in the Category: art

Lara Staal

Is the concept of beauty something fixed? When she saw Africa, a play by Oscar van Rompay and Peter Verhelst, six years ago, Lara Staal thought it was beautiful. Now, however, within an increasing awareness process surrounding decolonization, she looks at it very differently. To gain insight in the criticism towards the play, we talked to Lara about beauty, power and decolonization. This month she tackles those same topics in De Staat van de Schoonheid, part of a larger series of 'performative conferences' on classical terms such as truth, faith, justice etc. For the next 'performative conference', the third in a series of five, Lara invited actor Oscar van Rompay, Ogutu Muraya (a theatremaker and writer who lives and works in Kenya) and writer/historian Heleen Debeuckelaere to talk about beauty using Africa as a case study.

Interview by Louise Souvagie
Photos shot in Ghent by Elies Van Renterghem

How did you end up connecting beauty to decolonization?

When Ogutu, Oscar and I first started talking, the initial idea was to compare the different intercultural perspectives to the concept of beauty. But we kept coming back to Africa because the piece - in a way - binds all three of us: Oscar made it, I saw it six years ago and Ogutu is the missing perspective. Africa is a piece that thematizes Oscar’s live when he is in Migori, Kenya, where he lives three months a year. Ogutu eventually proposed to talk about beauty through Africa. Was this performance beautiful six years ago? And what about now? Is the concept of beauty fixed, or something which transforms in time? Beauty is heavily influenced by our social and political reality, while we tend to think beauty has nothing to do with politics because we can detect beauty in abstraction. 

We tend to think beauty has nothing to do with politics

What we find beautiful is connected to what is appealing to us — something which isn’t fixed in time and which is subject to all kinds of power relations. Beauty is not free of any value and we should approach it critically. What is beauty based on and by whom is it actually considered beautiful? We have a responsibility towards those who are left out of our current perception of beauty.

Ogutu is in a way representing the missing perspective within the performance Africa. The danger of creating work about black people with white people only, is that this creation also becomes something that is made for other white people only. When you display exoticism in order to criticize it, you repeat a very painful mechanism by stereotyping a colored person. Should we repeat these painful characterizations, only for us, white people, to gain insights about our own history and current behavior, or can we propose a contrary image instead?

What’s your opinion on the idea that creativity can only flourish within total freedom? Some argue 'we won’t be able to say anything, anymore'.

I most strongly disagree. It’s an ancient idea. Art does not exist within some type of vacuum. Everything you say or do on stage has everything to do with what happens outside.

Some directors seem to feel cornered and want to hide behind their good intentions and art as a sanctuary where everything should be possible. Well, art encourages you to think and reflect, so we can hold you accountable for your use of imagery and its impact on us. Also, when representing history, you have to question which voices should be taken into account and who had the power to write that version of history. Who can speak on behalf of whom?

Art does not exist within some type of vacuum

This consciousness excludes certain forms of speaking, humor and imagery such as satire and irony.

It doesn’t mean it is forbidden, but the question is; who can laugh at this? You only laugh when it doesn’t affect you directly. It seems to benefit the privileged, while it’s a burden for those who are not amused, or worse: those who are not in the theater seats.

In the repetition of a stereotype also lies the repetition of violence towards people who are not you. Because when it would directly affect you, you would probably not do this. It would be a different story if it came from a black director who draws from his own pain and trauma. But who feels like doing that? Why repeating something so painful? Let’s use the language of theatre to not repeat the current power positions but to get beyond them.

In the repetition of a stereotype also lies the repetition of violence towards people who are not you 

Ogutu Muraya thematizes the inequality and oppression he experiences. Do you think there might be a day when artists like him will be freed from these topics?

I think it will feel different when he shows his work in Kenya for example. It is also in the confrontation with an European audience that he feels certain blind spots should be addressed. But yes, colonization is far from over. We are still keeping African countries hostage within a colonial relation. As long as we dominate socially and economically independence and equality are not possible. I am really ashamed that we do not have equal access to the world for example. Just because I am born in the Netherlands, I can travel everywhere but someone from outside of Europe is constantly seen and treated as a threat. I find this deeply ingrained racism outrageous.

Do you consider De Staat van de Schoonheid to be educational?

Education can be conceived as many different things. I am a huge advocate of education as an exchange of knowledge, as a knowledge-producing organ which embodies everything and everyone. There should be a constant re-evaluation of that what we know, which connects to the idea that there is an endless amount of blind spots which we should strive to discover and acknowledge. The moment you’ve detected one, another one is already hidden behind. I wonder how pluralism, a variety of perspectives, can take shape in art. It’s not a one-way conversation, in which one transfers his or her knowledge to the other. I’d like to see artistic processes as ways to gain multiple perspectives on a topic and to continue exploring it with an audience.

I wonder how pluralism, a variety of perspectives, can take shape in art

De Staat van de Schoonheid
15 Oct - NTGent Arca, Ghent
Free for members