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Chokri Ben Chikha: 'Flemish spending on culture would not only benefit an artistic elite'
interview by Michaël Bellon (for BRUZZ, 23/03/2022). Translated by George Holmer.
In Flemish Primitives, Chokri Ben Chikha and his theatre company Action Zoo Humain turn the Flemish desire for excellence into a talent show. Young dancers with an international background run a rat race to become the new Flemish Master of tomorrow. “People have a romantic idea of artists and the art sector. But it is also a tough sector where we have to bend over backwards to get everything done.”
In 2020, Chokri Ben Chikha followed in the footsteps of the official Flemish government delegation to the world exhibition in Dubai, where he and a group of young artists presented the Flemish Xperience project on Flemish Mastery. A critical performance that explored how artists, from Jan van Eyck to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, indirectly can show that Flemings – who see themselves as always persevering no matter the odds – have built up a State of the Arts. With Flemish Primitives, Ben Chikha and his company are now organising a kind of talent hunt. In it, a group of young dancers – who share their hope for success and their migration background – run the rat race to success and excellence.
Chokri Ben Chikha himself knows all too well the human cost of a career in the artistic sector. Since he, as regular KVS dramatist, caused quite a stir with engaging pieces such as De Leeuw van Vlaanderen (“The Lion of Flanders”) – loosely inspired by Hendrik Conscience’s Flemish literary classic of the same name, which Flemish nationalists regard as a kind of “Bildungsroman of Flemish culture” – and Onze Lieve Vrouw van Vlaanderen (“Our Lady of Flanders”), it took twenty years before his unbridled urge always to move forward came to a halt.
Do you ever think back to your Brussels period?
Chokri Ben Chikha: I really miss Brussels and would like to work there again, although I am also very active in Ghent and other cities, as well as in the Netherlands. Brussels is still the only cosmopolitan city in Belgium, a city full of surprises and contradictions that you can’t get a grip on, so you are constantly on the alert for the beauty, the ugliness and the diversity that you find there. These are clichés, but they are true. Brussels confuses you, and for someone who likes to work around stereotypes – to question them, not to confirm them – that is very rewarding. When I was at the KVS, if I got stuck and ran out of ideas, I just had to step out onto the street and the ideas would flow naturally.
Another period we can already look back on is Covid.
Ben Chikha: That was difficult for so many people. I was still able to work, and there was more time for self-reflection and for my daughter. But I also teach, and as the online classes continued, I saw many young people fall apart. The Covid period, bizarrely, also had its advantages. Before that, my daughter had a burn-out. She got through it in the end, but it was very intense. Also because I had neglected her to some extent, if I am honest. I was away a lot: doing theatre, evening shows, touring, teaching and a PhD. At some point, the light went out in her. She felt that she was not doing a good enough job.
I was so shocked that I put everything on hold for a while. During the pandemic, we were able to work together on being together, because we were a family bubble, and so we grew closer, got to know each other better and learned to appreciate each other’s work and outlook on life. For me, this piece is also an ode to her. This piece is about the rat race we are in, and the pressure to excel that also emanates from the government and permeates all levels of society. You always have to excel and make a difference.
People have a romantic idea of artists and the art sector, but it is also a tough sector where everyone does a lot of overtime out of love for the job, looking for babysitters, and bending over backwards to get everything done, without making any money. That is why Flemish Primitives features six beautiful young people from different backgrounds on stage, giving the best of themselves. They, too, gave up during Covid. As dancers, they had to keep their bodies in shape, and they have to be able to put their mark on the world in the short career they have. They end up auditioning with the great Flemish dance masters, where hundreds of their colleagues are also eager to get their piece of the cake. The question is what being successful means to them. Who are they trying to please? Young people with a migration background who have achieved something here have sometimes left behind a family and wonder if they are a good brother or daughter. It is all very existential.
Flemish Primitives originates from Flemish Xperience, the piece that you performed with Action Zoo Humain during the Flemish Week at the World Fair in Dubai, and for which you yourself had “applied” at Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT).
Ben Chikha: I had already researched the bizarre phenomenon of world fairs in the past. Countries, especially the richest ones, show their best and most creative side on a catwalk. It is all about soft power: whoever has the most beautiful pavilion impresses in the competition.
But FIT was enthusiastic and I am grateful that they gave me that opportunity. I found it interesting to be able to make “state art” for a change. Even though Flanders is not a state, of course Flanders was promoted during that Flemish Week and we played in a large open-air arena in front of Jan Jambon, Flemish nationalist politician, Flemish Minister-President and also Flemish Minister of Culture. So we were balancing on a thin line, but that is how I like it.
On the one hand, you promote a region, but at the same time you try to maintain your artistic integrity. That is why I combined the Flemish myth of “excelling” as a theme with the myth of the internationally successful Flemish Wave of contemporary dance in the 1980s, with Flemish masters such as Wim Vandekeybus, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Alain Platel and Jan Fabre, and the stories of the young people with a migrant background in the cast.
How is it that Flanders, a region the size of a pin head, generates so many artists? Is it in our bread? In our beer? As an answer, I launched the theory of the “Flemish Package”, which contains three elements: discipline, a superiority complex, but also a dose of uncertainty. In my opinion, these are the ingredients of Flemish excellence, whether or not it is perceived as such.
So you are in Dubai, one of the capitals of the global capitalist rat race, promoting Flanders through culture. But in Flanders itself, politics has been cutting back on culture for years. Was that tension palpable?
Ben Chikha: (Laughs) I love Flanders, but it is typical for artists, and perhaps for Flemings, to question nationalistic issues of identity. Especially if they are linked to the economic rat race. When an Antwerp mayor says that Asian or Jewish migrants are less troublesome than people of Arab origin, cultures are catalogued in a way that is pernicious and can get out of hand. Then you end up in situations where any Russian can be blamed for anything, the Chinese are held responsible for the Covid crisis and Muslims or people of Arab origin for terrorism.
That is what I call the “spectacularisation” of difference between people or cultures, which such a world exhibition suffers from, and where sportsmen and artists are instrumentalised as being part of. While there is no reason to assume that, say, Senegal does not have as much to offer as a country with a nicer pavilion. That is why we also talked about migration, Filipino guest labour and the Palestinian-Israeli issue in Dubai. Perhaps it is also a form of excellence that you dare to say what you think even when it is risky.
Afterwards, you even spoke to Jan Jambon. Was it constructive?
Ben Chikha: In Dubai, there was a nice constructive discussion afterwards. Flemish Xperience became the talk of the town. People from the administration hesitated at doing politics at a world fair. But silence is also politics. Jambon was receptive and invited us to his office for a proper discussion. As long as there is dialogue, I have hope. By the way, I think I am one of the few artists who has worked so much on the Flemish identity in the past twenty years. At Action Zoo Humain, we are all concerned about the instrumentalisation of identity.
Wim Vandekeybus and Alain Platel also came to watch what you were doing with their repertoire during rehearsals.
Ben Chikha: They had to laugh. We analysed their work really well with the young dancers, who of course didn’t want to ruin their careers by doing this. (Grins) Our choreographer Laura Neyskens worked with Alain Platel before and our whole team has great respect for these masters. So it is not an attack on those choreographers, but rather an homage. We have interpreted their work in a different context. My work contains both sacralisation and desacralisation. In this case of Flanders and of the arts.
What is the difference between Flemish Xperience and Flemish Primitives?
Ben Chikha: It is both interesting and strange to ask the question here in Flanders how we would sell ourselves abroad. With Laura and dramaturge Raphaël Vandeweyer, we have since Dubai enriched the piece with our experiences and reflections afterwards, and we have also developed the choreography further.
We see the form of a “talent show” as a metaphor for an arts sector that sometimes thinks it is better than Belgium’s Got Talent but where young people starting out in their careers have to endure just as much. Even companies like ours cannot take on everyone, we too have to make a choice.
The artists of the Flemish Wave in the 1980s also had to fight. They planted a tree in the desert and played shows with hardly any audience. The young generation of today will end up in a forest where they have to plant their own trees. That is why I hope so much that the Flemish government will increase its spending on culture. This would not only benefit an “artistic elite”, but everyone who seeks beauty and solace in these chaotic times.
Will we find out what success is in the end?
Ben Chikha: So many things have made me wonder lately. My daughter, the process of making this play, the difficulties of my students, the state of the world... Then you realise how important self-care is. I have friends who give up and go do something else. Such as the Dutch puppeteer Jozef van den Berg once withdrew as a hermit at the height of his career. I also thought about that when I was really down and had a burn-out. Fortunately, I had a good psychologist whom I still thank, and my wife, my children and my friends. The confusion we are experiencing in these times need not be catastrophic, but can cause us to recalibrate.
Chokri Ben Chikha
• Actor, dancer, choreographer, director, and the artistic director of the Ghent-based company Action Zoo Humain
• Recent creations include The Truth Commission (2013) and Amnesty/Amnesia, the Houellebecq adaptations Platform and Submission, and the fraught Métisse, about the fate of colonial mixed-race children
• As a native of Blankenberge and a doctor of history, Ben Chikha is very interested in Flemish history, and issues of identity and migration
• During his time at the KVS in the 2000s, then still with the company Union Suspecte, he put together a well-known and controversial trilogy about Flemish identity