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Performances That Seek to Interrupt: Nigerian Artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji & The Craft of Spectacle

A profile and interview with Nigerian performance and visual artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji, which illuminates Ogunji's recent performances in Lagos, Nigeria.


Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman? Image credit: Ema Edosio

*Interview by Maryam Kazeem

As they walk through the streets of Yaba in Lagos, Nigeria Wura-Natasha Ogunji and six women dressed in matching costumes and masks around their faces, carry kegs full of water that are strapped to their ankles. Catching the attention of those they pass on the street, Ogunji describes the thoughts racing through her mind at the time, "in that beginning moment i doubted so much. i had to remember the words i had spoken upstairs. trust, rest, trust. i learned so much in the first five minutes. walking required my entire body (were we actually even walking? it felt like something else)." However, this isn't the first time Ogunji has performed this act- in 2011 she crawled along the ground "with water kegs tied to [her ] ankles] inspired by the daily task of carrying water at [her] cousin's house." In collaboration with the Center for Contemporary Art Lagos (CCA), in Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman? Ogunji creates a spectacle out of the mundane by illuminating certain notions of women and space in Lagos.

In their performance, Ogunji and the other women are dressed in matching costumes (with an "Afrofuturistic touch") for more than just aesthetic appeal, rather Ogunji attempts to conjure images of the Egungun Masquerade, which women are not typically allowed to perform. In tradition during the Egungun masquerade the masked dancer is allowed to travel anywhere and they are protected (People are not even allowed to touch them); as such, Ogunji builds on the daily task of carrying water, by simultaneously "allowing women to occupy a sacred, dynamic, and public space" through their performance as masked water carriers. In her quest to evoke dynamics between labour and women, Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman? is one mere example of how Ogunji's work excavates the complexities of the relationship between women, society, space and politics.

Based in Austin and Lagos, Wura-Natasha Ogunji is "best know for her videos, in which she uses her own body to explore movement and mark-making across water, land and air." She has received a number of awards for her working including a John Simon Guggeinheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2012). If we think of performance art as art that "does" in the immediate, specifically in the space that it occurs, yet also has the capacity to travel in impact and medium as a consequence- then Ogunji's pieces aim to "do" in Lagos. We asked her a few questions about her recent work- her experiences carrying out these ambitious performances, the audience engagement and what she has coming up in the near future.

Conceived by Nicole Vlado and Wura-Natasha Ogunji, beauty explored the relationships that women have to each other and to their hair. The performers had their hair braided beginning at 2:00pm in this public transportation plaza and then stood with their hair connected until 6:00pm. Image credit: Ema Edioso

OKA: Performance art often involves creating a spectacle. Do you ever worry that people are more focused on the spectacle rather than the messages you're trying to convey?

Wura-Natasha Ogunji: I'm interested in creating a particular exchange between the performers and the audience.  This requires a kind of respect and consideration for the public which I don't at all associate with spectacles.  When I think about a spectacle it brings to mind a particular image or event that is intended to shock.  And things that shock us don't necessarily create opportunities for conversations or transformation.  I love this question you are asking because it really gets at the challenge of creating meaningful performance.

As an artist I am creating certain parameters and asking certain questions but I don't determine the answers and I certainly don't own the experience.  The collective is incredibly important to this process--be they audience members or performers or students trying performance for the first time or a bystander who participates.  I expect the audience to do some work, to ask questions, to figure some things out on their own.  People sometimes ask, what is this about?  And my first answer is always, what do you think it's about?  What did you see, feel and experience?

I have found people in Lagos to be very generous.  They ask questions.  They respect the performance and the performers.  They give a lot.  But they also require a lot because you can see crazy things here on a daily basis, in any moment.  I am very interested in interruptions and disorientation.  The fact that we are women occupying public space in unexpected ways is an immediate interruption.  I want people to stop to look because they are seeing something that calls their attention in a particular way--and not in a violent way.  A fight can stop traffic.  I want to interrupt someone's daily journey with something different.  I want people to stop, to witness, to comment on the work or ask questions because they feel drawn to it, pulled by it in a way that expands the imagination.

OKA: You mention that a lot of your work is done through your body as a way of understanding larger questions of how bodies engage with space.  Are you also addressing more abstract notions of space (diaspora) particularly as someone who lives in the U.S. and Nigeria?

WNO: Yes, absolutely.  My previous video and performance work definitely considered larger spaces of the diaspora.  I was particularly interested in the Atlantic as a site for memory, history, creativity.   The videos I made including 'The epic crossing of an Ife head' provided a way for me to explore this space between Africa and the Americas.   I began that series because I had a question about this relationship. I asked “Does homeland long for us?”  In answering that question I thought about the physical efforts that the Ife head would have to go through to find her descendents in the Americas.  In order to cross the Atlantic she must either fly or walk on water.  Taking on that persona of the Ife head I attempt to fly by jumping into the air.   I saw the physicality of that act as akin to the efforts required to make that connection across space which is really across that enormous ocean.  The journey is also about moving through one's history--both personal and collecitve.

Now that I am in Lagos my questions have, of course, changed.  I can say that homeland indeed longs for us which I understand to mean that there's a place for me here in this present moment.  And now my engagement with the body (both my own and others) is affected by this particular urban space in which I find myself.

OKA: What has the response been to your recent pieces, beauty and Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman?

WNO: People always have a lot of questions.  With beauty the five of us had our hair braided together and we stayed that way for four hours.  There were people who said we wouldn't make it, that we wouldn't last the four hours.  There was someone in the audience who talked about how this piece was for Nigerians.  I understood that to mean that the person not only felt a connection to the work but that they thought it had relevance to this place and people specifically.  My favorite response was a conversation with a young girl, perhaps she was 9 years old.  She asked why we had done the performance and then I spoke with her about the connections we have as women to our hair and the even more important connections we have to each other.  She understood that of course, she feels it too.

Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman? was different.  We were masked during the piece. I heard a lot of comments about our strength.  A friend told me that someone asked why we would be carrying water kegs through the streets if we were not getting paid.  There was also a woman who thought we were being punished and that the punishment was too harsh.  One of the performers, Wana Udobang wrote about how the piece brought into focus the ways in which we, as women, place burdens on ourselves and that in the end no one else even acknowledges our work, they stop even noticing our struggles.  She observed that by the end of the walk through town people began to almost ignore us as they went back to their daily lives.

Audience from beauty performance. Image credit: Soibifaa Dokubo

OKA: Did you notice anything that your audience was doing while watching the performances that you found particularly interesting or even strange?

WNO: beauty was an incredible experience because we were in the middle of Obalende Motor Park.  Hundreds of people passed by during the four hours that we were performing.  They were watching us and we were watching them as intently.  As performers we all spoke about that experience.  We talked about even wanting to film the audience watching us.  It's an incredible feeling, to be witnessed in this particular way by strangers and to also be in a position to really take in another person's presence, someone you don't even know.

OKA: What projects do you have coming up in the future?

WNO: I'm in an exhibition with two other artists (Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze and Nnenna Okore) called 'No one belongs here more than you' which opens at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos this June.  I will show a new video installation as well as documentation of the performance works.  I'm also creating a performance for the opening that draws from the tradition of bowing and prostration.

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Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs


Photo (c) John Liebenberg

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"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.

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Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.


The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:





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mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019 www.youtube.com

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

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(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.


This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:





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