Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Art Of Toyitoyi

"Where I come from revolution is the only creation, and the revolutionary the only artist."- Ayi Kwei Armah.

"The goal of the revolutionary artist is to make revolution irresistible."-Toni Cade Bambara.

Re-inventing tactics of resistance has become a central preoccupation for the movement of movements. How do we make rebellion enjoyable, effective and irresistible? Who wants the tedium of traditional demonstrations and protests - the ritual marches from A to B, the permits and police escorts, the staged acts of civil disobedience, the verbose rallies and dull speeches by the leaders? Instead, why not use a form of rebellion that embody the movements' principles of diversity, creativity, decentralisation, horizontality, and direct action? These principles can be found at the heart of an ancient form of cultural expression, the Toyitoyi.

"The revolution, in general, is no longer imagined according to socialist patterns of realism, that is, as men and women marching behind a red, waving flag towards a luminous future. Rather it has become a sort of carnival."-Subcomandante Marcos.

Throughout history Toyitoyi has been about inverting social order, where the village fool dresses as the king waits on the pauper, where men and women wear each others' clothing and perform each others' roles. This inversion exposes the power structures and illuminates the processes of maintaining hierachies - seen from a new angle, the foundations of authority are shaken up and flipped around. The unpredictability of Toyitoyi with its total subservience to spontaneity, where any individual can shape her environment and transform herself into another being for an hour or a day, ruptures what we perceive to be reality. It creates a new world by subverting all stereotypes, daring imaginations to expand their limits, turning the present world upside down, if only for a moment.

"(Toyitoyi) does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a (Toyitoyi), as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. (Toyitoyi) is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people."-Michail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, Indiana University Press, 1984.

It is in the capricious moments of history when we can best see that Toyitoyi and revolution have identical goals: to turn the world upside down with joyous abandon and to celebrate our indestructible lust for life, a lust that capitalism tries so hard to destroy with its monotonous merry-go-round of work and consumerism. In its immediacy, Toyitoyi refuses the constant mediation and representations of capitalism. It opens up an alternative social space of freedom where people can begin to really live again.

"Every one of these revolutions has been marked by extraordinary individuation, by joyousness and solidarity that turned everyday life into a festival. This surreal dimension of the revolutionary process, with its explosion of deep seated libidinal forces, grins irascibly through the pages of history like the face of a satyr on shimmering water."-Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1986.

Toyitoyi didn't begin with this movement. Many of the great moments of revolutionary history were carnivalesque - revelatory and sensous explosions outside of the accepted pattern of politics. From the clubhouses of the Paris Commune of 1871, to capoeira - martial arts disguised as dancing to keep it secret from Brazilian slave owners, from the seven mile long Suffragette parades that brought early twentieth London to a standstill, to the colourful be-ins of 1960s Berkeley - if you look hard enough you'll Toyitoyi between the cracks of many of history's unbredictable moments of rebellion.

"To work for delight and authentic festivity is barely distinguishable from preparing for a general insurrection".-Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, Rebel Press/Left Bank Books, 1983.

Toyitoyi is the Carnival. Its mockery, chaos and transgression have always threatened the sobriety and seriousness of the state, which is why it is often banned or heavily controlled. What carnivals remain in most parts of the world have themselves become spectacles - specialist performances watched by spectators - with police lines and barriers placed between the parade and audience. Thus the vortexed, whirling, uncontrollable state of creative chaos is shoe-horned into neat straight lines and rectangles. A visit to many contemporary carnivals sanctioned by the state where consumption and corporate sponsorship has taken over from the creativity and spontaneity is enough to illustrate how carnival under capitalism has lost its vitality. But Toyitoyi has been with us since time immemorial and it has always refused to die. Reappearing in different guises across the ages it returns again and again. Freed from the clutches of entertainment, the anticapitalist movements have thrown it back into the streets, where it is liberated from commerce for everyone to enjoy once again.