With a virtual dance-off, Zimbabwe and Detroit deepen their ongoing cultural exchange

Arts / Article

Photo: Young aspiring dancers practicing their moves before Detroit’s dance-off with Zimbabwe. Photos by Rosie Sharp.

Detroit’s 43rd annual Noel Night enjoyed some added international flavor this past weekend thanks to a long-form dance party and DJ battle at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, a two-time Knight Arts Challenge winner. Facilitated in collaboration with Zimbabwean Cultural Centre of Detroit, the event was part of the N’Namdi Center’s continuing interaction with the landlocked African country. Its main gallery is currently hosting “Four Contemporary Artists from Zimbabwe”–all part of gallerist George N’Namdi’s vision of presenting high-caliber art with a focus on international and local communities of color.

For Noel Night, there was a full plate of festivities to complement the excellent work on display. The night began with a lecture by Haleem “Stringz” Rasul, head of the dance crew Hardcore Detroit, on the genesis of the local dance form known as the jit. Rasul and his crew are among the primary modern-day practitioners of the jit, and they demonstrated the way that it merges fast footwork into a kind of smoothed out breakdancing.

Haleem “Stringz” Rasul takes the floor.

The activities then segued into a block of live DJ mix sessions in simultaneous webcast with a partner event, taking place in real time at The Inner Cafe in Harare, Zimbabwe—8,255 miles away and seven hours ahead of Detroit. Those gathered in the N’Namdi Center engaged in a virtual throwdown through Skype, with large live projections enabling DJs from either side to mix music together, and live feeds of each dance floor facilitating a friendly dance-off between Hardcore Detroit and Francis “Slomo” Dhaka’s dance crew in Zimbabwe. 

“For a moment, the boundaries of time and space were suspended,” said organizer Halima Cassells, who is also a Knight Arts Challenge winner. “We projected ourselves from Detroit to Zimbabwe and back almost seamlessly… and in that space we danced.”

Cassells received her Knight Arts grant for activities including a series of object exchanges, and her group, Free Market of Detroit, hosted a mini swap meet during Noel Night. Detroiters each gave an item, note or piece of art (small enough to fit in an airplane carry-on bag), all of which will be given out in Zimbabwe. “[The Zimbabwean Cultural Centre] will host a swap and return with gifts for Detroiters, uplifting community wealth, creativity and connectivity,” Cassells added.

Facilitating another part of the exchange was organizer Chido Johnson, who is getting to be old hand at collaborations with his native Zimbabwe: During this summer’s Knight-funded Porous Borders Festival, Johnson launched his “Wire Car Cruise” project while doing a live radio interview with a Zimbabwe station, and in 2013, he participated in a Zimbabwe-Detroit cultural exchange show at Public Pool art space. 

Johnson’s feed of music and dance from Zimbabwe to the N’Namdi Center was imperfect, with distortion and dance moves that looked more like freeze frames than fluid images at times, but the sense of mutual interest and admiration shone through. As more than one observer noted, sometimes the distorted sounds coming through the audio feed were all more interesting for their strangeness, capturing beauty in life’s inevitable hitches.

“We may think of jit as [being specific to] Detroit, but jit is also a celebrated Zimbabwean music. Similar to Detroit, it also became popular in the 1980s,” said Johnson. “During those magical moments, these two very different places became one space.”

Partygoers navigating work by artist Leonardo Benzant.

Even if you missed the Noel Night events, it bears mentioning that the shows on display at N’Namdi carry their own currency in terms of cultural exchange. Some of the artists from the main gallery exhibition were able to come to Detroit to present their work personally; others gave a gallery talk and lecture via Skype; and artist Leonardo Benzant, who has a solo installation in the front room gallery, was able to make the trip to Zimbabwe. His work, a field of handing sticks adorned with dense rings of beading, creates a psychic forest to be navigated on the way to the N’Namdi’s Black Box gallery, which features a collection of intense Afrofuturist portraits by Jamea Richmond-Edwards–all forming a deeply appropriate backdrop for this international dance party.

“Zimbabwean Cultural Centre of Detroit has been founded for and by artists living in Zimbabwe and outside its borders,” a statement on its website reads. “The organization serves to dismantle naturally occurring as well as constructed boundaries, both physical and otherwise, with a view to promote community with the global and local in mind.”

Certainly, the Noel Night action served to further the Zimbabwean Centre’s mission, helping create a transcendence of cultural and geographic boundaries, if only for a night. Just like Stringz and his talented crew, the whole evening made an extraordinarily complicated set of moves look easy.