Jan Goossens, curator 19th Exodos

We are publishing an interview with Jan Goossens, curator of festival, originally published in The Slovenia Times.

 

FUTURE ARCHIVES: AN AFRICA FOCUS

Jan Goossens is a world renowned name in the field of contemporary arts. As artistic director at the Brussels city theatre KVS has dedicated his work to transforming the theatre into a multidisciplinary and multilingual cultural institution with strong international connections. He is also one of the initiators of the KVS Congo project, through which KVS is supporting Congolese artists and cultural institutions and helping them to promote their work. Goossens is also co-founder of Shared Spaces network, focusing in intercontinental work-netting of cultural operators. He will be visiting Ljubljana between 16th and 23rd April as a program curator of 19. Exodos – the festival of contemporary performing arts.

How did you get involved with Slovenia?

As always I connect first of all with people, rather than with places. It is thanks to interesting, generous and inviting people that I get to go places, get to know these places and start loving them. In the case of Slovenia and Ljubljana that person is definitely Exodos-producer Natasa Zavolovsek. I met her on the Board of IETM, the informal European Theater Network. And through many intense conversations about the international performing arts, the direction they should go in, which artists and parts of the world have been included in the international conversations and programs so far, and which not, we developed a common understanding of what we find important and worthwhile and later also decided to continue this relationship with collaboration on Exodos festival.

Each edition of Exodos festival has a focus on different world region. This years focus is on Africa and you were invited as a curator of the program. How Africa inspires you personally?

For me, the international is always very closely connected with the local. My connection with Africa starts in my hometown of Brussels, where I have worked at the Flemish City Theater KVS for the past 10 years. Apart from being the Belgian and European capital, Brussels is today also partly an African city. Of course, because Belgium shares a heavy colonial history with Central Africa, in particular the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Brussels as a city was partly built with capital that the Belgian King Leopold II extracted directly from the Congo. Rather than feeling guilty about that -common- past, at KVS we have tried to see it as an opportunity to try and develop more equal and reciprocal relations today. And therefore to finally include the work of contemporary Congolese artists in the repertoire of a Flemish City Theater in Brussels. On top of that historic connection, Brussels also has a partly African reality for more recent or contemporary reasons: waves of migration from Northern, Central and Western Africa have passed through the city for the past decades. Acknowledging that has nothing to do with being exotic, or having some nostalgic connection with Congo and Africa. It is part of a very real and concrete commitment, when you live and work in Brussels in 2015: part of the population of this city has its origins on the African continent, and they are still very connected with their regions of origin. If there is political trouble in Kinshasa today, then there will be unrest in Brussel tomorrow. Integrating this part of the Brussels reality into our work at KVS and my work as a programmer is an evident part for me of contributing to the future of a multicultural and globalised city like Brussels, a future that more and more European cities are heading for.

Obviously, spending time in Kinshasa and in many other African cities in the past decade, and working closely with a diverse range of African artists has also had a profound impact on me that definitely goes beyond the local connection and beyond Brussels. One thing that has really struck me is that the reality of Africa in the 21st century has very little to do with our own prejudices about the ‘dark and exotic’ continent that we constantly project on it, and that say much more about us and the way we tend to look at the ‘other’, than about Africa itself. Yes, Africa has its problems, its wars, and its diseases. But then again, doesn’t Europe too, when you look at the situations in Ukraine, in Greece and in the disadvantaged parts of many of our big cities? And yes, Africa is a huge continent, but does Africa, as one homogenous place, really exist? What do the realities of Mozambique in the South-East and Senegal in the West, and their artists and cultures, have to do with each other? Very little. And mostly, isn’t Africa also a continent of huge possibilities, of real growth, of immense wisdom, of great pleasure and joy, and of boundless creativity? Definitely. As African philosopher Achille Mbembe said once, referring to Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas who spent a lot of time in the Nigerian capital Lagos and came back very impressed: ’The world is catching up with Africa, not the other way around.’

The festival will show 10 performances from Africa. What were the criteria that you used in the selection process?

As always I was looking for adventurous, daring and very personal work. Good African performing arts work, yes, but also just good performing arts work as such, in general. Created by stubborn, courageous and critical artists whose connection with the continent is very diverse: some live there, some have lived there but don’t anymore, some have never lived there. Most of them are truly global citizens that move around a lot, with all of the advantages and disadvantages. But for all of them being from there feeds into their work in a way that reaches out to new art forms and models, to entire communities, to future worlds. None of the artists presented here are reproducing or reconfirming what we like to think or think we know or have decided to think when it comes to Africa. Folklore for Western tourists or conservative tradition are very far away. Their work has the power to open our eyes to what Africa, if it exists at all, is today: an extremely diverse continent, of more than 50 countries and more than a billion people, and of extremely diverse and daring artists, who not only experiment with their art form, but also really have something to say and share with the world, and with a larger audience than just the spectators in the performance spaces. So generally speaking, my criteria were not different from the ones with which I look at work from any other artists for any other program: I am interested in singular, deep and brave voices, both as artists and as human beings.

Contemporary performing arts are not among first associations when someone thinks about Africa. What can audience expect from the festival?

Compared to Europe in 2015, Africa is probably a continent that is a lot more in touch with many contemporary evolutions in this world than we can see or want to see from here. With some of the negative developments of the 21st century: global warming, wild capitalism wiping away any kind of social protection provided by governments, or religious extremism. At the same time, also plenty of positive and innovative forms of social, cultural and artistic activity are emerging on the continent, which all kinds of future societies and worlds have plenty of things to learn from. Whether it is totally new forms of social solidarity in fragile communities, or new and innovative forms of cultural projects like the Nollywood film business, or the cultural and social work of an artistic organisation like Studios Kabako in Kisangani in the Congo: these are models for living together, and contributing to society from a cultural sector, which in Europe we have a lot to learn from.

Of course, the creations, their contents and forms, and the universes of the artists presented here are very much influenced by that contemporary and ‘edgy’ reality. Some artists react to it poetically, some are angry, some in a charming or festive way, but all of them are very directly and deeply in touch with the ‘here and now’ surrounding them. So I can’t really think of artists in this world that are more contemporary than the ones that will be in Ljubljana in april. And in some way or other they are all African, but hopefully all audiences will let themselves be surprised by them, rather than arriving with their own fixed expectations of what ‘African’ means that they then want to be confirmed.

Why such festival is important for Slovenia and what is its significance in European / global level?

I think Europe and Slovenia desperately need windows on the world. When I travel in Africa, but also in Asia or Latin-America today, I notice that there is plenty of work to do still. But what strikes more is that people are open, look outward and want to move forward. Starting from their own backgrounds and sensibilities, but with a desire to be citizens of the world and to think the world, and with a curiosity towards the other. In Europe I miss that openness and curiosity: we tend to look back, see in the other what we project on him or her. And in the meantime too often dream about a future for our continent that is culturally homogenous, without strangers, or others, or difference. I am convinced that that is not the way forward, not for Europe, not for any of us. Festivals like Exodos remind us of that and therefore make an immensely meaningful contribution to the future of our societies. They deserve a lot more public support than they are getting today.

In general, I would say that it is crucial for all countries, but certainly for small countries like Belgium and Slovenia, to have outgoing and curious artists and cultural operators like Natasa Zavolovsek. They invite the world into Slovenia and they also give Slovenia exposure in the rest of Europe, or on other continents, like Africa, when Natasa visited the KVS-Festival ConnexionKin in the Congolese capital Kinshasa in 2013. Unfortunately, politicians aren’t aware enough of the added-value and contribution of such dynamic and visionary people. But let’s imagine what Belgium or Slovenia would be like without its cosmopolitan artists, and without cultural operators like Natasa – dark and inward-looking places, is my guess.