Many people will have a strong image of Kettly Noël without being able to place her. In 2014, the artist played the character of crazy Zabou in Timbuktu, the film by Abderrahmane Sissako. Zabou the voodoo poetess. Zabou, wearing makeup, without a headscarf, continuing to walk about the deserted town fallen into jihadists’ hands. Can Kettly Noël be discerned in Zabou? Sumptuous garments made from three ragged pieces of cloth. Eyes rolled upward toward an enigmatic interiority. An incisive gaze focused on otherness. Tiny body, suspended, hieratic, capable of fending off, along its way, a pickup truck loaded with men bearing weapons. Zabou: a crazy female artist’s folly, more powerful than all the lunacy of men.
An actress in front of Sissako’s camera, Kettly Noël is better known as a choreographer and contemporary dancer. She was attracted to dance early in her youth in Haiti’s Port-au-Prince, where she was born in 1968. Visitors to documenta 14 will perceive the zombies of voodoo culture in the movement Kettly Noël directs at them, as well as nonfolkloric figures responsible for current, real, globalized violence.
After rubbing up against American and then French modernity (Kettly Noël spent several years in Paris), she chose Africa. In the mid-1990s, she sought out her dance partners in Benin, then in Bamako. Had to train them. Young. As close as possible to the street. She needed to transmit a contemporary perspective to her art. Explore it more and even more. Well beyond words, without chasing after style or form.
Kettly Noël’s creations are forged in contact with bitter realities. Tichelbé (2002), a dance for two, made her stand out from the choreographic renewal then underway in Africa. The tension of an implacable brutality between man and woman. A burning in the body consumed the artist. Errance (2004) and Je m’appelle Fanta Kaba (2010) defied prohibitions on feminine and political representations of desire, sexuality, and prostitution.
Kettly Noël’s most recent work is Je ne suis plus une femme noire (I am no longer a black woman, 2015). A paradox. Convinced that Africa must pay attention to what it wants to say to the world, passionate about the idea that dance is one of the profound forces, she nevertheless depicts a future that transgresses all enclosures of ethnic identity. From this flows, for the spectator, the responsibility to go beyond clichés when considering dance in action, and Africa in the world.