Voices from the Aftermath: Reflections on Dorothée Munyaneza’s "Unwanted"

Taylor A. Eggan

After the lights had gone out and the final strains of music had faded, an abyss of silence opened out. Suspended between performance and applause, between the traditional “call and response” of the theater, the house observed a prolonged silence pregnant with shock, rage, grief, and tentative hope. It felt to me, strung out in this span of silence, as if we in the audience had collectively agreed that clapping would compromise the catharsis. Indeed, after bearing witness to Dorothée Munyaneza’s extraordinary and extraordinarily powerful new performance work, Unwanted, our reverent hush seemed the most appropriate response.

I had the privilege of experiencing Unwanted in early September as part of the Time-Based Art (TBA) Festival in Portland, Oregon. Hosted annually by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), the stated aim of the TBA Festival is to bring a diverse array of challenging, socially engaged, and often experimental performance to Portland audience. This year’s offerings included a significant bloc of artists hailing from as far afield as Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore. Numbering among these international artists was Dorothée Munyaneza, a 35-year-old choreographer and musician who was born in Rwanda and now lives in France.

PICA’s presentation of Unwanted in the 2017 TBA Festival had special significance. In 2016, PICA’s curatorial team invited Munyaneza to participate in its Creative Exchange Lab program, which had been inaugurated “to promote artistic exchange, instigate peer dialogue, and foster the development of new works with a focus on serving artists working at the intersection of different forms” (PICA 2017). It was as a participant in this program that Munyaneza first met the American musician Holland Andrews. During their tenure together in the Creative Exchange Lab, Munyaneza and Andrews forged a bond as both friends and artists. Munyaneza felt drawn to Andrews’s singular soprano voice, which boasts a performative range spanning the guttural and the operatic. Soon after the Lab’s completion, Munyaneza invited Andrews to join her in Marseilles as a chief collaborator in the development of Unwanted.

Judging by the subject matter of the performance, working on Unwanted must have been a deeply painful experience. Munyaneza based the work on oral testimonies of women who were raped and impregnated during the horrific violence of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Munyaneza recorded these testimonies personally during a return trip to Rwanda. As she recounts in a recent interview with The New York Times, Munyaneza describes the surprising openness and candor of the women she interviewed: “They have been wounded deeply and violently, and they were my elders, so I thought they might not confide in me. But they completely opened up. They spoke of how hard it was to love their children, how hard it was to live alone, because most were rejected by their families. They, and their children, who are now young adults, offered me their most painful moments” (Sulcas 2017).

Considering the difficult material from which Munyaneza generated Unwanted, it would be hard to come away from the performance not feeling devastated. Yet what makes the work so affecting goes beyond its subject matter and extends to its formal aspects. After all, Unwanted is by no means a work of mere reportage. Instead, the work takes on a fluid form that seamlessly interweaves recordings of Rwandan rape survivors in Kinyarwanda (partially translated into English live by Munyaneza), an evocative sound score by the French composer Alain Mahé, otherworldly music produced live onstage by Andrews, vigorous movement by Munyaneza, and other theatrical elements. As it slips between each of these performative modes, often suddenly and jarringly, Unwanted engages in constant translation between mediums of expression. When words fail to express the inexpressible, language disintegrates into pure sound. When music fails to diminish the agony, the body wracks and writhes to exorcize its demons. This dynamic of translation between mediums testifies to the psychological and social complexities of Munyaneza’s subject matter. The ramifications of violence that is directed against individuals and yet devastates whole communities are wide-ranging and long-lasting. There can thus be no single strategy for reckoning with them.

Yet, taken together, the performative strategies that Munyaneza and her collaborators developed wield a transformative power. As an audience member, I felt that the performers ushered us all into a potent ritual space, one that didn’t simply represent the Rwandan survivors but which actively summoned their presence into the theater. In addition to the recordings of these women, which literally brought their voices into the space, two massive female figures—one standing, the other lying supine further upstage—served as totemic stand-ins for these same survivors, some of whom found the strength to rise back up, some of whom did not.

But the performers also had other ways of conjuring these far-away women. Over the course of the performance, Andrews used her looping pedal continuously to make her own voice proliferate into a fractured chorus. As she did so, I gradually sensed that many more women were in the room with us than just the Rwandan women in Munyaneza’s archive of personal testimonies. Munyaneza confirmed this feeling in a public talkback about her work, facilitated by Lisa Jarrett as part of the TBA Festival. When Prof. Jarrett asked, “Who else is on stage with you?,” Munyaneza responded that her work on Unwanted unavoidably drew on similar stories of women around the world who have suffered from sexual violence as a weapon of war. Thus, the monumental female figures on the stage represent a multitude of women from Rwanda as well as Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere.

Above all, what has stayed with me in the weeks since I saw Unwanted is this sense that Munyaneza and her collaborators summoned such a multitude of women into a ceremonial space. In this space, we the audience were invited to bear witness to these women’s stories and participate in a communal catharsis of solidarity. For “their” struggles are much closer to “us” than we often think, both in terms of their specular presence in the theater and in terms of the pervasive reality of sexual violence against women pretty much everywhere. Thus, to enter a relation of solidarity with “them” necessarily entails healing our own community.

In both its content and its form, Unwanted begs an important question that I think resonates at the very heart of PICA’s TBA Festival: What constitutes the transformative potential of art? How does socially and politically engaged art do the work of changing hearts and minds?

Despite being a movement artist and performance maker myself, I am foremost a literature scholar whose academic training is in postcolonial theory. For this reason, my primary resources for thinking about the issue of art’s transformative potential tend to be literary. When thinking about Unwanted, then, what came to mind first was the Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop’s novel, Murambi, le livre des ossements (“Murambi, the Book of Bones”). Diop’s novel tells of a Rwandan history teacher, Cornelius Uvimana. Cornelius happened to be abroad during the 1994 genocide, but he returns home afterward and attempts to reckon with the horrific violence by translating his experience into a play. Murambi dramatizes the social, historical, and political complexities involved in Cornelius’s art-making. Literature, many others tell him, cannot bear the terrible weight of such an atrocity. Yet in spite of the warnings, Cornelius persists through his shame at the shortcomings of his play and refuses to stay silent.

Aside from their similar subject matter and their shared faith in the work that art can do, however, there are few other meaningful resonances between Unwanted and Murambi. But the unique process through which Munyaneza developed Unwanted does bring the performance into meaningful conversation with another work of African fiction: Assia Djebar’s mesmerizing 1985 novel, L’amour, la fantasia, translated into English by Dorothy S. Blair as “Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade.”

L’amour, la fantasia is a semi-autobiographical novel that spans more than a century of Algeria’s colonial history, from the French conquest in 1830 to independence in 1962 following the Algerian Revolution. Djebar’s complex narrative interweaves and draws parallels between episodes from her own life and episodes from Algeria’s violent past. For example, the opening chapters link the violence that founded French Algeria to the violence that inaugurated a young Arab girl’s education in the French colonial lycée. The initial scene, in which the girl’s father delivers her to the French school, concludes ominously with the word “dawn” (aube). The next section begins with the same word, ushering the reader into another threshold scene: that of first colonial contact on 13 June 1830. Similar juxtapositions of the personal and the historical appear throughout the novel, until Part Three, in which the narrative gives way to a series of transcribed oral testimonies of Algerian women who participated in the Algerian War.

It is the novel’s third part, subtitled “Les Voix Ensevelies” (“Voices of the Buried”), that most obviously draws L’amour, la fantasia into conversation with Unwanted. Just like Munyaneza’s performance summons the presence of a multitude of other women, Djebar’s novel is constantly interrupted and inhabited by a multitude of other voices. And just as Munyaneza personally generated an archive of oral testimonies from Rwandan women, so too did Djebar, who also worked as a filmmaker to record the experiences of numerous Algerian women who had participated in the Algerian revolutionary struggle. Thus, both performance and text become conduits for the real-life voices.

In her novel, Djebar seems particular concerned with the danger of mediating real-life voices through writing. The language of L’amour, la fantasia frequently dramatizes the interarticulation of the oral and the written. Thus, on the title page for Part One, we get both “L’amour s’écrit” (love is written) and “du cri de l’Arabe” (the cry of the Arab), indicating from the very beginning that the novel will inscribe within its pages a chorus of anguished voices. And yet Part One also demonstrates the way in which the cries of the colonized are typically transmitted—and often travestied—via the writing of the colonizer.

Although not exactly complicit with the violence of the French colonial regime, Djebar still faces the challenging question of how to transmit Algerian women’s voices without also enacting a discursive form of conquest. This is in part because her subjects do not speak in a European language. Instead, Djebar must serve as their translator, rendering in French the words they communicate in Arabic or Berber. But Djebar’s translation is not solely verbal. Very much like Munyaneza, Djebar recontextualizes these women’s testimonies by framing them within a complexly structured work of art. Situated within an easily recognizable cultural institution such as “the novel,” these testimonies become legible to European audiences in a way that they could not otherwise be. In other words, without the formalities of the so-called “Western” novel—or, say, the strategies of contemporary performance—to package their anguish in an aesthetically resonant way, Djebar’s female Algerian subjects might otherwise be rendered voiceless. (This is essentially what the theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak meant when she answered her own provocative question, “Can the subaltern speak?,” in the negative.)

One of the most important questions that Djebar’s novel poses is therefore whether and how a writer or artist can access and re-present the histories of individuals who either have no presence in the material archive or whose presence is marked by violent erasure. Djebar draws attention to this question in her harrowing reconstruction of one of the earliest genocidal atrocities committed by the French in Algeria. In 1845, Aimable Pélissier used smoke to asphyxiate an entire Berber tribe in the Dahra Caves near Mostaganem. These men, women, and children, along with their livestock, had taken refuge in the caves to escape the French marauders. Their voices will never be heard in any historical archive—only the silent cries of their erasure from it.

So how to make their voices heard? This question motivates Unwanted as much as it does L’amour, la fantasia. However, where Djebar’s novel is limited by the confines of language, Munyaneza’s performance, as I mentioned before, has the advantage of being able to tap into numerous modalities of expression. Slipping between these modalities allows Munyaneza and her collaborators to construct a shifting landscape of language, sound, music, and movement. Such a multidimensional landscape enables a more felicitous and immediately affecting—if also more abstract—mode of translation than Djebar is able to achieve with words alone.

The spatial metaphor of “landscape” brings me back to what I wrote earlier about the ritual space that I felt the performers fashion over the course of Unwanted. Although literature has many ways of invoking and evoking spatiality, live arts always perform space (and perform in space) as a matter of course. And despite the sparse set for Unwanted, perhaps even because of it, Munyaneza amplifies our attentiveness to the totality of the theater environment. Indeed, the space in which Unwanted unfolds has that charged quality that reminds one of what the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka has described as the central function of ritual drama: to wield “a cleansing, binding, communal, recreative force” (Soyinka 1976, 4) that renews society through communal catharsis. “Ritual theatre,” Soyinka asserts, “establishes the spatial medium not merely as a physical area for simulated events but as a manageable contraction of the cosmic envelope” (41). Within this “manageable contraction,” and on behalf of the community of onlookers, the performer crosses a divide into what Soyinka calls the “chthonic realm” of uncertainty. In making this crossing, the performer functions as an intercessor.

I adopt this the term “intercessor” from Clarisse Zimra, who in turn got it from an interview she conducted with Djebar. In an essay on L’amour, la fantasia, Zimra glosses the term as follows:

The term “intercessor,” one who intervenes with someone, as well as on behalf of someone else, shifts simultaneously in opposite directions through ambivalent registers: either that of an accredited, trusted mediator who speaks for someone; or, perhaps one who, secretly and speciously, presumes to speak “instead of” those who cannot, or may not, speak for themselves. The deployment of the term thus invests the liminal, transgressive space where subjectivity is to be negotiated, as well as the space where it may find itself infinitely (re)negotiable. (Zimra 1995, 151)

Zimra argues that Djebar occupies the role of an intercessor, mediating Algerian women’s voices in a liminal space where all subjectivities—Djebar’s included—must constantly be renegotiated.

I want to suggest that what makes Unwanted such a powerful and transformative performance is that Munyaneza, too, acts as just such an intercessor. Although she literally translates between Kinyarwanda, French, and English text, her role is less like that a translator and more like that of a spirit medium. Except even the notion of spirit medium suggests a one-way channel. By contrast, an intercessor occupies a uniquely double position.

In the first place, Munyaneza certainly intervenes on behalf of her Rwandan subjects. In her interview with The New York Times, Munyaneza describes her attempts take on the embodied experiences of these women: “I recorded their voices and really tried to capture how they held themselves, how they walked, how they wiped away their tears. . . . We hear some of their testimonies in the piece, and I had to find a way for the body to navigate through these spoken words. . . . For me, the journey has been painful, even physically painful” (Sulcas 2017). Over the course of the performance, we in the audience look on as Munyaneza seems constantly to renegotiate herself among the many stories and physical experiences she is channeling with the support of Andrews and Mahé.

But just as Munyaneza intervenes on behalf of her subjects, she also intervenes with them. She does this in two senses. The first sense pertains to the process through which Munyaneza generated her archive. By the very nature of her research, in which she invited survivors to speak their truths, Munyaneza sparked something potentially transformative and even healing for her subjects. The second sense pertains to the performance itself. Although Munyaneza spends much of Unwanted translating recorded speech from Kinyarwanda to English, in the final moments of the performance, she leaves this role behind. At the end of each interview, Munyaneza asked her subjects, “What is your favorite song?” Prompted by this same question, the woman in the recording begins to sing. No longer serving as a translator, Munyaneza joins the anonymous voice in song. Andrews also joins, humming in wordless harmony. It was at this moment that Unwanted truly opened up a two-way channel, both with this particular woman and with the many other women whose presence had been conjured. And for this audience member at least, this final moment, with three women’s voices coalescing across space and time, felt deeply, hauntingly cathartic.

I don’t think I was alone in this feeling. When the lights faded on this final moment, the audience sat quietly for an unusually long time. It was obvious, though, that it wasn’t one of those awkward moments when the audience isn’t sure whether the piece is over. We all knew it was over. And yet silence reigned. An informal poll of fellow audience members indicated that the performance left some in an emotional stupor. For others, however, silence seemed the most fitting tribute for honoring both the performers and the multitude of women they had summoned onstage with them. I fell in the latter camp. Devastating as its subject matter may be, Unwanted resonated for me as a profound gesture of solidarity on the part of Munyaneza, Andrews, and Mahé. Through their difficult work on and in the performance, we in the audience were also invited to participate in the labor of solidarity. But not until after we had listened deeply.

References

Diop, Boubacar Boris. Le livre des ossements (Paris: Stock, 2000).

———. Murambi, the Book of Bones, trans. Fiona Mc Laughlin (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).

Djebar, Assia. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, trans. Dorothy S. Blair (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993).

———. L’amour, la fantasia (Paris: Éditions Jean-Claude Lattès, 1985).

Munyaneza, Dorothée, with Holland Andrews and Alain Mahé. “Unwanted.” 15 Sept. 2017, Portland, OR, Winningstad Theater.

Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. “Creative Exchange Lab.” Accessed 29 Sept. 2017. http://pica.org/programs/creative-exchange-lab.

Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Wedge 7/8, (1985): 120–30.

Sulcas, Roslyn. “Making Dance Out of the Unspeakable.” The New York Times, 19 Sept. 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/19/arts/dance/dorothee-munyaneza-unwanted-rwanda.html?mcubz=3.

Zimra, Clarisse. “Disorienting the Subject in Djebar’s L’Amour, la Fantasia.” Yale French Studies 87, (1995): 149–70.