The TRUE AFRICA 100 is our list of innovators, opinion-formers, game-changers, pioneers, dreamers and mavericks who we feel are shaping the Africa of today.
Jonah is a choreographer and media artist who wants to change how the public views and understands dance. Of Tunisian and American heritage, he trained as a dancer at Cornell University. He also graduated from University of North Carolina School of the Arts as a North Carolina scholar. Jonah has received awards including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Choreography 2015, the Prix Nouveau Talent Chorégraphie 2011 and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for consecutive years between 2011 to 2014. Jonah recently received a United States Artists award in Dance, a Ford Fellowship.
How do you stay connected to Tunisia, the land of your father?
I go to Tunisia every January, usually at the end of the month. It’s a very deliberate point I make: to go on this annual, personal trip without a professional agenda. I go to connect off the beaten track and really to speak with people, mostly artists, but not only. It always blows my mind when I see how engaged the Tunisians are in the process of creating progress in politics, culture and journalism. I have been having conversations with different people in Tunisia, one of those conversations is with the Festival de Carthage. I have also been in dialogue with a very creative, very independent art space in Carthage called Mad’Art and others too.
We make sure we access that part of the world in a very specific way and one way that we’ve been successful in Tunisia is by adopting a frame of mind that says ‘yes’. When I look at companies like Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham or Alvin Ailey, I see that they haven’t gone to that part of the world. Their approach is more like 30 people on the road and union fees and so on. I’d like to imagine an approach that meets people halfway.
How has African dance shaped your sensibilities and your practice?
The corporality and the geometry in my work is not entirely western. If you go to Tunisia, you see a lot of hexagons in the cities, as opposed to the traditional squares. So already the use of space is not four; it’s six. It’s a different orientation of space that you see in those cities. And then in Tunisia, the body in dance is very sensual. It’s not at all classical. So the body, coupled with the use of space, creates a different order. That is something that I am trying to evolve further. It’s a lifelong commitment.
Who is your African of the year?
I am still over the moon, and inspired by this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet for the work they have been doing to advance democracy in Tunisia. I want to tip my hat to them because I see this as a real moment. An unusual cross-sector collective works together and remains committed to plurality in democracy. There have been some very public acknowledgments of democratic practice but I think this collective is unique as an initiative, with the members being lawyers, artisans, human rights activists and writers, all coming from Tunisia’s civil society.
I also love the work that Germaine Acogny has been doing with the young dancers she has been training at l’école des Sables in Senegal.
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Find out more at jonahbokaer.net
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