CHRISTOPHER BETTS - FINAL REFLECTIONS
"The most generative way for me to create art is to use the world as my subject, while making myself subject to the world." - Claudia Rankine
One year. 5 African Countries. A year ago I didn’t even own a passport. Through the Julie Taymor World Theater Fellowship, I have learned so much about myself, the world, and the cultural impact that art can have when humanity is contextualized across all borders.
To bring my fellowship full circle, I went back to review my project description.
I began my journey on a mission:
“To truly become a globally minded artist and activist, I find it necessary to return to my cultural origin and fully embrace the transcultural experience of being an African American artist.”
Before my time living and learning in African countries, I conflated culture, race, and ancestry. Thus, many questions about my identity came up during my fellowship. Initially, I thought that I should identify as Black American. Perhaps identifying as African-American would be a disservice to people who have migrated from African countries to live in the states, or to Black Americans who have less of a generational gap between their roots, and thus a more linear connection to their cultural origin (first and second generation born descendants of African countries, etc.) Then I realized that rejecting the African-American identity, even reverentially, is an erasure of Africa’s undeniable influence on Blackness in America. I now recognize that there may never be a satisfying identity for Black people living in America because the American identity was forced upon us. I understand that Africa is my ancestral origin. I am integral to the story of Africa in a healthy way, but unfortunately, my relationship to African culture has been disrupted by centuries of colonialism, brutality, and oppression. My well-intentioned and romantic assumption that my Black identity would inherently connect me to African cultures diminished the undeniable reality that culture was taken from me. It was taken from every Black person in America when our ancestors were ripped from their homelands and consequently enslaved. Neglecting this distinction inadvertently minimizes a part of American history that can never be forgotten. Coming to terms with these truths has greatly deepened my understanding of “the transcultural experience of being an African American artist” and human. “Umunutu ngumuntu ngabantu” is Zulu for a person is a person through other people. I don’t exist without Africa and its cultures.
“Since I would be enriched by so much culture, I would begin my adventure by giving.”
I did not visit an African country or community without offering myself as a resource. Reciprocal partnership building is in the spirit of Ubuntu, which in Xhosa culture means “I am because we are.” There would be no way for me to truly engage with the communities that I visited without effort on my part to foster mutually beneficial relationships. I learned much more from these communities than they could ever learn from me, but the act of offering myself and my knowledge in the spirit of gratitude was integral to my interactions.
“What I hope to gain from every country that I study in Africa is an understanding of each culture’s relationship to ritual and storytelling.”
In this case, what I hoped for and what I learned were not one and the same. Recognizing this distinction was critically important to my development as an artist and advocate for representation. Again, I didn’t realize how much I romanticized the wildly varied, African continent until I was a first-hand audience to contemporary African cultures. I had to be steadfast in not projecting any expectations on the communities that I observed because that would be antithetical to my purpose for applying to this fellowship. African countries have been ravaged by colonialism, commercialism, and globalization. Because of this, many of the communities that I visited were quite modern and not the departure from the western world that I anticipated. In terms of performance, I found that many of the communities that I visited adopted western-based practices. Western influence on performance was initially shocking to me until I contextualized the relationship between western based performance and African countries. Many African countries do not have the infrastructure to celebrate their cultural output on the scale of western commercial recognition. The allure of participating in international markets for artists from underserved communities is both a larger and potentially more lucrative platform to present their work. Western society benefits from the exploitation of communities that do not have the resources to share their stories on their own terms. Rightfully so, members of these communities want to be acknowledged for narratives and practices that wouldn’t exist without them.
This fellowship typically doesn’t allow artists to travel to Europe, but I was able to per Julie’s recommendation. Traveling to European nations after my time in Africa was crucial to the contextualization of my experience. All of the things that my romanticism and ignorance led me to believe I would find in African countries were in European museums: the costumes, the instruments, the jewelry, photos, paintings. All stolen. It was heartbreaking but absolutely necessary.
I have gained much experience while retaining a healthy fear of misrepresenting communities that have had their narratives flattened and distorted. Healthy fear will hold me accountable to the cultures and communities being represented in my work. I understand that you cannot be an ally to or a storyteller for a culture or community without the participation of the people you are representing.
The Julie Taymor World Theater fellowship has expanded my perspective while shifting my focus to grapple with things I wouldn't have been able to understand had I not experienced these cultures first hand. My journey was beautiful, scary, frustrating, remarkable, challenging, surprising, humbling; singularly the most dynamic and unique experience that I have ever had.
South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Morocco,
Ngiyabonga! Enkosi! Murakoze! Asante! شكرا! Thank you!
Julie Taymor, thank you!
I am never going to forget this.