BY Louisa Elderton in Reviews | 03 SEP 19
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Issue 206

Christian Nyampeta’s Study of the Cultural Acts of Colonial Violence

With the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi, an exhibition at Leipzig’s GfZK sheds light on the aftermath of the tragedy

BY Louisa Elderton in Reviews | 03 SEP 19

Twenty-five years ago, the Rwandan genocide claimed the lives of 70 percent of the Tutsi population. Rwandan-born Dutch artist Christian Nyampeta’s latest exhibition, ‘A Flower Garden of All Kinds of Loveliness Without Sorrow’, reflects on how Belgium’s colonial legacy was ultimately responsible for this tragedy, having created devastating divisions amongst indigenous peoples. A tribute to the persecuted, the collaborative sculpture A Communion of Spirits (2018) comprises roughly-carved wooden busts on low, stool-like plinths, made by the staff and students of Rwanda’s Nyundo Art School. A single empty stool invites the viewer to sit among them.

Dust dances in the air, slowly spreading into an opaque veil; a motorcyclist ploughs the earth, making tracks in the dirt, cloud vapour curling in the sky above. The opening scene of Nyampeta’s film Sometimes It Was Beautiful (2018) is overlaid with a question in red typography: ‘What were they doing, roller-skating thru the history of this strange land?’ This evocative metaphor nods to Ghanaian novelist Kojo Laing’s Woman of the Aeroplanes (1988), about the immortal inhabitants of the fictional town of Tukwan. For this magazine in 2017, Nyampeta described the book as ‘an index of what is possible: it uses words to resist dejection’. Sometimes It Was Beautiful falls into such a realm, too, telling the story of Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, noted for his work with Ingmar Bergman. The son of Lutheran missionaries, raised by relatives while his parents worked in the Belgian Congo, Nykvist spent time in Africa as an adult, from 1948 to 1952, making the documentary In the Footsteps of the Witch Doctor.

Christian Nyampeta, Sometimes It Was Beautiful, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Nyampeta unites a cast of characters – including Leela Gandhi, Winnie Mandela, Robert Mugabe, Andrei Tarkovsky and Nykvist himself – to watch the documentary. As they debate the film, Nykvist ignores the traumatizing exploits of the colonial missionaries, discussing instead the compositional balance between shadow and light. He asks: ‘If my films are traces of a crime, would erasing them equate to another crime?’ Later on, another character responds: ‘The damage of this film is the footprint it has left on history.’ As suggested by Nyampeta’s motorbike imagery, which evokes the damage inflicted by colonialism, tracks in the sand inevitably mark the earth.

This same group also visits Stockholm’s Museum of Ethnography, where the artist Dale Harding – a descendant of the Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal peoples of Central Queensland – discovers a lost drum that belonged to his ancestors. In an emotional scene, Harding honours the instrument, tears dripping from his face. The colonial narrative of such ethnographic collections of objects – frequently taken without permission and largely still unrestituted – extends the film’s exploration of cultural acts of violence.

Christian Nyampeta, ‘A Flower Garden of All Kinds of Loveliness Without Sorrow’, 2019, exhibition view, GfZK, Leipzig. Courtesy: the artist and GfZK, Leipzig; photograph: Alexandra Ivanciu

Nyampeta has translated a number of texts including French philosopher Séverine Kodjo-Grandvaux’s essay ‘Mirror Effects, Thinking Africa, Thinking the World’ (2016), one of several documents included in the exhibition. In it she discusses the Nguni Bantu word ubuntu (‘I am because you are’) in relation to Nelson Mandela, who she describes wanting to ‘understand his enemies in order to reach into their hearts and bring them back to life’. Mandela believed repairing a broken social bond was only possible with mutual recognition and understanding. This is the sentiment with which Nyampeta assembles his characters, proffering such generosity.

The exhibition also includes a ‘scriptorium’ (as he calls it) for the translation of writings by the Rwandan philosopher Isaïe Nzeyimana. Solutions have even been sought for untranslatable words, promoting a discourse of openness. In a similar vein, the show’s title derives from a 1668 book by the Dutch philosopher Adriaan Koerbagh, in which he clarified some of the Church’s mystifying language, believing the propagation of obscurantism to be a cultural injustice. Nyampeta’s art is likewise one of enquiry and inclusivity, of giving voice as reparation.

Christian Nyampeta, ‘A Flower Garden of All Kinds of Loveliness Without Sorrow’ runs at Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig, until 29 September 2019.

Main image: Christian Nyampeta, ‘A Flower Garden of All Kinds of Loveliness Without Sorrow’, 2019, exhibition view, GfZK, Leipzig. Courtesy: the artist and GfZK, Leipzig; photograph: Alexandra Ivanciu

 Louisa Elderton is a Berlin-based writer and editor. She is currently the Managing Editor of ICI Berlin Press, and was formerly the Curatorial Editor at Gropius Bau and Editor-in-Chief of Side Magazine at Bergen Assembly.