Perception Gap: Patrice Naiambana on migration, decoloniality and Othello

It’s been a little over a week since BE.BOP 2016 has ended, and I’m still contemplating the many gems that were experienced both here in Copenhagen and Berlin. Founded, conceived and curated by Alanna Lockward of Art Labour Archives who herself describes BE.BOP as  “a generative curatorial script.” Where Lockward “stages a dramaturgy, and each participant is a star in their own right, who recreates the script following their own connection with spirit.” Art Labour Archives “links the radical imaginations of theory, political activism, healing and decolonial aesthetics/aesthesis”. BE.BOP 2016, Black Europe Body Politics Call & Response brought together artists, academics, writers, and educators from over 20 countries for a total of six days. From June 1-3 the events took place at Volksbühne Am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz and from June 5-7 in Copenhagen at Trampoline House and the University of Copenhagen.

One of the artists whose work I was introduced to during this inspiring event is Patrice Naiambana. He is an African performance artist/conceptualist from Sierra Leone and is currently based in the UK. He founded Tribal Soul in 1991 as a means to make visible stories from the African Diaspora experiences; in response to what he felt were the oversimplified imagery in the West.  Naiambana’s Edinburgh Fringe First Award-winning solo show The Man Who Committed Thought has been touring internationally.  His conceptualizations and solo work are employed as catalysts for training strategies for aspiring artists, non-artists and students. For this work he has developed a technique called Hothousing and Modes of Culturepreneurship. He has conceptualised and directed The Gospel of Othello, The Accused, The Sacrifice, The Cripple and The Free, Zwarte Piet Speaks! Grave Diggers and Perception Gap. He has developed ‘Shakespeare as a lingua franca for intercultural dialogue and learning’ in diverse environments for all ages and backgrounds.

Naiambana’s Perception Gap is a solo-digital performance that explores the psychological pressures that the African immigrant-outsider experiences. In it he declares, “the farther away you are from where you’re from, the farther away you are from yourself.” He laments, “There’s o easy way to tell the white man the truth.”  If you ever get a chance to see Naiambana – I recommend that you do.  Skandik Afrik recently had the opportunity to ask Naimbana some questions ranging from themes of migration to his personal interpretation of Othello.

1. Where did you grow up? 

In different countries, a diaspora journey growing up and schooling.

2. Your work deals a lot with migration – what do you think is the relationship between migration and race? 

The Post-colonial and Empire experience are full of rivers of forced movement and interventions in cultures and peoples. There have been huge on-going consequences. My work deals with the psychological ramifications of the Colonial Wound, because feeling wounded and displaced on a continual basis is an experience I know about.

3. In your piece “The Perception Gap” you offer a reading of Othello. Can you write a little about this?

I can write a lot about this…there is a Perception Gap concerning this play. Some believe that Othello is noble, speaks well and is a good fellow. Some, like me question how a mercenary who used to be a Muslim, who risks his life defending the Christian White State of Venice by killing other Muslims and presumably non-whites, can ever be noble to anyone whose positionality is not birthed by Anglo-centricity?

This African (or moor) exile, away from home has not a single thought for his people or ancestors, to my thinking he is not necessarily noble or admirable. The reason for this is simple. Othello is not and never was meant to be a black man – this was a construction written for a white actor for white Elizabethan audiences who always knew that the painted colour of black on the actor would rub off, just as the mind would be changed by Iago to commit dreadful violence. The Elizabethan meta-theatrical significance of blackness is often overlooked. Blackness is a loaded narrative. I find it problematic that I must use my black skin to represent an anglo-saxon construction of an imitation of my people. There does not exist any instance of the European engaging in a similar dehumanising exercise.

The Englishman believes Othello is Noble. The tragedy cannot work otherwise. How should the African living in the West view Othello? Through whose lens? Africans have their own concept of tragedy; it is not the same as the Eurocentric model. He who names you is your master. History ought to tell the African that this is a deja-vu dangerous state of affairs.

Othello is an (blackface) immigrant-outsider character constructed by an Englishman (a white Englishman) who is manipulated to believe that his white Italian wife has been unfaithful and therefore she must die and her lover too. He is manipulated by a white man who is prepared to risk everything in order to bring Othello down. He never repents. This play is a masterpiece of thematic structure, but I am too well acquainted with the predicament of isolation, spiritual and cultural exile and denigration that Othello must have undergone in a white dominated elite environment. However Shakespeare was not interested in Black lives. There is not a single non-white character in Shakespeare’s works that succeeds in anything by the end of the life of the play. They all lose in the end. And lose badly. If Othello is only about jealousy why does Othello have to be black? Because the black man carries the irreversible gene of violence according to the Anglo-Imaginary that created this black being. It is fundamentally a racist proposition, as is Shylock. These characters are necessary plot devices. I reject that Shakespeare’s view ought to be my view. It is irrelevant how good a writer he is or how many Black actors play the part to the satisfaction of The White Gaze. The Default position of Humanity is not whiteness, therefore I have been working on Decolonial Readings and Models of this play that centralise the thinking of Africans. Any attempt to reject the legitimacy of this position exposes the bitter ugliness of Racism. Shakespeare possessed a prophetic genius and he is a profound ally in a Decolonial reading. But rarely will you witness reciprocal respect for African literary or cultural treasures. Such is the hegemonic greedy grasp of Shakespeare on World Artistic Imagination, it is important to challenge the image of the Black Man being brought to his knees by an unrepentant white man by presenting the options of other valid interpretive frameworks. What else might be going on Othello’s soul, an exile, to lead him to wife murder and suicide? This lens has more relevance today than Shakespeare’s anglo-logic which is insufficient to answer this question. To this end I have dedicated myself to creating a canon of 12 Gospel of Othellos. A delinking mentality is required to approach this task. I have conceptualised and facilitated 6, in different countries. One interpretation can be dismissed as another foreign piece of exotica. But it will be hard to ignore twelve well-articulated constructions as one body of work. After all if Shakespeare is universal, it’s time to let in the universe or at least Othello’s Country men. Intercultural models in Diaspora Spaces are key to building bridges for dialogue and learning about difference.

4. How did you get involved in performance?

Because I craved personal and social change. And I was trying as a 23 year old to make sense of the world. Making and telling Stories seemed a safe and sensible way to do that. Except Political performance is not always safe.

5. What do you do to fortify yourself?

It’s personal, but since you asked, I pray. I believe in the Lion of The Tribe of Judah as The Light of World. Not as a religion but as supernatural reality.

6. What’s the most inspiring experience you have had, of late?

At BE:BOP Berlin 4 June 2016, after badly interrupted rehearsals, weeks of illness, desperate isolation and depression, I managed to present a performance with a gorgeous eager audience. Their generosity inspired me and lifted me. It was a crucial engagement for my sense of sanity and usefulness. This also was the night my inspirational hero died – Muhammad Ali. I was the first and only black child at this particular school. Ali came on TV and spoke like no sportsman. That was an extremely vitalising and affirming experience for a 10 year old.

7. Where do you see the world 10 years from now? 50? 100?

Without more compassion abounding, I see the world will become a harsher place. We will get used to it because the young will not know of a lighter time. I see Disposable Humanity will not be seen as outrageous or a sordid state of affairs not to be tolerated by civilised people. The United States and the UK are deeply uncivilised places. I see the human race going nowhere fast. I see that we will have chips in our bodies to pay our bills, to declare identities and there will be no money. In 200 years time. It’s still a Wonderful World but don’t hold your breath that we will abolish the sacrifice of innocents for the well being of the few anytime soon. As long as that remains the status quo, ethical evolution for the human race will remain an illusion.

8. If you could change anything in the world, what would it be? 

I would go back and change the path to divorce. So my family can all live in the same house again.

9. Name a book that you think everyone ought to read.

Foe by JM Coetzee,  a short book but a masterful plea to let the silenced speak in their own image. It is a deconstruction of the Robinson Crusoe myth.

10. Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 

Progress as a Culturepreneur. I want to be better at smiling through the pain.

Patrice Naiambana
BE.BOP 2016
BE.BOP 2016
BE.BOP 2016