Discovering the human identity

By KatherineGamby

The waterfall caresses the moss-covered cliff as it gently tumbles down into the eroded canyon, welcomed by fresh white waters. The mist dances on the chaste air and kisses the surrounding pastures of endless trees. Warm sunbeams and a gleaming rainbow highlight the sky overlooking paradise, stamping it with a seal fit for heaven on Earth. Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe is just one marvel that the lush country has to offer. Few would expect exile, genocide and a Diaspora to pour out of this country and spill over into America, demonstrated through contemporary dance.

Nora Chipaumire, a contemporary dance artist, and Thomas Mapfumo, a poet and musician, are both exiles from Zimbabwe. They will be performing in a world premiere, musical dance piece entitled “Lions Will Roar, Swans Will Fly, Angels Will Wrestle Heaven, Rains Will Break: Gukurahundi.” The piece will shed light on the struggles with human identity from the perspective of Chipaumire and will be presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art.

“What’s really interesting is it is cross-generational,” said Yolanda Cespa Cursach, the associate director of Performance Programs at the MCA. “That was very compelling because it’s an artistic fusion, but it’s also a fusion of ages.”

Mapfumo played a key role in the resistance movement of the ’60s through his politically charged lyrics. He was later exiled and moved to Oregon in the ’90s. Chipaumire, who listened to Mapfumo’s music as a child, is also in exile but for different reasons. Gukarahundi was a military operation in the 1980s designed by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to cull and terrorize the civilian population of Zimbabwe. This forced Chipaumire to relocate to New York City where she is currently based.

“Gukarahundi is her statement about her own post-colonialism experience,” Cursach said. “It explores the migrant experience that the world has in common but more pointedly, for her, it points to how the Western world looks at Africa [and] what it means on her own personal level, to be an African in the Diaspora, especially to be a woman.”

The performance also features live music from Mapfumo and his band, The Blacks Unlimited, as well as animation and footage of African terrain near Zimbabwe. Cursach said she thinks students will enjoy the piece because it will encourage them to challenge and change their views, specifically those on identity.

“I think it will illustrate a new way of approaching film and live music in collaboration,” Cursach said. “It will add to the questions that we have about the immigrant experience and living in an urban setting in a community of people who come from different politics and different ideas about Africa and the Western world. It’s really a coming-together.”

Though this piece focuses on the positives of Chipaumire’s self-exile, during the time of the Gukarahundi, her transition to America could not have been an easy one.

“Someone who is able to escape a situation of violence and hardship has resiliency and a will to better their lives and improve their conditions,” said Emily Osborn, an assistant professor of African History at the University of Chicago. “This country is full of immigrants who have that same fervor.”

During many political battles in Africa as well as Europe, specifically during World War II, women often suffered the most within a conflict because more often than not, rape is used as a warfare tactic.

“It’s a means to terrorize a population, [raping] women, but it is certainly not something that is exclusive to the African context, it’s a tactic that’s been used widely all over the world through history,” Osborn said.

Rape is used systematically as a method of warfare because it affects households and communities, psychologically and emotionally.

“It’s a way in which you can really sort of effectively assault a household and assert the power of this incursion … really in a sense there is a certain brutal efficiency to it,” Osborn said.

The theme of identity at Columbia also runs strong between African dance and students. De’Mar Singleton, a senior dance major at Columbia, took the African dance class for beginners as a freshman. In the class, he studied not only the dance, but the culture behind it, which was mostly based in western African tradition. He said they were encouraged to explore their own identity in the class.

“We were more so called to look into our own culture and history,” Singleton said. “There was a paper that you had to do in the class, like a 10-page genealogy, where you have to go as far back in your family as possible. It really teaches you to go in-depth in your own culture and figure out who you are.”

Singleton said he started off not caring for the class, but grew to like it because of the spiritual connection, as well as a development of intimacy with his cultural roots.

“African dance is now one of my favorite types; it’s so grounding,” Singleton said. “A spiritual aspect of the dance is it really connects you with the Earth. In African culture, they really have a deep connection with the Earth … the movement really reflects that [connection], everything is so grounded and using your center.”

“Lions Will Roar …” will premiere at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E Chicago Ave. on Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m. and will also feature shows from Oct. 3-4. Tickets are priced at $25 for general admission, $20 for MCA members and $10 for students. For more times and information on the performance and artist, please visit