An Interview with Dieudonne-Christophe MBALA NKANGA: Performance and Politics in AfricaSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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J: Would you provide a sketch of how your interest in theater and performance studies developed?
Nkanga: (laughs) It's a long story. After high school I was not planning to study theater. My parents were expecting me to study law or medicine, but in 1974 the government imposed a quota system on students. When I graduated from high school in 1975, I was told there were too many people from my ethnic group in either of those fields and that I had to pick another. At this time I was involved with friends who were performing in an amateur theater. I found myself developing a taste for theater so I decided to apply to the theater department at the Institut National des Arts. In 1976 I took the entrance exam and was accepted by the department. I graduated in 1979. That summer I was offered a job at the Institut National where I then worked alongside my mentor, the late Mobyem Mikanza. Mikanza was the founder and director of the National Theater in Kinshasa.
J: Going back 20 years, what was state of the theater like when you first started?
Nkanga: It was a strong period for performance art because even though we were just coming out of the oil crisis, we had a very strong economy. Zairian theater also reflected an intense cultural revival that was happening in the whole African continent. The National Theater had its own building and even a ballet troupe. Mikanza had friends and contacts all over the world in the performance industry, and he was able to secure tours in Europe and Asia. And even private groups prospered, following the lead of the National Theater. Independent troups produced plays written by Zairean playwrights and in many cases they adapted those written by Africans and Europeans to follow the trend introduced by the National Theater.
J: Can you explain the difference between the National Theater and Institut National des Arts?
Nkanga: The National Theatre is a state controlled performance company. Created in 1969, its main objective is to produce plays and performances to entertain the Congolese people and to explore the potential of Congo's diverse cultural traditions. It has three sections: theatre, traditional ballet, and contemporary music. The Institut National des Arts, on the other hand, is a school controlled by the Ministry of Higher Education. Created in 1967 as a conservatory, it changed its structure and programs in 1971 to become part of the Université Nationale du Zaïre (UNAZA). Its main objective is to train technicians (actors, directors, musicians) and scholars of theatre and music. Both institutions were neighbors until 1988, when Mobutu's government decided to build a new sports complex, including a large stadium, on their location.
J: How did the National Theater intersect with the state, or more precisely, with Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire's president?
Nkanga: The answer is complicated, but we can identify three stages. The first stage was in the spring of 1969 when Mikanza was expelled from the priesthood for devoting too much time to cultural activities. Finding himself without a job, he decided to start a theater. In November of that year he met with the Minister of Culture, Paul Mushiete, who thought his projects were interesting and worth supporting. So the National Theater really started as an amateur activity.
But in 1972, Mikanza got into trouble for his play Allô! Mangembo Keba!, an adaptation of Nicholas Gogol's The Inspector General. Mikanza's adaptation openly attacked corruption within the Mobutu government. Until that point no one would admit publicly that there was corruption in the government. Mikanza's play caused widespread outrage. There were journalists who attacked the play, and Mikanza was called upon many times to explain himself. The government ended up expelling him from the National Theater. Finding himself once again without a job, he went to the United States to study.
Then, just before returning to Congo in 1975, Mikanza wrote a play, La Bataille de Kamanyola, in honor of a battle that took place at the Kamanyola Bridge in the 1963-67 civil war. The hero of that battle was Mobutu. The play was successful and Mobutu liked it; one could say that watching the play, Mobutu rediscovered the National Theater. He started giving the theater money and transportation to help the players travel around the country. He bought electric generators to allow them to go to rural areas and even raised their salaries.
J: Do you think Mikanza wrote the play in some sense to make peace with Mobutu?
Nkanga: I thought so. But a few years later he told me to read the play between the lines; it has a few words that attack Mobutu and the leadership. Mikanza held onto the National Theater from 1975 until 1978, when he was forced to leave again because of conflicts. His departure marked the third stage in the theater's history, because Mobutu then appointed someone from his own ethnic group to head the theater. The government soon afterward changed the theater's name from National Theater to Mobutu Sese Seko National Theater. And that was only the beginning. They changed everything, turning the theater into a propaganda tool of Mobutu's party, the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR). The theater was subsequently used to entertain officials when they had meetings and so forth. And they changed the whole way plays were produced. But because they couldn't actually run it, they called Mikanza back in 1979 to lead it again! In 1982 things got so bad again that Mikanza left for good.
J: Were you working for the National Theater during this time?
Nkanga: No, I never had a full-time job in the Theater. I was called in more as a consultant. I was working at the Institut National des Arts, which is a school for dance, theater, and music, so I was never a part of the National Theater structure.
J: Was there a push in the early 1980s for a fully "authentic" Zairian theater?
Nkanga: Yes. The theater section was called upon to produce plays written by Congolese playwrights, while the ballet section produced performances based on themes from our traditions. The National Ballet put on performances like Lianja (1971), Nkenge (1980), and Elima Ngando (1984). They were based on some of the numerous Congolese folktales and legends. On many occasions Lianja toured Europe, from France to what was then the Soviet Union, and Nkenge toured the United States in 1981. It was part of Mobutu's policy to encourage the production of plays based on our own culture instead of importing ideas from elsewhere.
J: And did these works also tour Zaire?
Nkanga: Yes, all three toured the country and were even recorded for broadcast on national television. The state used military planes and trucks to help the company go anywhere it wanted to go.
J: At that time in Zaire there were also opposition artists who criticized Mobutu and "Mobutuism." Were the plays of the National Theater presented in ways that allowed audiences to develop a critical stance? Or were they strict celebrations of Mobutu's national policy? How were they received?
Nkanga: That's something I'm studying right now. Looking back, you find that there were two sorts of performances. There was the official performance, which was sponsored by the MPR. These performances were done with the help of the party and the party bureaucrats were there to see that they contained the political messages of the party. The party called this movement authenticité, which was a kind of cult ideology developed around Mobutu, his ideas, actions, everything he did. Formally, authenticité pushed for the rediscovery of what could be claimed as "African" within the former Belgian colony, but in practice it meant enhancing the status of Mobutu as the "guide" for all Zairians. The government proposed that every company, university, or any private or public institution should have a performance to sing and dance in honor of Mobutu. The government then paid for these official performances.
But many artists opposed Mobutu and they started creating plays intended to mock the official performance. It was hard for them because they didn't have the resources of the official theater. Plus, they faced a tricky situation because you couldn't attack Mobutu directly. Artists started drawing on the myths and legends of Congo's oral tradition and produced their plays in such a way that the audience, who knew about the legend or story, could relate the play to the current situation. The plays drawing on oral tradition were metaphors for what was going on at the time.
J: Can you give us an example?
Nkanga: In 1976, Pius Ngandu Nkashama wrote a play entitled La Délivrance d'Ilunga. The main character of the play, Ilunga Nkongolo, is one of the mythological founders of the Luba Kingdom, and the play tells the story of how he transformed himself from a simple hunter into a leader who raised the consciousness of the Luba people. The problem was that Ilunga Nkongolo was so involved with being a leader that he couldn't bear any kind of opposition. In this instance, then, Nkashama did not have to modify the story very much to criticize Mobutu. However, he includes a few lines that reflect what people were saying about Mobutu's behavior and his treatment of other people, especially women. For this, Nkashama got into terrible difficulties, to the point where he had to flee the country and take up residence in Europe, where he still lives today.
But artists also looked outside Zaire for stories. For example, during those years there was a rich protest tradition developing in South Africa. In the late 70s, Congolese artists started to write about Soweto. In songs and plays you would hear Soweto mentioned constantly. I remember two plays. The first is Bwabwa Wa Kayembe's Les Flammes de Soweto(1976), which uses the student uprisings in Soweto in the mid-70s to revisit Mobutu's crackdown on the 1969 and 1970 student protests in Kinshasa. The other is Musangi Ntemo's On Crie a Soweto, which we can translate as, "They Are Crying in Soweto." But this is a metaphor of course. They are crying in Soweto, but here, too, we are crying.
J: Did directors modify these plays to make them correspond to what was taking place in Zaire?
Nkanga: Yes, but in subtle ways. Directors would make slight changes to the performance, adding what we call in French, "couleur locale." For example, they would add background features such as songs and dances that belong more to Congo than to the country where the play was written. Sometimes they would change a few phrases, but most often the changes could be seen in the subtle details of the performance.
J: How did Congolese artists access Sowetan literature and culture?
Nkanga: Intellectuals were seeking this information. In 1976 we still had the university system imposed by Mobutu, and all those in social sciences and the humanities had to go to Lubumbashi to study, which is in southeastern Zaire near the Zambian border. Scholars had easy access through Zambia to South African radio, news and literature. And of course the ANC was based in Zambia so it was easy to get access to them. These students brought back what they learned to Kinshasa. Before that time I knew very little about South Africa. Though I had taken history classes in high school on South Africa, it was not until I saw the plays that I was able to learn about Apartheid. It was through plays that we learned.
J: What was the first play you were involved in directing?
Nkanga: I directed my first play, Beatrice de Congo, in 1980 for the Institut National des Arts. Beatrice was a legendary historical figure who fought against the intrusion of the Catholic Church into Congo in the eighteenth century. The play was written by Bernard Dadié, a poet and playwright from Côte d'Ivoire. As a child I had heard stories of Beatrice from my relatives, so when I found the play it really interested me. It was a very interesting experience and I'll never forget it. (laughs) I was like someone learning. I had about 35 actors on stage and the play lasted four hours.
J: How did people respond to it?
Nkanga: People loved it. We took it on tour to Brazzaville, and then two more cities, Matadi and Boma, where it was very well received. In Brazzaville they wanted us to stay but there were a lot of problems between Zaire and Congo, so we couldn't remain.
In general, I developed a number of stage innovations and the presentation of the play was put in a global perspective; Westerners love to hear about and see historical figures. And Bernard Dadié's writing helped in fostering my directorial views.
J: I'm interested in the historical aspect of Beatrice de Congo. From what I understand, this play was part of a much larger movement by Zairian playwrights and artists to portray historical topics. Why should Zairian theater be so heavily historicized?
Nkanga: I think it was born out of the authenticité policies of Mobutu. Mobutu's authenticité movement destroyed our country's history. Mobutu's cultural policies were intended to prevent people from learning the real history of the country, and focus only on Mobutu. The message he delivered was that in our ancient society, the leader was the most important person; nothing meant anything without the leader. In schools, history programs were totally changed. All references to the Kongo, Kuba, and Lunda kingdoms were dropped. The government tried to suggest there was no history without Mobutu, that history began with his rise to power in 1965. There is a huge generation between 1974 and 1991 that knows nothing about the history of the epic kingdoms of the past. So I think opposition artists at that time were trying to save this past and question the authenticité policies, because Mobutu talked a lot about the past, but then used it selectively to do what interested him politically, ignoring the rest.
J: How did performances by artists opposed to Mobutu tie into what Johannes Fabian and other Africanists call "ukumbusho," which we would translate roughly as "memory work"?
Nkanga: The term describes cultural practices in the Katanga province, where artists create handicrafts on almost everything, including paintings on canvas, wooden sculpture, carvings on copper leaf, and small toys. They sell these items in the markets to tourists and local people alike. Many of their pieces represent historical figures and events. For those studying popular culture, the pieces offer a way to trace the history of Congo's social conflicts. "Ukumbusho" refers not just to the handicrafts, but to the stories that the artists tell about their work, because of course each artist has his or her own perspective, and in the course of retelling the stories change and evolve.
Scholars such as Johannes Fabian and many others are right in stating that the "ukumbusho" genre is based on everyday life, local collective memory, and a certain consciousness toward the history of the country. "Njo ukumbusho" means in Swahili, "things causing to remind, to think, to reflect." So, you can say that "ukumbusho" was (and still is) the prevalent mode of expression among popular artists, while authors, playwrights and poets draw more from the figures and events present in Congo's literary tradition.
J: "Ukumbusho" sounds like another way of keeping alive the country's unofficial history.
Nkanga: Absolutely. You see, when one is living under a dictatorship, where it is forbidden to talk about one's ancestral kingdoms, or even the former politicians who successfully fought for Congo's independence, one has to seek indirect means. Arts create a possible avenue.
J: You talked about your first theater direction 20 years ago. It would be interesting to hear you talk about your more recent work.
Nkanga: Just before coming to the United States I directed a play by Belgian playwright Réné Kalisky, called Aida Vaincu, a work inspired by Verdi's opera Aida. The Belgian embassy and the Institut National des Arts cooperated to produce the play. We had our premiere on November 26, 1998. The play is about children who survived the Nazi Holocaust and have to cope with their memories of the past. They also talk about the struggles of their mother to raise them after their father is killed in a concentration camp. The play resonated in Congo because Congo too has a large diaspora that fled the country because of Mobutu's political oppression and who left behind them family members and relatives. So it was interesting to put on a play in Kinshasa about Holocaust survivors.
J: How have things changed since Mobutu's overthrow?
Nkanga: With the overthrow of Mobutu's regime by Laurent Kabila, many people returned to Congo, but by going back they have had to face new realities. Things are evolving quickly in Congo, and not always in positive ways. There are those who couldn't bear it and left again. The conditions in Kinshasa make it hard for artists; people are not free to create as much as they want.
J: Is that due to economic conditions or the political climate?
J: What artistic forms are doing well right now?
Nkanga: There is a lot going on in music. Music has always been Congo's strongest form of political critique. Music is developing all the time in response to political events, and people share it among themselves. For a song to be successful it has to have a social message. Even if people do not say it's politically loaded, they like it because it addresses a topic that is taboo. So they adopt it.
J: Why should that be happening in music as opposed to theater?
Nkanga: Right now, music has much better economic prospects. Congolese music is popular abroad, and professional musicians are able to tour the world and earn a lot of money. Groups like "Empire Bakuba," led by the late Pépé Kallé, and Papa Wemba's "Viva la Musica" are able to record their music abroad and bring tapes and CDs home to sell. They are not able to produce music at home because everything is down.
Also, it is easier to share music than a theater performance. Theater is going through a difficult time because there is no money. When there is no money in the country there is no way you can produce a play. If you do, people don't come because either they are not able to pay for the ticket or they can't get to the theater for lack of public transportation. Also, since the start of the latest civil war, there has been a curfew in Kinshasa. When we produced our play, we were obliged to perform at five in the afternoon so that the audience members could reach their homes before the curfew. Thus, even when you are watching the play, you are thinking about when it is going to end so that you can get home quickly. Those are not good conditions to put on plays. Music, however, we can listen to on the radio.
J: In many ways, Congo is a condensation of troubles we associate with Africa. Johannes Fabian has asked the rhetorical question whether Africans will be able to think their way out of their present difficulties. I would like to rephrase the question by asking whether Africans can perform their way out of current difficulties. What is the political efficacy of art in Africa? Can it effect change?
Nkanga: That's a tough question and there is no easy answer to it. In any case, art can affect change in Africa. But first you should consider issues related to the working and living conditions of artists. It is not just getting people aware of atrocities committed under a dictatorship and foreign oppression, but finding ways for artists to support themselves. As an artist I cannot produce without financial support. During ancestral times the artist was supported by the village, and so didn't have to do other kinds of work to make a living. But today artists have to work second jobs; art becomes for most a part-time diversion. Art becomes something I do when I've got the time.
If we go back to Fabian's findings on popular arts in Katanga province, I would suggest that art works are very efficient at raising the consciousness of the people, and to some extent that of the leaders. Consider the sizable effect of music lyrics, especially those of Lwambo Makiadi Franco, on the political process and on discourse in Mobutu's Zaire! I think the role of art in Africa has not changed since the time of our ancestors. What has truly changed is the influence of the money economy and of contemporary Western media.
J: How do people need to start thinking about art?
Nkanga: People are not thinking about how to integrate art into the social and political systems of African countries. I've been developing a course on what one might call cultural economics. People forget that art can produce revenue for a country. In 1996, France made about $1 billion in music. Of that $1 billion, 65 percent was generated by African music, and of that 65 percent, 75 percent was Congolese music. Congolese music made millions of dollars for France and none for the Congolese. When people talk about products from Africa, they mention gold, copper, or rubber, but never art. There has been no way to promote art in Congo, and no way for Congo to benefit from what has become a huge cultural export.
J: What have you been up to recently to promote Congolese art in the United States?
Nkanga: Right now, Congolese music and dance are Congo's most important cultural exports and are found not just all over Africa, but in Japan, Europe, the United States, and Latin America. On April 10, I was a moderator at a workshop on Congolese dance and music at the Center for the Study of Public Scholarship at Emory University. Bob White, a research fellow from McGill University, initiated the workshop and attendees included Professor Kazadi wa Mukuna of Kent Sate University, the singer J.P. Bousse who lives in Toronto, as well as Dominic Kanza and his "African Rhythm Machine" band from New York City. The symposium gave us a chance to analyze Congolese music and the Rumba dance, which is the underlying form of contemporary dance performed in the Congo. We also discussed the social and political aspects of Congolese art.
I've also been busy here at Michigan. I'm teaching two mini-courses on theater and performance traditions and their relation to ongoing political processes in Central Africa. In addition Professor Judith Becker of the ethnomusic department and I convened a seminar on "World Performance" with the backing of the International Institute. Broadly, these activities allowed me to contribute to the promotion of not only Congolese but African culture. I am very interested in the place of African popular culture in academic discourse today. My conviction is that the study of popular cultural practices can substantially enrich our understanding of social and political movements in Africa. African popular culture is constantly evolving to express the ways of African lives. Globalization has exported many things to Africa. But the voices of Africa need to be heard in the West.
Dieudonné-Christophe MBALA NKANGA is a visiting research scholar at the International Institute with a joint appointment in the theater department and the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies (CAAS). From 1979 to 1987, he taught directing, scenography and dramaturgical analysis at the Institut National des Arts, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. He received his doctorate in Performance Studies from Northwestern University in 1995 and since then has been assistant professor in at the Institut National des Arts. He was interviewed March 25 by International Institute director David William Cohen and Journal editor John Ramsburgh.