Strategies of Resistance

Indent: The Body and the Performative serves as a repository for a body of writing that stems (and then takes off) from the Gati Dance Forum’s engagement with teaching methodologies, research and performance-making, with the intention of adding to the critical discourse around performance practices in South Asia.





Who is performing whom and under what conditions along the North-South axis?

Rahel Leupin



I am Swiss, a former performing arts curator and researcher. My Swissness was the reason I was asked to contribute to this journal. I am the token Swiss in order for Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, to be able to financially contribute to the launch of Indent: The Body and the Performative, a journal that has the noble vision to create a discursive space for an emerging contemporary dance scene in India. This remark is not meant as a sarcastic reference to Pro Helvetia, who, by the way, is doing pronounced work within the scope of its statutory framework. This introductory remark should bluntly remind us of two things: firstly, despite discourses of transnationalism, hybridity, globalisation, culturescapes and cosmopolitanism, the majority of art councils and arts institutions still function on the basis of national borders and passports. Secondly, financial engagement in the contemporary arts across the globe is dominated by the West and most often comes with implicit or even explicit connections and agenda-settings.

The question that has haunted me ever since I started working in the North-South[2] context is: how can I from this privileged power position engage with artists from the South without imposing and/or pressing them into a Western scholarly/ artistic canon? How can I retract my own Western gaze?  I have come to an understanding that the only way out is by applying an exploratory approach. It is through conversations and shared experiences with artists from the South that I can start to comprehend my own gaze as well as theirs. Hence, at the beginning, there is neither a theory nor a hypothesis, but a face-to-face encounter. I then try to establish a shared space that enables discussion and conversation. In doing so, I raise as few questions as possible (most questions are tentative): rather I try to mostly listen. The choreographer Daniel Kok [0], said to me in an interview, “I feel it is an important moment to stress the listening as opposed to the speaking. It is very clear that politically it is what we need to do. World politics are very confusing at the moment. (…) Instead of making more things happen, we need to slow down and listen to each other. I find this quality really necessary, especially in positions of leadership.”

These first paragraphs are important to me in order to make clear to the reader my position and from where I am performing, and consequently, how I perform. Performing here is not meant as an artistic act but as a never-ending loop of actions and reactions in a shared space open to responses. It is my strong belief that it is only through performing relationships that we can come to a common understanding of how to be in the world together.

An emerging generation of global nomads

In the past decade, international performing arts curators have become increasingly interested in an emerging performing arts generation from the South.[3] Festivals such as Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Brussels), Theaterformen Braunschweig/Hannover, Theater der Welt, Festival d’Avignon, Zürcher Theater Spektakel, Festival Marseille, Spielart Munich etc., feature performing arts artists such as Mallika Taneja (India), Chuma Sopotela (South Africa), Buhlebezwe Siwani (South Africa), Venuri Perera (Sri Lanka), Azade Shahmiri (Iran), Eisa Jocson (Manila), Laila Soliman (Egypt), Boyzie Cekwana (South Africa), Eko Supriyanto (Indonesia), Mamela Nyamza (South Africa), Panaibra Canda (Mozambique), Daniel Kok (Singapore), Faustin Linyeluka (DR Congo), Ntsoana Theatre and Dance Company (South Africa), Ogutu Muraya (Kenya). This list of artists is by no means exhaustive; nor is it objective. It is inspired and at the same time limited by my own engagement, which is only a partial one.

Through my work at the international performing arts festival Zürcher Theater Spektakel as well as in the framework of my PhD, I have had the privilege to indulge in deep conversations with several of these artists that are momentarily touring the international festival circuit. At the risk of generalising, I want to sum up here what I think that many of these artists, aged twenty-five and above, have in common. Firstly, they come from countries with a colonial past, countries with scarce or no public or private funding for the arts. Secondly, these artists are nomads, tirelessly globe-trotting in their pursuit of opportunities such as educational programs or residencies, in order to be able to follow their artistic vision. While their acceptance of production funding is pragmatically (versus ideologically) driven, they are artistically virtuous and socio-politically provocative, drawing from a full source of local, regional and global inspiration. Their self-perception seems to transcend geographies, nationalities, languages or time zones. Thirdly, unlike many of their successors who often left their countries and seldom came back (exceptions confirm the rule…), many of these artists are returning to their home countries. There they make use of the symbolic and economic agency they assembled abroad and put it to use towards self-empowerment in their particular local artistic context. They take matters into their own hands, so to speak, launching peer-to-peer focused operations, creating opportunities for local newcomers, creating discursive contexts, and organising local festivals or cultural hubs. These artistic endeavours are often substantially funded by their international touring.  In my view, it is not so much ‘postcolonial amnesia’ that makes them design their own futures. Nor do I see them celebrating an Asian or African utopia that is either non-existent or still in the future. Rather, I consider their artistic and perhaps even activist propositions as a positive mode of self-apprehension, through which they are beginning to recover alternative narratives of identity. With their local engagements they seem to assume and never deny a moral responsibility for the (colonial) history of their home countries. In doing so, they enrich the present by exorcising it of the ghost(s) of the past. Fourthly, they are mediators between worlds, whilst equally challenging the local gaze of their fellow citizens and the biased Western gaze that so persistently lingers upon them.

Together with the artists Venuri Perera, Mallika Taneja, and Daniel Kok, I want to vigilantly look at the contradictions of performance-making and curating along the North-South axis today and work through the questions: Who is actually performing with whom and under what conditions? And why now?

[1] See Interview with Daniel Kok.

[2] I use the term ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ or briefly ‘North’ and ‘South’ to refer to OECD countries (North) and non-OECD countries (South). I am aware that the term bears the tendency to reinscribe North-South binaries whilst reifying the dominance of the North. I use the term for purposes of clarity and in the absence of a better term.

[3] In Europe, in the 1980s and early 1990s performing arts festivals such as Theater der Welt, which was founded in 1981 by the German Centre of the International Theatre Institute or the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels which was founded in 1994 by Frie Leysen were pioneering in including artists from the Global South. In the early years of these festivals the role of the programmer was to gather culturally diverse performances and to promote them in the framework of his or her festival. In regards to curatorial practice one could call this the ‘travelling and shopping’ model. This predominantly single-authored curator model celebrates difference beyond national boundaries and cultures and attempts to work against Eurocentrism by facilitating a higher degree of visibility for artistic practices that have formerly been subordinated or submerged. This model posits an active curator who selects passive artists. In order to address the pitfalls of the ‘traveling and shopping’ model, festival makers have in the past decade increasingly turned to a more reflective and discursive mode through which to engage with Southern artists. On the one hand, they have established audience-driven workshops, symposia, educational activities and transdisciplinary focal points around marginal artistic practices and issues in order to include artists and audiences in cultural exchange by creating opportunities for encounter and discussion. These attempts aim to reflect on the global and local conditions under which these performances are produced while rethinking questions of participation and access. Rather than being content-driven, these formats are very much context-driven as they enable a critical engagement with the European gaze on southern artists. While these formats are still peripheral to performing arts festivals, operating in a secondary role as compared to the program of performances for public consumption, they have become quite relevant for engagement with artists from the Global South as they provide shared spaces and live encounters. Curating here means taking care of what, where, why, and how work is produced. Additionally, curators have established and implemented curatorial formats such as residency programs and co-productions that reconfigure the relationship between artist and curator. Curating in this sense understands that new production models give rise to new models of inclusion.

Rahel Leupin is a PhD student in Performance Design at Roskilde University,Denmark. She holds an MA in Theater Studies (University of Bern, Switzerland) and an MA in Arts Administration (University of Basel, Switzerland). She has worked as a performing arts curator and program adviser for different art institutions including the Rote Fabrik, Zürich; Zürcher Theater Spektakel, Zürich; Belluard Bollwerk International, Fribourg and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.


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