will always use the shoulders of the past generation as a stepladder to climb taller and I think it is just natural.
Does ritual have an importance for your work?
It depends on what you refer to as “ritual”. If you are talking about some procession, which calls for the beheading of a cow, and its blood serving as wine or its skin used for clothing purposes, then I think that’s what we do with animals. If it is in that sense, it sure does, because I’m quite concerned about that cow. And on the other hand, if you are talking of something transcendental, that deals with truth and something fundamentally in connection with the earth and all that dwell therein, the sky, and very conscious of space and time. Something that has a soul, spiritual yet profane. I think all these have an importance in my work.
Do you have a wish, an aim for the future?
I only wish that the ideas I send into the world will resonate and have some impact in its little capacity. I don’t have any specific aim for the future, one step at a time; I am still trying to deal with the present and my actions today will surely pave the way for my tomorrow.