africologne (7): day 3 of the festival: the DIALOGFORUM Repairing, re-humanising (part 1 of 2)

Cameroonian performer and choreographer Zora Snake performing in front of the University of Cologne (Photo: Kerstin Ortmeier)

by Marie Yan


Unsure of where to look towards, the audience stands outside of the concrete grey, brutalist architecture of the University of Cologne. A large tree hovering over us. The banners announcing the African Futures All Around programme hanging at the fences behind it. The intermittent bells of bicycles passing us by.
When Zora Snake appears, it is with slow steps that differentiate him from the agitation of our expectancy, despite our standing still.

He is wearing a lose brown outfit, cut in a thick fabric and carries a baton with a plume that he shakes in the air. He stops in front of one of the members of the audience and brushes him with the plume, holding up his gaze. To which the uncertain audience member answers with a rapid bow of the head.

The man happens to be the head of the cultural programme of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. An institution who possesses a large amount of artworks looted or acquired under colonial rule and has been the object of a boycott. The topic of this afternoon’s dialogFORUM discussion, of which this performance is the opening, is: «Recognise, restitute, repair», making this moment where Zora Snake, Black performance artist and choreographer from Cameroon, having worked for years on the damages caused by colonisation and Jan Linders, white German representative of a neocolonial institution, becomes immediately a scène of its own. Which I receive from a place of having worked in and experienced that institution. The performance rips open with genius the power plays that traverse two individuals and, I learn later, at the time where they had in fact gotten acquainted and were discussing the commission of a new piece.

Zora Snake continues by kneeling down on a mat and placing in front of him a wooden statuette representing a pregnant figure with its arms raised. After pouring water over it, he takes off his outfit to reveal a black office suit underneath. Then dips his hand in a bowl of clay that he uses to cover his face, his mouth, exaggerating his features and building a grotesque double chin. When he is done, his body twitches as if trying to expel something. A soft «oh» grows, that transforms into a word: «capitalism».

The tone is set for the panel that is about to take place. We are going to grapple with what mechanisms of domination do to the realm of the sensitive and how to look at them with clarity, hoping we too, can find the means to expel them from our common bodies.

Zora Snake furthers transform his face into another one, with tape and thread, attaching branches and feathers to it, becoming a creature that leads us to the hall of the university, before disappearing. We now step alone into an amphitheatre where the speakers are being set up. Dr. Ndongo Samba Sylla, Director of the africologneDIALOGFORUM, proceeds to the introductions. We then embark on a panel and discussion whose density will bring us to run over time by at least an hour and whose energy I will now attempt to relate.

Panellists Zora Snake, Dr Ndongo Samba Sylla, Mireille Fanon Mendès-France, Dr Amzat Boukari-Yabara and Dr Koulsy Lamko. (Photo: Kerstin Ortmeier)


This year, Mireille Fanon Mendès-France, lawyer and anti-racism activist, UN expert for people of African descent, recalls the attention given to the anniversary of the death of Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803), the revolutionary leader of Haiti’s independence – then under French rule. A representative of the French government opened a commemoration saying: «We are celebrating the 220th anniversary of the death of Toussaint Louverture and the 338th anniversary of the Code Noir.» Not seeing the outrage of celebrating the imposition of chains with a man that broke them for and with an entire people. A rhetorical strategy pursued on the highest levels of the State, with president Emmanuel Macron later calling Toussaint Louverture «A slave, a Frenchman freed by a white man.»

Both events, in Mireille Fanon Mendès-France’s words, translated the «impermeability of France to any decolonial approach». Indeed, this impermeability is one not only of indelicacy, it is the clever trick of «a view from above»[1] that flattens all events and historical figures into the glory of the roman de la nation. It is an impermeability that comes from a voluntary detachment from the realities that addressing colonial heritage really means. A view from above that Mireille Fanon-Mendès France says was exemplified when the United Nations, kicking off the Decade for People of African Descent (2014-2024) refused the proposal of her working group to give it the direction of «Reparation, justice and development» and went on to replace it with «Recognition, justice and development».

Recognition then, in the case of international and national law, is well within pre-existing frames that need to be broken. So what is recognition really worth? Not a dime: «We need to deconstruct the entire colonial matrix to create a new humanity. If we want to abolish the paradigm of white domination, we need to demand reparations and the return of the colonial debt.»

[1]    Also the words of Mireille Fanon Mendès-France.


In the second part of the article published tomorrow:



Marie Yan (Photo: Yan Ho)

Marie Yan is a multilingual writer and dramaturge with a focus on postcolonial perspectives. She writes in French and English, speaking German, learning Cantonese. In worlds that range from near-documentary to speculative fiction, she has written stories about borders (I need to cross, commission of the Eskişehir’s city theatre, 2019), conspiracy theories (La Théorie, Festival Impatience, Paris, 2021), climate disaster and authoritarianism (A Tidal Home, Hong Kong, 2021). Her ongoing project Minotaurus or the child of the labyrinth, after Dürrenmatt, researches the incarceration of minors in France in association with theatre company Lou Pantail. She received the Mary Leishman Award for Theatre for her first play The Fog and the Crossing Borders scholarship for her upcoming essay Hong Kong: Struggling home. She works between France and Germany.

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