“It is not just about African women, but about strengthening the status of women in general in the context of contemporary art, which remains very masculine,” says Kettly Noël, whose dance performance Correspondances will be presented in the Kiasma Theatre as part of the ARS 11 events programme.
Compare the position of African women to that of Western women.
The main difference is in education. The Western woman is more aware of her rights, opportunities and battles. There are also differences in their positions in society and tradition: the family is more highly valued in Africa. As education and Internet connections become more ubiquitous, these differences will fade. One can live in Bamako today, New York tomorrow, then Helsinki... The world is available to us in new ways, and connections – both material and immaterial – are faster.
One part of the woman I carry within me is Western, specifically French, but another is Caribbean and, today, also African. I inhabit a global world. I like to wear clothes by European designers as often as I wear traditional costumes. It is all about how we reflect the world and our places in it. In other words, you can be a fully global woman while wearing traditional clothes. It’s about the way we are, our behaviour and our attitude.
So you are from Haiti, you live in Mali and you have worked in dance at least in Europe. How would you describe your identity?
I arrived in Mali in late 1999 with my husband, due to his work. Before that I had lived in Benin, Paris and Haiti. I studied dance in Haiti and on various European scenes. My identity is global and has many levels. What is distilled from this nomadic life is my own, uniqueself; an identity that arises from everything I have experienced – my travels, my career and the life I have lived as a whole.
The status of a woman artist in Mali is by no means self-evident. Some people think you are living the easy life. There is little trust and you are under constant scrutiny; they see you as scheming. But when you do your work properly and concentrate on getting better at it, you can achieve recognition and respect.
The woman artist’s lot is also harder because women still have more social and family-related obligations than men, which can lead to feelings of guilt. Things are changing even in Africa, though: women are claiming their territory, without regard for the not-so-independent image of the African woman. The traditional duties of Malian women are to reinforce and protect the status of the family, always to think about the family before oneself, and to be beautiful. This tendency is also shifting, thanks above all to education, which empowers us to change things. The easier it is for women to obtain education and reach sources of information, the more emancipated they can be.
You have started your own dance centre, Donko Seko, in Bamako and worked as the artistic director of the Danse l’Afrique Danse biennial. How do you yourself view this work?
I see it as difficult but wonderful; my work has broaden-ed my understanding of the world and ofmyself. It has also allowed me to develop new ways of doing things. I am faced with endless questions: what kind of place do I want to create and what should it offer? This work opens a lot of doors; it acts as an engine not only for self-improvement but also for social and economic development. My main duties are within the dance centre and in professionalising dance. Culture in itself can act as a source of sustainable economic development and as a genuine way of reducing forced emigration.
How do you see the future of Mali and, above all, the future of contemporary dance?
If in the next few years things are kept going in the right direction and if private and public institutions work to uphold development and facilitate the existence of diverse spaces and creativity, then good things can happen.
We are on the threshold of possibility. Still, young dancers and choreographers have to prove the standard of their artistic efforts and come up with high-quality, avant-garde proposals that reflect today’s world. Then they can achieve public approval. It is already easier than before for dancers to tour the continent. In order for this to take root, we must focus even more on the mobility and development of art, and on art education.
Kettly Noël & Nelisiwe Xaba: Correspondances 5.-6.5.