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I did not attend Faki Festival 2017: ‘Blackness’

Faki Festival is outstanding. Its location is predominantly a squatted building near Zagreb’s Glavni kolodvor (Central Station) – the former pharmaceutical factory Medika, aka Cultural Centre ATTACK! It is dedicated almost exclusively to radical and underground performance, rendering its manifestations genuinely unique examples, often acting as fundamental questionings of performance itself. Unlike many festivals, there is an attempt to attend to the basic needs of artists such as food, shelter and travel costs (how radical!). The entire festival is free entry for the public and attracts a local crowd of the squat community, artists, punk fans who attend the occasional concerts in the building, (and, for some reason, smatterings of sociology students).

This year’s festival theme was ‘Blackness’, incorporating the writings of South African Black Consciousness Movement co-founder and anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. The festival was beset by a series of catastrophes in the lead-up: the residents were issued with eviction notices from Zagreb City Council sparking an explosive and ultimately successful protest campaign “Medika Ostaje” (“Medika Remains”), followed by the sudden departure of the Artistic Director, Irena Curik. With guest artists arriving from France, Italy, Germany, the UK, and South Africa, that the festival was staged at all was due only to the dedication of a select few, and the passion and commitment of a community striving to continue a legacy spanning two decades.

If there were any tensions from the precarious circumstances, they didn’t show in the performances. There were just 7 shows this year (in previous years there was over 20), and each of them were worthy attempts to approach the theme, with some more successful than others. Standouts were two shows emanating from members of Berlin-based collaboration Blackism – one a straight-up duo entitled Back to, and the other an astonishing work of political theatre from Nasheeka Nedsreal entitled Obscure Noir with dramaturgy and lighting design from fellow Blackism member Adrian Blount. While the former was essentially a dance work manifesting the new group’s stated goals to ‘decolonise our entirety and centre blackness’ and is a worthy result from the development at Faki and the preceding research – the latter work lifted the roof of the festival. Each year at Faki, it seems, there is a work that takes the unique surrounds of Medika and illuminates them as if someone suddenly switched on a strobe light to observe new cracks. Nedsreal’s performance – still labelled a work in progress – is all political fury and agitation, fixing its sights on its surroundings and splashing back at them with an undeniable humanity. The audience witnesses the performer almost levitate, using the power of the stage to achieve a kind of magical state, bringing to mind the clichéd expression ‘nothing can touch you’.

The looming presence of Steve Biko centred the presence of South African performance artist and activist Sifiso Seleme. His Extra Ordinary did not disappoint. Seleme dangles from the ceiling like a marionette puppet, complete with white-face, white clothing, and a small patch of grass. Excruciatingly, he observes his own enslavement through slow, confused glances upwards, finally freeing himself over the course of 30 minutes of stage time, only to then dress in a domestic worker’s outfit and mop the front of the stage and the first tier of the audience’s seating. It’s a careful and fragile performance, full of observation and compassion for the subject – the continuation of apartheid-era conditions for domestic workers in South Africa (predominantly black South African women, although increasingly replaced with more exploitable immigrant workers from Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and others). No less tender, perhaps, is Born into Ruins from emerging UK choreographer Waddah Sinada whose deconstructive dance – performed by the choreographer himself with Rhys Dennis – was filled with subtle and contemplative turns, maintaining an explosive potential that exposed the fragility and performativity of masculinity.

Questions emerged when the approach to the theme was less direct. Representing France’s Naranjazul Theatre company, Aaron Govea performed an adapted version of Mundo Lunaticus (meaning ‘World Lunatic’), a study of human migration through the eyes of an individual. It’s a successful work that manages to re-cast and broaden the theme somewhat – ‘the immigrant’ being perhaps today’s ultimate marginalised figure, the victim of significant and singular oppression. The connection with Blackness is indirect but not a total departure (it could be made, for example, purely on account of the huge numbers of African populations displaced as victims of an increasingly frenzied capitalism, the most visible of which is the groups migrating to Europe over the Mediterranean). Whilst I felt Govea’s portrait unashamedly adopted a European perspective (somewhat paradoxically), this was a limitation that allowed it to speak in terms both specific and generalizable. Nowhere was this more excruciating than the stage manager’s cameo: asking the migrant to move on in Croatian language, Govea nodding pathetically and retreating before returning – presumably with nowhere else to go – only for the stage manager to once more scold the migrant in a language he does not understand. Despite their attentiveness to Steve Biko’s political-psychological analysis of slavery, Italian group Skaravanter’s Hot-Dog seemed to suffer the same crisis of disconnection that my own criticism did – an existential question of ‘yes, but why is it here?’ Ideally, there are no restrictions on free speech, and yet the stage does not magically escape the same dystopian white supremacy that pervades western societies. While specially-themed festivals such as Faki, or specifically curated temporary events may go some way towards introducing a positive concept of blackness into a context where the associations are likely to be profoundly negative, it is also true that it will take more than some symbolic visibility to overcome 400 years + of oppression on a global level but rearing its head in a kaleidoscope of local ways (such as in my native Australia). This takes quite some work.

Such labour was undertaken with enthusiasm at Faki 2017, and the results speak for themselves, with largely superlative performances filling the halls of Medika with approaches notable for their diversity, pedagogy, and complexity. Officially, I claim that I did not attend Faki Festival 2017 – by which I mean, this is my own way of explaining the tensions that the festival drew out in me, including new understandings of my complicity with a system of whiteness and exploitation, and new light shed on the violent and dehumanising nature of that system and my (unwilling) role in supporting it. Given the celebration of the theme at the festival, I simply, and peacefully (unlike, say, Christopher Columbus), claim that – despite seeing all but one of the performances over the course of the festival (Azulteatro’s Icarus Studio #2 – Towards Freedom), and unambiguously implicated in it – I was somehow never there.

Image © Ivan Marenić / FAKI20