Werewere Liking and Aesthetics of Necessity: "The past of Africa, it's the future of the world"

Michelle Mielly, PhD candidate, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Harvard University

In 1985 the Cameroonian artist Werewere Liking founded the Village Ki-Yi M'Bock (signifying "ultimate knowledge" in Liking's native Bassa language) in the bustling capital of Côte d' Ivoire. Today the Ki-Yi is a co-operative "village" within the heart of Abidjan and home to some fifty-odd resident artists of diverse traditions, ages, and origins: dancers, actors, puppeteers, sculptors, painters, costume designers, sound and light technicians, and musicians, among others. Liking envisions her village, as her plays, novels, and essays, for a public who will participate in the realization of her pan-African dream. "I needed to see my dreams materialize . . .I needed concrete actions to back up my theories," she explains when asked how she undertook such an ambitious enterprise.

Born in Bondé, Cameroon on May 1, 1950 into the Bassa ethnic tradition, Werewere Liking was a direct witness to the forces of change leading to her country's independence in 1960 and her writing has continually reflected the tensions of the cultural-translational movement between Africa and the West, between an ancestral philosophy and wisdom and a modernity offering women in particular and Africans in general a more creative identity. As a Cameroonian living in Côte d'Ivoire -- a country of immigration, currently troubled by ethno-nationalist politics and military mutinies -- Liking finds herself living up to her hybrid, marginalized image.

She is not only a playwright, poet, and novelist of the Francophone African avant-garde, she is also a talented painter with an impressive list of international exhibits, a singer in the Ki-Yi group "Les Reines Mères" with various recordings and tours, director of and actress in a theatre troupe that has performed in a wide variety of festivals and cities spanning four continents, a film actress and director of the 1988 film Regard de Fous, an aficionado of traditional African sculpture, costume designer, jewelry maker . . . the list is non-exhaustive! During a recent trip to Côte d'Ivoire, I was able to closely observe for a number of days this extraordinary woman, admired for her draconian work ethic and activist spirit, for her resolute commitment to the pan-African ideal and aesthetic renaissance. Her efforts are clearly linked to the need to recount and legitimate the pre-colonial aesthetic and spiritual heritage of her continent, while continuing to create and innovate works for an international audience. A self-described "utopian", Liking declares that

We try to dream our lives as a utopia, that is to say freed of all that is blocking our continent today: ignorance of our own cultures and history, the lack of both critical discourse on customs no longer useful to us and of reevaluation of our achievements, the blockage of African energies within Africa itself, and too great a dependence on external aid for even the most minor initiatives. We wanted our village to be pan-African, in other words to assemble cultures of diverse African origins, removing them from the tribal or national settings in order to form a continental culture.

Liking's aesthetic project cannot, however, be dissociated from her project for African social solidarity: over thirty of the children living in the Ki-Yi are from indigent or difficult backgrounds, often school dropouts picked up out of Abidjan's ghettoes or elsewhere, whose room, board, and training are financed by the Ki-Yi Foundation (which receives no regular subsidies of any form) and by dinner-theater performances given regularly at the village. It is this "Mamie", as she is affectionately called, who offers them a second chance with a full range of artistic, practical, and spiritual teachings designed to equip them for the future. Liking demands in return a total rigor and discipline in all of the work entrusted to them, in hopes of enabling later success and hopes of a career.

A typical day at the Ki-Yi begins at six a.m. with physical exercises and meditation, ecumenical spiritual teachings including those from Liking's traditional Bassa culture, and a series of exchanges and questions in which the children are required to formulate practical examples to back up the lesson. Liking hopes to infuse the young "stars" as she calls them with traditional values that have been lost or forgotten, offering them an ethical approach in their relation to others, and above all to give them real means to face life in a region of the world where challenges outnumber opportunities and where resignation replaces initiative. The rest of the day is dedicated to the various modules to which the children belong -- art, percussion, dance, music, song -- all closely supervised by Liking, her percussionist husband Pap Gnepo, and by her sister Nserel Njock , main choreographer, jewelry designer, and member of the "Reines Mères". Literacy classes are required for those who have not fully acquired reading and writing skills in French, the lingua franca of the village, and for non-performers there are modules for costume design and sewing, painting, mask-making, and cooking.

Set against such a backdrop, it becomes evident that for Liking, aesthetics are inextricable from ethics, as she stated during a recent colloquium:

I would say that my aesthetic is one of necessity. I create my art according to needs, like the cobbler who carries out his work for immediate use. I need to see my dreams materialize. In the beginning, I worked in experimental theater techniques, with ritual, music . . .Today, no one knows where to classify me, in terms of an aesthetic. But it's according to the needs of the young people with whom I work. My theater is therefore a vital one, it functions according to the needs of the day.

With a new novel ready for publication -- Mères Naja et Tantes Roz -- and another one under way, the voice of Liking the novelist is maturing, entering into new lyrical depths. With a major stage production under way -- a pan-African epic play Sogolon Kédjou, written by Liking and based on the Sundiata epic -- with its debut for March 2003 during Abidjan's MASA Festival , Liking the director and performer is reconsidering and innovating ancient oral practices for the stage on a grand scale. Up close or at a distance, an inimitable phenomenon with long rastas, a sculpted wooden cane carried like a scepter, and a soft, contemplative voice is certainly someone to follow: according to her, her career is just beginning. Follow the link a recent interview with the "Priestess" of the Ki-Yi herself.

Postcolonial Web Africa Werewere Liking

Last modified 4 October 2002