in the Category: art

Dounia Mahammed

If you handle cornstarch roughly, it repels you. But if you treat it with kindness, the substance allows you to sink into it. Just like a binding agent, dramaturge Dounia Mahammed is looking for connection: between cornstarch and human nature, between our experience with time and how we approach others. Instead of soups, she connects elements from our daily life. Yet most of all she connects us: upcoming performance w a t e r w a s w a s s e r is a plea against prejudice. We had a chat with Dounia and pianist and collaborator Alan Van Rompuy about normality, the unknown and the making of w a t e r w a s w a s s e r.

Interview by Milena Maenhaut
Photos shot by Elies Van Renterghem in Brussels

Were you already making theater as a kid?

Dounia: Yes and no. I didn’t really write theater pieces but I did make performances with my sister and whoever was around. We proudly presented our plays to my mom and dad at home. I followed theatre at the music academy and even after class, my friend and I would be preparing things for our teachers, without them asking. (Laughs)

How did w a t e r w a s w a s s e r get its name?

Dounia: It took some time, the name changed a lot. I wanted to talk about fluidity, about the fluid interior we all share. Literally, as we’re mostly made out of water. And figuratively, as it’s a symbol for our emotions. I consider crying as a way of sharing our fluid interior. Our fluid interior is something unpredictable and constantly changing, something opposite to efficiency and control. Even if it is something we try hard to control in order to function in everyday life.

Moving from your first performance Salut Copain to your second w a t e r w a s w a s s e r, a one-man show became a duo performance. How come?

Dounia: Alan was rehearsing for a little festival we organized in our barn while I was proofreading my text to some people. They really liked the piano on the background. I asked myself: how come it never occurred to me? There was no doubt Alan had to join me during the performance, but it was very close to the premiere. It could go wrong, but we know each other well, personally and on an artistic level. It all went down naturally.

Alan: I started from improvisation, yet some things recur in each show, like two songs we play. During the rehearsals we were mostly working on the language we would speak. I was thinking about how I would reflect the text rather than what I will play.

Elies: There’s a little beetle sitting in your hair, Alan.

Alan: Really?

Dounia: Did you put it there on purpose?

(Laughs)

You talk a lot about the absurd in your performances. 

Dounia: In reviews of Salut Copain the absurd is often referred to as a style. But for me the absurd is essential, not just a mere style. It’s about how some structures and things in our society are seen as obvious, yet for me they can feel very unnatural. Seemingly ordinary things can become weird if you start to think about it. For instance the little things we all do but try very hard to hide, like nose picking. It works both ways: some unusual things I consider normal, for instance how different we all are. I like to change the perceptions and look for the boundaries of what’s considered normal. It has an important place in w a t e r w a s w a s s e r, too. You can pronounce the title as you want, by the way.

I like to change the perceptions and look for the boundaries of what’s considered normal

You mentioned how different we all are. Your performances seem like a quest to reduce the distance between us and others, a quest for connection.

Dounia: Connection plays an important role on different levels in w a t e r w a s w a s s e r. At first, there’s the importance of the scenography. I’m in the middle of a tub filled with water and cornstarch, a binding agent used to add consistency to sauces. The tub functions as a metaphor for human interaction. When I walk around on the paste-like substance, my feet leave tracks behind. The tracks recover themselves, like people do. Yet the longer I walk, the more the tracks remain visible. Cornstarch is a non-Newtonian fluid, it’s neither liquid nor solid. If you’re fast, you can walk on it: if you handle it roughly, you repel the substance. Yet if you approach it softly, it tolerates you and you’ll sink into it. It’s a very human characteristic.

On the other hand, connection is reflected in the languages we use: Dutch, English, German, French, my movements and finally Alan’s music. I use different languages because it’s a reflection of my life. I speak French and Arabic with my dad, Dutch with my mom. w a t e r w a s w a s s e r tries to tell that it’s okay not to understand everything. If you don’t get the language, a glance or a hand movement can be enough. A language barrier doesn’t have to be a barrier. It’s beautiful to encounter each other on different levels when we don’t share a tongue. 

Moreover, combining languages I’m able to combine atmospheres. A language can determine the atmosphere, even more so when talking about delicate subjects. For instance the sentence ‘I had a strange feeling in my belly’ sounds way more easygoing in English than it would in Dutch, since ‘belly’ has a light and funny sound. As you can see, all the concepts in my performance flow into each other. It’s all fluid! (Laughs)

w a t e r w a s w a s s e r tries to tell that it’s okay not to understand everything

So you believe we don’t have to understand everything?

Dounia: Yes. The ‘not knowing’ and continuing to question things is essential in the performance. I want to draw attention to what’s living underneath the surface. What’s hidden sometimes tells the most. It could be what’s hidden in a person, or in an entire culture or political movement. Trying to dig deeper is a mix of letting go and approaching. Daring to let go of control of how it should work. Having the courage to approach things that might be more confusing than we like. We should keep looking for the tiny pieces that create a person. It could be dangerous to let people coincide with their beliefs. w a t e r w a s w a s s e r is a plea against prejudice.

Another element I’ve seen recurring is time. The fast and fragmentary nature of your work is often emphasized in reviews. For w a t e r w a s w a s s e r you asked Jan Van Damme for advice, an artist who indulged himself into tea rituals. Are rituals a way you keep track of time?

Dounia: Yes, although I can’t and don’t want to keep track of time. But it’s a way to handle it. Our urge to jump to conclusions is related to the speed and efficiency we try to function with. Jan is a painter and a therapist. We had moments of tea. Often for longer than just for a cup of tea: sometimes we would be together in silence for hours. The ‘empty’ time enabled me to breathe. I still try to allow those moments in my life, moments of not doing anything and not trying to jump into conclusions. Even more so when I’m having a hard time. Inertia is essential. I’m looking at Alan, but he hasn’t noticed yet (Laughs). We talk a lot about finding ourselves outside the common rhythm.

Alan: A lot of artists are so efficiently focused on the result of their work that they’re missing out on things. They’re missing out on the process.

Dounia: I consider the end product rather an accidental consequence of my process. You could transpose that idea to our interaction with each other. It’s constructive to leave space and time for nuance, to approach people without wanting to draw immediate conclusions.

Our urge to jump to conclusions is related to the speed and efficiency we try to function with

Pilar ASAP: w a t e r w a s w a s s e r
31 Oct – Pilar, Brussels
Free for members