Street corners become political arenas: COOP KIN (L’escamoteur à Kinshasa)

Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, Arti sceniche

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Who is manipulating our attention and for what purpose? A project exploring the circulation of narratives and appropriation of social imaginaries in Kinshasa.

In the city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the day’s newspapers are laid out under stones on the pavement. A peculiar scene plays out around these make-shift stage: passers-by will stop to read and comment on the headlines. Debates ensue and controversies arise, turning this banal scene into a fascinating political arena. These scenarios can occur randomly, but are often instigated by the “parlementaires debout” (standing parliamentarians), the self-proclaimed “speech fighters” who represented the democratic opposition to Mobutu in the 1990s, and are today affiliated with various political parties.

These street spin doctors serve as the inspiration for “COOP KIN: (L’escamoteur à Kinshasa)””, a collaborative project by Swiss artist and researcher Aurélien Gamboni and Congolese stage director Michael Disanka, together with Congolese artists Blaise Musaka, Christiana Tabaro and Collectiff d’Art-d’Art.

The project emerges from and follows on from previous research and encounters. In 2017, Aurélien Gamboni was supported on a first research trip in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the context of the Lubumbashi Biennale. Inspired by the enigmatic figure of the Conjurer from the Hieronymus Bosch painting, Aurélien was collecting local stories that question the ways in which public attention is captured and translated into value, oriented towards or distracted from various political objectives. He was accompanied by Blaise Musaka, working for his part on the importance of rumour in Congolese society.

Three people are seated around a plastic table. They are conducting an interview.
Aurélien and Blaise conducting research in Kinshasa, December 2021
Newspaper pages are laid out on the pavement with stones placed on each corner.
Newspapers laid out on the street in Kinshasa

In 2021-22 they reprised their collaboration by opening a new chapter of this investigation towards a project for the Yango Biennale. During a two-week research trip in Kinshasa, they met with local historians and journalists, newspaper sellers and “parlementaires debout”, political cartoonists and social workers, religious preachers and women’s rights advocates, teachers and street scammers, and many more, to collect local testimonies. During this research trip they also met artists and stage directors Michael Disanka and Christiana Tabaro, founding members of Collectif d’Art-d’Art and eminent representatives of Kinshasa’s theatre scene. The four artists decided to join forces and collaborate on a new project for the biennale.

“We met in November 2021, where Aurélien Gamboni came to Kinshasa to continue his investigative work on the notion of “escamotage” (conjuring away, scam or hoax) in collaboration with artist and film director Blaise Musaka. Both were collecting local stories and testimonies, particularly related to the history of the street political arenas known as “standing parliaments » (parlements debout). Their interest in the history of these public spaces of political expression resonated strongly with the approach developed by us and the Collectif d’Art-d’Art, whose theatre pieces and performances often stage singular (and critical) voices strongly rooted in the Congolese social and political reality.”

Michael Disanka

The diverse – and often highly subversive – testimonies gathered by Aurélien and Blake served as the base material for the collaboration, which the artists now intend to develop further. The artistic intervention takes the form of a series of street performances around specially produced newspapers with content inspired by the narratives collected during the research phase. The performance involves six actors and musicians embedded within the crowd, and occurs spontaneously, progressively leading the public in a new narrative in which they play a key part.

A split image. To the left is a black and white newspaper page with a reproduction of a painting of a magician doing a street magic trick. To the right is a photograph of a performance taking place outdoors. A man dressed in a suit stands beside newspapers laid out on the ground. People are loose gathered around him watching.
Performances of COOP KIN (L’escamoteur à Kinshasa) during the 2022 Yango Biennale
A performance is taking place in the street. Newspapers are laid out on the ground under stones. A female performer strides towards the camera in dialogue. The crowd is gathered around her in a circle.
A performance is taking place in the street. A crowd of people is circled watching a man dressed in a suit standing erect next to newspapers laid out on the ground. Another man is shouting at him.

“This collaboration was a pioneer experience on both sides: Michael and the Collectif d’Art-d’Art, who usually write their own texts, had never before worked on the basis of narrative material provided by others; and I had never collaborated on a theatre piece as my investigations usually lead to exhibitions or publications. In addition, none of us had previously experienced such a challenging street intervention.” 

Aurélien Gamboni

For this new leg of the project, which will be presented in January 2024 as part of the interim programme of the Yango Biennale, the artists aim to refine the participation of the public as well as stage the intervention in additional popular neighbourhoods in Kinshasa where several of the testimonies were collected. They also wish to produce a film documentary about the project, highlighting the creative process and public performances.

A performance is taking place in an open-air venue. A man dressed in a suit stands with outstretched arms beside newspapers laid out on the ground. Another man stands in front of him and appears to be taunting him. A group of musicians are watching in the background.

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