Michèle Magema is a Congolese-French artist who deals with questions of identity, race,colonialism and femininity in her work. Although she is a multi-media artist, she herself states that performance is her favorite medium, because it is most“real” and can never be replicated identically, duplicated or viewed twice. Similarly, her presentation on 13th November at Museum for Gegenwartskunst mirrors this statement. Instead of giving a talk about the body or theory behind her work, her talk seems to be more of a performance in which she stages her identity:“identité multiple et complex” (“multiple and complex identity”). This is what she performs in her talk, where she uses fragments of words that define her and her experience as a woman, Congolese, African and European. She performs these identities in a form of rhythmic speech: “Congo. L’Idée. Exploité.(…) Génocide Oublié.” (Congo. The idea. Exploited. Forgotton Genocide). In the beginningof her speech, she says she is “Congolese, French, Parisienne,” categorizing herself with words that on the one hand may reflect contradictions but on the other hand which define her reality and her experience. In colonialism, and in post-colonial societies, the non-white and the colonial subject is othered and can thus never be truly “European,” or “French”. Nevertheless, although colonial ideology perpetuates a dichotomy between the European and the “other,” reality, especially because of and in post-colonial societies, prove that identities are always mixed and fragmented rather than categorical. Identities can be fractured, layered, mixed, and woven into one, and Magema represents this through her body and her work. She proves her own existence by deconstructing those dichotomies, through performing with her body. Therefore, she herself acts as a form of resistance: “Je veux laisser des traces. Je resiste” (I wantto leave traces. I resist). Resistance is formed by portraying an experience that is more complex and real than dominant political ideologies and propaganda. Through her performances and her body, she takes up space, proving and marking her existence.
The use of the body, as generally with performances, is central to Magema’s work. This is evident, for example, in her famous piece two-channel video installation “Oyé Oyé.” One channel shows the artist miming a military march with her head cut off, the other channel shows public images from the Mobutu Era, including parades with young women. In her analysis of the work, N’Goné Fall writes: “In both, the African female body is shown as an instrument of propaganda. By parodying the political concept of identity, Magema forces us to reconsider a country’s past”.Therefore, not only her body itself, but also the body in its female form acts as a catalyst for rereading both the past and present. Through being active in the performance, Magema takes control of herself and herself as a subject rather than being an instrument of propaganda.
In one of her newer works, “Derrière la Mer”(Behind the Ocean) from 2016, Magema also shows a woman, probably herself, walking out into the ocean on a two-frame scene, with rhythmic singing playing in the background. In the second half of the video, the woman returns to the coast, putting signs up in the sand. The signs are encrypted, although still illegibly. The video switches between two and three different frames, while sometime the frame is merely mirrored in the second frame. At four minutes into the video, the frame darkens. After the darkness, we see a body lying at the shore between the signs which read “Past” and “Truth”. Uploaded on her Vimeo channel only one year after the Europe-wide debate on refugees, this video can be read as a commentary on the increased death toll of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. However, in light of her overall body of work and her position as an artist, this video seems more complex. Rather, it could also be understood as personal revelation, where Magema embodies perhaps both herself as well as other people whose existence and identities are fractured by the Mediterreanean, or what borders represent. It is open to the interpreter whether truth is to be found or lost in the past.
Text by Fabienne Bieri.