Milite Ignote: A conversation with Muna Mussie

15 March 2017

Milite Ignoto by Muna Mussie
Photo by Luca Ghedini


A conversation with Muna Mussie about the performance Milite Ignote presented at S.a.L.E. Docks in Venice, as part of Postcolonia Italia. Memorie, visioni e pratiche contro-narrative. Here Mussie speaks about how her twofold cultural identity – growing up in Italy but with Eritrean orgins – is played out in her performative practices and processes in terms of duality and complicity, intimacy and exposure and negotiation. “The intertwining of history, culture and anthropology, with an emotional sphere in which memory, imagination and the unconscious are re-inscribed in a minimal, symbolic scene,” explains Mussie, underlining the importance of the shift between the micro and macro; and the combining of intimate stories with symbolic images in her work.

Piersandra di Matteo: You have often said that many of your artistic choices revolve around aspects of your life. How does your double cultural identity influence your performative practices and processes?

Muna Mussie: I believe that duality and duplicity is inherent in all things, whether animate or inanimate, including the human species. For me specifically, but not only for me, this duality is partially dictated by my twofold cultural origin: I grew up in Italy but was born in Eritrea. The long war between Eritrea and Ethiopia made me an exile, and this status engrained itself in my forma mentis and its perpetual negotiation between distinct polarities, structures that create mirrors between there and here, us and you, outside and inside.
In my performative research, a kind of osmotic border between the scene and the spectator is often emblematic of this negotiation. Intimacy and exposure, a vacant identity and its tendency towards enigmas, are all pivotal to my poetic framework, as is a borderline that opens up two different outlooks: what to let inside, what to let out, what to ingest or to reject-regurgitate, what to hide or to camouflage, what to exaggerate or to hold strictly under control? History, culture and anthropology intertwine with an emotional sphere in which memory, imagination and the unconscious are re-inscribed in a minimal, symbolic scene.

P.M.:This bipolar aspect comes to life in performances – I’m thinking in particular about Più che piccola, media (2007), Ti ho sognato, ma non eri il protagonista (2009) and Monkey See, Monkey Do (2012) – characterised by an excess of structure and a voluntary lack of dramaturgical dynamics. These are the conditions for creating a sense-of-measure that is the contrary of both an ostentatious theatre and a space for intimacy…

M.M.: I’m interested in intermittent, unruly and unshakeable truths. Spaces of action, vision and experience often collide among themselves and create little crossovers between actions and statements. This seems to me to be a way to infuse a critical sense into the images, disconnecting them from the predominant rhetoric. In this play of mirrors and cross-references, the intimacy that I inject and expel, taking on myself the shadow of a what remains of the taboo that accompanies it each time, never ceases to put into question the pieces that make up the scene.
I deploy diaphragm-eyes that work towards contemplating one-more and one-less, diaphragm-eyes that never adhere beforehand to one thing or the other, in order to release themselves, when necessary. Might alchemy be the closest practice to my work: a sort of “educated” witchcraft? It’s difficult for me to give any binding definitions, but it’s also important to clarify that any exotic or postcolonial elements found in my performances do not come from a desire to adhere to aesthetic movements or cultural trends. In my case, I prefer to speak of “secular neo-existentialism.”

Milite Ignoto by Muna Mussie
Photo by Luca Ghedini


P.M.: In Milite Ignoto – presented at S.a.L.E. Docks as part of Postcolonia Italia – the autobiographic focus opens up to a passage between micro- and macro-history. What brings together Milite Ignoto and Milite Ogbazghi?

M.M.: The first thing that brings them together is a coincidence, the name Milite: in the case of my grandmother is a proper name, while in milite-militare [soldier-trooper], it acts as a common name and, paradoxically, is only personalised by the adjective Ignoto [unknown]. These two little elements alone are enough to suggest an idea of micro and macro. It was a surprise for me to discover that in my mother tongue, Tigrinya, Milite means Mary, and also that Maria Bergamas is the name of the woman who was entrusted with choosing, just after the first world war, the coffin containing one of the many anonymous bodies of those who died in war that was to represent all of them and honour them over time, i.e. the Milite Ignoto. Often, coincidences arise, like epiphanies, and are able to shed light on paths that have already been taken. This is why I devised a series of strategies that look into further connections or discrepancies among the subjects named.
War is evoked as a phantasm that ties together the lives of many people. In Eritrea, in the middle of the Seventies, when my grandmother’s son Michele was not much more than an adolescent, he was won over by the propaganda of one of the two political factions of the time and volunteered to fight in Eritrea’s war of independence from Ethiopia. This was a long, controversial and bloody conflict that only came to an end in 1991; it was the last chapter of the wars ensuing from the many times Eritrea was invaded, not least by Italy. One of the stories my grandmother tells about her son Michele, who died right after the end of the war, opens the performance, and her story is connected to the one involving Maria Bergamas. Milite Ogbazghi, in this sense, represents herself, the Mother and the Son, in a triangle consisting mainly of women: here, the Name-of-the-Father becomes the Name-of-the-Mother. The biographical details become detached from their narrative source and are reattached, like in a collage, to an impersonal level.
For this entire intermittent operation, the presence of an “avatar” is fundamental: Sherif Mussie. The only performer on stage, and my brother, he is the one who truly incarnates the space in which he acts, a past that has already been acted on, a nostalgia that concerns the present, an Unknown energetic void. He is also the one who incarnates an alienated reality that only answers to itself: Narcissus and Echo at the same time.

Milite Ignoto by Muna Mussie
Photo Luca Ghedini


P.M.: Could you give me an objective description of the scenic elements?

M.M.: The scene is arranged in a very simple way. A video is projected on the backdrop: this is what marks the time of the performance’s duration. The video was shot beforehand on the scene itself with a bioptic camera, which has a second, lateral lens that rotates and allows a scene to be shot from two different angles at the same time. So the video camera automatically activates a double vision, with a “picture inside the picture” effect. In the larger frame, some black and white photos were shot showing a few moment from the life of my grandmother in Africa (nature is omnipresent). These images are animated by a slow movement of the camera that attempts to capture, absorb, vivisect or even just touch on and suggest the fascination they have for me. (Milite Ogbazghi is a breathtakingly beautiful woman).
At the same time, I filmed the performer on scene, while he was assembling some symbolic figures with small plants: a swastika, an asterisk, a Star of David, a pyramid, an anarchic A written in the Tigrinya alphabet, an Italian garden, a fish, and eye, the Tao. This smaller frame also includes symbolic images taken from the web with a smartphone: the 1922 Egyptian flag with three white stars, the heraldic sign of the porcupine, anarco-vegan and anarco-primitivist flags, labyrinths, the Italian Pavilion Gardens of the Venice Biennale, the Mona Lisa in black and white, a sniper in combat fatigues, a pornographic image, Maria Bergamas, the cover of the album Deflagration of Hell by Deutsch Nepal, a water-drumming concert played by a group of women from the Vanuatu islands.
The fundamental idea was to combine my grandmother’s stories, heard in the audio, and her photos (micro-history), with the symbolic images (macro-history): this is where the parts begin to interfere with one another. The constant element in the performance is the video, wrapped up in an atmosphere of its own with a “natural” calm that is broken by the sound and the editing. The scene is illuminated by green/blue neon lights, an allusion to a human greenhouse, perhaps a hyperbaric chamber, in which the performer’s actions are only marked by an invocation: his recorded voice that calls out (calling to himself): “Sherif!” In this way a second, instantaneous montage between video, space and sound is set in motion.

P.M.: Your compositional syntax calls on a combination of unusual and everyday objects and actions that give life to a rhythmic, mantric and syncopated apparatus, within the context of an orchestrated monotony. The idea of repetition is used as a tactic to implement shifting planes, mini shocks, frictions inflicted on the objects represented…

M.M.: Yes, I conceive of the scene as a mixture of objectively glacial elements linked to incandescent points that reach an intimacy so plainly exposed that it “makes sense” and “brings sense.” In this framework, each element is treated as “body,” as an “other” that appears in space and is set out so as to come into contact with other singularities, within a systematic and contingent tension.
At times these elements are actions, sometimes they are quite specific sounds or signs made by the performers, objects: twirling handkerchiefs, headdresses, bananas in their pockets, ping-pong balls coming out of their mouths, backdrop-mirrors, repeated exchanges of shoes, delayed video projections, playing with elastics, exfoliating gloves, real flies, pretend screams, fake tears drawn on their faces, sounds of outdoor places that create indoor environments. I compose sonorous-visual sequences that are mainly mono-tone and rhythmically pounding, according to a subtle abstraction that mixes seriousness and a certain naïveté.
In Monkey See Monkey Do (chapter one) the audio recording of a clapping game between two people (a sort of sonorous crossword puzzle) is played in a loop during the entire performance. In the second chapter, the rhythm is given by the way the two performers constantly move forward and backward along two parallel straight lines, and this is what dictates the pace of the duration. In Milite ignoto I chose to create a loop out of an excerpt from the industrial-dark ambient piece Deflagration of Hell, by the Swedish group Deutsch Nepal. The band’s name (an oxymoron), the title (a deflagration in hell), the melody of the song (sinister) and the image on the album’s cover (a drowned white man, who perhaps committed suicide) all represented for me the kind of rhythm and narration that I wanted to give the work: tribal and satanic, metallic and Western.

Monkey See Monkey Do by Muna Mussie
Photo by Gaetano Cammarata


Milite Ignoto (2015 Italia, video, 49:40 min.; performance) by Muna Mussie will be presented on the 22nd of March 2017 at 9pm at S.a.L.E Docks in Venice


This interview is part of the new series VOICETOPIA.
Conceived for NERO and curated by Piersandra Di Matteo, it is a space dedicated to the performing arts, contemporary theatre, performative formats as procedural phenomena, the topology of speech and tactics of interaction between practices and theoretical hypotheses, a platform for dialogue with artists, curators, performers.