Anna Petrie (Łódź)
The Chinyahwe Dancers (videoinstallation)

show during Colorfull Tolerance Day II, Forum Fabricum

The Chinyahwe Dancers are a group of male immigrant workers from Malawi who have settled on the farms in central Zimbabwe in the surrounding areas of the capital Harare. They work on the farms picking cotton, maize and tobacco and are hired by the local villagers to dance at births, weddings and funerals: they will often dance through the night or even through several days.
The Chinyahwe represent the spirit world and are highly respected by one of the two main tribes of people in Zimbabwe, the Mashona. Before the dancing begins the men dress themselves up in secret so as to keep their real identities unknown and to give power to the spirit of the character they represent.

Two of the dancers' costumes consisted of sun-burnt faces with hooked noses , another a mask of guinea fowl feathers and the last a frightening pale ghost-like face with staring eyes and long hair. They were brilliant manifestations of the white man in Zimbabwe . A few of the dances I recorded were the fertility dance where a pregnant dancer accuses only the white dancers (as well my brother and myself) of giving her the baby, the chaos\war dance where the dancer dressed in feathers spins out of control making dust rise and the fear dance where the tallest and the most frightening dancer pertains to be a young and naive white girl, confronting me and chasing the village children and a crippled boy.

Whilst shooting , and with so much new occurring, I had failed to notice the role of the crippled boy in the happening. Afterwards he came to be of crucial importance to me and my understanding of the event so I decided to discover the reason why. The following contains some of the conclusions I came to.
Initially, that is 8 years ago when I shot the video, I had identified myself with the crippled boy as I had somehow felt as incapacitated as I assumed he must have felt. I came to learn several years ago that in African lore a person who is deformed in any way is considered to have special powers and later after a deconstruction of the event my understanding of it became more clarified.
Let me go on and explain that in terms of intolerance of race it is possible to be both racist and a victim racism at the same time. To illustrate this further I will describe to you the last dance, the fear dance, in more detail. In this dance I was confronted with my own 16 years of instilled racism. Early on during the show of dancers I had knelt before the "naive white girl" in awe and wonder of "her" power and "her" beautiful face, but later when confronted by "her" again I was actually afraid of the black man beneath, deeming to carry on filming and avoiding any exchange of any form as I was afraid of any more contact. There had been an exchange or rather a lack of exchange and I came to realize that through our mutual history the dancer had created a mirror, a parody and a farce - I was afraid of the black man but I was staring at my own white face. I was both a racist and a victim of racism. It took both the dancer's great generosity and instinctual wisdom and the crippled boy's willingness to play to show me how racial fear can work.

By not confronting my own racial fears, I in turn had enforced fear on the crippled boy. In this last dance the dancer was constantly confronting me asking me to come before "her", I refused and "she" transformed this fear onto the children and in particular onto the crippled boy, jumping at him and trying to chase him away. This happened several times as "she" kept on returning to me finally managing to show me that like all energy fear doesn't die, it can move or lie dormant, it can transform or dissipate but it can most importantly cause great loss of knowledge and experience. A knowledge and experience I might of gained had I not felt racism.

I feel that without the mask the performance would not have been so successful. It was like an apparition , a true manifestation of "the racial face"(not just a white face), it worked beautifully, it both instilled and created fear and we were riveted by it. The dancer illustrated that colour and the look of someone's face can trully be frightening and the legacy of racism can remain only as long as we continue to fear and not to confront our fears. I too believe that it takes both propensity to understand and courage to overcome racial fear so that we might gain positively in our life-experience. It also takes a certain courage to be able to intelligently and gently reflect the fear of the intolerant back on them so that they might understand too. I'd like to add that the crippled boy was not just a victim but he too moved us. If you watch closely in the installation of the two monitors he dances with the rags normally carried to accentuate the movement of The Chinyahwe Dancers.


photo © Anna Petrie