planes, trains and automobiles
At tiata fahodzi, our mission is to illuminate the mixed, multiple experiences of the African diaspora in Britain today. This November Artistic Director Natalie – with a little help from Taiye Selasi and the British Council – takes this mission with her to three countries and five cities as she explores the multiplicity of locality, home and identity of the African diaspora around the globe…
“My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.” Chimamanda Agozi Ndichie
I’m a superfan and maker of theatre but I am continually struck by the limited ways that British theatre allows me to see myself – a black woman – on stage. The singularity of narratives chosen to reflect a community full of multiplicity, the identities and experiences deny them the opportunity to see themselves in the world.
Too often my black skin matched by my Scottish accent is confusing for people, too often people refuse to believe my lived experience because they’ve never met it before. At almost 34, I’m not unusual – yes, black Scottish people aren’t the majority in Scotland, never mind in London, but just because there aren’t numbers doesn’t mean we don’t exist. And yet those people, flustered by my very existence, have never seen a black Scottish woman on TV, on radio, on stage therefore we (in the UK) – as curators of culture – are letting those people down, we’re not fit for purpose, we’re not doing our job – in fact, we’d be on our last warning before disciplinary action.
As the Artistic Director of tiata fahodzi – a theatre company devoted to telling stories about the changing African diaspora in contemporary Britain that paint us as richly as the complex lives we live – we think less about the stories we want to tell and more about the stories we need to tell; stories that subvert, contradict and expand the limiting ways that the “mainstream” (I know, problematic) let’s us see ourselves. On this journey of supporting African heritage artists to paint stories about people the “mainstream” (again, sorry) couldn’t imagine existed, I came across Taiye Selasi’s TED talk Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local.
Selasi argues that what makes a place home is not a passport or accent but a very particular set of experiences and the places they occur. She quotes writer Colum McCann: “All experience is local… all identity is experience,” as the provocation of her realisation that “I’m a local. I’m multi-local.” It spoke to me deeply as a mixed-heritage black Scottish woman who had no memories of ever having been to Africa, who didn’t know what tribe her dad was from, who learnt how to make Okra Soup from YouTube and not her grandma but who fellow Nigerians could call out as being Nigerian Igbo just from looking at her, and who, for others, Edinburgh was not an acceptable answer to the question “where are you from?”. I’d always thought: how can where my parents are from – places I have no experience or memory of – tell you more about who I am than where I was born, where I went to school, where I live now, my politics, my sexuality, my favourite places and spaces? I would be deliberately obtuse in answering (Slateford -> West Edinburgh -> Edinburgh -> Scotland) but I also struggled with the sense that my refusal to accept African or Nigerian or Cameroonian as the purest essence of me made me sound anti-African or ashamed so I was relieved to find community in Taiye’s assertion about the “limiting trap that the language of coming from countries sets – the privileging of a fiction, the singular country, over reality: human experience.” I set about trying to consume her thoughts on everything that ever was and came across her essay on Afropolitans.
“‘Where are you from?’ – you’d get no single answer from a single smiling dancer. This one lives in London but was raised in Toronto and born in Accra; that one works in Lagos but grew up in Houston, Texas. ‘Home’ for this lot is many things: where their parents are from; where they go for vacation; where they went to school; where they see old friends; where they live (or live this year). Like so many African young people working and living in cities around the globe, they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many.” Taiye Selasi
These Africans are mobile and global, are innovators, are free, are at the centre, are elite – these Africans (and all the possibilities of African, hence the issue) provide alternatives to the singular narrative of devastation, of scarcity, of under-education, of poverty, of corruption, of fixed, grounded, territorial. Afropolitans cannot be made singular and enjoy the privilege of multiplicity in all ways, including geography, which are absent from our storytelling and yet they have something to say to us all – in this post-Brexit time – about the possibilities for our lives, relationships and work when the world chooses to say yes to mobility and multiplicity.
The Arts Council and British Council’s Artist International Development Fund supported research trip is the very first stage of what, I hope, will be an ambitious and far reaching multi-form performance – that exists online and off – about the multi-local Afropolitan existence and asking questions about whether a fearless approach to boundaries, a global outlook and a floating mobile concept of home are particular to the diaspora and the legacy of immigrant parents.
Over four weeks, I’ll be visiting Oslo, Johannesburg, Baltimore, LA and New York and connecting with African diaspora artists and non-artists in conversation over coffee(s) thinking about our own personal geography, what it means to be of the African diaspora, where is home, can a diaspora ever feel settled, what does local/global mean, is a fearless approach to boundaries and mobile concept of home particular to the diaspora and the legacy of immigrant parents?
“What if we asked, instead of “Where are you from?” — “Where are you a local?” This would tell us so much more about who and how similar we are.” Taiye Selasi
As a mixed-race African (I thought it was 1/2 Nigerian, 1/4 Cameroonian, 1/4 White British but ancestry.com had something to say about that), born and bred in Edinburgh in Scotland, educated in the East Midlands, working in London and living in Hertfordshire, touring work nationally – my own concept of home is a fluid and mobile notion. In 2014, I moved cities three times for work and didn’t think twice about it. My personal geography spans Nigeria, Cameroon, Edinburgh, Carnoustie, Glasgow, Leicester, Mansfield, Nottingham, Manchester, London, Derby, Watford, Harlem. I would say I’m local in Edinburgh, London, New York and Watford.
Where are you local? I want to buy you coffee…
natalie ibu is the Artistic Director / CEO of tiata fahodzi.