23 — 27.05.2023
Ahilan Ratnamohan Sydney-Antwerp
Une traduction infidèle
theatre / performance — premiere
How can an artist of foreign origin find a way into the Belgian tangle? In 2019, Ahilan Ratnamohan – who grew up in Sydney, with Sri Lankan roots – realised that, despite having lived in Belgium for seven years, he didn’t have a single Walloon friend, and that everything he knew about Walloons had been told to him from a Flemish perspective. By learning French and immersing himself in the Walloon culture, Ratnamohan is now wondering if he will be able to become Belgian, truly Belgian, essentially Belgian. Having learnt the French language especially for this performance, Ratnamohan serves up, through amusing and painful anecdotes, his misadventures as a Flemish artist in the French-speaking part of Belgium. He tries to shed his Flemish identity, an identity that was almost involuntary ascribed to him by learning Dutch, coupled with the fact that his artistic practice is mainly based in Flanders. Through the practical exercise of studying the French language, Ratnamohan deconstructs the division of Belgium, an idiosyncratic adventure in line with his former artistic projects linked to language learning and one which strikingly reflects the festival’s identity. Ratnamohan also questions his own complicity: that of an English-speaking migrant, a Flemish passer-by, an artist labelled as Flemish.
Language-learning as performance
A conversation with Ahilan Ratnamohan
Did this project emerge from a particular longing?
I usually start working without an end-product in mind. The departure point is my wonderment at how ‘Flemish’ I’ve become. When I came to Belgium from Australia ten years ago, I was committed to speaking Dutch, out of sympathy for what I considered to be a less powerful language. Now my entire network in Belgium – personal and professional – turns out to be Dutch-speaking. Moreover, in a cultural and economic context, Dutch is not less powerful at all.
Walking along the streets of Brussels, where I hear French, sometimes contrasts starkly with the Flemish art centres I am heading to. So, rather naively, I wanted to learn what the French-speaking culture was like. I immersed myself in it; not least by following the formation of the Vivaldi government on French-language radio.
Where does this sensitivity for language as an instrument of power come from?
As an English speaker, I’ve always had a certain power – I call it ‘imperial guilt’. I try to resist that. When I arrived in Belgium, I wanted people to speak Dutch to me. As a result, I express myself – especially when it’s about my artistic practice, which took shape here – better in Dutch than in English. But whenever I wanted to speak to a French spea-ker in Brussels, I had to reach for English again. This project makes me realise extra-harshly, how complex language dynamics are; my refusal to speak English can clash with someone else’s aversion to French, because for example there’s a colonial history attached to it.
You learn French as a function of a project, which you create as a function of a personal (language) investigation. You implement a construction to such an extent that it becomes natural.
Indeed, everything serves everything. That reminds me of a vlogger who documented his attempt to become a footballer. The videos helped him retain discipline, because there was always an audience. He created a context to do what he would want to do even without an audience.
Actually, the partners for this project have also become co-performers. I ask them to speak French with me. And I even attend production meetings, which I would otherwise replace with an efficient email. That way, I challenge myself to speak French, and the partners too – some of whom would otherwise opt for Dutch or English.
When does the performing stop?
Speaking a language is continually performing. We all do it, but then at a micro level. There are quite a few moments in a conversation when you don’t understand something without letting it be known – that’s actually bluffing. Take the production meeting: I know I can ask questions, but there’s also a tipping point. If there’s too much I don’t understand, the others are more likely to switch to English.
That’s where language itself becomes performative. It creates a social context in which some things can be said and others cannot.
Moreover, language has a physical component, it shapes your mouth. Mine has moulded itself to Australian English; I have to force it to speak French. Tamil, the language of my Sri Lankan parents, has three different l’s and n’s, which are formed in a different part of your mouth. To be able to produce some of the sounds, I had to practise for five years. Then again, this physical training touches on choreography. To what extent do I have to deform my body to become proficient in a language? And why do I do that when I could just speak French with an Australian accent?
Your physical transformation poses a tantalising question: from which point on the continuum are you proficient in a language?
According to my dramaturge, I will never speak perfect French. But one might wonder what that standard is and who sets it. At La Balsamine, I have no trouble conducting production conversations in French. When I’m rehearsing at Globe Aroma for another production [Le Maillot – One Size Fits All, ed.], I meet speakers from different corners of the world and it’s more difficult to manage. Stefan Hertmans wrote that the ‘standard language’ is one of the last inclusive places. That may be true, but as a language learner, I also need to hear dialectical voices on the radio. I wouldn’t get far if, say, I met a West Fleming.
Earlier, you moved to Latvia, where you learned Latvian for a monologue, The Perfect Migrant. Does that project serve as a model for Une Traduction Infidèle?
I could go from country to country making a project in a different language everywhere. But I want to avoid crea-ting a formula. The Latvian project emerged from my infatuation with language and culture. I wanted to master it and thereby explore how powerful language can be. On the streets of Latvia, I’m pretty much the only brown person. So is language strong enough to transcend my skin colour or cultural background? Maybe I was exoticising Latvian culture, but the audience was doing the same to me, the brown guy who came to speak Latvian. That boundary is dangerous but also fertile; it contains both beauty and critical potential.
Does this project also serve to broaden your horizons in the arts sector?
The boundary between the Flemish and French-speaking cultural landscapes remains very strict. I’ve never played in Wallonia. So I also want to use this project to build a relationship with the French-speaking arts sector. I feel at home at La Balsamine, I did a residency at Théâtre de Liège, and I’ve attended a small theatre in Binche. In order to speak the language, I even worked briefly on a Walloon farm. But breaking out of a system is complex, even for an artist. I gave a series of lectures this spring: Should Have Been My Mother Tongue. These are not academic but neither are they performances. Yet audiences ask me: do you still play them?
How would you describe Une Traduction Infidèle?
I call it, somewhat unsexily, a “language learning performance”. (laughs) But perhaps that name is too reductive; I hope the text holds up, even apart from the exercise in French. I very much want to maintain a minimalist form that keeps the focus on the language. For me as an artist, these ‘language rehearsals’ are quite paradoxical. The perfectionist in me has the feeling of cheating, because every mistake is part of the language lesson. But the only mistake the performer-in-me can make is not staying true to the exercise.
- Interview by Gilles Michiels
- March 2023
- Gilles Michiels is a freelance theatre journalist for De Standaard newspaper, among others, and is a managing editor at rekto:verso cultural magazine.
Presentation: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, La Balsamine, Kaaitheater
Concept and performance: Ahilan Ratnamohan | Dramaturgy: Petar Sarjanović | Choreography: Rayuela Ratnamohan | Costume consultant: Anne-Catherine Kunz
Production: La Balsamine | Coproduction: Kaaitheater
With the support of: La Bellone, Théâtre de Liège
Ahilan Ratnamohan is accompanied in production by ROBIN Brussels