Deep in our hearts there is a call to live in communion with others, a call to love, to create, to risk. But there is also that radical feeling of our poverty when faced with human misery. I am afraid to give myself. I have constructed a world of security around me…so many so-called interests which keep me from communing with others…I want to, but cannot. So many things seem to prevent me from loving and I feel them in my inmost being…so many defences and fears. I risk losing hope. I risk entering into a world of sadness and I begin to doubt myself. I have doubts about others. I doubt the value of my presence. I doubt everything.
This is our human condition. We want so much but we feel incapable. We believe in love but where is it? There are so many obstacles to break through within ourselves in order to become free and to become present to others; to their misery and to their person.
How do we break cycles of violence? Art helps us share painful personal stories and build empathy across cultural lines.
Serge Alain Nitegeka
Serge Alain Nitegeka was born in 1983 in the African nation of Burundi. When he was eleven years old his homeland erupted into open conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes, violence that devastated Burundi and neighboring Rwanda. The two countries had been a single nation, Ruanda-Urundi, until 1962, and the longstanding animosity between peoples recognized no boundary.
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, and the President of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down. These were not the first assassinations in the region and the backlash was fierce. The Hutu led governments began to execute Tutsis and moderate Hutus in an attempt to secure peace by killing all possible dissenters. Those who did not perish began a shadow existence, unable to move back home or establish a future anywhere else because of the prejudice that dogged them and their lack of legal standing.
Nitegeka was one of these refugees, fleeing the genocide behind him and trying to eke out a life for himself. As he moved throughout Africa, he constantly had to bow to the conditions set for migrants in different countries, the catch-22 situations that meant he couldn’t relax anywhere. His journey to freedom would take a decade and leave scars and impressions on his internal landscape and imagination. He has found a way to express the darkness and pain of those years of wandering by making art.
Nitegeka’s work displayed as part of Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness, 2015
Nitegeka, who now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, makes a living as an installation artist, combining sculpture, design, construction, painting and performance art. Most of his pieces feature beams of black wood arranged in such a way that they impede movement. Visitors must find their way through by stooping and stepping over and through obstacles. This is Nitegeka’s way of creating empathy, sharing the feelings he felt as a refugee, remembering a time when he constantly had to modify or retrace his movements in order to survive and hold on to his sanity and humanity.
Performance means that the body is ‘directed’: this installation directs you in a manner that prompts your body to rehearse and perform certain movements, puts you into my position. I’m sharing my story with you, and you’re completing it as a performer. The installation can be interpreted as a stage.
It is an obstacle course, intended to express the idea of liminality. It’s is as if I am saying, ‘That is not how you’re going to walk in here, THIS is how you have to walk here’. Avoiding the lengths of wood as one negotiates the space is like an enforced ritual: one’s movements are, to a large extent, broken up into a set of prescribed parts and paths: that is a ritual process.
Nitegeka has won numerous awards and has exhibited his work at the Dakar Biennale in Senegal, numerous galleries in South Africa and the Armory Show and Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York City. His work is featured in Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness, an exhibition currently showing at The Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, exploring the impact of colonialism upon identity. This week he will be opening a new solo exhibition, Configuration in Black, at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia.
What a tremendous journey and what a brave and noble means of working through one’s past!
All photos used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.
People will insist on building high and wide barriers directly in your path, often with the intent of closing you in. If you treat these obstacles like fencing walls, they will prove mightily so. I choose to see them as grand towers meant to be scaled and conquered, providing an added victory as well as a great view of the journey ahead.
People leave family farms and traditional local businesses to venture into the city every day, some excited by new technology and new possibilities, some simply trying to survive and provide for their families. The search for a better life has been one of the engines driving the United States for much of its history, drawing immigrants from all over the world. It is a wonderful thing to be able to start again in a new place, but there are dangers as well. Prejudice stalks from without and within. This video from BRZZVLL, Mind is a Jungle, is a wonderful illustration of the reality of displaced people all over the globe. BRZZVLL is a wonderful band from Antwerp, Belgium, with playful funk and jazz grooves that recall the 1970s. The track also features Anthony Joseph, a poet, musician and novelist from Trinidad. It’s a whimsical look at community life that challenges us to look deeper. Who are these people costumed and camouflaged in a way that hides their individuality? Do you feel threatened by their costuming and their actions?
When we feel homeless, we try to create familiar conditions, clinging to traditional behaviors and cultural norms that may no longer serve us. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t honor the past and the traditions we came from, but those traditions can make us blind to both the useful and the toxic in our own background, in the ideas of others, and in in progress itself. On the other side of the coin, people who don’t understand our background (and who does?) will make assumptions of us dependent upon their concept of our ethnicity, religion, and culture. As a result, communities become mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually segregated. How do we build empathy and break down these boundaries? It’s important to realize that this isn’t a third-world problem. All cities have dissatisfied souls, and at any given time we may find ourselves among them. From New York City to Beijing, London to Lagos, Sao Paulo to Sydney, people are finding that there isn’t as much room in the city as they hoped. This is true not only for immigrants, but for any resident. We may find ourselves too old, too young, too unskilled or just in the wrong place to be successful. Moving to a new place can give us a new start, but only if we allow ourselves to think new thoughts and achieve a relationship with our new surroundings.
Main Street, Florin, CA, 1942 Dorothea Lange
Maybe your mind isn’t a jungle. Maybe it’s a small town, a desert, a cotton farm, or even a busy city. The more you learn how to navigate your own thoughts, the more chance you have to navigate the world around you with empathy and sensitivity. The form that the cities of the future will take is dependent on the projections, dreams and prejudices of those of us who construct and inhabit them.
The lotus is the most beautiful flower, whose petals open one by one. But it will only grow in the mud. In order to grow and gain wisdom, first you must have the mud—the obstacles of life and its suffering.
…The mud speaks of the common ground that humans share, no matter what our stations in life.
… Whether we have it all or we have nothing, we are all faced with the same obstacles: sadness, loss, illness, dying and death. If we are to strive as human beings to gain more wisdom, more kindness and more compassion, we must have the intention to grow as a lotus and open each petal one by one.
The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.