African choreographer spits his story
In the dark room of the Blaffer Art Museum, audience members were transported to a faraway world where helicopters buzzed overhead and machine guns fired in the distance.
International artist Taïgue Ahmed performed his choreographed solo dance “Spit My Story” to reflect his narrative about the suffering felt across the borders of war-torn countries in Africa in his United States debut Thursday evening at the Blaffer Art Museum.
The audience was introduced to his dance through a five-minute CNN news clip describing his philanthropic work across Africa. He was seen teaching refugees how to express themselves through the art of dance.
“I couldn’t relay (my story) as an individual to other individuals because I thought it was a collective experience. Through the dance, I could express my story, which is the collective story,” Ahmed said.
“Not only is it a collective history or memory for people in Chad, but it’s also a collective memory for conflict zones in Africa.”
His performance was not only an expression of the pain and sorrow felt in parts of Africa; it was also a civic statement.
Ahmed’s voice sliced through the air as he chanted invocations urging his country to put resources in services of the youth and education in the Kabalai language, which is spoken in the country’s southwestern region.
For Solkem N’Gangbet, Ahmed’s curator and translator, the dance was “cryptic.” It was packed with symbolism and needed contextualization for most audiences.
“In the beginning, what you hear is the helicopter and machine guns. That, for him, is really important, because he went through that as a child when he was running away. He heard it,” N’Gangbet said. “It’s the soundtrack of his childhood.”
Members of the audience were moved by the performance. Cassandra Montoya, a UH alumna who graduated with a B.A. in anthropology, felt a personal connection to Ahmed’s dance.
“When he was going through the net and pulling back the layers — the past and memories — and kind of relating that to healing and how artistic expression can really be a powerful tool of healing, it kind of relates to the cutting of my dreadlocks and how it was a ritual cleansing for me,” Montoya said. “So many years of carrying that around; not only physical burdens, but it carries all these different memories and experiences.”
Assistant professor of comparative cultural studies Keith McNeal found Ahmed’s personal pursuits intriguing and provocative.
“In a way, I think that his life and his autobiography are as interesting as the work,” McNeal said. “His selfless devotion to the craft and to the art, and using it for humanitarian reasons is pretty awesome.”
N’Gangbet worked for almost a year and a half to organize Ahmed’s performance in America. He spoke at Project Row House, worked with local schools and dance companies and gave master classes at UH’s School of Theater and Dance.
“Spit My Story” has been performed internationally since 2009 in countries such as France, Canada, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania and Cameroon. His work as an international artist has helped him garner attention for his personal philanthropic projects with refugees in Africa.
Ahmed is the artistic director of Ndam Se Na, which means “let’s dance together.” He launched this philanthropic project in 2005 as a way to offset violence and promote community ties within Chad refugee camps through arts initiatives. He funds it with money earned through performances, master classes and workshops as a professional dancer.
Although he is also affiliated with African Artists for Development, which is another community development initiative that operates in several African countries. Upon his return, he plans on working with Somali refugees and the fifth edition of the international dance festival he organizes every year in N’Djamena, the capital city of Chad.
Funding for Ahmed’s performance was provided by the Innovation Grants program of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, which is funded in part by the Houston Endowment, Inc. Additional support for Ahmed’s performance was provided by the Center for Public History, the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at UH and Project Row Houses.
“I wanted to bring someone who is a hero,” N’Gangbet said. “I think he’s an amazing leader; there’s no ego in what he does. He’s helping others because he wants them to take it with them and make it on their own.”
For more information, visit his website at ndamsena.org.