An Interview with Werewere Liking at the Ki-Yi Village, Abidjan, Coˆte d'Ivoire, 2 June 2002

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

Michelle Mielly: In an interview with the British researcher Peter Hawkins in 1991 , you describe your preference for a collaborative, group-oriented endeavor rather than an individual one, opposing for example your theatre-related work to that of a singer or dancer performing alone on the stage. You speak in turn of a greater social impact through your activities in the theatre. I would like to know if it is in fact this desire for a significant social impact that provides the motivation for your multiple projects in the dramatic, plastic, and literary arts. By asking you this I would like to know what is the specific dynamic that supports your tireless efforts to create and promote a your particular brand of a pan-African esthetic.

Werewere Liking: Well, it's true that with my art I have a thirst for social efficiency on all fronts. First of all, this applies to the general, immaterial level, psychological as well as spiritual. Secondly, it applies to a practical level, that of individual and collective social accomplishments.

I come from a culture where the role of the artist is not very different from that of the priest. For the one and for the other (the artist and the priest), it's all about leading others to the contemplation and elevation of the soul, in its aspirations to strive toward the infinity of the divine, toward beauty and pleasure, toward being and knowing, but, to put it more simply, it's also about tolerance and harmony in our daily existence, about motivation and dissuasion, about business and pleasure . . .And that's also why I am called a "priestess". With this in mind, I would hope that my art could intrigue the mind as well as clothe or nourish the body, excite and calm, provide a balm for broken hearts, as well as a piquant antidote against fear and those weak knees that fear always engenders . . ..My first motivation is thus the awakening of consciences and desires for constructive action, spanning as broadly as possible in this African continent where everything is set up to maintain people, especially young people, in this state of frivolity and inconstancy which leads to consumption and dependence.

MM: You qualify your esthetic as one of necessity. Could one thus interpret your work as a utilitarian art, rather than art for art's sake? To be more precise, this esthetic responds to the needs of whom or of what? (i.e. The children in the village, the village's material needs, African youth in general?)

WL: My objective is to create an art that satisfies, one that arouses and quenches essential thirsts. An art that is "futile and useful, for little kids, for weavers of cotton, for whiskered chins and hardened heels" -- to quote Ka�dara by Hampaté Bâ -- everyone benefiting from it according to his or her capacity. This supposes that my art is varied and open, eclectic and generous. This is why I speak of an esthetics of necessity capable of including volumes for those who only have a sense of touch, scents for those who only have a sense of smell, colors for those who only have their sight, sounds for those who only have their hearing. You can take this all metaphorically, of course

I am confronted with a multiplicity of needs and I must adapt and respond to them efficiently. My highest priority needs are those of young people and more particularly those who are deprived. There are the needs of their education, of culture, of knowledge, of new openings as well as personal adventures susceptible to awakening other creative impulses in them in the face of my own, so that all of the young people and children here may be able to dream and carry out their dreams, to take off from their initial level to attain any level of their own thirst, knowing that in turn, they can create their own a paradise or hell, that the choice is in their hands and they are therefore responsible for themselves.

Necessity means progress: the necessity of taking responsibility for one's actions represents, in fact, a genuine power. The drawback is that this choice doesn't leave enough time for a celebrity career . . .

MM: Werewere, to operate a village like the one you created, you need to have not only a lot of audacity and energy, but also a lot of money. What are the monthly operating costs of the Ki-Yi Village? How do you manage?

WL: Audacity? Yes, I needed a certain dose of it to break away from the traditionally-held view that an artistic production and cultural studies center must be first of all an affair of the State, because -- let's go ahead and state it clearly -- this is not a profitable business. In the West, this type of organization is necessarily financed by the State. As for us, we threw ourselves into our work following our own needs -- once more, a case of necessity creating an esthetic -- we had to create following the needs which I am going to discuss now.

First of all, the necessity for our artists to have a space in which to live, to work, and to carry out permanent exchanges, enabling them to obtain a satisfactory level to compete on an international scale, yet based in Africa.

Secondly, the necessity of training to propel our profession to the level of an ideal, which means enabling the artists to live in dignity and to have a social impact that will directly benefit their own milieus. We invented the Ki-Yi Pan-African Center for Training and Creation to train more and more young people, and even the general public. The "Ki-Yi Laboratory" -- as certain representatives of the media benevolently designate us -- has continuously labored since 1985 and today is a foundation. Yes, truly, I needed audacity to attempt to live out my pan-African ideal in daily life, with the major challenges of trying to contain the exodus of African artists, to convince them that their duty is to become genuine cultural entrepreneurs, fanning out across the globe and yet starting from Africa.

Speaking of energy, it is a collective one. There are always a lot of us living in the Ki-Yi Village, students and teachers, children and adults together, each bringing along his or her own share of joy and dreams.

And yes, we would require a lot more money, not only to ensure a better general operation but also to grow with better pedagogical, logistical, technical and informational materials, not only to re-furbish our existing theatre spaces for better performances, but also for many other development projects.

Up until now, faith and devotion have done the maximum amount of work here. What I mean to say is that many of us work on a completely volunteer, non-paid basis. In spite of everything, we must find at least three million CFA Francs per month, or four thousand five hundred and sixty dollars, in order to hope that our artists and teachers will remain with us for at least a minimum wage on a semi-voluntary basis. What we really need is five million CFA Francs, or seven thousand six hundred dollars per month, development projects and amortization not included.

You ask how the Ki-Yi village manages? With its own big share of abnegation. Since we opened in 1985, we have accepted to perform for progressively more and more people, starting with a minimum of four, then six, then ten people who would reserve for dinner-theatre shows. We also put into practice all of our know-how: clothes, jewelry, paintings, books, cassettes, festivals and tours, art classes, workshops . . ..In addition, lately we have sought to interest institutions and other entities in the form of partnerships working together for common causes.

MM: Werewere, one often finds in your theatrical writings references to the traditional works of the M'vet, the epic drama style of the Beti people. I would like to know how you were led to the M'vet art form, (how were your initiated to their wisdom?) and why this oral art seems propitious for your own creations, in comparison with other oral traditions?

WL: In my youth, there were great bards who would come and present epic poems in my paternal grandparents' courtyard whenever any major life event occurred. It was an art that fascinated me then already. Later, I encountered the epic creations of other cultural regions, as well as intellectuals such as the professors Nguijôl and Eno Bélinga who contemplated their subject matter. I was also able to read the extraordinary M'vet stories of Tsira Ndonog and others. I can therefore affirm that I had many opportunities to become interested in the epic arts of various African regions and I find that they contain extraordinary riches in terms of imagination. This is why I continuously return to this source, because the youth of urban Africa are extremely disconnected from their roots, impoverished. Yet another one of my necessities . . .

MM: When one speaks of your theater, one is inevitably led to make comparisons between your works and those of the avant-garde. More than one critic has read Artaud, Mnouchkine or Brecht into your writings. For the Western reader, your novels have a post-modern feel to them, even a surrealist quality with hints of 'automatic writing' and radical political engagement in what we would call post-colonial resistance writing. Can you comment on this phenomenon since you recently explained that it was only after being compared to these writers that you were led to read their works? Otherwise stated, how can one make the link between the African ancestral tradition as you present it and that which we consider 'modern', 'experimental', or 'avant-garde'?

WL: When I paint, I don't think about it. When I write, it's the same thing; it's a small part of a large 'whole' that I express in these creations. When I observe things closely, I note that past of Africa, it's the future of the world in matters of artistic creation. I say to myself, "Ah, that's it. Our traditions are re-born elsewhere and are called 'modern'". Which means that, for once, Africa is ahead. One finds the Surrealists in our oral and plastic arts, for example. This is my conclusion . . . and that's why I created the museum here in the village. In the teachings here, we call the museum our "School of the Gaze". We see in this school the audacity of the gaze as expressed in the objects of our traditional plastic arts. There we see fabulous, extraordinary forms, and we see that there was at some point a tremendous rupture between the universe inhabited by the creators of this art and the one in which we now live. And this rupture was all the more serious as it was a spiritual one . . . we lost contact with the divine vibration that drove us towards our deep spirituality. This rupture, it was first of all the slave trade, and then, colonization. This represents almost four centuries of rupture . . . For Africa, this led to enormous repercussions in the relation with the divine. Our objects were emptied of their meaning. The divine was crushed by the persistence of the spiritual rupture. The teachings of the Ki-Yi M'Bock, those of the Bassa of Cameroon, were, according to my great-aunt, teachings that respond to a crisis. She explained that when she received this teaching it was already folklore, everything had been wiped out by colonization. It was all regarded as tales, ancestor's stories, oral art. It was necessary to re-discover the teachings, it took me four years to formulate and transcribe information that was entirely in my head. I had to reduce it to an essential minimum, to one concept per page with concrete examples. I am today the only person in the world who can perpetuate this "ultimate universal knowledge" as Ki means "ultimate", Yi means "knowledge" and M'Bock means "universal". I am therefore the "Ntorol Tchorot", or "the one who awakens the stars". The children who live here and who are given this teaching are the stars who, when the time comes, will transmit this knowledge to others.

MM: Tell me about the link between these teachings and your creations.

WL: Madjo [grandmother in Bassa] taught me that in the Ki-Yi's values, there is no dogma. We inhabit a space that oscillates between inertia and movement. The Ki-Yi is rather a response to a crisis that seeks to restore harmony. What is at stake is the memory of what we are living. In my new novel, Mères Naja et Tantes Roz, (Mothers Naja and Aunts Roz) I added the subtitle "La mémoire amputée" (The Amputated Memory). A memory marks us more than the act itself. The act is not what's important, it's the remaining trace of the event that is. No one has the same way of perceiving an act, we can all be witnesses of an explosion but we will all have seen something different. As for me, I went about digging deep into my memory. And what I found in my head is very, very violent. But as I say, no one lives the same event in the same way. Others in my family don't have the same recollections as I do, although we experienced a certain number of these events together. What becomes obvious to me is that Africa has a repressed memory. Why is there so much silence in Africa? If African women started remembering all of the violence that they experienced, well, it would be an explosion. Is this really a good thing? I'm not so sure. I believe that they succeed in killing the event by silence, and perhaps in our case it's for the better . . .

MM: Were, twenty-two years after the publication of your polemic A la rencontre de . . ., perhaps we could question where you position yourself today regarding feminism as well as Africa's relationship with the West. You may appear to some as a radical, a misovire, an African iconoclast, one who transgresses convention. I'd like to know what you think about this: is it really a question of "us" and "them"? Are we separated by great divides, women from men, Westerners from Africans? How do you conceive of the relation with the Other in your daily artistic practices?

WL: First of all, I am actually someone who is rather traditional . . . so it's interesting to me to see that I'm labeled differently at different moments, I'm surprised when people call me a rebel because the basis of my project is to recover lost values that once existed in daily life . . . As for the question about separation, no one is excluded or included. I couldn't exclude anyone. I love humans too much, children, men and women, to exclude any of them. But I can't leave them alone in sordid conditions, either. I mean, I'm demanding in my dream. I'm a builder. When you build, you have bricks. So, if the brick in your hand crumbles, you put it aside, you leave it out of your construction. The important thing is to know how to make choices. In my project I'm rigorous. I would like for humans to be more fraternal, I revolt against their quarreling, their egotism, their lack of community spirit. However, in spite of this criticism, I believe that Africa has the right to dream herself. In my language we say "Everyone sees midday at his door". What I see is inevitably not what others see: we are separated by space and time. We run after things that are not essential. My literature bears the weight of the heavy demands I place on my life . . . which are aimed at reestablishing a tradition that existed and thrived for centuries. A tradition must prove its efficiency in relation to its capacity to perpetuate itself. I always say that the modernity of today is the tradition of tomorrow. Creation is divine, transformation is human. Stated otherwise, knowledge is divine, know-how is human. We are only mediums of this divinity . . .words cease to hold importance if we look at things from this perspective. This is why I believe that in artistic movements such as those of the avant-garde, all of the judgements made are false. The words that one movement pronounces to declare itself superior or gifted with something "more", does not, for all its talk, make the human being the creator. It's pretentious for me to believe that I am modern because, in fact, my role is quite small. I think that if I wanted, I could write novels that would sell like hot-cakes, as some Africans do. But my books are to be found nowhere, I sell nothing in comparison. But all that I do is from this perspective of a "medium" in divine creation and one only understand my work through the Ki-Yi M'Bock teachings.

MM: Could you tell us a little about "Sogolon Kédjou", the new epic production that you're currently working on? For example, where did you get the idea for this play? How many actors are involved?

WL: Sogolon, which is the name of the mother of Sunjata K��ta, one of Africa's greatest emperors, is known as the "ugliest woman on earth", and is a character who has very much fascinated me since my first stay in Mali in 1977. I have always wanted to re-consider this character with regards to the past and current ugliness of our continent. You know that I already began a sketch of Sogolon in L'amour-cent-vies. In my current project, I'm trying to push it further by moving this epic story from the Mandingo context, raising it to a pan-African scale . . . Artists coming from various horizons to work with us will focus on this archetype of ugliness, the only one capable of engendering the grandeur of an Africa which, despite its current difficulties, remains the continent of all possibilities for the whole of humanity.

MM: Can you briefly describe your current collaboration with the playwright Zadi Zaourou for "Sogolon"?

WL: With Zadi Zaourou, we try to share the questions and answers, the dream and the thirst. But we also share this with Ray Léma for the music and Pathé Ouédraogo for the costumes. Twenty-five multi-talented actors will be involved to raise this dream to the level of an ideal.

MM: Speaking of current projects, could you tell us a little about this new novel, Mères Naja et Tantes Roz? How does it differ from your other novels? Could we establish an intertextual link between your novels with regards to the theme of family memory? (for example between Amour-cent-vies and Mères Naja?)

WL: Mères Naja et Tantes Roz , it's a "chant-roman" like the others in the esthetic style, yet it's quite different. Here, you get more the impression of real experiences, of biography. And in fact, there are pieces of biographies brought into the narrative by one old woman who presents them as her autobiography, and this creates an atmosphere wholly different from the preceding chant-romans. This novel is also different in the way in which it was written. All the past novels were written quickly, in an uninterrupted way, but this one has been in construction since the end of 1996, with many long interruptions, and, therefore, with a much vaster field of interrogations and nuances.

Yes, I think that one can establish an intertextual link when it comes to family memory. The character of the Grandmother, whether she carries the name of Madjo like in L'Amour-Cent-Vies or Grand Madja in Mères Naja et Tantes Roz, is always the Guide. And there are certainly scenes in both novels that have the same historical source, even if I don't have any particular ones in mind, not having read my past works for years.

MM: A final question. Current criticism may be tempted to read your writing in relation to post-colonial theory, that is to say in relation to a critical practice that resists the hegemonic assumptions of Western "universalism" in literary analysis, one that studies the representation of otherness and examines various forms of resistance and commitment in a given work. Seeking a space in the margins of Culture, certain currents of post-colonial thought want to be located in the interstices or the 'in-between', where hybridity and cultural polyvalency are celebrated. That being said, I would like to know your position and your commentaries on questions of post-colonialism in your work.

WL: I must say that to my great disappointment I have not followed the new critical theories such as post-colonialism. But I have read studies carried out by young women, like Sara Tagliacozzo from the University of Siena, Italy, or by yourself; studies operating on this theory, and I found them quite interesting. I think that I am myself a post-colonial product. I was taken out into the clandestine rebel zones during Cameroon's resistance movements and struggle for independence. My writing must thus necessarily contain all of the contradictions of this period.

Besides, the hybridity of which you speak can only flow naturally from its source, whether it is to resist it, to promote it, or to reject it. But let's say that I don't write my novels with theories in mind. My novels are like my painting, it's a field within the role of artistic medium or intermediary that I am, and it's obvious that all of the tools I use to approach my work will nevertheless produce something, and this something changes according to the person who is on the receiving end . . .I invite my readers to feel free to use their own reading tools, but, above all, to listen to themselves more intuitively, for that is how they will be led to what is true.

Postcolonial Web Africa Werewere Liking

Last modified 4 October 2002