A dancer who leaves his imprints on the stage
Interview with Qudus Onikeku
Dance has always been at the centre of the Afrovibes Festival. This year's visitors should not miss the strong dance piece My Exile is in my Head by emerging choreographer and dancer Qudus Onikeku (1984). He is a performer from Nigeria who is spreading his art via France to the rest of the world. The performance he will present at Afrovibes is inspired by the writings of Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, as well as by his own experience of living far away from home.
The performance is introduced in Qudus' own voice. He talks about how he used to hide in the attic of his family's house, where he tried to create a space for himself. 'I didn't want to create a dialogue in which I address the audience. I wanted to create an interior monologue. This part is like an intimate diary. It is a memory from my childhood that permits me to deal with certain discoveries about solitude', he explains.
Qudus Onikeku was born and raised in Lagos, one of the most crowded cities on earth. During adolescence he gave up his talent for science to switch to the performing arts. This choice in the end brought him to France where he was given the opportunity to take his dancing skills one step further. The change was huge for the young dancer. 'I lived alone in a very small town called Châlons-en-Champagne where I attended the National Centre for Circus Arts. At the age of seventeen I lived in an apartment alone. Before that time I had never even been outside my hometown.' He began to write, as he would talk to himself, and this became the starting point of his authentic manner of expression. 'The longer I remained abroad, the closer I got to Nigerian reality.'
It is not surprising that the prison notes of famous writer Soyinka touched him and became his source of inspiration for My Exile is in my Head. He explains why: 'His expressions of extreme solitude strongly echoed my feelings of exile.' Onikeku refers to the book The Man Died which Soyinka wrote while he was in jail during the civil war in Nigeria in the late 1960s. 'I aimed to create a monologue in which I would use movement instead of words. The structure of Soyinka's book is like a poetic movement. It is not a book with separate chapters or scenes. That is also how I see my performance. Instead of using text as a narrative, I let words appear in my work like a flash, like emotions that pass through the movement.'
The result is a dance solo that integrates live music, lighting effects and video. Onikeku premiered the piece in Paris two years ago. He also performed it on the African continent in places like Johannesburg and Bamako. A review in The South African called the dance piece 'sophisticated, slick and enjoyable'. Artslink.co.za wrote: 'In a country where we have a big expatriate community and xenophobia riots, it is psychologically interesting to go on this journey with him'. The theme of being in exile far from home is still very much present in Onikeku's life. However, now he has managed to turn the pain of it into something that is beneficial to him. 'It would be different if I would be living in a country like the UK or the United States, because there are large Nigerian communities. Here, in France, I have retained and perhaps even nurtured my sense of solitude and loneliness. It is the feeling of being a foreigner that keeps me at a healthy distance. As an artist I need that. So France to me is the right place to be right now. I can keep that distance and yet enjoy a lot of support for my work.'
The French audiences will see much more of the young artist because My Exile is in my Head is the first part of a trilogy. He already presented the second part and the third will premiere next year at the prestigious Festival d' Avignon. Onikeku explains how he incorporates all those global influences: 'While my artistic upbringing took place at the boundaries of different cultures, I try to erase all these different encounters and live with only the imprints they've made on my body. It is through the memory of my body that I search for my own style of movement.' Over the past five years the essence of his experiences has become clear to him: 'I have been occupied with the existential questions and this has paved the way for the discovery of my authentic self. You can find those deep insights not only in my work on stage, but in everything around me. I am the piece.'
This September the dance piece My Exile is in my Head by Qudus Onikeku will be performed during the Afrovibes Festival in Amsterdam and Eindhoven, to then continue its tour in the UK leg of the festival in October.
Afrovibes is a biennial festival presenting (South) African dance, music and theatre. The festival takes place in South Africa, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.