New Frequencies SPIELART 2021

A conversation with the artists of Maabara Exchange Theatre

The artists Wanjiku Mwawuganga and Esther Kamba are part of NEW FREQUENCIES. In this year’s festival, they presented their works ROOTS and DILATION in which both of them, following different approaches and aesthetics, touch on topics such as motherhood, family connections and the position of the (Black) woman and the female (Black) body in society. Wishing to give us an insight into their works, they found the time to answer five questions in a joint conversation, despite their ongoing travel preparations. The following text is a shortened and edited version of the conversation.

You both devote yourselves, albeit with different approaches and formal choices, to themes such as birth, motherhood, family connections and healing. Are there reasons in your eyes that these themes are currently occupying both of you?

Esther: It is hard to not be occupied or surrounded by those topics, because they are very prevalent for me. They are currently the central themes in my life, among others because I am a mother. I am a mother of a three-year-old who is about to turn four. So, these topics would be ringing in my head. And they would be the kind of conversation that I really want to have with people – and that is because, the conversations are tough. People don’t want to have them. These are not ‘motherly issues’ or ‘women-oriented issues’ and men shouldn’t take a break from them. It’s about humanity, coming together and holding space for complex conversations such as these that have been tabooed. I could even talk about the female giants who held me up, even in my creation process such as Kainyu the artist, maker and doula my personal guardian angel throughout the process, I can talk about Mueni Lundi, the Midwife and dramaturge of this work, who held me and cared for me during my post partum and fed life into me when I couldn’t see past every hour, or I could talk about my dear friend Pauline Sifuna who is my ride or die partner in Falme Arts, a theatre company I co-founded and have been creating experimental works in Kenya under, and how we hustle together. I could even remember to mention the choreographer I worked with, Juliette Omollo, who is also a single mother and shares some of my experiences. I could mention my own mother Keziah Wambui who is my rock, my foundation, a nurse and a fighter, a scientist. Living her life, she has shown me so many complexities of womanhood and motherhood. When I gave birth, these were the people I wanted to hold and show them even just a little bit of their greatness. I see them, I am them and these are my everyday people. So of course the themes of their lives and mine intertwined are realities that would sip into my work.

Wanjiku: I agree. As I mentioned in one of our previous conversations, there is a vacuum where these conversations ought to be had. It has slowly grown into a vortex that is currently itching to be filled. It’s obvious this time. And resistance isn’t going to help. We’re all hurting and we all need to take our places in these conversations. There is no healing in isolation. And that’s that. I am constantly reminded by my photography collaborator and life partner Kimani Wandaka, the artist, how this work is bigger than just a performance. It is our life. It is a journey. It was a yearning that my mother and her mother and my children had, even if they didn’t know. It is a mending of brokeness. It is just nature.

Esther: It feels like people, – the audience, or even the society – have been curated overtime to allow the space to have these conversations in the way we are approaching them through our artistic styles. For me it’s the assumptions made by society that reduce the complexity of who women were before they were mothers. It is hard to separate that from heritage, because it carries. It all comes to collide, because of our complexities as human beings.

Wanjiku: I remember when I was pregnant I felt it was impossible to find someone else who was going through the same thing. I keep telling the wonderful Kainyu- who helped me explore ritual and find true meaning in it for the project- that if I had a doula like her at that time I would have never experienced the darkness I did. It was so hard to find something that I could resonate with, that would give me healing and it took so long to dig myself out of that dark hole. And this show, ROOTS, is my closure. My attempt at finding healing. And it would be beautiful if someone resonated with the show.

As far as I understood the descriptions of the works that you are going to present, you both try (in different ways) to offer the audience a kind of experience of ‚other‘ or perhaps a better alternative drawn from your cultures and shared heritages and knowledges. My questions tries to aim at what your motivation is in using your art to share these kinds of knowledge.

Esther: I think that knowledge is shared in any space that wants to open a conversation or dialogue. So it is kind of uncontrollable that knowledge of something that you have done research on is coming out. But the motivation for creating the work that is called DILATION comes from the conversation I wanted to have about how much we have reduced mothers and women. How the importance of women as God, as creators has been reduced or almost erased in so many facets of our society. How we don’t hold space for failure and for all expressions, moods and attitudes that mothers as full human beings can have and have had. It’s ok for a mother to say that taking care of her child is hard. It’s ok for her to say „I can’t do this anymore“, it’s also ok for her to say she is tired and fantasize about leaving their child behind, I think all these expressions of what someone is truly going through are valid and motherhood which is the hardest job in the world should be celebrated. Let’s create spaces for mothers to breathe and to be supported even as artists.

Esther Kamba performing DILATION

Wanjiku: While I understand that the conversation we are having is fairly new in some contexts, I have a problem with the fact that these topics we choose are being taken as unique, in the first place. Maybe that is the conversation that we should be having: what is this preoccupation we have with othering? I create what I know and as I know to do it with the hope that I will forge a connection with someone. Anyone. In the words of my Technical Director; Henry Wamai- we are who we are and a rejection of that is a rejection of any true human connection. Is it that we have forgotten how to connect?

Esther: Exactly. I think that is something we are fighting : Not to be othered. It is not to be separated from the collective. Let’s normalize this thing of women all over the world, of mothers all over the world, saying: Here we are with all our complexities.

Wanjiku: I think the attitude we have stared this with is more „We’ve always been here“ rather than“Here we are”- if you get what I mean. And that is the gift that my dramaturg Leila Anderson gave me. Space to just explore me and a constant reminder of how much we as women, as mothers, are conditioned to reduce ourselves for the benefit of others. Marginalizing is a real issue but we’re done apologizing for occupying the spaces we’re in. We’re done starting conversations and hoping that people will create the capacity to see or hear us. We’re done reliving our traumas in that way. We already passed the baton. Now we’re just existing, creating, being and loving. Because that is to be a woman. To be mother.

Esther: By differentiating or marginalizing the voice of African women in this conversation of motherhood you are separating and creating a border, and this is what we are trying to break down with all our works by saying: ‘Our works are universal’. And that is important for us, to hold space for them, or to hold room for them. For me it is these constant extremes. Am I Kenyan? Am I Canadian? Am I a mother who is a housewife or a mother who is an artist? Am I an artist? Am I professional? These are conversations that separate. You almost have to be one thing. But you do not have to be it – and that is the beauty of art. Art is colourful, it is what we are. And that is the point we are trying to make.

Wanjiku: And not caring if anyone does not want to hear that point, because it is for us. It is more an “us-thing”, it is more for the mothers. The mothers need to know that…

Esther: That they are not alone. Representation matters – that they see somebody else saying: “Here, this is what I am doing – what are you doing? In our research we found out that there is very little research about post-partum depression in our context of the African perspective. Most of our motivation comes from that, the interest to have archives, to have works about it, to have somewhere to look and say: “Oh, someone knows what this is. I am not alone. There is something about that”. There is something beautiful about this sharing.

Both works have an autobiographical connection. In what ways is this significant for each of you? What does the connection to your own life and your own body mean for your artistic works?

Wanjiku: For me it was a natural transition. Early in my career I was lucky enough to work with Kenyan artists like Abu Sense and Ngartia, whose works are centered on questioning the white gaze and rewriting our own narratives, and the phenomenal LAM Sisterhood who helped me articulate my dissatisfaction with the erasure of women from our history. These wonderful artists and works helped me search deeper within and I got to that wonderful stage of artistry where I felt overwhelmed with knowledge and enriched with experience but I didn’t know what next. So I decided to search even deeper. This is the point where I met Ogutu Muraya. We had worked together years before and our meeting forged a new kind of connection. He could see I was searching and yearning and the kind soul that he is held my hand, our hands as we birthed our projects. And ROOTS was born, an excavation of my own history and how trauma is passed on across generations with the mother as a central focus.

Wanjiku Mwawuganga in her performance ROOTS

When it comes to the body, I had had numerous conversations about the violations experienced by the female black body but I had never truly appreciated the topic in all its complexity. And I can’t really say I have now. Digging into this autobiographical work and lending my body to it as a performer forced me to really go to places I hadn’t imagined I’d have to find. Knowing that my body is going to stand on stage night after night always feels like stripping and putting myself on display. From struggling with the vanity of my own biases against my body and the ones imposed on me by society to attempting to embody all the scars that my mother, grandmother and my great-grandmother’s bodies have carried- it was scary! I would not have survived this, had it not been for the support I got from Leila who nursed my confidence through love and care for me and my work. Kainyu who gifted me a daily ritual of appreciation for my body. And the love, grace, and guidance I got from Jacinta Wanjiru, my mother. It’s these women, this work and the awareness of microaggressions that the female body goes through that have allowed me the gift of profound love and adoration for the black female form. How do you even start to exalt the woman without truly exploring the body itself? Do we really understand what we have done to it? What have we made it represent? And let’s move even closer to home, the mother. All that you lose – that is the field of complexity we are talking about.

In my eyes, you are taking a feminist position with the themes of your works. Would you agree with that? Does or what does talking about birth and motherhood have to do with feminism for you?

Esther: Personally I feel that the discussion of feminism is complex. Because regardless of how collective it sounds – I’m often scared of calling myself a feminist. Again this falls under the question of marginalisation. Through millennia, the world has perfected the art of putting people in boxes. There is an idea and there are attitudes that have been ascribed to feminists works and I’m not sure that I want to exist as just that one thing. Even feminism in itself is complex. It has many varied genres. The fact that I am an African woman doing work that fights for the place of the black woman in our time naturally accords me a seat at the table I guess. So if you want to look at it through these lenses then do so, by all means. I do not shy away from being a supporter of the woman’s voice, her place and her dignity. But I’d like to think my work is a bigger fight for humanity. It is a very provocative work, but it’s also just life.

The bigger conversation of intersectionality and the spaces of the underdogs, in which form they exist, is what I’m interested in. They are the disrupters. They are the muted. I guess my work is hinged on the belief that if art is not really given importance and if it does not really say something that is truly important, then what is the point of doing it? That is just my opinion and someone else might have a different one, then we can sit together at the table and share those different opinions.So, yes, I am having a conversation around motherhood and birth and identity and and I am fighting for those feministic aspects – but also maybe not. Maybe I am also just going through something.

You are both part of the Maabara Exchange Theatre, founded by Oguto Muraya. What does this theatre do and what influence does it have on your work?

Esther: The Maabara initiative has been an interesting process of creating solo work. It is a research-based, process-based as well as practice- oriented approach. My work as a theatre director has always been influenced by a script, so the Maabara Exchange Theatre was very instrumental in helping me to create a different approach to creation. I started with a concept and trusted the concept all the way through – while also giving the concept a breathing room to evolve and to be flexible- which is the hardest thing. Maabara gave me the chance to connect with the fact that the themes of my works are oriented around something I want to say, or something that is very visceral – and the question then became how you pull that off, or expand it, or allow it to open, so that it can grow and take different directions. It then becomes a question of believing that the research that has been done is essential and that it will come to play. I guess Maaraba is about the importance of doing, of pushing beyond fear, beyond the resistance, beyond your own issues that can block your work. What is the work that is calling me and am I going towards it? And one of the biggest lessons or Maabara is allowing for progress and removing.

Wanjiku: You have captured it perfectly and there is very little to add. Maabara‘s central focus is unburdening the artistic process. Also it’s an initiative that is trying to create space for artists who want to experiment and feel that they do not have a space to do so. I mean I have been able to collaborate with such amazing artists like Anthony Macharia; who believed in my work enough to leave his cinematography work aside and support me as a production manager, and many other artists who walked in and out my studio to help me build the work. Ogutu Muraya is also very intentional about working with the „misfit“, for example the mother. Most women disappear from the art scene or have to morph to adapt once they become mothers.

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