portrait of myself as my father
September 14 – September 17, 2016
It’s September. The summer may be on its way out, but things are really just revving up in nora chipaumire’s fantasy boxing ring. Decked out in all manner of protective gear—from imposing shoulder pads borrowed from American football paraphernalia to African medicine belts snaking their way around her waist—she is ready to duke it out with the superhero avatar of her absentee father, conjured up from scarce evidence: elusive childhood recollections, an old identity card, and hearsay. The stage is set for chipaumire’s latest work, portrait of myself as my father, to launch in New York as part of the inaugural edition of Brooklyn/Paris Exchange, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)’s brand new collaboration with the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, highlighting “the breadth of the borough’s current creative output.”
Zimbabwe-born, Brooklyn-based chipaumire defies easy categorization as much as her paternal doppelgänger refuses to be contained in the ring that has been designed for him. A multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary creator, she is a writer, a thinker, a dancer, an actor, a choreographer, an auteur (amongst other things.) With a keen eye for visuals and a fine musical sensibility, she imbues her work with compelling layers of imagery, sound, movement, and meaning. I like to think of her as a Michelin-star-bedecked chef—when you sit at her table, you just have to trust and surrender: you may never know what she will cook up this time. It will be a challenging dish most likely, but a rich one definitely, and the one that is sure to leave you thinking and talking for a long time to come.
Aware of the elusive nature of her art form, chipaumire is concerned with the longevity of her work: “I hope it’s an experience that leaves an indelible mark on people’s retinas, people’s brains, people’s bodies,” she said as we discussed her production at BAM’s Next Wave Festival. Quite successfully so, I might add, after witnessing her searing performance. In portrait of myself as my father, as I have come to expect from her oeuvre, chipaumire is not interested in politeness. She acts quickly and ferociously: she strips the layers, the skin, the fat, and goes straight for the heart. In this work, the audience enters chipaumire’s arena blinded by industrial lighting fixtures strewn across the stage floor, and greeted by the choreographer sporting her eclectic protective outfit, like an anime character ready to kick your ass at a flip of a switch. Deeply personal, and without the unnecessary preliminaries, her work demands of her audiences the same ability for self-confrontation and honesty: her presence creates a mirror for us to examine our own assumptions.
After mining her family’s history for years, chipaumire found empowerment in conjuring up an imaginary figure of the father she barely knew, as means of coming to terms with her own identity, and in a larger view, the Shona people in her native land. Raised by a single mother in the former Republic of Rhodesia, chipaumire found herself in an uncommon position since her father disappeared from her life when she was still an infant. “Divorce was a novelty that my mother engaged in,” chipaumire said, “the consequences of which continued to ripple through my mother’s and father’s families equally.” Much of her past work originated from an investigation of her family. By chipaumire’s admission, her mother’s figure looms large in all of her works, perhaps most prominently in her 2012 production of Miriam, which inaugurated BAM Fisher, the very same space in which her current production is being presented.
However, reconstructing a parent that was conspicuously absent from her life—having had no interactions with her father from age five, when he left her family, until his passing when chipaumire was thirteen years old—was a daunting prospect. Without much evidence to go on, she proceeded to put herself in an imaginary father’s shoes, turning to her imagination to explode him into an unlikely superhero. This characterization is unsurprising, considering that every parent, looming like a giant in an infant’s gaze, is likely to invoke awe-struck admiration. The power of chipaumire’s approach is that she imparts the work with fluid complexity by simultaneously constructing and dismantling this image—it becomes an internal struggle between her superego and her id. In portrait of myself as my father, the paternal figure is both revered and reviled, celebrated and denigrated from one moment to the next. Yet, at all times, it is really chipaumire who is rolling with the punches in the boxing ring she created for herself—aided and coaxed by her shamanic counterpart (stunningly portrayed by Senegalese performer Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye) and a Kantoresque on-stage director figure (Shamar Watt). “It’s family as the ultimate blood sport,” chipaumire said, laughing. And, much like every family drama, from the Greeks onwards, it seems to have no end in sight. As the board spelling “Round One” is displayed on set repeatedly, it is clear that there is no escaping this: the first act is just going to play itself out on repeat.
What I find refreshing in chipaumire’s work is the singular lens through which she views the cultures she inhabits. She views herself as “an African who is also an American artist”—an apt definition, I find, as she was born in Zimbabwe, but was educated and came of age as an artist in the United States, creating her entire body of work here. And it is exactly that unique perspective that prompted Joseph V. Melillo, the Executive Producer of BAM, to envision the Brooklyn/Paris Exchange with chipaumire as an inaugural artist to launch the initiative. “Her work is influenced by African tradition but she is a woman of the 21st century,” said Melillo during a recent conversation. “A Zimbabwe-born woman confronting African masculinity, embodying her father in a boxing ring will be revolutionary to Parisian audiences.” chipaumire herself, with her protective gear on, and hands wrapped in bandages, is ready for the challenge of adapting her work not only for the proscenium stages in Paris and Amsterdam, but also to a loading dock in Philadelphia, and finally—completing the circle—in a real boxing gym in Miami.