The State in Which You Find Yourself: Mamela Nyamza and Meryem Jazouli

Endurance Tests

The State in Which You Find Yourself: Mamela Nyamza and Meryem Jazouli

By Anna Martine Whitehead November 17, 2014

“Endurance Tests” is an irregular column on current explorations of representation, the ethereal, and compulsiveness by Black artists working in the field of performance. Across profiles and interviews, the column takes seriously the proposition of performance as a repeatable and assimilable text. “Endurance Tests” will examine contemporary performance-makers actively syncretizing the many implications of "Blackness": illegality, contagion, maladaptivity, and a privileged relationship to cool.

Mamela Nyamza lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with her son, where she draws on her international and township training in ballet to make dances about women, mothers, and South African life. Meryem Jazouli, also a mother, lives in Casablanca, Morocco, where she is the founder and director of a cultural center (Espace Darja) and a choreographer investigating the social and geopolitical landscapes of Casablanca. Both choreographers were invited to this year’s Time-Based Art (TBA) Festival in Portland, Oregon, through the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) and the Africa Contemporary Arts Consortium (ACAC). One would be remiss to think that their affiliation with the ACAC implies a common practice. Indeed, Nyamza and Jazouli come from opposite ends of the world’s second-largest continent. They arrived in Portland with vastly different worldviews, political alliances, and importantly, relationships to the state of Africa and to the world beyond. Rather than being easily apprehended as “African” artists, the two are in dialogue—with one another and with the wider dance world.

Performance scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s description of the “Africanist presence” located in contemporary American performance is a useful entry point to thinking about the artists’ practices, collectively. Gottschild posits the process-oriented, postmodern, and polyrhythmic turn in contemporary American performance as particularly influenced by the same motifs in African life and culture, both contemporarily and historically.1 Gottschild identifies an Africanist aesthetic that originates in Africa and is reiterated throughout the continent and the United States. I would further complicate and extend Gottschild’s term to reflect Nyamza’s and Jazouli’s economic and cultural specificity as working mothers as well as African subjects.

Both artists make work within economies that lack both time and material resources. In response to their limited budgets, Nyamza and Jazouli primarily make solos, and their productions tend to appropriate and revitalize domestic objects and quotidian landscapes (for example, a plaza, coffee cans, a clothesline). The choreographers maintain a perennial concern for the role of art in their respective communities (geographically and culturally imagined). And their respective sense of place—not only within the African Diaspora but within their neighborhoods, their homes, and in proximity to their children—reasserts the primacy of their positions as laborers with families, complicating what it means to be an “African artist.”

I had the opportunity to sit with Jazouli and Nyamza at TBA’s The Works, a venue that served as an ad hoc club space, gallery, and beer garden throughout the festival.

Mamela Nyamza: It is beautiful here. Yet sometimes coming to beautiful countries or states, you really always feel like the Other. Sometimes it’s hard to access work in another place because it’s so different. It’s not like you’re not used to it. Coming from South Africa, I am very used to [feeling different]—but you always have a central point of access. Sometimes in the States I struggle so much to access the work, and I have to ask myself, “Is it because I am the Other?”

Being African, there are many things that people think of us. Things people put on us without even asking us questions. Those assumptions come very strongly sometimes.  [We also have assumptions] about Americans when we come to America. I’m thinking I’m going to see all these rap people running around. Then, once I get here, I have to say, “Okay, it’s actually not like that in all the cities.” So the same way you have assumptions about us, we have assumptions about you. This [compulsion to see the Other as exotic] is a give and take. For example, I see the way people comment about my hair here. [Mamela starts touching our friend Robert’s hair, inspecting it.] “Oh, I like your hairstyle.” And I’m thinking, “Oh, God, I’m not at home.” I don’t know what it is—do I really look that African?

Anna Martine Whitehead: Do you see this affecting how audiences read your work? For example, you structured your workshop so that we got a foundation in contemporary improv before you introduced the more traditional South African dancing—instead of the other way around. You gave us the constraint of the South African footwork, but then you were telling us to take it beyond that into something more personal.

MN: Exactly. The more traditional South African dancing is also an improvisation. It has structure, but it can flow into other rhythms, other times, and other situations. I could’ve started with [South African dance] but I don’t like this perception that “I’m African so this is what I’m going to do.” It is interesting to see how [Americans] perceive the work from [Africans]. In a way this is confirming that we are so different.

Meryem Jazouli: But I think that—whether we come from Africa, Asia, Portland, or anywhere else in the world—quality is something that you can see. I remember my best experience as an audience member was in Marrakesh. Ko Muroshi [a legendary performer of Butoh] did a performance. We have a very difficult audience: They can talk and they can go out and have something to eat—

MN: Yes! They don’t care, they talk—

MJ: And nudity is [a contentious element with Moroccan audiences]. You don’t know—it can be a real mess after the show. The assistant director told Ko: “You know, Ko, you can’t be on stage with the G-string.” And he ended up coming on stage with a G-string and something transparent over it. The performance was about one hour and at the end nobody moved. I mean nobody. It was incredible. But it’s because when there is quality, you can see that.

  (Left) Mamela Nyemza leading a workshop at the 2014 TBA Festival. Image: Courtesy of TBA Festival. (Right) Meryem Jazouli. Photo: Agnes Mellon.

AMW: You’re both well-traveled artists, as well as being known in your home countries. Can you speak to these experiences of performing abroad versus at home?

MN: I always feel a bit sad when I go to countries and know that I’m not going to see [the hosting artist’s] work. I feel like, “My God, I’m taking his place.” It concerns me all the time, actually: How do local artists look at what I’m doing, being in their country? And generally, because I’m African, coming to a different country is usually by invitation from that country. And I always feel guilty that I’m taking somebody else’s funding. At home, when they bring us shit artists, it makes us angry because it is our platform. This is the experience of artists everywhere. There’s something so global about the experience of being an artist: how we work at the edge, how we are hustlers.

And many [outsiders] think Africans don’t know anything and they try to teach us. Collaborators come to Africa and expect just traditional African dance, and I just think, “No. I’m not going to do this one kind of dance.” These are the kind of discussions we get in with collaborators. For example, I’m doing this piece right now as a puppet because during Apartheid times, we were just puppets who would do anything the white people said to us. You’d just say, “Jump” and we’d say, “How high?” Always doing the things you don’t want to do, and we started to get angry. So the piece is about the relationship between me and this puppet.

AMW: It is a solo?

MN: Yes.

AMW: What is the generative significance of the solo for you?

MN: It’s easier, economically.

MJ: Same things apply with me: It’s all about funding. I’ve worked with others, but more than anything now, it’s important to start with me.

AMW: Is the solo a growing interest as you get older as performers?

MJ: Exactly. I’d been thinking: “What am I going to do? I’m a dancer and it’s getting harder to get work.” So I started digging. Now the search is for funding, which I am quite busy with on top of everything else. It’s not even about touring. Leaving home for me is depressing, especially if I’m not performing. We are both mothers and we have responsibilities. We travel because we need to make a living and it helps put bread on the table. But at the same time, we miss home.

MN: It’s been great to see women’s voices so strong [at TBA:14]. The work of women in this festival has been incredibly strong, and they set a high bar. Sometimes I think I have seen it all, but then I see work like Cynthia Hopkins’ A Living Documentary.2 I know I am coming from Africa but I have seen [strong work at home]. When I see work that tries too hard to be intellectual, it can miss the point.

  Espace Darja. Photo: Espace Darja.

MJ: When I’m in Morocco, everything is going on: ISIS is killing, Palestinians are getting killed, Egypt, the Revolution… What’s going on, and what does it mean and how is it getting to us? What can I put back in my work from all of this? There is something—a resonance—that can keep me from seeing all around me as if there is nothing. I need to see something moving! I can’t go to a performance and see someone screaming in a psychiatric medical center and take that just simply as art. I don’t know. It doesn’t need to be only bombardment to go deep into your mind. For example, I know Body Cartography Project is interested in kinesiology and feeling and how space can expand—which makes something else happen. This is because the material is concerned with the whole thing, the big picture. 

All these artists we have in Africa, they are creating with $10, and they create. And they are enraged, and they are in the emergency of having something to say. Having something to say! When you have nothing to say, just shut up! But if you have something to say, then work to tell it. Not all of this work is good. Some is in poor taste. But the larger issue of how can you mix all of what is happening in the world to make your own language or your own vision. Because if you have the vision of a million others, then there are people who did it 50 years before and better.

That’s the difference between people here and at home. If you are an artist [here], it’s as though you are different than everyone. But an artist should be talking about the world and what’s happening in the world in an artistic way. You can’t have this vision if you are not concerned with [makes a whistling sound and opens her palms to indicate the wider world] and if you are not having an emotional reaction that pushes you into a state. That state in which you find yourself: that is being an artist.

Memela Nyamza will be performing in this year’s Works at Work Festival in Copenhagen. Meryem Jazouli will be continuing work on her new production Contessa at the Choreographic National Center in Caen this winter. For more on Espace Darja, visit


  1. “The Africanist aesthetic … in word, text, performing and visual arts, and everyday life… is a standard that values process.” Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance (Westport, CT: Praeger), 1996: 11.
  2. Hopkins’ performance directly addresses the economic value of the female performing artist.

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