The Ethiopian circus world, revitalised in the 1990s through the mediation of two North Americans, has not stopped diversifying for the last decade, developing new approaches to innovation in the circus arts. In order to meet with the key players of this transformation, the Circostrada network1 organised a research trip in February 2018, during the second edition of the “African Circus Arts Festival” (ACAF) organised by Fekat Circus. The following is a report on an enriching week of exchanges and encounters.
- 1. Since 2003, the European network Circostrada aids in the development and structuring of the circus arts and street art in Europe and beyond. With more than 100 members in 30 countries, it is under the guise of ARTCENA and supported by the program Creative Europe of the European Commission and the Ministry of Culture (France).
In La grande bellezza1, Paolo Sorrentino says to a character belonging to the upper classes of Roman society, “the only interesting jazz is Ethiopian jazz.” Generally called ‘ethio-jazz’, this style of jazz, born in the early 1960s in the bars and hotels of Addis Ababa2, entered its golden era in the 1970s. Its rediscovery beyond Ethiopia’s borders was defined by two major moments: the release of the collection “Ethiopiques” in the 90s by the independent French label Buda Musique3 and the international success of Broken Flowers4, a film by Jim Jarmusch, the soundtrack of which includes music from Mulatu Astatke, considered the father of ethio-jazz.
- 1. Released in 2013, the film was nominated for an Oscar in 2014, taking home the Best Foreign Language
- 2. Addis Ababa, which means ‘new flower’ is a city with more than 3 million inhabitants and is home to the HQ of the African Union since 1963, located in the centre of the country on a plateau at an altitude of 2,500 meters.
- 3. The collection, created and directed by Francis Falceto, has allowed for the rediscovery of ethio-jazz albums produced in the 1960s and 1970s by Amha Esthètè, founder of Amha Records.
- 4. Released in 2005, the film is nominated at the Cannes Festival where it went on to win the Jury grand prize.
It is important, though, to not confound this with the circus – as much its genesis and its evolution differ from the music industry. It should be said that this distinction allows for a deeper reflection on the modes through which European and African artistic figures come into contact. This is the primary takeaway from this short research trip, which sent a delegation of 13 Circostrada members1, during which the central question was that of adjusting the essential lenses of understanding, all while building new tools of analysis in the field in order to better comprehend the mechanisms of artistic creation in Ethiopia. At the same time, this opportunity to explore interdependencies, both real and symbolic, one fed by the globalised North which a European delegation represents despite itself, all while avoiding impossible-to-satisfy expectations. In other words, this trip allowed us to witness adaptive forms of collaboration, respecting the specificities and interests of all, ensuring that they can be implemented in the long-term.
- 1. The delegation was composed of the following organisations: Associazone Giocolieri e Dintorni (Italy), La Brèche – Pôle National Cirque de Normandie (France), Café de las Artes Teatro (Spain), Circus Xanti (Norway), Crying Out Loud (UK), FiraTàrrega (Spain), HH Producties (Netherlands), Mala Performerska Scena (Croatia), Le Plus Petit Cirque du Monde (France), Le Prato (France), The Roundhouse (UK), Spoffin Festival (Netherlands), and Subtopia (Sweden)
The research excursion to Ethiopia started out easy, first with meetings with the innovators of the Ethiopian cultural landscape (Zoma Contemporary Art Center, Fendika Asmari Bet, Muya Ethiopia), different representatives of foreign cultural institutions based in Addis Ababa and the long-time partners of Fekat Circus1 (Alliance Ethio-Française, the Delegation of the European Union, Goethe Institut, Instituto Italiano di Cultura).
Each interview allowed us a more precise reading of the local context, a better understanding of the mutual risks and opportunities, as well as a chance to identify difficulties, like the lack of appropriate spaces for rehearsals and professional development of artists, limited financial means aside those already put in place by foreign NGOs and foreign cultural representatives, a reduced artistic mobility, further complicated by difficulties related to the procurement of visas (not restricted to Europe, but also for travelling to other African countries), and the general public and political institutions’ tendency to be overly cautious regarding an aesthetic often deemed to be too contemporary or overly explicit.
- 1. Fekat Circus is directed by Dereje Dange, who is also the artistic director of the company.
In meeting Giorgia Giunta, member of the administrative board of Fekat Circus and cofounder of the ACAF, the question of the status of contemporary circus arts in Ethiopia could be raised through a new prism. Fekat Circus, “the circus that blossoms” in Amharic1, was founded in 2004 by a group of young circus performers living on the periphery of Addis Ababa. Based since 2009 in Piassa, the historic heart of the city, they experienced a rapid growth in their missions. Made up of around thirty permanent participants, its primary focus is today centered on two primary axes: training young people in the circus arts by offering them the chance to work in Ethiopia and abroad, all while developing social action projects aimed at children in hospitals, orphanages and prisons.
- 1. Amharic is the most commonly spoken language in the capital but also the second most spoken language in the country after Oromo. There are more than 90 different languages spoken in Ethiopia.
Fekat Circus, which went from being under the Ministry of Sports to Culture1, is now leading the charge for innovation of the circus arts in Ethiopia, largely thanks to the creation of the first pan-African circus festival, ACAF, which in 2015 brought together more than 100 artists (8 invited companies) and around 12,000 spectators over three days2. Fekat Circus is also an active participant in the construction of ASHARA, the first contemporary national circus network, created in 2017, which groups together six different artistic structures in Ethiopia. The following two days involved meetings between European and African professionals with presentations by various organisations and artistic projects, round tables for artists, programmers and administrators of invited companies, as well as structured talks on various themes. Many plans of action came out of this chance to share advice on best practices and motivational stories. From this came the idea to develop a portal for sharing information in order to combat the lack of training available in Africa, with videos, MOOCs and adapted teaching tools.
Others proposed diversifying the source of financing for cultural organisations by exploring the option of new financial backers for social change. In regard to the issue of the role and place given to the female body, opinions were divided, but all participants were in agreement that it is imperative to achieve gender parity in performances and to privilege employment of women, not only in performance work, but also on production teams. Everyone, though, agreed to promote the development of new international events, a vital source of networking opportunities.
- 1. This change confirms the recognition of the circus arts by public entities but brings with a new restriction: the cultural events are heavily taxed, contrary to sporting events
- 2. The official numbers for the festival in 2018 are not yet available, but the initial estimates seem to confirm a similar number of spectators.
The final three days of the trip were dedicated to the festival itself. The second time the ACAF was held, supported largely by the EU Commission1, took place on the esplanade of the Officers Club, one of the rare green spaces in the capital, rented out especially for the event. A red and white big top2, the first in the Horn of Africa, along with an outdoor stage anchored each end of the esplanade. Numerous stands of local food, contemporary artisanal works and regional products, as well as an area reserved for children, were lined up between these two focal points.
Aside from Fekat Circus, several circus companies from all over Africa were in attendance to present their projects: Marionetas Gigantes (Mozambique), Circus Bahar Dar (Ethiopia), Sarakasi Trust (Kenya), Colokolo (Morocco), Circus Diredawa & Hawassa (Ethiopia), Tinafan (Guinea), Circus Debre Berhan (Ethiopia) and Zip Zap Circus (South Africa). In addition, Le Plus Petit Cirque du Monde presented a project called Addis Abagneux. In total, lots of performances, but also many poetic, surprising and touching moments.
“Circus will save the planet!” With these words, Giorgia Giunta closed the second ACAF. An undeniable success, an unforgettable experience, promising and looking to the future. Several new opportunities for collaboration have been put in place thanks to this research trip, among them are a few that are already beginning to take shape: artistic collaboration initiatives, possible expansion of African circus artistry in Europe, as well as a genuine exchange of knowledge, information and experiences via a dedicated publication that will become available by the end of this August on Circostrada’s resources portal.
The next research trip for Circostrada will focus on a new continent. A delegation is headed to South Korea in October 2018 in order to observe the “Seoul Street Arts Festival” and participate as part of the European focus organised by the PAMS, Performing Arts Market Seoul.