State of the Union Theaterfestival 2022
Tijdens de opening van het TheaterFestival liet Moya Michael zich vergezellen door Junior Akwety en Johanne Saunier. Samen brachten ze de State of the Union als performance. Lees hieronder de volledige State of the Union van Moya Michael in het Engels.
The “State of the Union”. Thank you for this unique invitation. I am grateful you are willing to listen to me this time. To my friends and fellow black and brown people I see you! Thank you!
Last week when I was on the phone with a good friend of mine. They asked me what I was up to. I told them I was stressed because I was preparing this speech.
They were like, “What speech?”
I told them, “I am preparing ‘The State of the Union’, a very important yearly keynote. A reflection, introspection or perspective on the state of the arts in Flanders.”
Their response was, “What the hell is Flanders?”
I then found myself trying to explain Belgium, Flanders, the Flemish, the French, etc. To be honest, they were more confused after my humble attempt to situate Flanders within the Belgian context than when I started. I mean for such a tiny country the situation is quite complex and confusing. Not only from the outside looking in, but even as an insider I feel confused. Because the minute you leave Belgium you are a Belgian, right? Artiste Belge, choreographaaf Belge, compagnie Belge, en ook Belgo-Maroccain, maar jamais Flamand.
My name is Moya Michael. As a Belgian Citizen now, I have the right documentation and legally I’m entitled to be present on this stage. I have also been part of the ecosystem of the Flanders art scene for the past 25 years. But my root identity is South African.
In preparing for this speech, I thought about the words: Union, Unification, Uniting, Joining, Merging, Fusion, Consolidation, Integration, Blending, etc. But looking at Belgium through the lens of my roots I thought what union?
We have so many divisions on the concrete things that define our daily lives: in language, in education, the economy and for sure in the arts and cultural sectors too.
L’Union fait la force, Eendraght maakt magt. I’m not the first one to speak about unity. I mean it is the national motto of Belgium. Unity makes us strong right?
South Africa was a union before 1961. In 1948 the Afrikaners took over and waited until 1961 and made it a republic! They used that very same motto ‘eendrag maak mag’ and our little native asses didn’t have any standing in the picture of that settler colony, you know.
“Eendrag maak mag!” These are the founding values of both our countries. Same whatsapp group, different directions.
As somebody who grew up in Apartheid South Africa, some of these things ring similar to me. Before I elaborate on this, I think it is important to set the scene on my use of the word Apartheid. I am aware that it is a big and heavy word. It is an Afrikaans word meaning ‘separateness’ or ‘the state of being apart’. An apt antonym for Union, right? It grew from a Dutch word, but also a Flemish word with a Dutch history, but also a Flemish colonial history that is still present. Belgian and South African history are both riddled with colonial violence you know.
Apartheid was not only about race. As a south African it is very reductive when people just equate apartheid to racism, it is offensive. There was much more to it. It was an exceptional enterprise. It was separation on an economic, geographic, physical, cultural, religious and linguistic level. There were so many facets to it and there was no part of our lives that it did not impact! It was almost as confusing as Belgium.
“The state of being apart, The state of apartheid”
Nelson Mandela described apartheid as a monolithic system that was diabolical in its detail, inescapable in its reach and overwhelming in its power.
• The premise: Whites are superior to Africans, coloureds and Indians.
• The function: Entrench white supremacy ad infinitum.
The separation wall has fallen, but its premise and function remains alive and kicking. Can you feel it? So, once again looking at Flanders and Belgium through the lens of apartheid, the word Union becomes something very surreal and it’s everywhere. Systemic separation. Structural division. This is not a state of the union.
So how to abolish its premise and function? For years, we have counted on you. We gently asked for your recognition. To be supported. To take part in your game. To have access to your infrastructure. To have a share in your cultural wealth. But what we proposed was never “artistic” enough. It was too passé, you already did what we proposed years before, right?
in Flanders I’m wondering who is setting the tone-.
Like what is part of the next few years programming-.
What is a good performance and what is not a good performance-.
Cause most of the people I talk to who make these decisions, one cannot have conversations with them-
about aesthetics or about artistic practices-
They are managers, producers and they are fighting to have spaces for residences for funding and they are writing subsidies.
And they don’t have the time to care what the work is about and I’m wondering who cares
About the aesthetics and who sets the tone-.
Cause It seems like they are all bureaucrats following each other without talking about it. This is also a silent reproduction-
they are doing.
Now that the poles are shifting and aesthetics of the South are gaining traction and momentum in the North too. You want to see how we can be included in your diversity policies; I can imagine that must be really hard for you. Influenced by the canon of Flemish Nationalism. You swear you want to “decolonize” everything too if necessary! We know they are waiting at your doorstep. 2024 is around the corner, we know, you told us countless times. Be reassured we don’t want to blow up the bridge we have been building for decades now, but who wants to be recognised by their master? We know they (the king of the jungle is) are ready to ram your door. Don’t take our refusal of your frame personally. We are just changing the game.
How to try to informalise the institution instead of formalising these informal practices. And I think the economical question is key. Like the question of funding and how to subvert funding, cause all these collectives, off spaces, operating on the borders of these… institutions how you can think of a viable maybe cooperative form where you take the money, money, money from them.
By the way, that Flemish lion on the flag. Like many other nations, this strange African animal was chosen to represent you and separatist ambitions. The King of the Jungle. The lion with its big black claws. You tell us he is hiding around the corner waiting for the next election. But you know, we have had real big lions in our backyard for almost 500 years now. They went there, saw the lions and put them on your crests. It’s beautiful: so fluid, so vague also, so flux. But please, remain vigilant! Because lions can eat you too! This makes me think of power. I know from South Africa that power never relinquishes itself willingly; it always keeps kicking and screaming. We know that without real redistribution of power we do not want to be included in a broken system.
Toni Morrison says that, “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” Maybe the time is ripe to ask the one and only truly relevant question: “How to work together?” To ask: “What is solidarity?”, or “What does it mean to be in harmony in the performing art sector?”, maybe “Is it still possible to work together?”, or “Does allyship really fit your agenda?” Tell me: “On what terms can we work together?” Basically: “What kind of a we could we be?”
I wonder, if it is not on your terms, is there still room for relation, cross collaboration, sharing ideas, deeply sharing ways of knowing and sensing the world? How many art worlds are allowed in your performing art world? Is a performing art world, where many art worlds fit even imaginable? I have difficulties seeing a union of sorts here. I hear talk about inclusion, but you know that there is no change without ‘real action’. Where is our solidarity when two women with burnouts are fired at your city theatre in Antwerp? When a lot of POC programmers or cultural workers are stuck in a revolving door? When a city poet resigns because their work has been labelled as polarising when it questions inequalities? Nothing will change with empathy or just your thoughts and prayers. What will you do?
Are you going to continue being oblivious or turn a blind eye? Will you continue asking questions while google still exists and not really make the time to understand those questions? Will you put your questions into practice? Will you walk your talk? Because, you guys keep talking about creating “enabling environments”. Well, then create the enabling environment, but in creating that environment please understand the histories of the people involved. Understand that you have to deal with very different stories and memories of people joining in from the other side of the premise and functions you institute and continue instituting, despite your overload of good intentions. In a sea of whiteness, I blow my shell and ask you, “Do you reject your own whiteness?”, “Do you see blackness as yours?”, and “Can you even fathom the separation, its premises, and its functions?” It is diabolical in its detail, inescapable in its reach and overwhelming in its power.
Let’s find an authentic interest in understanding what you don’t understand. That’s really basic. Let’s find genuine curiosity to understand what you might not understand yet, and why that also dictates why you might think our work is not as valuable to cherish and hold on to. What you don’t know, won’t hurt you, right?
When I speak to friends in Brussels, whose work and worldviews I really cherish, lately a feeling of collective grief sort of overwhelms me. The sector as we know it seems to be crumbling, falling apart. Look around you. I am afraid your art world is dying. That world is already lying in its deathbed for some years now. You tried to re-animated that world, but alas. It’s still breathing now. The heart is still beating, but for how long? You know what to do when the last breath comes, no? I can show you how we do it back home if you want. It has lived an amazing and beautiful life. Let’s surround it with love. No canon will re-animate your art world. It’s okay to let go in a soothing and reassuring and loving way. It will live on, but differently. New worlds will open and from that legacy continue to move us. Life is bigger than its last breath and than this world you made for yourself. Just let it go, let it crumble and in the meantime… At least, this is what people have been doing the whole time in the swamps and forests of the margins.
In the meantime, you can re-invent new and ancestral practices; different ways of inhabiting a world that has the power to embrace life and all its different layers again and again and continue after the collapse of your art world. Let’s dance on the rubble of your art world, let us dance different possibilities otherwise, let’s remake our art worlds otherwise. Open your eyes and you will see: We are already existing in the here and now, on the border of what you think is imaginable. What else is there left to do, but to build relations and alliances by thickening peripheries, expanding margins, cultivating the unseen and the erased to eventually displace the dominant center. That’s a quote from a manifesto by No design on stolen land.
Death brings new life. The end is always the beginning of something new. Art is part of this infinite cycle. It can bring us celebration in the deepest sight of our wake. It can push the boundaries in the never-ending night we navigate so blindly now. I stay hopeful precisely because in our sanctuaries, in the deep gardens and forests of the margins, there are collaborations, or crossing of the divides that abolish their own premise and function. Artists brought hope into the concentration camps of Germany, they brought hope into the townships of Soweto and they brought hope in refuges of the sans-papiers in Brussels.
Despite all the shit art and artists went through, we kept singing. People kept dancing and we kept making music. We are still trying to get over apartheid, poem after poem, day after day, because that’s the point of art. Art is a global unifier; the vanguard of every society. There is no boundary that art cannot cross. It can be born again and again without a language. One can be sitting in some far corner of the world and there will always be some sheer unadulterated gasping gorgeousness surrounding you. That is art. Miriam Makeba sang with the shadows of apartheid, Baloji sings and makes beautiful art with the shadows of your union, Hugh Masekela jammed on the rubble of apartheid, Stromae composes on the rubble of your union. We live, because we make art through our pain. We make art, because we must, because we LIVE art.
Now what are you waiting for? Eeendracht maakt macht en verbeelding werkt. Old and new! The both together. Make your imagination work for a better sector for everyone!
A requiem for the art world
Like you were saying the performance you didn’t rehearse
it was just out of your guts and was one of the best things that you diiiid.
I don’t say we don’t need rehearsal I’m just saying;
the arrrrt world we know now is reheally formatted in that way.
And I don’t know… talking about grief
you know, like the rituals of grief,
Like the complete alienation around grief in Europe. People don’t know how to grieve and they don’t have rituals and ceeeeeremonies anymore on how to grieve
Now, we make people afraid of dying like dying is the worst thing that can happen, but we used to have rituals that were soothing. Nowadays we’ve become so skeptical about anything and everything and it all feels so rehearsed.
You know you can read your text and prepare yourself so well. So you can detach yoursehelf from your feelings and in a rational way say goodbye to the departed. It’s exactly the same in the art world now.
Rehearsed, staged, rehearsed staged, rehearsed ahand Staged. no room for sentiment
or the experience of beauty or the sublime. And what I notice when I relate to works of friends that I love who try to go about things differently. These things are really central.
It is nohot how you perherceive the artwork.
It’s really about hohoww you experiyence it how you make sense of what is happening and through the experiyence, get through it somehow, cohoollectively
just how to conceive of a world where many art worlds are possible and it’s not really wanting to destroy the art world, starting from the understanding that it will crumble and its dying in itself.
New visions are here and they were already here before they were almost destroyed, but they are still here. And there is a coooontinuation of aaaaa legacy that preceded them. Aaaaan ancestral lihineeage. That’s soothing not only projecting practices in the future. I really hope that this is what will rise up out of the ashes of the dying art world. Beautiful ancestral ways oooof keeping lineage alive. By telling the stories that have been told to us and accepting that they will be different and change form.