The students of International
We Love Africa and Africa Loves Us
We Love Africa (and Africa loves us) the collaboration between Nya Rampen (FIN), Institutet (SWE), and the artist Markus Öhrn (SWE) is a performance that is not easy to digest. For me, this process of digestion will continue for months, so the reflections provided here are only preliminary.
From the word go the piece was haunting. Entering the auditorium we are greeted by an enormous black box, 2 storeys high, surrounded by a white picket fence. It speaks to me as a symbol of the ‘Castle Doctrine’, the principle in American Law that a man’s house is his ‘castle’ and therefore afforded certain immunities and protections. The set is a powerful representation of what the performance as a whole speaks of, the insular and tokenistic morality of Western society.
We never see inside the house. Instead, the goings on inside the black box are projected through a live feed onto its outer wall. The first shot sets the precedent for musical interludes during the piece. A man, situated in the basement, face shadowed, equipped with 80s rocker wig sings a sinister tune ‘We’re going into the dark’. He could not be more correct.
Next up, we meet the family you inhabit this dark castle. They are sitting together like sardines on a sofa, staring blankly into the distance. They are wearing horrifying masks which make their faces look like pink plastic has been melted onto their faces. This image is very disturbing and we are forced to be with it for at least 10 minutes. Gradually the family start to move, to interact with each other, exchanging occasional glances, yawning or scratching their genitalia.
Over the next two and a half hours the performers confront the audience with scenes of domestic abuse, homophobia, in-family bullying and of course, as the title suggests, the West’s relationship with Africa. The tension in the performance and frustration as a viewer is built craftily by the intense sound track, performed live each night and deafeningly loud, but nonetheless masterful.
The long duration of this piece is entirely called for as the issues it seeks to confront us with are epic in their proportion and painfully true in their reality. Two and a half hours is only just enough.
The father is the protagonist whose moral corruption pushes the performance forwards. He abuses his elder son, whom he suspects of being gay, with the help of his younger son who is a carbon copy of his father. The mother is silent for the first hour and a half, watching on as her children are tyrannised by their father.
While Conte d’Amour, the groups 2010 work, described the story of a vertical “stepping down” in the cellar of romantic love, in this new production mostly take place on the ground floor of the family home. However, the family follow the father back down into the cellar for scenes in which Western images of Africa are explored: Africa as an unknown, wild, authentic place in need of aid give the family the ‘otherness’ they so crave. This drama about the relationship between helpers and the helped turns post-colonial and racist attitudes into hegemonic, patriarchal fantasies of omnipotence.
What seems like an ordinary, if dull, day in the household of the nuclear family turns into an unbearable hell. What makes it more hellish is how close it hits to home. I often found myself repulsed by some of the scenes, but I soon realised that it was because the material was touching upon an issue that I myself had experience of or because it was challenging my own hidden prejudices. We are not used to this in the theatre. Given, we are used to shocking imagery, but rarely are we provided with performances that are shocking because they force us to look inwards to see what is shocking about ourselves. This is often an uncomfortable inward look, but I would argue, a necessary one. Overall, a bold, full frontal exploration of the patriarchal fantasies of omnipotence that exist within the family home and extend outwards to the world beyond.
Writer is a theatre maker from London, via Edinburgh, currently residing in Helsinki. She is studying an MA in International Performance Research.
Markus Öhrn, Institutet, Nya Rampen: We Love Africa and Africa Loves Us
Credits: Markus Öhrn, Anders Carlsson, Elmer Bäck, Jakob Öhrman, Rasmus Slätis, Andreas Catjar, Pia Aleborg, Volker M. Schmidt, Alexa Graefe, Patrick Tucholsky, Tina Pfurr, Pamela Schlewinski, Oskar Nilsson, Yven Augustin
Produced by: Institutet, Nya Rampen, Baltic Circle, Ballhaus Ost, Garage X & Inkonst
Supported by: Hauptstadtkulturfonds Berlin, Swedish Arts Council, Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland, Nordic Culture Point, Swedish Author’s Fund & Stadt Wien MA07