Banataba (World Premiere)
Faustin Linyekula & Moya Michael
Met Museum, Velez Blanco Patio
A small group is gathered to watch Mr. Linyekula’s performance Banataba on a Sunday afternoon at the Met. The are two stages: an elevated stage to the left of the audience and the remaining space in the hall serves as a second stage. To the audience’s right, there’s a sculpture that has been wrapped in cloth and is held in place by a rope. A video is projected onto its base in which we watch a canoe gliding along a river (presumably the Congo river) as we wait for the performers to enter the room. The chatter within the room runs parallel to the host of voices emanating from the video. The distant voices alternate between everyday discourse, laughter and singing and eventually the video transposes us to a village where we witness a group of villagers talking, singing and chanting. There’s a playful & almost taunting tone in their voices.
Mr. Linyekula & Ms. Michael enter the space from opposing points as the lights are dimmed. They are both draped in black cloth that has been bound to their bodies: their movements are contained and restricted. Their cloths remind me of the Ghanaian funeral attire worn by men, which is typically draped around the body in a similar pattern. Mr. Linyekula joins in and eventually transports the tune from within the video into the room. The voices mingle for a short while and Mr. Linyekula’s voice singularly emerges, carrying on a singsong tune. On his arms, he carries something that is wrapped and bound, which he passes along to Ms. Michael as they meet in the center of the space. They continue to pass the wrapped item back and forth, between themselves.
It’s hard not to imagine that the audience is either witnessing or partaking in a ritual. Sadly, the lecture style seating arrangement, did not afford a good view to those of us sitting in the second or third rows, making the performance feel more distant than probably intended. After the procession, there is an unroping and unrobing of their garments and a settling onto the elevated stage. Mr. Linyekula then breaks into a narrative and recounts the journey that has brought all of us into the same space. How is it that we are all gathered in this room?
We learn that a Congolese object in the Met’s storage - an object that was deemed unworthy of being displayed because its origins were questionable - was precisely what moved Mr. Linyekula to create this performance. The object emanated an energy that pushed him to explore his background on deeper levels. He asks, ‘what if we value objects based on how they make us feel rather than just their visual / aesthetic attributes?’ He asked how it possible that of all the objects displayed at the museum, the one that evoked significant feeling within him is the one that curators deemed unworthy of showing.
Mr. Linyekula interweaves a personal narrative throughout the performance as he tells us a story of self-discovery in America, far away from where his parents originated, and even further removed from his ancestors and their ancestors. The irony of his encounter with this object is that the displaced artifact that has been removed from its place of origin retains an essence that has the ability to move him regardless of this Entstellung across continents. This to him is a testament of how artifacts emanate an energy that calls out to our ancestors.
He continues to unwrap the bundle in front of him, together with Ms. Michael, and there’s a deafening silence that is interrupted by an electronic noise similar to that of a theremin. It reminds me of the sound you usually hear, when a sound and space barrier is broken in a film. We emerge on the other side, unmistakably in the Kongo. Together, they attempt to arrange the individual pieces they uncover as if they are assembling the pieces of a puzzle. Hints come from different actions, such as listening to the different noises that are made by hitting the individual pieces against each other. In doing so, they search for pieces that belong to each other through the harmonious noises they make together. It soon becomes clear that the unwrapped figure is in fact a wooden human body, which they are trying to piece together to recreate a wholesome being. They call upon ancestors while walking about the room - asking for guidance as they assemble the pieces in front of them.
The summoning of ancestral spirits takes on the form of a ritualistic dance during which Mr. Linyekula undergoes a spiritual awakening in which his body becomes a vessel for communication and rebirth. Ms. Michael aides in the process, and at times stretches Mr Linyekula’s limbs as if it were that of a newborn baby's being massaged and lengthened, and in some ways toughened for the world. It reminded me of the many Ghanaian mothers I have witnessed doing this to their newborns. Mr. Linyekula retreats into himself and leaving only a pensive gaze on his face, as he is drawn into a world that we can only imagine and catch a glimpse of by looking at the distant gaze in his eyes. His narrative voice, which has guided us through the performance thus far, emerges from this trance-like state as a language that is unintelligible to most of the audience.
Mr. Linyekula does not specify where in the Kingdom of Kongo he is from; rather, he names the ancestors he has been able to trace. There is a modern desire to label that he does not afford the audience. In asserting that he is from the Kingdom of Kongo, he manages to refute the labels and fictitious borders imposed on his people. He simultaneously asserts a solidarity with his ancestors and fellow Kongolese and rejects the horrific results of historic events such as the Berlin Conference, which took place in 1884-1885, during which King Leopold was given what is now known as the DRC as his private property. The conference established what we now know and have accepted as the borders of African countries, a dividing of a continent that had at that point not been explored yet by the 14 european countries that partook in the conference.
Mr. Linyekula then goes into a monologue during which he traces his ancestry from his time in New York back to the Kingdom of Kongo. He expresses a deep desire to explore his ancestry beyond what he knows of & from his parents. He is interested in going back to a time that is historically untraceable in writing, when narratives and lineage lived through oral tradition, passed on through generations of those, to whom these narratives were most precious. These are narratives that held value prior to a written history, which subsequently subjugated them to the filters of outsiders.
Mr. Linyekula finally reassembles the scattered pieces, together with Ms. Michael. This time, it happens in a more informed manner - as if the ritual has imparted him with some divine knowledge. There’s a sense of magical realism that pervaded this performance. Through this spiritual experience, Mr. Linyekula was able to encounter his family's history and attain knowledge that would otherwise be difficult to attain within reality’s limitations.
The symbolic time and space barrier is transcended again and Mr. Linyekula’s narrative brings us back into the present - to a time that seems more familiar to us. He has returned with a statue (a replica of the one he first encountered in the Met’s archive) that was made for this performance. It is the very statute that we have been observing throughout the performance. He needs to undergo a secret ritual prior to bringing the statue back to New York, which will endow him with a historical knowledge and meaning that makes him worthy as the keeper of the statue.
Once my mind wandered back at the end of the performance, I felt like I had been part of a mystical ritual. I also wondered how the majority of the audience felt. Had there been a true understanding between us, Mr. Linyekula, and what he had experienced in making this performance a reality? My thoughts lingered on the subject of trust and loyalty, because he retained the proceedings of the secret ritual to himself - they could not be shared with this audience. The keeping of this secret was mandated by those who led the ritual in the Kingdom of Kongo, and it is something he respected. He withheld from us, rightfully so, something that maintains a sacredness at the core of his heritage. It is something that cannot be taken away and commodified.