Performance artist Ishimwa Muhimanyi discovered the possibilities of dance at an early age: “I knew that if I could entertain the adults around me, I’d get the attention I craved. So at parties or weddings I’d be the kid dancing whilst everybody else watched.” However, it was only when he started dancing through the painful memories of his youth in Rwanda that he unlocked its full potential. “Dance and music has helped me tremendously in building up my confidence and gaining back the curiosity I lost at a young age.”
After studies at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, Ishimwa took the MA in Performance Design and Practice at CSM, where he was taught the most difficult part of artistic expression: collaboration. It is also here that he met Jennifer Brewer, Fine Art and Dramatic Writing graduate with a passion for video. In their project, the camera obtained a similar function to the mirror walls in a dance studio in which Ishimwa establishes feedback between performing actions and viewing them afterwards. For 1 Granary, the filmmaker pointed not just her camera, but also her questions at the performer.
What is it that you’re making?
I’m making a performative experience – something that is alive and something that moves. I make work that’s alive and has breath in it. Sometimes it’s just myself and other times I work with dancers and movement artists. I am interested in the moment. What’s happening on stage is influenced by what’s going on psychically for me when I make the work.
Having just graduated from your MA in Performance Design and Practice at Central Saint Martins, do you feel the course was helpful for you?
Yes. Absolutely. Prior to going to Central Saint Martins I had not really collaborated, with anyone. I’d worked with people but that’s different from collaborating. Being able to collaborate is being able to share ideas and make something together rather than tell people what to do. The biggest lesson I learnt from collaborating at CSM was that sometimes you have to let your ideas go. You may think your idea is the best but, as a collective, if everyone decides it’s not working: let it go. For me that was a very humbling experience because at times as artists we can become attached to our own ego(s). I had difficulties with my classmates because I come from a place of doing. Let’s not talk about it, let’s do it. The majority of my classmates came from a place of talking about work. And I had a problem with that. I don’t really want to talk about anything. Can we just try it and then, if it doesn’t work let’s try something else. I was constantly butting heads and that, for me, was challenging. I’m an assertive person but I’m not interested in conflict. When I was not able to choose the people I collaborated with I was not proud of the work. It was only when I was able to choose my collaborators that I would feel that we were all coming from a place of respect.
“The biggest lesson I learnt from collaborating at CSM was that sometimes you have to let your ideas go.”
What would be the ideal space for the presentation of your work?
At the fucking Barbican. I saw Trajal Harrell, he’s an artist from New York, at the Barbican. It was a performance-based exhibition. His performance was great. I was inspired by his work. The space was fantastic, the levels. The idea of doing durational work… I’m interested in using multiple medias, to tell a story. I’m not interested in a frontal experience. You know, maybe a video behind; maybe some clothes; maybe a mannequin with a particular outfit; maybe some text… I am interested in the best way to tell a story. If the story is best sung, let’s sing it. If the story is best danced, let’s dance it. If the story is best shown on a video, let’s show it on a video.
When is the work happening?
The work has already happened. My intention is not to make something new. My intention is to make something that I know. I take the past and I bring it into the present. Hence, I do a lot of autobiographical work. It’s the idea that drives the whole thing. For me the idea is the meat. The performance is just the rice and salad.
“For me the idea is the meat. The performance is just the rice and salad.”
What excites you in your daily life?
I’ve started gardening with a group of old ladies in Richmond. It is fantastic! I have exhilarating conversations with these women who are completely different from me. When I’m gardening I’m thinking about what I’m going to make next or, what am I going to do in San Francisco at my upcoming residency. Gardening gives me that space to think about the trajectory of my life and where I want to go without it being an anxiety-driven task. I started gardening because I was listening to Women’s Hour and they were saying that it is a way of improving your wellbeing so I thought, I’ll do it.
Has your practice changed over your MA?
My work has a lot more bravery. I am more solid in my own identity. I feel like prior to my MA I would make work that treaded on the line of my identity but I wouldn’t actually name it. I made a piece called ‘Kill Mine and I’ll Kill Yours’ which was about an Arab woman recounting the death of her son. I was the Arab woman. I gave myself agency to do that because I know what it feels like to lose somebody. I lost my mother in the Rwandan genocide. Loss is loss. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. If somebody is killed that you love so much, the feelings are the same. They don’t come in shades. Feelings are just feelings. A lot of my work now is ‘name the thing’. I name the thing in my work. What is it that I’m talking about? I’m no longer afraid of offending anyone. Before I was very conscious of not offending anyone. I was very conscious of not saying something inappropriate. In the last two works I made it was very much in your face. Some of the audiences who are incapable of looking at a piece of work and not finding themselves could not connect with my work. Because my work was not about an audience finding themselves. It was about them finding me. And that’s difficult for an audience that is used to being led through a path of looking at themselves. Which is what I used to do in the work. The best thing I did, which is interesting because I used to be allergic to writing, was my dissertation. We were told that we could absolutely write about anything. My dissertation question was, ‘How can I live freely in this black body?’. That was 15 000 words reflecting on what inspires me, who am I, who I’m not. That was the most healing process that allowed me to make work that goes beyond pleasing people to becoming about giving to people. Just because you’re giving doesn’t mean you’re pleasing. They may not want it but I’m still giving it.
“How can I live freely in this black body?”
Can you say more about your dissertation?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of my favourite writers, speaks about how she didn’t discover she was black until she arrived in America. I didn’t discover I was black until I arrived in the UK at the age of seven. It didn’t occur to me. When I was in primary school kids would call me ‘starving Marvin’ because I was incredibly skinny. In the U.K. they would call me ‘blackie’. ‘Blick’. Things like that. I was like, oh, I am black actually. I tried to change the tone of my skin colour. I did a lot of bleaching. ‘How can I live freely in this black body?’ is a question I ask myself as an adult now because I want to transcend that image. I don’t want to be ‘that’ person. I don’t want to be ‘a black person’. I want to be a person. I want to have the privilege of not thinking about my skin tone as a driving force for whatever it is that I’m doing. However in the interim, exploring who I am is the only way that I can get to that level where I’m not thinking about skin colour and all that stuff. One of the ways of doing that is by gardening with the group in Richmond. Because I’m quite an open person, to start with I didn’t interpret the questions of my fellow gardeners as racist or anything like that, but some sort of were. Things like ‘where are you from?’ and I’m like, well… Or, your hair… Or, ‘I do love your skin colour’. It was very condescending. It can be interpreted as a nice little comment but it’s actually condescending. But I was very open and as a result they realised – oh fuck, he’s not what we imagined him to be. We can actually get along with him. He’s very different from us, but that’s fantastic. Look how helpful he is. He’s not the image that we imagined him to be. And I think that without overcompensating who I am; without suddenly showing up wearing what’s appropriate for them… I show up like this for the gardening [wearing floor length sarong, sandals, T-shirt, soft patterned long coat] and they’re like ‘oh my god I love your outfit today’ and it becomes more of a nice environment. I think about these questions because they are relevant to me and where I am, location wise. Had I been in Africa, where the majority of people are black, maybe I wouldn’t think about what it means to be black, because everybody around me looks like me. But it’s a relevant question. And it’s a specific question, to me.
“I want to have the privilege of not thinking about my skin tone as a driving force for whatever it is that I’m doing.”
Is there a difference between the works you have staged in nature and those you made in the CSM studio environment?
Yeah. I like to play with the idea of natural and superficial. The costumes and the make-up and all that: that’s superficial, but in a nice way. I subscribe to the school of thought that mixing superficialness and realness, so natural and unnatural, is a good idea. The piece that I did in nature, in Rwanda, was very much about just being in nature. Allowing that to inspire the movement. Being light. The idea of lightness which leads back to nature being light. Nature’s not always light, we get storms and hurricanes etc., but that specific location was very light. There wasn’t any sense of heaviness. Contrasting that with heavy make-up and elaborate costumes, that’s interesting to me. I always think that when you juxtapose two different things it creates a story, and that story can be interpreted in multiple ways. It gives the agency to an audience to create the final image of what the story is.
Ishimwa Muhimanyi & Jennifer Brewer