Sonya Lindfors is an award winning Cameroonian-Finnish choreographer whose works often revolve around representation and power structures present in our society.
In addition to her work as choreographer, Lindfors is the founding member and artistic director of UrbanApa, an antiracist and intersectional feminist art community based in Helsinki. In our interview with her, we discussed her career and her new work One Drop (2023) which premiered in Helsinki in May 2023.
Could you tell us a little bit about your career?
At the moment I work as a choreographer and as the Artistic and Managing Director of the UrbanApa community in which I’m the founding member. I mostly work with performing arts but my job description is very diverse: I curate, facilitate, mentor, educate, budget and participate in a lot of meetings and apply for grants, for example. I also organize workshops, teach and give lectures. Sometimes I joke that I work with art and life and everything in between.
Even though being an artist is work (oftentimes really hard work) for me, being an artist is a way to be in the world. It’s about relationalities, a kind of approach to life through which one views life and tries to make a change.
Why did you choose dance as a medium for your art?
I started dancing when I was a child. I guess my career path is quite similar to many of my peers. A dear hobby that then evolved into a career. As I started to work as a dancer already when I was 16, it wasn’t a very conscious decision at first. Yet dance has always been present in my life, so maybe this was destiny.
When we are talking about my stage work, sometimes people seem to have a hard time categorising the works. The performances we do are very 360, they include choreographic thinking, music and soundwork, different kinds of movement techniques and oftentimes we work with text and singing. My work strives to escape boundaries, boxes and categories.
I am interested in the speculative power of the stage. The theatre is an apparatus to make miracles, to create situations, places and spaces that are not possible in the so-called real world. That is the magic of art and especially live performance. It is both fiction and real at the same time. And that experience of the performance will stay with you, in your body, for the rest of your life whether you remember it or not.
“Speculative decolonial dreaming has deeply changed how I make art. Or how I understand the power of imagination.”
In your works, you have been exploring questions of power, representation of Blackness and Black body politics. How does each of your projects allow you to reflect on these themes?
Nowadays I would say that I work with power, representations, and narratives. My job as a choreographer is only a small part of what I do. In all of my work I try to shake up the existing power structures, narratives, and norms. For several years now I’ve been really interested in speculative dramaturgical structures and decolonial and feminist dreaming: if we don’t have an idea of a society where people would be treated equally, we cannot work towards that objective.
Whiteness and blackness are socially constructed. The Black Lives Matter movement made it painfully clear that the structural racism and oppression, that can be fatal for people in many parts of the world, is very real and art institutions are in no way isolated from the racist structures of our society. The history of Western art is very attached to colonialism and capitalism as many currents and ressources have often come from the so-called Global South to Europe.
In 2018 we did a body of work called Cosmic Latte which had a speculative dramaturgical structure. In the work we were in the year 3023 where structural oppression, racism, homophobia or transphobia didn’t exist anymore and where the climate crisis had been solved. What kind of dance would we dance, what kind of songs would we sing?
Speculative decolonial dreaming has deeply changed how I make art. Or how I understand the power of imagination. Though imagining possible futures seems difficult and even naïve sometimes, there is real power in imagination. Speculative questions like “what would the world be like without oppression?” and “who would you be, what would you do, how would you work?” can really open up a powerful space of reimagining our current realities.
If we cannot even imagine futures where the world is more equal, equitable and just, how could we know how to work towards them? The pioneer of Afrofuturism Sun Ra once said: The possible has been tried and failed. Now it is time to try the impossible.
What inspired you to develop the body of work One Drop that will have its premiere in Helsinki in May 2023?
One Drop refers to two separate frameworks: the one drop rhythm which is a reggae style drum beat as well as to the one drop rule of the Race Separation Act, created in the United States in the early 1900s, according to which a single drop of “Black blood” made a person “Black” despite their appearance. Through its multiple starting points the work interrogates the ghosts of the Western stage and its entanglements and relationalities to capitalism, coloniality and modernity.
One Drop is really dense with meanings but relations, relationalities and connections are really at the core of the work. Coming back to the one drop rule, the notion of purity has played a central role in racial politics. Throughout history, different societies have used the idea of purity to draw lines between groups of people based on their perceived racial, ethnic, or cultural differences. In many cases, these lines have been used to justify discrimination, segregation, and violence against those who transgress boundaries and are thus deemed to be ‘impure’, ‘unclean’ or ’tainted’.
The Western art tradition is completely intertwined with the histories of capitalism and colonialism. While there has been much talk in recent years about artistic freedom, neither art nor the artist is ever free from the ghosts of history. Colonial histories affect our perceptions of what is beautiful, good and interesting art, of what is recognized as art and who is recognized as an artist. Or even human.
To investigate and interrogate the politics of relationalities feels vital right now as the rampant individualism, the fantasy of being unattached, has led to violence, segregation, dehumanization and ecocatastrophy.
I believe change is possible. For me decolonial work is a lot about summoning, recreating and making visible connections and relations that have been lost or erased. What did you have for breakfast? Maybe coffee or tea? Where did it come from? What are the different flows of influences, resources and labour?
Everything is connected.
“I believe change is possible. For me decolonial work is a lot about summoning, recreating and making visible connections and relations that have been lost or erased.”
Your project is called One Drop. How do the topics you are dealing with translate through your choreography?
The word choreography can mean many different things. I feel that my works are total works of art that combine sound, text, speech, spatial design, movement and so on. I think that choreography is fundamentally an art of relativities, things in relation to one another. I have been reading quite a lot of theory, especially Decolonial scholars that have written about the relationship between capitalism, modernism, and art. Frantz Fanon’s classic Black Skin, White Masks (1952) was one of the initial starting points when I started to plan the work already in 2017 but lately we have been reading more Achille Mbembe’s The Critique of Black Reason (2017) and Walter Mignolo’s The Darker Side of Western Modernity (2011) among many others. Again, it is important to say that all of the work that I do, we all do, is leaning in the works of those before us.
So oftentimes I start with some theory, thoughts, frameworks, but the actual creation really happens with the working group. The work we do is really ensemble driven. The first few weeks into rehearsals we will just discuss, play, improvise, and generate material through different kinds of scores and prompts. And then little by little once we have more knowledge about the work we start to deepen, select, and refine the materials that we have. Making a performance from scratch is intense work. It oftentimes feels like we are working so hard towards something that we yet don’t know what it is and we are not sure how we will get there. But we are working really hard.
Although the themes I deal with can be very serious, the humour, playfulness and sense of community are very important in my work, not just on stage but in my work altogether. In the performance this is also a dramaturgical tool. At first something can seem funny but then it might turn into something else. I really enjoy this play with lightness and depth, things can be really deep and playful at the same time. That to me is magical and exactly what I love about art: it is never just one thing, there are no simple answers, and oftentimes we are in the unknown. In my opinion this is exactly what we should practise collectively. In a world that constantly demands fast and simple solutions we should practise complexity and polyphony.
What kind of a response are you hoping to evoke in the audience?
This is always a tricky question as there is no one way to experience a work. I hope the performance will make people at least think about the different historical continuums that have shaped our world, institutions, and notion of art. And us of course as well. Every moment we have lived has accumulated into the moment we are currently living. In other words, everything’s related to everything and we are in no way unconnected. That means that our lives and actions matter.
Then again, I know that a performance cannot do everything. Or at least it is not always the best medium. This is why we will have discussions, lectures, and public engagement to accompany the piece.
In principle, my agenda in the field of art is to diversify and equalise the structures tied to it. My aim is to go into spaces and ask: who is here and who is not? What kind of artists are being exhibited and why? What kind of power structures are there? When talking about the context of institutes, an important question is: who is considered “a Finnish artist”? Who can own the concept of being Finnish?
What do you think of the field of dance in Finland in terms of inclusivity?
We have a lot of interesting artists who are true professionals at their job but at the same time, the structures in which we work are very exclusionary and inequitable. This is caused by many things such as funding and who has access to education. In Finland the discussion about specialised classes and schools has been on the table recently. It is about who has access to art and culture from a young age and who does not. The society starts to segregate due to this phenomenon: children from families with cultural and social capital end up doing cultural activities and becoming artists whereas children from more socio-economically challenged backgrounds don’t get to practise art and thus it is more unlikely for them to work in the cultural field. The challenge is that the art field is still very white, hetero, cis, and able-bodied. We have to develop tools to ease and equalise the situation, right now. There is a lot of work to do but a lot has happened as well.
But I really feel it is the responsibility of each and everyone working in the art field to take concrete measures to make the art field softer, more diverse, more equitable, and better for everybody. That is the dream.
Interview: Helmi Anttila
French translation: Margo Henriol