By Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published February 26, 2018
A multi-disciplinary performance that combines fashion, dance, poetry and music as it tackles the controversial issue of cultural ownership and appropriation that was initially perpetuated by colonial exploitation has been staged in Kenya, Uganda and Germany.
The choreographic fashion concert titled Chombotrope, the Jitta Collective made up of African and European artists searches for solutions to the issues surrounding cultural appropriation, especially so in the face of the unauthorised adoption of African styles and patterns in European fashion.
More importantly, Chombotrope, which was initiated by the German Choreographer Stephanie Thiersch and her Kenyan colleague Kefa Oiro, is a fanatical appeal to Africans to condemn the exploitation of their own culture and seek ways of guiding, preserving and sharing it with the rest of the world.
While Oiro is a choreographer, dancer, and head of the Tuchangamke Dance Group in Nairobi where he lives and co-curates Nairobi Festival of Performance and Media Arts (NEPMA), Cologne-based Thiersch, who is the director of Chombotrope, is also a media artist who has, through her company known as Mouvoir, developed several award-winning stage productions, films and installations that have been performed both in Germany and internationally.
In Chombotrope, that is presented in English, Kiswahili, French and German, traditional and contemporary materials, patterns and meanings become intertwined, collected and adjusted.
Stolen African traditions are reclaimed, distorted, mixed up and interwoven with fashionable contemporary urban lifestyles and tastes geared towards the future. The performance is inspired by the idea of remaking and recycling, including recombining of broken appliances, to create short-lived hybrid cultural objects.
New narratives emerge in the 60-minute production as the artists combine animism with science fiction, the spiritual with technology. A fashion black hole between two continents unfolds on stage like a natural force.
In this unusual choreography the Jitta Collective, a collaborative project under the direction of Oiro and Thiersch, is making an attempt at rethinking the legacy of cultural appropriation; through the pointed and personal practice of ‘making it your own’ and self-empowerment.
Together they are celebrating the mash-up idea and taking it to the extreme: Beatboxing and spoken word, drums and turntables, fashion and catwalks, contemporary dance and voguing unite to create a mix of futuristic identities that are echoed in a fashion concert. With African symbols or patterns having long since established themselves in the ‘Western’ fashion world, they propose a playfully subversive change of the perspective.
The choreography kicks off with models displaying recycled futuristic outfits by the Ugandan fashion designer Xenson (aka Samson Ssenkaaba), soon afterwards it mutates into a vigorous dance performance, accompanied by the loud and soulful drumbeats of Dodo NKishi, the passionate spoken word passages and rap.
The Belgian DJ Elephant Power (alias Nicolas Baudoux) does the musical composition and turn tables.
The German Marie Zoe (alias Marie Buchholz) performs the voguing, vocals and choreography.
From France is Alexandra Naudet, who dances, performs and contributes to the choreography.
Dodo NKishi from Germany does the musical composition, beatboxing and vocals also drums with the band mouse on mars among others.
The Senegalese percussionist N’deye Seck does the musical composition and plays the drums.
Besides providing art objects and Luga-flow poetry, Xenson’s costumes play a pivot role in this artistic spectacle.
The artists fearlessly cross the frontiers of sound and mixing and blending one another’s material.
Could the production have been informed by failed attempts by a German company to patent Uganda’s bark cloth in order to manufacture car seats in 2005?
It was the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that, by proclaiming the ‘art of bark cloth-making in Uganda as a masterpiece of the world’s intangible heritage’ on November 25, 2005 that protected it from cultural appropriation by the European company.
“The topic of cultural appropriation is a very difficult one especially we in this collective are from different cultures. This means that we can’t steal from another culture. This is a point to touch on in regard to our different ideas and identities,” Oiro says.
“I need to appropriate my culture for a deeper cultural understanding context. We need to look at culture that transcends several cultures. I picked waste materials on the streets in Cologne for people to later appreciate on stage in this production,” Xenson says.
“We all had to improvise in order to create this production. Each one of us came with individual talent, materials and networks for this creative. We have managed because we trusted, respected and appreciated each other,” Thiersch says.
Chombotrope premiered at the Stadtgarten in Cologne, Germany, on September 30, 2017 before coming to the Ugandan and Kenyan capitals, respectively, on November 7 – 8 and November 11 – 13, 2017.