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1993: Werewere Liking
(From the African Literature Association (ALA) Bulletin, Spring 1993, No 2, Vol 19).
Like many Africans, who have left their native lands, Werewere Liking learned that she had no choice but to sink new roots. After only a few years in the Ivory Coast, she founded the Villa Ki-Yi (along with Marie-Josée Hourantier), and then in 1985 she became director of the Ki-Yi M’Bock Theatre, where many of her own plays have been performed: among them La femme mêle, Césarienne, Dieu Chose, et Les Cloches.
It is worth pausing, I think, to draw attention to the collaborative and activist nature of the Ki-Yi M’Bock Theatre. This Pan-African artistic cooperative is well known for its willingness to transgress the arbitrary boundaries separating media, art forms, and performative settings. This is, of course, not such a strange thing in Africa, where art has always been part of everyday life.
But what seems important to say here is that the Ki-Yi M’Bock collective is dedicated to providing something often missing from contemporary urban African society as a whole: the commitment to nurture the young professional artist, to promote her or his training, apprenticeship and initiation. And of course to defend him or her against censorship and repression, evils Madame Liking herself has to confront.
This is not to say Werewere Liking set out to be a dissident. As she puts it, she became a “dissident” inadvertently and despite herself, since her positions grew directly out of her own life experience, out of her daily dreams, without any ideological preconception at all. She has written: “I see my role as an artist that of dreaming a bigger and better future for my children. I would like, at the very least, to write the dream, to sing it, or to paint it without having to ask permission each and every time, and without there always being stumbling blocks put in my way.” This freedom of expression that Werewere Liking wants for herself is the same that she wants for all artists in Africa.
And yet, as Madame Liking reminds us, the African artist is cruelly and doubly bereft of support-first by her or his own society, whose governments systematically ignore the traditional role of art in Africa. And secondly, and as devastatingly, by the still colonial, that is asymmetrical, relationship between African and Western artists – the most invidious effect of which is that young Africans do not recognize their own creativity.
Werewere Liking has certainly tapped into her own inner creativity, and realized her dreams in a staggering array of media and genres. African critics (and not just literary critics) have their work cut out for them.
In all modesty, therefore, the jury of the Fonlon-Nichols Prize hopes that its decision will help attract well-deserved attention to this vital and creative force in African culture.
It is thus with great pride that we award the 1993 Fonlon-Nichols Prize to Madame Werewere Liking, who will now speak to us.
University of Alberta