April 2, 2016
MENA/Future: Cultural Transformations in the Middle East North Africa Region is a NYLA festival that presents work by performing, film, musical and visual artists to “address a range of complex issues pertinent to the region including alternative modernities, colonialism, gender, patriarchy, Arab feminism and non-conformist identities within grand national narratives.” An ambitious and impressively curated festival, it promises to leave no stone unturned. In the case of Hafez’ 2065 BC, “a displaced and revisited re-enactment of the infamous ‘Berlin Conference’ of 1884,” we are confronted with the fact that translating postcolonial discourse into performance can be tricky.
The work begins with four women sitting around a conference table, shuffling through stacks of papers, as a voiceover repeatedly announces phrases such as “In order to enter the gate… welcome… need a permit…” until finally a long and perplexingly anachronistic and illogical list of dignitaries is announced: “Her Majesty, the Queen of Zambia… and Russia...” To situate them in the year 2065 (BC?) – temporal confusion is just one of the challenges in this work, for both the artists and the viewers – Hafez reimagines these future delegates by dressing them in a bizarre pastiche of retro high fashion and no-nonsense practicality. They wear beige, gender-neutral outfits, each with a slight oddity (one short leg, and one long leg), shiny rubber boots, and large, turban-like headgear with frills and feathers evoking vague “Oriental/African” royalty. This post-WW III future has no advanced technology as we know it: just some old-school microphones and occasional video screen projections ranging from basic geometric patterns, to maps of the “Kingdom of Rhodesia,” to the women posing in front of baroque architecture, to enlarged microscopic organisms meant to reinforce (or distract?) from the nonsensical proceedings.
Each woman approaches the podium stage left to declaim, announce, sing, or screech about a new world order, parodying hackneyed political promises such as “you are in safe hands,” “science says no to the end of the world” and “more jobs!” interspersed with absurdities like “my breasts are big enough to love you and protect you,” punctuated by occasional stiff gesturing. A list of “No’s” reminiscent of Yvonne Rainer’s manifesto, and silly declarations like “theory is so boring… never read Deleuze” are proclaimed, as an instrumental of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” plays in the background. Given the purported theoretical basis for much of the content, one wonders, is this critique, or self-parody?
Eventually it becomes clear that we are witnessing a kind of descendant of the Dada soiree, complete with a “colonial cabaret” that includes some sexy outfits, smudged makeup and some butt shaking with two breast-shaped balloons tied around one dancer’s waist, but utterly lacking in real provocation or outrage. But perhaps this is the point: rather than being moved to agency by searing critique, we end up weary from the multiple fragments that don’t ultimately add up: this theater-dance, not unlike the current political chaos and violence that is a direct result of the ‘Conference,’ has failed to harness or transform the logic of power, or to mobilize us into action.
EYE ON THE ARTS. NY -- Nicole Duffy Robertson