Until recently, Belgium’s history in Africa was rarely discussed, but now three Ghent institutions have collaborated with collective Black Speaks Back to reflect on the past with a one-off festival. Key figures tell Fergus Morgan why the city is the perfect location for an event seeking to address historic wrongs and change the world
Ghent is evolving, and so is its cultural scene. The city, like many in northern Europe, has diversified rapidly over the last two decades, and this process is now starting to be reflected by its arts institutions, thanks to several significant changes at the top.
“The city is changing,” says Matthieu Goeury, artistic co-ordinator of Vooruit, Ghent’s chief multidisciplinary arts venue. “There’s no other city in Europe I’d want to work in right now.”
In 2017, Vooruit (meaning “forward” in Dutch) was designated one of Belgium’s flagship cultural establishments, and promptly remodelled itself entirely towards a collaborative approach to production.
Following that, controversy-courting Swiss-German theatremaker Milo Rau was appointed artistic director of NTGent, the city’s main theatre. He rebranded it “the city theatre of the future”, and revealed a 10-point manifesto for future seasons. “It’s not just about portraying the world, it’s about changing it” is point number one.
Vooruit, NTGent and smaller arts centre Campo have recently collaborated on a one-off, international festival. Running through February and into March, Same Same But Different encompassed a range of art forms, and focused on the relationships of Ghent, Flanders, Belgium and Europe with “different Southern realities, with particular attention to the African continent”.
Artistic directors: Matthieu Goeury (Vooruit), Kristof Blom (Campo), Milo Rau (NTGent), Heleen De Beuckelaer (Black Speaks Back)
Producing companies: NTGent, Vooruit, Campo, Black Speaks Back
Location: Ghent, Belgium
Dates: February 20-March 2
Venues: Eight indoor venues
Audience figures: 3,000 (estimated)
Countries represented: 17
Funding: Vooruit, Campo and NTGent are mainly funded by the Flemish Community, the Province of East-Flanders and the City of Ghent
Key contacts: Mieke Dumont (firstname.lastname@example.org); Justine Boutens (email@example.com); Pablo Fernandez Alonso (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“Collaboration has always been a thing in Ghent,” says Goeury. “And when we sat down with NTGent and Campo and listed all the artists we wanted to work with, we realised that 95% of them were related to the south of the world, mainly to the African continent. So we thought: can we just put them in a festival?”
He continues: “We consulted all the artists, and they all thought it was a strong idea. So we went in search of a new partner, because we didn’t want to be three white institutions talking about decolonisation.”
That partner was Black Speaks Back, a Belgium-based collective that promotes discussion of race and racism in a European context, particularly using social media. It filled the festival programme with debates and discussions on decolonisation and identity, to help contextualise the work programmed by NTGent, Vooruit and Campo.
“I would be quite ashamed to have this festival running without Black Speaks Back,” says Goeury. “The contextualisation it adds, the level of reflection and engagement – that’s at the heart of what we are doing. The shows are great for bringing in an audience and getting them thinking, but the debates and discussions are taking us to the next level.”
Same Same But Different echoes the conversation currently taking place in wider Belgian culture about the country’s colonial past. In December, Brussels’ Royal Museum of Central Africa reopened after a five-year renovation that attempted to re-imagine its anachronistic image. It met with a mixed response.
“Five years ago, a festival like this could not have happened,” Goeury says. “Until very recently, Belgium did not address its colonial history. But now, it could not be happening in a better social context than it is. There is a discussion happening across Belgium, in the press and on TV, about decolonisation. There’s not a single day without an article about decolonisation in one of the national newspapers.”
‘Flemish society expects you to integrate – but they don’t understand that integration is a two-way road’ – Performer Roland Gunst
It’s a discussion that performance artist Roland Gunst is intimately connected with. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo to a Flemish father and Congolese mother, he moved to Belgium as a 12-year-old in the early 1990s, and has struggled with his identity ever since. It has formed the core of his career in film and theatre, and his new piece, which premiered at Same Same But Different, addresses the same topics.
“I’m biracial and bicultural – and I need to be recognised from these two perspectives,” he says. “Flemish society expects you to integrate, but what they don’t understand is that integration is a two-way road. Not all Flemish people are narrow-minded, but there is a general expectation, even unconsciously, that you should behave and look as much as possible like a Flemish person – that you will become white, in a way.”
Until recently, says Gunst, that attitude was reflected in Belgian culture. “We didn’t get access to platforms,” he says. “Arts institutions thought there was no public for this kind of subject. But they are starting to understand that our experience of life and our language might be understood by Flemish audiences. Theatre changes, and not only because new forms are presented by a famous white director.”
Gunst’s show, Flandria, is a modern-day adaptation of Hendrick Conscience’s 1838 epic novel The Lion of Flanders, a seminal work in Flemish literature that is thought of alongside the Flemish flag as a lasting symbol of Flemish identity. It is something of a founding myth for Flemish society.
“I realised that what we need is a new founding myth,” he says. “My show is a lecture-performance. I present my reflections on Flemish identity and the integration problem, and I explain through a historical and a personal perspective the need for an Afro-European conception of Flemish identity.”
Flandria is typical of the shows that populated Same Same But Different’s programme – thought-provoking, boldly conceived work that challenges traditional ideas of what it means to be Flemish, and that explores and interrogates Belgium’s colonial past.
It is, says Goeury, a discussion with a future. “It’s super-important for me that we are not doing this festival because decolonisation is trendy at the moment,” he says. “We get the criticism that it’s just a one-off festival, but we are going to make sure it has a lasting impact. We want to put decolonisation on the map permanently in Belgium.”
But Same Same But Different wasn’t just a reflection on the past. It was also a trial for something bigger – Vooruit, NTGent, Campo and other institutions are preparing for the first Ghent International Festival, taking place in late November 2020.
“The idea to create a very ambitious, big international festival for Ghent has been around for years,” says Goeury. “It’s always been on the table, it’s always been an ambition. Now, the city is growing into a powerhouse of culture, and we have the ground to finally create it.”
Ghent International Festival, though, will not be like its equivalents – Holland Festival in Amsterdam and Festival d’Avignon in France. “They are great events, but they are the same stuff just in different territories,” says Goeury. “Our festival will focus on work that is created by artists, local and international, specifically for the city.”
It’s one reason that Goeury is so enthusiastic about Ghent’s cultural scene right now. The city, he says, has the perfect mix of arts institutions keen to collaborate with each other, and a diverse audience in both the town and the surrounding countryside that’s open to new ideas and experimentation.
“In Ghent, people can talk, big things can happen,” he says. “The potential is amazing. Brussels is not like this. Bruges is not like this. Antwerp is not like this. You can have an impact on society here that you might not be able to have in a bigger city.”
Same Same But Different ran at venues in Ghent from February 20 to March 2
1. Afrovibes Festival, Netherlands (October)
Now approaching its 16th edition, Afrovibes showcases young pioneers and established talent across the arts from urban Africa in the Netherlands. It takes place in Amsterdam, Utrecht, the Hague and Rotterdam. afrovibes.nl
2. Shubbak Festival, UK (June-July)
A biennial festival (the next is this year) for contemporary Arab culture. Based in London, the programme reflects the different regions of the Arab world as well as its extensive diaspora.
3. Suns Europe, Italy (November-December)
The European Festival of Performing Arts in Minority Languages started in 2009 as a music contest for minority communities in Alpine-Mediterranean Europe. The festival in Udine has now expanded for artists from European minoritised language groups. ‘Suns’ means ‘sounds’ in Friulian.
4. CAN Festival, UK (January)
Chinese Arts Now launched this year as the first arts festival in the UK dedicated to contemporary British-Chinese performance and culture. The festival showcases contemporary and innovative Chinese arts and aims to increase the representation of Chinese artists in the UK.
5. Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, UK (July)
The first festival took place in 2002 as a celebratory event raising awareness and promoting Arab culture for both Arab and non-Arab audiences in Liverpool and beyond. Over the years, this partnership has grown to include most of the city’s major arts institutions including the Unity Theatre, Picturehouse at FACT, National Museums Liverpool and Liverpool Philharmonic Hall as well as artists and community organisations. arabartsfestival.com