Faustin Linyekula’s much anticipated show, “Festival of Lies,” performed at the Cedar Cultural Center over the first few days of November went far beyond the usual parameters of performing art.
Staged at a venue that normally hosts only musicians playing to a sometimesdancing audience, Linyekula’s recreation of a Kinshasa social club took the audience on a cultural trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Linyekula and his troupe, Les Studio Kabako, reenact their country’s tradition of gathering together for an evening of revelry and an exchange of fabricated stories, or lies, designed to make sense or mirth out of the chaos and violence that is their reality.
The myriad components of the evening included a modified arena stage for the dancers, placing the audience on opposing sides as if at a tennis match. On the south side of the stage, Togoborn Yawo Attivor stood with his soukous band and opposite Yawo sat the sound board and other technical crew.
Further unique measures were used to stage this multi-media presentation. The voices of former DRC rulers Joseph Mobutu and Laurent Kabila speaking in French were heard over the intercom. Also heard was Nelson Mandela. Their words were projected on screens in translated English above the bedazzled audience.
These political voices alternated with words spoken by Linyekula and members of his dance troupe, as they read from a member of the cast, Marie-Louise Bibish Mumbu’s, “Mes Obsessions: j’y pense et puis je crie!”
The perimeter of the dancing space was dotted with intimate tables each seating one or two couples. The ambiance was further developed with a food vendor, provided by Tam Tam’s African Restaurant and the liquor stand hosted by the Cedar. Small pots of colored candlelight glowed on each table, finishing the effect of a storytelling evening as if we were seated at a sidewalk café in the capital city of Kinshasa.
The doors of the Cedar open at 8p.m on Nov. 3 with a scheduled performance at 9p.m. Shortly before performance a few people are already dancing to Yawo’s music and the bleacher seating is filled to capacity.
Threading his way amongst the audience, Linyekula winds between tables and guests, taking pictures with a digital camera. He even climbs up on stage to get close shots of the band. Then he zeros in on Phillip Bither, senior curator for Walker performing arts and instrumental in bringing Linyekula’s work to Minnesota.
Pictures taken, Linyekula then picks up lighted shop-lights and carries each one around the dance area, randomly setting it down. The first words he addresses to the audience tells us that what we are about to see is all fiction, that is, it is unreal, implying not the work itself, but the “fact” that we are seeing it. It’s an illusion. So begins the Festival of Lies.
He gestures to the band and refreshments saying, “In Congo, there is no support of the arts, so we serve food and drink (to support ourselves). It’s a part of our structure, survival.”
In a country torn by internal strife, ravaged by disease, particularly AIDS, and enduring civil wars in countries around them resulting in an influx of refugees this lack of artistic support comes as no surprise.
What could be considered surprising is the positive reaction of his own countrymen when Festival of Lies has been performed in DRC. According to Virginie Dupray, manager of Studio Kabako, Festival of Lies is one of Faustin’s most performed works in Congo. It’s been performed in Kinshasa, the main city and also in the Katanga Province in the villages of Lubumbashi, Kolwezi and Likasi, which is in the southeastern part of the country.
“We performed it in various venues: on stage, but also outdoors in courtyards, public gardens and even in an unused and empty swimming pool,” Dupray says.
Dupray adds that although the form of the message might be challenging to a Congolese audience that is not used to contemporary performances, “most of the Congolese viewers are very familiar to the historical contexts. They know by heart Mobutu’s quotations; reciting them at the same time. There is a real sense of familiarity with what is performed on stage, a sense of proximity that is really looked after by Faustin.”
Linyekula insists that his work is not political, but reflective of his environment. His country’s history informs his work, but his work does not condone nor condemn his country. Nevertheless,the words that Linyekula chooses to highlight are an indictment by themselves.
The past corruption of the Congo’s government is plain for us at the Cedar to see in the fragmented sentences exhibited to the audience. Although there is no structured discussion of the dance installation after the Cedar’s show, when the work was performed in Congo, “Each performance gave rise to lot of discussions and questions about the sense of history, the message Faustin wanted to convey,” says Dupray.
Midway through the dramatic installation Saturday evening in Minneapolis, Linyekula invites us all to imbibe.
“My drama has perhaps been too serious because you are all still sitting in your seats,” he says, laughing and encouraging us to partake in the festivities of the evening.
By 11:30p.m the second half of the show begins with Linyekula arranging the shop-lights on the floor as if building a ladder. Then wearing only briefs, we watch as he crawls through the lights, his muscled body contorting like a serpent. His body is an exquisite study in form, the dream-model for an illustrator’s of Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body. We see every movement of his striated fibers.
A lament that is universal, but perhaps very poignant for the Congolese in their decimated country, is read by Tish Jones, one of the local performers toward the end of the show. She cries out, “Are you listening to me? You don’t even hear a word I am saying.