With “Supreme Remains”, Dorcy Rugamba disrupts the biennial

He calls it a “performative plastic plant”. Rwandan Dorcy Rugamba hosted “Supreme Remains” at the International Biennial of Contemporary African Art in Dakar. Halfway between the exhibition and the play, it questions the place of the African object in European collections. The public is invited to get behind the scenes, as close to the actors as possible … and the story.

“I’m the caretaker of the remains.” This is how a mysterious woman presents herself, her face consists of a white oval, in a bamboo forest from which masks hang.

We are at the AfricaMuseum, the new name of the sulfur-containing Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, built in honor of King Leopold II who made the Congo his personal property during his reign from 1865 to 1909.

This woman is a puma worm that comes to life. Played by actress Nathalie Vairac, he will guide a visitor to the museum, Malang (Malang Sonko), and tell about the various masters to which he belonged.

Gradually, the spectator is invited to take a seat in several universes: four rectangular spaces made of wood and mirrors, which are as many moments of history.

The mask entered the collections of a colonial museum; he sat enthroned in the salon of a Belgian general who liked to hunt elephants and chop off heads; he was on the shelf of a “scientist” from the turn of the century, persuaded to show the superiority of the white race – and men over women – by measuring skulls; eventually the worm will return to the land of its ancestors.

Stylish decorations “I grew up in Rwanda without knowing a part of my country’s history” testifies Dorcy Rugamba, 52 years old. “This story was better documented elsewhere, especially in Tervuren,” the director continues. It’s a rather strange situation. The question never stopped haunting me.

In an inventive scenography with neat decorations, which mobilized about sixty craftsmen, “Supreme Remains” invokes the ghosts of the past.

These “remnants” are, of course, the remnants of a civilization. But they are also human remains. Very often the masks traveled together with bodies transported from Africa to certain laboratories in the West. Sometimes the masks and bodies were also found in the same institutions, such as the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. There were both dissection laboratories and ethnographic departments there. Dorcy Rugamba gives the figure of 10,000 bodies that are still kept in Western institutions. Their status is discussed, which delays their burial in their country of origin.

Opening Ceremony In the last part of the performance, the history lesson – never boring – turns into a spiritual experience. The viewer is asked to take off their shoes to enter the ultimate room, presented as a “sanctuary”.

The inauguration ceremony begins. Museum visitor Malang will rediscover his culture, his language, his music – performed live by a kora-balafon-ikembe trio.

The mask speaks:

The spirit never dies. The ancestors will always speak to you. They are in you. They never left you.

“Supreme Remains”, by Dorcy Rugamba, at the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar until June 10. Performances on May 22 at 8 pm, May 23 at 4 pm, May 25 at 3 pm for school children and May 28 at 8 pm.

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