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Colonialism, spirituality explored in powerful, immersive ‘Nehanda’

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Colonialism, spirituality explored in powerful, immersive ‘Nehanda’
nora chipaumire’s ‘Nehanda.’ PHOTO: SACHYN MITAL

“Nehanda” is a performance by artist nora chipaumire that defies description. The piece probes the Zimbabwean fight for independence and its colonial history, through the legend of Nehanda, a spirit that embodies only women and is venerated by the Shona people in Zimbabwe and central Mozambique.

nora chipaumire’s “Nehanda.” PHOTO: SACHYN MITAL

The complete performance runs five and a half hours, but a one-hour slice will be performed at ArtsEmerson May 17-21. The music is a powerful part of this experience. It has been described as an African opera, but listeners will find instruments and sounds new to that genre, like turntables, Ngoma drums and samples of field recordings. “Nehanda” is multisensory, impactful on every level.

“It’s beautiful, it’s powerful, it smells, it’s acoustically sensational,” says Peter van Heerden, a member of the show’s developmental team and the actor playing The Empire. “The story that’s been told is so rich and big and fat and it continues to live on in some way because colonialism’s not dead.”

chipaumire grew up in what was then called Umtali, Rhodesia (now Mutare, Zimbabwe) and was educated under a system that forced colonial narratives on Black native Africans. Her experiences inform this work, but it’s told in much broader terms, encapsulating the deep connection and history of native Zimbabweans to their land and the deep, long term impact of colonialism on the culture.

“Nehanda” is not a comfortable piece of art. And it’s not supposed to be. Audience members sit on stage with the cast, they are complicit in the action and can choose how to react. They can sit in silence and merely observe or they can chant in unison with the cast.

nora chipaumire’s “Nehanda.” PHOTO: SACHYN MITAL

“You’re not coming to watch a pantomime. You’re not coming to watch a 90-minute play or a 20-minute movie,” says van Heerden. “We’re asking you to come for five and half hours, be present, be engaged, be part of what is happening and have the experience. If you’re not ready to do that, don’t waste your time.”

The performance has only been done in full once, but the team has plans to perform all five and half hours in Montreal later this year. “Nehanda” is at its most powerful when taken in full. For now, Boston will be stirred by this one-hour selection of the piece.

“For my entire life I have been in search of justice and Nehanda is the spirit of justice,” says nora chipaumire. “Whenever [the performers] sit with the public in any city, including Boston, that is success.”

Africa, arts, music, Nehanda, nora chipaumire, Zimbabwe