When is a kiss not a kiss? When Nigerian and European artists come together and try to bridge the cultural divide.
Unusual sounds are wafting through the center of Lagos. Nigerians dressed in skeleton costumes are dancing to a Bavarian brass band in front of plastic Alpine scenery. It's a stage act by the German band Monster Truck. An actor dressed as Gretel, from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, complete with traditional female attire, is grilling sausages. Above him, on some scaffolding between plastic Christmas trees, is a witch, waiting to receive visitors who dare to approach her.
"What message is this all supposed to convey?" a Nigerian spectator asks, but the Europeans in the vicinity are equally perplexed. It is up to the artists themselves to supply an answer.The audience should simply let something new wash over them, they say.
Common ground as artists
Mudi Yahaya can understand this. A performance artist, he has worked with Monster Truck himself in the past. He doesn't find it difficult to map out the artistic common ground he shares with his German colleagues. "We just have to establish why we are doing, what we are doing. Why is art important for us?" he said, pointing at his photographs of men, women and children to whose bodies theater makeup has been applied depicting bullet wounds and other injuries.
Mudi Yahaya has discovered that he operates in an artistic vein similar to that of Dennis Feser. But whereas Mudi works with models, Feser uses his own body. Together with his partner Karin Then, Feser presented a three-screen video installation at the Goethe-Institut's Lagos Live Festival. It showed himself transformed into a futuristic masked figure. His artist's materials are brushwood and discarded computer hardware.
Grateful for this experience
Yahaya has had discussions in Germany with Feser about his art. "I discovered that performance art does not always have to happen in real time." Feser had shown him that you can create a performance and then show it later as a video. The recording can and does capture something of the aura of a live performance. Denis Feser, too made a discovery. Art and society can interact, producing a heady, stimulating mixture. He arrived in Nigeria for the first time at the start of 2012 when it was in the throes of a general strike triggered by fuel prices hikes. The two artists decided that this was their subject. "I am grateful for this experience," Feser said. Feser and Yahaya are contemplating a joint exhibition in Germany for 2013.
Dennis Feser said the biggest challenge was to find suitable locations in Lagos for his video recordings. Out on the streets, a white man is always visible, as if he were on stage. "There is little in the way of tourism; there are only a few Europeans." There is no way you can simply disappear and become anonymous. "It is highly unusual for somebody to spend a long time photographing a particular location just because they find it interesting," Feser added. He and his partner had to find a quiet location of their own. They came across an old house, a combination of Bauhaus and African styles. It had belonged to an architect who had recently died. That was where they shot most of the video.
Yoruba actors kiss differently
The troupe from "Theater im Bahnhof" (Railway Station Theater) from Graz. Austria, need a real stage for their art form. Together with Nigerian colleagues, they put on a production of "Kissin in Yoruba Movies." The two main characters in the play are two film actors, played by Nigerian Gafar Alau and Austrian Rupert Lehofer. Alau belongs to the Yoruba people, one of three big ethnic groups in Nigeria. Many films produced by Nollywood, Nigeria's booming movie industry, are shot in the Yoruba language. The director of "Theater im Bahnhof", Ed Hauswirth, met Alau during a visit to Lagos. He explained to Hauswirth that Yoruba actors are not allowed to perform certain actions on screen, such as kissing, as simply and directly as their counterparts in Austrian films. In a Yoruba film, you cannot simply kiss, you have to kiss with respect so it doesn't seem like a kiss.
Hauswirth's curiosity was aroused and he wrote the play "Kissin in Yoruba Movies" in which Rupert Lehofer and Gafar Lau are shown watching scenes from their films. In a comedy routine that follows, they banter back and forth telling each other how they would play the scenes in their respective countries.
Pressure to conform
Those who do not abide by the unwritten rules of Nigerian society don't dare to show their faces in public. That is how Alau explains his position as an actor in Nigeria. For his colleague from Austria, this was an interesting observation. Even when he is on the silver screen, a Yoruba actor remains a member of his community. He can never completely submerge himself in his role. In Europe, on the other hand, audiences usually draw a very distinct line between the actor and the character he plays.
Lehofer also noticed something else while on stage in Lagos. The reactions from the Nigerians and Europeans in the audience were different. "When Gafar was playing there was a very strong reaction from the Nigerians, the Europeans tended to respond to me." He said he had expected something similar. "The audience has to draw on their own familiar clichés in order to see the joke or the funny side to a particular scene."