Delfina Foundation’s Interviews Series: Paul Maheke and Nkisi

by My Art Guides Editorial Team
November 5, 2019
My Art Guides Editorial Team
Cezar Aaron

During the lead up to this second installment of the Venice Biennale Performance Programme, we are releasing a series of conversations between Aaron Cezar (Delfina Foundation) and the participating artists.

Episode 5 of Delfina Foundation’s Interviews series features artists Paul Maheke and Nkisi.

Aaron Cezar: Firstly I wanted to ask one question to Paul. You were among the artists involved in the first part of the performance programme during the Venice Biennale’s opening week presenting Seeking After the Fully Grown Dancer *deep within*. Can you talk a little about your experience with the opening week?

Paul Maheke: The opening week of the Biennale was, as expected, an intense and very dense moment. In conversation with Aaron Cezar, the curator of the performance programme, we had chosen to show a very self-contained older work of mine titled Seeking After the Fully Grown Dancer *deep within*. It’s a 20-minute long partly-improvised, partly-scripted dance performance wherein which I converse with the audience while performing a dance exercise called Authentic Movement. The work addresses the relationship between an audience and a performer in relation to notions such as authenticity and performativity. We can definitely say that the piece has a humorous/self-deprecating twist to it too.

Over the opening week, the work was performed daily in the Giardino delle Vergini in Arsenale alongside performances by Victoria Sin and boychild, artists who are both friends of mine and whose practices I highly respect and admire. It was an immense pleasure to share the space with them and it felt like a very nurturing and caring environment.

AC: In November, Paul and Nkisi, you will be presenting Sensa during the Biennale’s closing weekend. Is this the first piece that you have worked on together and how did this collaboration come about?

Paul and Nkisi: Melika Ngombe Kolongo aka Nkisi and I have collaborated since 2015 on several occasions. Sènsa is our latest work. It combines sound, movement and light, and explores the black holes of the Universe, archeo-acoustics and the cosmology of the Bantu-Kongo. Melika and I first met in 2015 when I was an Associate at Open School East (London). I had invited her to present her newly founded record label NON Worldwide. We started collaborating the following year for my solo show at South London Gallery. Since then we have been collaborating on many other occasions. Our practice and vision are very truly complementary and overlap on many levels. This new performance, which will be first presented in its full form at Abrons Arts Center for the upcoming Performa 19 biennial in New York, is the physical materialisation of an ongoing conversation between Melika and I. We’ve also invited theater and artistic director Ariel Efraim Ashbel to contribute to the project with a lighting score. When Abrons Arts Center (NYC) and Performa commissioned me a new work, I instantly thought of asking Melika to collaborate on it. This is actually the first time we had a chance to fully devise a work together from beginning to end. It is very exciting for both of us to know that the work will tour and evolve along the way.

AC: You have both become established artists in different but related scenes, broadly, Paul in contemporary art and Nkisi in music. How do you think this impacted on experience of working together?

PM: These different working contexts definitely come with challenges. Both Melika and I’s approaches to creation are very porous and permeable. The contexts within which we operate inform immensely the way we work but also how we position ourselves. The spheres we evolve in have many crossovers and often overlap —which is great because it also means that it allows for the projects to be more hybrid and be experienced by different groups of people, with different sets of reference, ways of looking/listening.

AC: Could you in your own words describe what an audience might be able to expect from Sensa?

PM: Energy shifts, cosmic resonance, trance-inducing beats, black holes, and wordless songs.

AC: You have said that Sensa draws on African cosmology from the Bantu-Kongo, which is something you Nkisi have been exploring for a while in your practice, inspiring the album you released in January this year. What originally drew you to explore this and could you both speak about the ways in which this perspective influenced or is manifested itself through Sensa?

MNK: I think it all started when I started to investigate the ancient Kongo and Nkisi concepts…When I encountered the Kongo cosmogram, it actually changed everything for me as it was my first encounter with non linear concepts of time and a cosmogram that made the existence of the invisible realm possible… I guess this led me to dive into ideas of Cosmology and the possibilities of thinking through an other system of thought (then the one I am educated to, the one I have been suspicious of for a long time), For my album ‘7 directions’ I focussed mainly on one of the most important life principles of the Kongo Cosmology; the 7 directions and the fact that we hear before we see, seeing being a reaction to our hearing experience …
It has been very important for me to always bring in different Cosmologies in my work as a way to question what we take for granted, for my upcoming project Initiation I am focusing on the Ancient Knowledge of the Dogon Cosmology.  even in my personal life it has helped me to overcome and it has reinforced my spiritual connection with cosmos and ancestors. These concepts manifest in Sensa as in the way I approach composing the music. I am interested in how sound can be used as a tool to touch the unseen.

AC: How long have you been working on this project? Could you talk about the different stages of development?

PM: We have started working on Sènsa during Summer 2018, so it will be almost a year and a half in the making when it will premiere in NYC. We’ve been able to present various stages of the work throughout 2019 in London, Marseille, Berlin and Cologne, which was extremely helpful to fine tune our ideas and bring in more material. One of these presentations took place as part of Block Universe (London) who has joined the group of partners on the project, and invited us to present a first iteration of the work at Hoxton Hall, in May. It was the first time that Melika, Ariel and I had a chance to be all in a room to start building the work. The next step for us three is a 10-day production residency at Abrons Arts Center (NYC) in the run-up to Performa, during which we will be generating more content, revising the current score and working on the dramaturgy. It’s important for us that the work keeps on evolving, that it adapts to the places where we are showing it. We want it to be an ongoing and semi-organic process — which makes it very exciting and special to us all. I don’t think we ever intended to “finish” the work actually for Sènsa is a continuum of sound patterns, physical and kinetic experiences. The work also includes site specific elements and is an ongoing process. It generates and renew its own content every time it is performed.

Sènsa is co-commissioned and co-presented by Abrons Arts Center and Performa. Supported by Arts Council England, FUSED (French U.S. Exchange in Dance), and the Flemish Minister for Culture. This project has been selected and supported by the patronage committee for the arts of Fondation des Artistes. With additional help from ICA London. A first iteration of Sènsa was developed in collaboration with Block Universe. Paul Maheke and Nkisi’s performance at the 58th Venice Biennale of Art is part of the programme commissioned by Arts Council England and co-produced by Delfina Foundation and the Biennale as part of Meetings on Art.

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