Nora Chipaumire tackles African masculinity in ‘Portrait of Myself’

Thursday, November 17, 2016 - 5:23pm

Three bodies, one boxing ring, several dimmed lights and an immeasurably ambitious project. Through dance, Zimbabwe-born choreographer Nora Chipaumire explores the stereotypes and realities of African masculinity using moving bodies as chimeras of her estranged father, in a Detroit exhibit this weekend.

Since graduating from the University of Zimbabwe and completing an M.A in Dance and M.F.A in Choreography & Performance from Mills College, Chipaumire has continued to create work deconstructing notions of the African male and female body, gender roles and the limits/capabilities of art.

Her ongoing project and engagement with these questions is one the rest of the world, thankfully, although late to the game, has come to recognize.

“The Black Lives Matter movement emerged after I had already been in this process,” Chipaumire said in an interview. “I feel like the rest of the world caught up with what I was interested in. So then there’s the question, especially on an American landscape: Why is the black male so feared? Why is that black male such a threat?”

I asked how her commitment to exploring these questions precipitated.

“It was coming to America, and it being put to me that, ‘No, you’re not Black, you’re African.’ ” she said. “There was a clear distinction between the two in the larger consciousness. Within the Black universe, there are much clearer understandings of who is who. And I think that kind of nuance is what the greater majority misses.”

Chipaumire’s work explores, beyond what it means to identify as one thing, what it means to identify as many. Her new piece, “Portrait of Myself as my Father,” is an extension of a 2013 work, “The Rite of Spring,” which focused on the female African body as society’s figurative sacrificial lamb.

“I was curious what happens with the black African male body, and I found that the discovery of my father’s body kept it really personal and in a private arena. I don’t do work in which I’m not complicit, it has to be meaningful to me and teach me something” Chipaumire said. “Hence, trying to draw pull out, tease out and sculpt out this portrait of my father as this site of male African masculinity, black masculinity, as the site of sacrifice.”

Currently based in New York, Nora and the two male dancers who perform as her father, have been on tour for three months with the work, beginning in their home-base in Brooklyn, traveling to Europe and finishing with their finale in Detroit this weekend. The group has been met with standing ovations in nearly every city, an honor that is both recognized and reciprocated by the artists.

“There’s so much at stake for us three Black bodies in the space, especially given this timeframe that we’re in this week,” Chipaumire said. “And there’s just this thing where the audience stands up for you in recognition of the effort they have seen you unleash, so we bow to them in recognition of their work too.”

The week’s political climate was an inevitable corner in which our conversation could not avoid brushing. However, Nora and her dancer’s work challenge the understanding of many on this matter too: she doesn’t want to talk about her blackness, her femaleness, her belonging to the global South. The conversation is flipped.

“For all us that always expected that white is might, well, there it is. I no longer as a person from the global south have to concern myself with describing myself to you” she said. “This is really ripe, the study of otherness, that’s gone. We are not othered; we are people.”

So, with fierceness, conviction and passion, the project continues. While Nora plunges further into the arena of both personal and projected identities, she poses a challenge to many of the rest of us: “You need to tell us who you are,” she said. “I think that’s the beautiful unexpected consequence of this whole Nov. 8 conundrum that we all find ourselves in.”

With such an alarmingly refreshing note of positivity, a testament to the power of art, we can all agree that’s a beautiful thing indeed. “Portrait of Myself as my Father” will offer more of the same.