Nora Chipaumire's Portrait of Myself as My Father Reveals the Pressures of Black Masculinity

Chipaumire channels her father.
Photo by Elise Fitte-Duval

Critics often categorize the multifaceted work of performance artist Nora Chipaumire as contemporary dance. But Chipaumire, based in Brooklyn, New York, but born and raised in Mutare, Zimbabwe, says her upcoming work, Portrait of Myself as My Father, isn't just a performance. It's also a manifesto.

"What is so terrifying about the black man?" she asks. "I think we are at a moment where power and the individual black man are being contested very much."

Chipaumire's work is explicitly about Africa; over the course of her career, she has confronted the African experience in fierce and theatrical terms, tackling issues of identity, the black performing body, and the legacy of colonialism. In 2014, she brought to Miami a performance based on South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba; two years earlier, her autobiographical work Chimurenga showed audiences what it was like to grow up during Zimbabwe's second War of Liberation. Now, with xenophobia surfacing around the world and frequent police shootings of black men and surging protests in the States, her newest perspective on the black experience is especially resonant.

In Portrait, that perspective begins with her father, Webster Barnabas Chipaumire, who died in 1980. He left home when Nora was 5 years old. For most of her life, she says, he was nothing but a symbol of absence. She grew up in a matriarchal household with her mother, grandmother, one brother, and a handful of sisters.

"I didn't know what men were all about," she says. "They were just another species that was not at all of any significance."

As she grew older, her performance work placed her visibly in the public eye. She began to get messages from family members back in Zimbabwe. "Other Chipaumires were writing me and saying, 'Our sister, we are your father's children.' " She returned to Zimbabwe to meet them and learned about the life her father had led. He had worked for many years as a rural schoolteacher. He was an alcoholic and had trouble maintaining a family. "He totally wasn't the monster that I imagined," she says. "A portrait was emerging of a much more complex human being. He was a man, a real person."

Portrait of Myself as My Father explores the pressures and powers of masculinity. Chipaumire places the central figure in a boxing ring, referencing the blood sport of ancient gladiators as much as the contemporary sports arena. Sports, she says, is the new religion, and boxing is a ritual of slaughter. The boxing ring also represents the potent space of family relationships, where responsibilities and roles are negotiated.

In the ring, Chipaumire says, he "battle[s] with himself, his shadow, his ancestors, the industrial gods, and that merciless tyrant: progress."

Portrait holds compassion for the black male, portraying her father not as a stereotypical deadbeat dad, but rather a product of his time. He and many other men of his generation were forced to go to school and work, abandoning subsistence farming, traditional family roles, ancestral practices, and community structures.

"My father was being asked to navigate between Western ways of life and very traditional ways of life. That's where the compassion comes in. That negotiation couldn't have been easy."

As new industrialized economies were built by the colonists, Chipaumire says, "the business of creating workers completely sacrificed the African man, because it was the men who had to leave home to go work in the city so that they could pay the taxes that were now being imposed by the colonial regime."

Her generation too was forced to navigate similar cultural forces. She was not allowed to speak Shona, Zimbabwe's traditional language, at school. And the connection to the ancestors was discouraged as primitive.

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Colonial rule has since dissolved in Zimbabwe, allowing for the reinstatement of African cultural traditions. "Right now in Zimbabwe, people are really embracing the totality of who they are," she says. "Zimbabwe is now an independent country. The leader is black. And I think the negotiations are more about economy and less to do with cultural dispossession."

But the legacy of colonialism persists.

"What do we sacrifice in order to make something else happen?" she asks. "Africa was sacrificed for the betterment of Europe and the New World. The African man was sacrificed for the betterment of the colonial regime."

For Portrait of Myself as My Father, Chipaumire adopts male postures and sports costumes, plus African masks and dances, to bring down the specter of her father in his full complexity. "It's a manifesto about the African. The African is my father. But it also becomes deeper than just my father, because my father is African."

Senegalese dancer Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye, also known as Kaolack, and Jamaican-born dancer Shamar Watt join her onstage. The three are tied together and anchored with elastic bands to the boxing-ring stage. As characters, they exist simultaneously in opposition and bound in connection, like families, like cultural forces.

In the context of Miami's racial diversity, Portrait's examination of blackness might feel especially potent. But although Chipaumire's work confronts issues of race, she says she's not interested in placing blame or addressing the black/white divide.

"We all know who did what, how, and when," she explains. "I'm more interested in the dialogue between Africa and Africa. We are at a point where people are saying, 'Black lives matter.' Somebody asked me, matters to whom? If it doesn't matter to black folks, it doesn't matter.

"As long as we are unable to really look at ourselves completely, honestly, we can't really move forward," she says. "And in part, that's what I'm trying to do in taking on my father's body — to be able to move on in full recognition of the good, the bad, the in-between."

Portrait of Myself as My Father

8 p.m. Friday, October 14, and Saturday, October 15, at Miami Light Project, 404 NW 26th St., Miami. Call MDC Live Arts at 305-237-3010 or visit Tickets cost $30.

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