THEATRE WORK IN BENIN

Art as transmission of reality with its complex of social and socio-political problems in times of globalization exemplarily presented by Arts Vagabonds’ projects linking Germany and Benin, Africa and Europe.
by Christel Gbaguidi
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, West-African Benin entered democracy. Taking notice of Benin the majority of Germans is reminded of its own capital city Berlin. Even though linguistic aspects may lead to confusion, both terms describe different worlds not only because of their geography, but also due to their socio-political or economic genuineness. Today, Benin, the former kingdom of Dahomey of the 17th century, is a sovereign state of about 10 320 000 inhabitants and an area of 114 763 m². The republic Benin is situated between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer, neighbouring Nigeria, Togo, Niger, Burkina Faso and the Gulf of Guinea as part of the Atlantic Ocean. As part of the French -West-African- Region – until its independence in 1960 – Porto Novo had been the official capital city. However, the seat of government is in the state’s biggest city, the commercial centre Cotonou. The population is multi-ethnic, among them a group called Ewe with its tribes Yoruba, Mina, Bariba, Somba, Fon, Mahi, Ditamari. Most ethnic groups speak their own language, the official language, though, is French. Regarding the Human Development Index Benin is ranked 165 in 169. In order to observe and better describe Benin’s art and culture you should learn about the officially recognized religion with its approx. 60 % believers and traditional holiday on January, 10: “Voodoo”. There is also Christianity (Catholics, Protestants and other Christian religions) and Islam. Many Beninese don’t give up their traditional believe, even though they officially confess to other religions.
In Africa theatre work on both professional and amateur level is connected to the continent’s diverse cultures. This essay is focused on the reality and projects of Arts Vagabonds Rézo Afrik Bénin between Benin and Germany, Africa and Europe. Indeed, comparable to Germany, Benin defines its framework of cultural work by its cultural policies and various laws, e.g. the „Charte Culturelle du Bénin loi n 91-006 du 25 février 1991“. At this point it is important to note that Beninese cultural policy has still been influenced by various political and economic measures. Among others, dependency is given by the government and measures provided by western Institutions like IMF, EU, World Bank, Atlantic Agreement. In former times, there were diverse forms of arts and theatre, like fairy tales, popular theatre, masks and rituals. Art was and is an everyday awareness. Most art scenes obtain their inspiration from “Voodoo” and elucidate the creative labour as well as the connection between body-language-spirit-dance-cult and ritual. After decolonization numerous theatre people have worked with different acting methods and drama works by African and European authors like Sony Labou Tansi, Bertolt Brecht, Florent Coua Zotti, Moliere, Konstantin Stanislawski, Hermas Gbaguidi, Jean Pliya, Falk Richter, Eric Emmanuel Schmitt, Jerzy Grotowski, Leopold Seda Senghor and others. The only drama school (Ecole International de Théatre du Bénin EITB) was founded by Benin’s famous director Alougbine Dine. Training facilities are limited and are mainly realized through theatre productions or educational projects made possible by directors like Ouseman Alédji (Artistik Afrika Zentrum), Tola Koukoui (Theatre Kaidara) und Alougbine Dine. Classical plays are then accomplished by methods of traditional storytelling like singing, dancing and recitation. Through emphasizing physicality and the combination of different sensual levels, these productions are comprehensible beyond Benin’s borders. (e.g.: using the body as a musical instrument as in LA LIGNE by Alougbine Dine, 1997 or Kondo le Requin by Tola Koukoui, 2006).
How are the socio-political and artistic projects of Arts Vagabonds Rézo Afrik Bénin acknowledged? And in what way do they enable an artistic exchange between Benin and Germany? 2001 Christel Gbaguidi established Arts Vagabonds Rézo Afrik Bénin. The work of this socio-cultural organization is focused on development policy issues, educational goals and socio-cultural and economic prospects of people in times of globalization.
A creative bridge between Germany and Benin has existed since 2007 through the project “migration and I” which is an intercultural South-North-dialogue. Real life stories, experiences or anecdotes told by young people, migrants or refugees are the source to fight prejudice and clichés that are common in both countries.
The goal is also to establish the arts as a way of cross-cultural communication in order to exchange experiences of the lived-in world of different people on stage or by allegories. Until now the following projects have been carried out: „Migration and I“ dance-theatre part 1 (2007), „Migration and I as reflected in paintings“ part 2 (2008) and „The Flee(t)ing Republic” (Documentary Theatre Performance) with protesting refugees at Oranienplatz Berlin part 3 (2012-2013).
Likewise, there were projects made real in Benin, e.g. „Rèvmand´Kartyè“ as part of the project „Tribu Urbain #1“ (2010-2012),which is based on the exchange between Cyclones Production of Ile de la Réunion and Arts Vagabonds Rézo Afrik Bénin. Subject of this project was the intercultural dialogue between 45 artists and inhabitants of the fishing villages „Togbin Daho“ and „Akpandji“.
Images of the project “Migration and I” #2 und 3 were publicly presented by a travelling exhibition (2008-2015). The project „Théatre à l´Ecole /Theatre at School“ let young Beninese have access to the world of theatre with the support of professional artists. One aim was to transmit the artistic work field and its contribution to society, particularly since the work as professional artist is commonly unknown to the general public in Benin and therefore has no high renown. Thus, an important part of the project work is to convince school staff, parents and students’ relatives of the positives impact of the projects. Also, intellectual involvement with classical drama provides a playful way for the students to deal with important questions of society and human being. Scheduled as a multi-year project the aim is to enhance sustainability and pedagogic impact.
It seems equally essential to provide a space for young amateurs where they can test their abilities and find approval. It is also important, that students, regardless of their origin and social background, work together on a mutual project, whose successful outcome will enhance their community spirit. Depending on the project, the team of artists, actors, director, painters, photographers, authors and set decorators within Arts Vagabonds Rézo Afrik Bénin is newly built each time. Despite constant difficulties for monetary funding the organization continually includes different amateurs or the local population for co-operations which also influence the projects.
These projects, set up artistically differently and structurally diverse, are not only carried out in Benin but also in countries such as France, Burkina Faso, Germany or Togo. The image of the artistic vagabond indicates that an artist, no matter where on earth he lives and regardless of his income, will meet other artists and collectively launch a creative project. A different attitude respectively towards theatre of the involved countries is growing when carrying out a project. In Germany, it still seems difficult to professionally employ an actor or actress with migration background and/or from the African Continent for German theatre stages. German cultural and educational policy needs to be consulted in this matter. This difficulty is hardly recognized in Benin. It is unimportant where the actor or actress is from. The stage is open to everyone. There simply is no debate about that topic, regardless of the various amateur or semi-professional productions and despite the fact that Benin has carried out the biggest African Theatre Festival since 1990 “Festival International de Théatre du Bénin (FITHEB)“. The biennial “FITHEB” is comparable to FESPACO in Burkina Faso or “Dak’Art“ in Senegal. There, once every two years, different theatre productions get together at professional but also at amateur level. FITHAB targets various ambitions, one being the celebration of the professional theatre as “IN”, whereas the “OFF” level is aimed to recruit additional audience. The 12th edition of the biennial took place December 6 – 14, 2014 during which I initiated an innovative theatre platform called «Petit FITHEB de Berlin #1».
The selected production of FITHEB 2014: “MAIA – The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and the corresponding FITHEB photo exhibition of about 40 pictures are the kick-off of a planned platform for the support and development of African theatre in Germany. „Petit FITHEB de Berlin“ is designed to biannually present the highlights of FITHEB in Germany.
The network Arts Vagabonds, directed by Christel Gbaguidi is going to present this production in co-operation with Bund Deutscher Amateurtheater (BDAT) during the festival Theaterwelten in Rudolstadt (Thuringia), following a presentation in Berlin as a co-operation between Benin Embassy, the Beninese village FARBA and Africavenir International e.V. within the framework of the first Week of Beninese Culture.
Christel Gbaguidi originates from Benin and lives in Berlin. He is a qualified actor, theatre teacher (M.A.), director, cultural politician as well as manager for culture and the arts. For many years he has been involved for the concerns of young people, “refugees” and migrants through various projects related to development policies. By use of different arts he voices the interests of people and encourages encounter and exchange both within the community and among people from Benin and Germany, Africa and Europe. 2001 he founded Arts Vagabonds Rezo Afrik Benin, a socio-cultural organization which he has run since 2006. He is director, consultant in the field of art and cultural management, cultural policies and development. He is a member of Kulturpolitischen Gesellschaft (KuPoGe) e.V., of Africavenir International e.V. and others.

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