Mis-sing Reality—The Beast unleashed by Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi (aka crazinisT artisT). A performance intervention at the Closing Ceremony of the International Federation of Theatre Research, 28 July 2023, The Great Hall, University of Accra, Ghana.
On July 28, 2023, hundreds of theatre scholars packed the magnificent Great Hall of The University of Ghana, doors flung wide, fans blowing, ready to participate in the closing ceremony of The International Federation of Theatre Research Conference (IFTR). Five days earlier, the same audience gathered to witness the opening ceremony in the same venue: a vibrant celebration with speeches, singing, dancing and storytelling pouring off the stage. Now, in the final moments of the conference’s historic first visit to Accra, one custom remained: handover to next year’s hosts, University of the Philippines Diliman. The new hosts took to the stage to introduce the theme for next year’s conference, “Our States of Emergency: Theatres and Performances of Tragedy.” But the AV failed, the video did not play, and a lacuna opened in the ceremony while the tech was fixed. Into this unscheduled interval sang a sorrowful voice from the north door, the body that produced it followed, naked apart from a loincloth, torso and face caked in clay covering one eye, with hands extended carrying a bowl of clay water.
The audience turned to their right to watch. We were accustomed to such creative ruptures: at the opening ceremony, Bernard Akoi-Jackson performed a slow walking action through the audience, torso painted gold, balancing books on his head. However, this performance was different. The song was mournful and mixed with cries, like someone walking to their death. Quite the opposite of the festive atmosphere.
The performer paused behind the audience at the back of the auditorium and faced the stage. Audience members near me gasped when they recognised the performer. I overheard someone whisper, “It’s Va-Bene,” and realised this was an unsanctioned intervention into the ceremony.
Slowly, the performer walked backwards out of the hall’s east door, still producing the grief-stricken song. An invitation? I was intrigued and followed the performer outside with about 20 others.
The performer was Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi, an internationally respected performance artist and local activist I heard give an impassioned, impromptu speech from the audience at a conference event a few days earlier. She spoke eloquently about the draconian “Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill,” more commonly known as the “anti-LGBTQ+ Bill,” that The Parliament of Ghana passed unanimously on July 7 and now awaited the president to sign into law. I did not recognise her. The immaculately dressed woman of a few days earlier was now deformed by clay, stripped of clothes and reduced to repeating the same few song lines. She backed down the steps to the centre of the cloistered university courtyard, where she placed the bowl of clay and printed QR codes on the ground and knelt beside them. The codes linked to a webpage providing political context for the performance. Still singing, she wet her hands in the clay water and “washed” it onto her shoulders and down her arms, further sedimenting the grey residue. She pulled a lump of clay from the bowl and forced it into her mouth. She continued to “wash” and consume the clay until her jaw stuck in traction and her mouth overflowed. She choked but sang anyway.
The situation was peaceful but charged. Into this quiet marched four campus police officers. When an officer walked to Va-Bene, audience members shouted at him, saying this was a performance at the theatre conference, and he backed away. Va-Bene remained in her state of abject contortion.
More uniformed officers arrived, marching around to understand what was occurring and whether Va-Bene’s presence and behaviour was permitted. The audience took on the role of mediator by talking to the police officers, conspiring in the performance’s continuance. Audience recordings of the event became performative, lending legitimacy and signalling to the officers that their actions were also being recorded.
Va-Bene stood and backed still further away from the auditorium and the hundreds of oblivious theatre scholars. Her audience, dwindling now, followed with the police. It was unclear how this situation would resolve. The further she moved from the auditorium the more the action bled into the “real world.” This emboldened one officer to loom over Va-Bene’s tiny frame and repeatedly instruct her to stop. An audience member intervened. After a tense five minutes in the east gate of the courtyard, Va-Bene was picked up in a car and exited the event peacefully. The whole intervention took about 25 minutes.
The image of the officer in green beside the grey and ghostly performer still haunts me. In the moment, I sensed how a performance can hold open the possibility for terrible, sublime, ephemeral beauty and through its peacefulness, profound acts of protest.
This was a performance I was not supposed to see enacted in a country where the performer’s own body is illegal. However, it became my lasting impression of the conference. The international audience looking in the wrong direction. What were they looking at? The technical failure to the handover to “Our States of Emergency.”
Whatever malevolent political forces were operating in Ghana in July succeeded in silencing the powerful people running the conference and IFTR. The clay of decorum stilled many tongues. IFTR made no public comment about the urgent issues facing LGBTQ+ Ghanaians. This echoed the silence in the very heart of Ghana’s leading university unable or unwilling to comment on anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Unable to whisper even quiet acknowledgment of Va-Bene and her powerful performance. As Laurie Anderson warns: your silence will be considered your consent.
However, Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi is not silenced. Her intervention spoke volumes without words and addressed the violence, urgency and humanity at the heart of Ghana’s human rights emergency through visceral images and performance. Her ability to occupy positions of frailty, duress and abjection reveals extraordinary strength, bravery and integrity. Ultimately, her gift is the externalisation of the experience of living trans and queer in a country that denies your existence, which allowed us to briefly share in the ugly contortions such violent denial brings. It allowed us to feel with and through her body and to mourn together the coming violence emboldened by this bill: the lynching, the corrective rape, the conversion therapy, the honour stabbings, the prison sentences for those who knowingly shelter people not conforming to “Ghanaian Family Values” and the millions of young lives it will shame into silence. Witnessing this intervention was a life-changing privilege, and I remain in awe of the artist’s clarity and bravery: Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi is Ghana’s national treasure of performance art.
Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi (aka crazinisT artist) was born 1981 in Ho, Ghana. Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi is a trans woman with the pronoun sHit if not She. Va-Bene currently lives in Kumasi, Ghana, but works internationally as a multidisciplinary “artivist,” curator, philanthropist and a mentor across several countries. She is the founder and artistic director of crazinisT artisT studiO (TTO), Our Railway Cinema Gallery (ORCG) and perfocraZe International Artists Residency (pIAR) which aimed at radicalising the arts and promoting exchange between international and local artists, activists, researchers, curators and critical thinkers. Website: https://www.crazinistartist.com.
*Robert Walton is an artist and director in theatre, screen, installation, writing, interactive art and research. He is the Dean’s Research Fellow at The University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Music. In this role, he leads the development of performances and artworks exploring the creative potential of ancient and emerging technologies. He is an Australian immigrant from the United Kingdom, living and working in Naarm (Melbourne), on the unceded lands of the Boonwurung and Wurundjeri people. Website: https://www.robertwalton.net.
Copyright © 2023 Robert Walton
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