Thomas Talawa Prestø Sets the Stage on Africana Dance
Words by Ka Man Mak
Edited by Michael Adade
Photos by André Percey Katombe
At the Oslo Afro Arts Festival, choreographer, lecturer, founder and artistic director of Tabanka African and Caribbean Peoples Dance Ensemble, Thomas Talawa Prestø sets the stage. Imbued in his lecture was a conscious effort to educate embedded colonial concepts in academia, philosophy and dance.
“Because this is complex. Extremely complex,” started Thomas Talawa Prestø charismatically, hopping between Norwegian and English. “And I acknowledge that.” His slides were deliberately text heavy so that the audience could take photos and revisit the topic again. “For me, it has started to become an everyday [sic]. I realised how complex this was, especially for the Norwegian institutions and when I was applying for the doctorates. Because I said that my project would have to be intersectional. It would have to look at the intersection of gender and race, and also on forced migration and voluntary migration. The response I got was, “that’s a lot”, you should choose a few.”
Intersectionality was coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw who studies civil rights, race and racism. For her, intersectionality is used to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics intersect with one another and overlap.
Prestø refused to hem in on the complexity of African art, dance, philosophy and culture; and oftentimes explained terminologies that might be unfamiliar to the audience. His lecture visited scholars, African concepts, dance comparisons and historical events to illustrate how we are being lied to on a daily basis; and how African aesthetics should be understood in academia, history, art and dance.
African dance is parallax
One of his decolonial dance performances, Jazz Ain’t Nothing But Soul, a collaboration with Dansens Hus and Tabanka, was broadcast digitally during April to May this year. Jazz, like many dance forms, has been appropriated by the West, and has roots in Africa. “We returned to a lot of the art practices which are uniquely African in its roots. And also translated into the camera as all the cameras were moving around the dancers. We are continuously dancing within a sphere, not a circle.”
Using this project, he illustrated how African dance is a parallax, that “how something looks depends on where you stand in relationship to it. So, as you change your perspective just a little bit, the shape and form of it will change. One of the results of having the audience all around you is that you move your body in a way that is parallax.”
Africana Dance includes any dance practices, that is contemporary or altered, from people who are of African descent and carries African philosophy or thought and culture into their daily practices. This includes the African diaspora.
“Dancing in the pressure-cooker”
Prestø introduced his doctorate research project, titled ‘Anansi’s web’. Anansi comes from a West African folktale character where he takes the shape of a spider, and is considered as a spirit or god who is a trickster. Anansi is also given the “principle of communication and storytelling by the God”. The stories about Anansi became mainstream in the American version, Brer Rabbit and Bugs Bunny. It is believed that Brer Rabbit stories originated from enslaved West Africans in America and were appropriated by Joel Chandler Harris in the 19th century.
Anansi’s web is an artistic research project which engages and supports Africana dance practitioners in Norway. In particular, the project looks at “Dancing in the pressure-cooker” which Prestø coined to describe “dance practices that spring from people in a pressured situation, such as enslavement, segregation, apartheid, forced migration, war, homophobia, transphobia and gender injustice”. One of the goals of the project is to “disrupt the hegemony of Europeanist theory”.
“Things are not what they seem, especially when you touch on the diaspora, it is very often not what they seem. All too often when you do research, the research material is racist, sexist, and is based a lot on what the researcher recognises. […] It is actually quite violent to read about it.”
He went further, “Most writings about Caribbean or African-Caribbean dance started in criminology because the dance was predominantly spiritual, or spiritually oriented, and so it was illegal to practise African drumming. […] There is very little neutral material about the field that I am in.”
Through Western ethnocentric perspectives, it would be difficult to truly grasp African art and culture, he cautioned.
Prestø used the term, ‘Euro-Western’ instead of western as he sees himself as a descendent of Africans that are taken forcefully from Africa to the Caribbean and to the Americas over 500 years ago. He refused to give away ‘Western’ as though that Africans did not contribute to it. ‘Western’ is not equivalent to ‘White’ or ‘European’, he explained and admitted that there might be a need for a better terminology.
The Language That Hides the Brutal Truth
Prestø’s highlighted euphemism used by researchers, such as ‘to colonise’ hides the brutal violence of the invaders into a country. He used the indigenous Caribbeans, Taino, as an example that in their point of view, who are now almost killed off due to colonisation, would have viewed it as an invasion. “We are already doing politricks. We are already hiding what we are talking about and in most incidents, we are talking about war. I have to leave that clear otherwise it would be indefensible for me to continue. The Caribbean was a site of war. America was a site of war. South Africa was a site of war.”
On the screen, he showed two definitions:
Colonalism refers to the historical experience of domination that coincided with the colonial enterprise, typically traced to the period between the 18th to 20th centuries.
Coloniality is an epistemic concept that finds its origins in the 15th century discovery of the ‘New World’ which dominates and controls subsequent modes of knowledge production through codifying differences between the civilised West and the underdeveloped Rest.
Prestø further explained that, “What that means is that we started to change education. We start to change storytelling. We started to fabricate our view of ourselves and the view of the rest, so-called othering. […] So, we are civilised, we are highly cultured, but they are dumb and savages. Therefore, we must dominate them. We must take their land. we must take their women.”
Below is a list that Prestø created to highlight which words are hiding the brutal truth:
Colony = invaded country
Colonialisation = war
Slaves = hostages
Slave owners = human traffickers
Slave catchers = police
Plantation = death camps
Mistresses = rape victims
Overseers = torturers
Trading = kidnappers
Profit = theft
He then rewrote a passage that initially read, “Slave families lived on plantations owned by white slaveowners who hired overseers to maintain discipline,” to “Black families were held hostage in death camps by white human traffickers who employed torturers to torture and kill them.”
“We need to start there, to understand how much we are hiding in our everyday talk.” The recent ‘blackface’ debate in Norway was an example of how Norwegians were ridiculing “blacks at death camps”, and he called the discussion “dumb”, “absurd”, and “undignifying”.
Academic accountability: Shifting the Geography of Reason
“If you don’t apply decolonial perspectives in your research on Africana Dance you will reach less than 60 years back in time, and most of what you glean will be “corrupted” information,” warned Prestø.
The origin of the concept of “shifting the geography of reason” was born out of a dialogue between the Department of Africana Studies at Brown University, the Institute for Caribbean Thought in Jamaica, and the Africana Thought series at Routledge in the late 1990s on the decolonial thought movement. It is also the motto of the Caribbean Philosophical Association.
Shifting the geography of reason is to change the historical perpetuation that Africans are non-intellectuals, and thus were denied the capacity to produce knowledge and to have rational thought. When such bias, especially in the context of Western philosophy, is so prevalent it has dire consequences for our society and education.
“Euro-Western believes that they own reason. Therefore, this pertains in art,” said Prestø. Speeding through he highlighted how the map of Africa is unnaturally constructed and distorted in the commonly used Mercator’s world map in classrooms, where Africa is in fact much larger. Africa as a continent has its own diverse cultures and had kingdoms with their own trade, libraries and universities in pre-colonial times.
Prestø used examples of “Fulani” languages and “Bantu” culture to illustrate African diversity. Fulani language group is from the Niger-Congo family, with its dialects being are spoken across 22 countries in West and Central Africa. It is also spoken from Senegal and in Sudan too. There are about 20-30 million Fulani speakers across Africa. Despite their dialects, for Prestø, they are all part of the same “rhythmic culture” and can communicate with each other. African drums, also known as talking drums, were outlawed in the colonies because of their ability for the enslaved to communicate.
The importance of understanding cultural structures, in particular, is to get the right solutions for example working with African youth, “Rather than trying to assimilate somebody for drug prevention, you can actually look at what you have in your own culture that could work as drug prevention and start there. It’s a lot easier.” Prestø worked with African youth in Norway.
Rhythm is Communication. Time is Relational.
The main philosophy in most parts of Africa is polycentricity, where everyone is important and can influence in the same space. This has a consequence in art. Polyrhythm comes from polycentricity. Polyrhythm is multilayers of voices, which Prestø described in a social context, African aunts talking at the same time where one aunt can be talking about two different things. It does not mean that in that space one aunt can be bigger than the other or louder than the other, but rather the other aunt would also need to be bigger and louder as well. The idea of “your turn to speak after my turn to speak” does not resonate in the African culture.
Individuality is then seen as being established and found in a group, and “Difference does not communicate less value.” Ubuntu, is an ancient African word and philosophical concept to mean “I am because we are” which underpinned African culture.
Rhythm is to be understood as a core way of communication. Most of the dances and songs are based on cosmology, which is why he titled his lecture as ‘Assuming the Centrality of an Africana Cosmos – Beyond Coloniality.’ Dance is then seen as a way to communicate to the universe and is considered as “the highest form of communication.”
Skills in listening, creation and tracing is important to master the rhythms in African dance, and once again he emphasised that the euro-western notation system in music is not “capable of notating polyrhythms correctly.”
When talking about the dancer’s body, Thomas refused to use the term, ‘black bodies’ as this is where you are only black in the presence of whiteness. “If you let the whiteness become the norm, so that you have to define you are black, it’s like saying black South Africans. Why do you have to say that? It is because of the force in the room.”
In the African perspective, the human body is seen as so exquisite that even the gods want it. In a voodoo ritual dance, an exchange occurs when the divine spirit enters and rides the body; for lending the body, the spirit leaves healing and knowledge to the community.
Rhythm is also seen as the making of time. Prestø raised the question of how and who defined time itself, “Who says that the half time of an atom in Geneva dictates what a second is? […] How long is an hour? Let’s say from an experimental point of view. It could feel like five minutes. Hours can feel like a week. Now with corona, who knows what day it is?”
“Time is relational, so are polyrhythms. It teaches us how to stand in time, and it also teaches us not to try and control it. It collapses time. So, the drum often teaches us who we were, who we are, and who we can become. It takes three spirits to beat the drum – the ancestral tree, that was taken to make the wood; the animal that was sacrificed to make the skin, and the human who beats it in the moment. Past, Present and Future have to be present for the drum to sound.”
Thomas Talawa Prestø is the founder and art director of Tabanka African and Caribbean Peoples Dance Ensemble, which has won awards, such as OXLO-prisen 2017 and Bergesenprisen 2020.
This article is part of a journal series produced by The Oslo Desk in collaboration with Oslo Afro Arts Festival.
Watch the live lecture at https://www.facebook.com/osloafroarts/videos/180326310862661/
Learn the differences between Polyrhythm and Polymeter: