africologne (8): Mary Yan’s critical gaze on day 4 of the festival EYE LAND: THE FUTURE IS LOOKING FOR US

Author Josephine Papke explaining her work at the Q&A with Sara Youssef (Photo: Kerstin Ortmeier)

«The future is also looking for us, for its marvellous other dream.»¹ Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Day 4 of the festival is under the sign of the gaze, the inner gaze, the eyes that bear witness, the look that transforms and projects into the future what it has seen in its mind.

It starts with the screening of Baamum Nafi (Nafi’s father) by up-and-coming Senegalese filmmaker and former journalist Mamadou Dia. The Filmpalette cinema where it shows is a small one, maybe a hundred seats or so. A programme of auteur cinema. A screen with one irritating dead pixel in the upper right corner.

Baamum Nafi opens with a long close-up shot of the naked back of Tierno (Alassane Sy), deeply breathing for a medical exam. The attention created in that instant where, like the doctor we try to gauge the health of the character, reflects the entire story about to unfold. One where the protagonist, pricking his senses for the subtle, worrying changes happening in his village, can announce the worst. The camera turns around for us to see Tierno, a man in his mid-thirties, but whose handsome face is marked by two exhausted eyes.

Baamum Nafi is both a story of a devoted love, the one the imam Tierno bears for his village of Yonti and his daughter Nafi and a warning tale of how religious extremism, tied with a brother’s revenge, can destroy a peaceful way of life. When Nafi (Aicha Talla) announces she wants to marry her cousin Tokara (Alassane Ndoye), the son of Tierno’s estranged older brother Ousmane (Saikou Lo), Tierno is sucked into a trap. Ousmane, coming back after years of absence, is determined to rule over the village by way of using his allegiance to wealthy and armed religious extremists. The marriage is from the start a way to get hold of the authority his dedicated brother possesses as the village’s imam. A deeply felt analysis of entangled power relations plays on every level, from family matters to local political feuds, drawing in the end attention to one future that needs avoiding: «Senegal has strong institutions and is a very tolerant country when it comes to religion. (…) But I wanted to stir the debate. Religious extremism should be a concern in any country in the world.»²

The beauty and strength of the film resides in a quiet pace reflecting the village’s daily life. Long, attentive frames look at the advancing drama almost from a distance; I am invited to a constant pausing to fully grasp what is at stake in each scene. A play on formalism emerges in touches – the closeups of hands that either reject or accept money offered by Ousmane to win the community over remind me for a moment of the hands in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. And always retuning, the eyes of Tierno, whose melancholy, painful expression barely changes throughout the film and contrasts with the energy he deploys to prevent the inevitable. A teaching on the relation we hold between what we see and what we set in motion, to take with me as the festival continues to look for glimpses of the future. Tierno’s gaze follows me as I step into the reading of Vom Begehren, begehrt zu werden³ by Josephine Papke.

There, in the basement-like room of the Stadtgarten venue, a small crowd is listening to Maya’s struggle (Sophia Hankings-Evans) through desire and fear in her beginning relation with Akuya (Sabrina Ceesay). Shari Asha Crosson’s staging makes the most of the expression and pace allowed by this abridged version of the play. Lifts up with wit and energy a delicate theme for BIPOC and queer folks: «How much violence did I internalise?» The play takes apart, bit by bit, moment after moment, in an empathetic, but almost surgical way, all the instances where Black and queer Maya falters. As she gets closer to her own desire and affection for Akuya and unpicks all the insidious ways that being shaped by the white gaze, having to face its daily aggressions, prevents her from being herself. And from being with someone else. «I’m a little nervous because you are so beautiful.» Listening to the play is watching Maya walking on a tight rope, seeing the promises of a love that completes and held back by a tension that forbids any false step: «Where is there room for lightness?» does she ask. Maybe in a tentative love declaration: «I think I’m feeling it.»

The answer to her question back in the reality of the africologne festival event is, on the other hand, bitter. During the Q&A a white audience member doubts aloud the singularity of the Black queer femme experience. She is patiently rebuked by an audience member, moderator Sarah Youssef and the writer herself. This crude and racist interruption brings the  question: has the festival been doing the work of creating safer spaces for Black artists to express themselves? This may be a sign for the organisers to turn the gaze inwards and start creating closer ties to the Black, Afrogerman communities of Cologne and their needs. To thoroughly rethink the curatorial frame of the festival – change name!, because: how does the programming of a Black, Afrogerman writer fit into the afroTopia e.V.’s [4] mission of «exporting contemporary African arts»? Its unquestioned underlying racism of equating African experiences with the one of born and bred Afrogerman and, or Afrodiasporic voices, avoiding all questions of racial dynamics is a very dangerous path to continue walking on. This, at the time where the festival is deemed to received greater attention as his funding grows to be federal – as announced by Culture Minister Claudia Roth.

When I asked Josephine Papke what the future looked like she answered: «Very queer. Queer people disrupt a lot of things taken for granted and create rooms and possibilities for everyone. (…) What we do here is important.» So, africologne, «the future is looking for you»: empower this important vision, make space for an incisive writer-director duo on your programming and budgeting board to sharpen your stance. Or pull strings to create a separate, independent, and sibling festival for cross-exchange. Make Vom Begehren, begehrt zu werden a fully-fledged production. In short, step into your responsibility: ask what the communities you invited to this reading want and need, and support it with the same determination you have used to support artists living on the African continent.

The Belgian-congolese singer and dancer Reinel Bakole(Photo: Zoe-Que)

This article would not be complete without the reason it is called «Eye Land»: a song by Reinel Bakole, whose concert brought the day to a close: «Eye should be keeping faith / I don’t wanna reminisce / Eye don’t wanna blame». A call for the softness of the gaze all deserve upon themselves, served by a deceivingly stripped-down tune that the Belgian-Congolese singer-songwriter and dancer composed with musicians in Kinshasa. Showing where her own eyes turn and hint at the historical grammar of her art[5]. The evening fades to the evanescent music.



¹ Opening speech of the African Futures All Around programme, 1st of June 2023, Schauspielhaus Depot, Cologne.

² «Filmmaker profile: Mamadou Dia», Daan Schneider, International Film Festival Rotterdam Website, 23rd July 2019.

³ About the desire of being desired.

4 The independent performing arts production organisation behind the festival.

5 Which she expands upon in a Facebook post on the 21st of June 2023: «It is beyond words, an honour to have been chosen to close the ceremony of the restitution of the honourable Patrice Emery Lumumba. This one is for the books. This is why I make Art, this is why I’m bringing my vision closer to you all. To Dig, all together and to find the truths that will free us all from the atrocities we can orchestrate when we’re far from thy self and others.»

Marie Yan (c) 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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