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Which Africa will the Holland Festival bring to our country?

Rokia Traoré, Dieudonné Niangouna, Brett Bailey, Compagnie La Baraka by choreographer Abou Lagraa, El Gusto with Kashba Blues: there is a lot of Africa in the Holland Festival 2013. Performances that stand out and mostly feature solid engagement. Issues related to the colonial past are powerfully highlighted.
But is it really Africa that the Holland Festival brings to our stages? Or just Africa as we Westerners like to see it? Aren't they all performances that mainly tie in with visions, forms and developments conceived in the West? Performances that bring back to Europe in modern form what the Europeans pumped in during their colonial rule?
'Desdemona' is a multifaceted rendition of a Shakespearean tragedy by singer/songwriter Rokia Traoré from Mali. The text by Toni Morrison criticises the mark colonialism has left on African society. 'Exhibit B', an installation featuring African performers by South African director Brett Bailey, is also a fierce indictment of the exploitation of Africa and the accompanying sense of superiority of European settlers. In a series of shrill tableaux vivants, lines are drawn from past abuses to contemporary problems such as migration and racism.
Indictments against colonialism are something we like to hear. In the Netherlands, one can hardly find people who approve of the colonial conditions of yesteryear anymore. And we are proud that we now have so much insight into ourselves and the mistakes our ancestors made.

The fate of this group is not a typical African message, but fits seamlessly with insights we already have in the West about the consequences of colonialism.

El Gusto is a legendary Algerian music group. Jewish, Arab, Berber, European and African musicians played together until the Algerian revolution put an end to this. In the new situation, it was no longer possible to make multicultural music. The group was disbanded. Admittedly, this happened after the withdrawal of the French, but the dislocation and division this country found itself with were a direct result of colonial-era domination and oppression. The Holland Festival offers a unique reunion of El Gusto's musicians, now in their seventies. The fate of this group is not a typical African message, but fits seamlessly with insights we already have in the West about the consequences of colonialism.
Perhaps 'El Djoudour (The Roots)' by choreographer Abou Lagraa and Algerian company La Baraka is a performance that really wants to bring to light something that has not been tarnished by the West: Islam as it originally was, tolerant and merciful. But that Lagraa chooses this theme can easily be seen as a reaction, prompted by the West's negative image of this religion. What is particularly striking, however, is the form of Lagraa's depiction. Is it not borrowed from a typically Western invention, namely modern dance?

It would be interesting to see and listen to the five African productions in the Holland Festival with these questions in mind. We are presented with critical responses to western colonialism and its still palpable consequences. But isn't it criticism through a heavily western-influenced lens? Beyond the on-stage critique, we can come to the realisation that African culture in its manifestations is far from free from our influence. It would be worthwhile to bring to the Netherlands a theatre group that is completely detached from us, that conveys the sense of life of ordinary people in Africa without influence. Would such a performance appeal to us? Could we give the new and unknown a place in our sense of life?

- 'Desdemona', Rokia Traoré, di 11, wo 12 and do 13 June, 20.30 hr, Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ
- 'Shéda', Dieudonné Niangouna, do 6 and Fri 7 June, 20.30 hrs, Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam
- 'Exhibit B', Brett Bailey, Sun 16 to Wed 26 June, various starting times, Loods 6, terminus line 10, Azartplein, Java Island
- 'El Djoudour (The Roots)', Compagnie La Baraka, Ballet Contemporaine d'Alger (chor.: Abou Lagraa), Sun 9, Mon 10 and Di 11 June, 20.30, Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam
- El Gusto - Kashba Blues, Algerian songs, Sun 2 June, 20.30, Royal Theatre Carré

Maarten Baanders

Free-lance arts journalist Leidsch Dagblad. Until June 2012 employee Marketing and PR at the LAKtheater in Leiden.View Author posts

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